In our first episode, artist and writer Daniel Jewesbury takes us on a walk through Belfast - past and present. Along the way, we revisit three moments in Belfast’s history that give us particular insight into enduring questions about art and the city.
The Infinite City is produced by Rebekah McCabe and Conor McCafferty for PLACE, with assistance from Maria Postanogova and Stuart Gray. Music for this episode was composed by Conor McCafferty. The podcast is supported by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Arts and Business Northern Ireland.
See episode notes and an episode transcript below.
TRANSCRIPT: The Infinite City - Season 1 Episode 1
Daniel: Talking Heads and Magic Jugs
Released 26 April 2018
Rebekah McCabe [RMC]: This is the Infinite City - stories from Belfast of people and place. I’m Rebekah McCabe.
Conor McCafferty [CMC]: And I’m Conor McCafferty.
CMC: In today’s episode, artist and writer Daniel Jewesbury takes us on a walk through Belfast past and present.
RMC: Along the way, we revisit three moments in Belfast’s history that give us particular insight into enduring questions about art and the city.
Daniel Jewesbury [DJ]: Which way will we go, uh … let’s go up this way.
RMC: In the 1990s, Belfast was easing into a new reality. After three decades, the armed conflict that had divided the city socially, culturally and spatially was coming to an end. Sites across the city centre were being reimagined. Urban regeneration began in earnest, particularly in a corner to the north east of the city centre, that would come to be known as Cathedral Quarter, where our story today begins.
DJ: So when I first came up here it was ‘94. I really clearly remember the first time I came up to Belfast, and I got out at the bus station, it was in the winter, probably about 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening, walked up Royal Avenue, there was not a shutter that was up. The lighting was really kind of low and sort of yellowish. It was like, kind of, I’d landed on another planet and there was not a soul around.
RMC: At the time, Daniel was studying at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. What had brought him to Belfast was a newly flourishing independent art scene. At its centre was the visual arts group known as Catalyst.
DJ: And I got over to Donegall Street - still nobody about - and found Catalyst, which was up in this alley, Exchange Place, just beside where the Black Box is now. And the only things that were around here then were the Duke of York pub - which, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, would close at 9 o’clock at night - and Nick’s Warehouse, the restaurant on Hill Street. Those were the only two things in the area. It was completely deserted at night but it wasn’t much better in the daytime. There were a few businesses, you know, there were a few things happening. But once it came to 5, 6 o’clock, the place closed down.
CMC: The Cathedral Quarter today is a thriving cultural area with galleries, bars, restaurants and creative industries along its narrow cobbled streets. It’s hard to imagine it shutting down before midnight on any night of the week nowadays.
RMC: How this transformation happened tells us a lot about the tension between the arts and commerce in a changing city. Over the years of the Troubles, many big cultural institutions, such as the McClelland gallery, had left Belfast. In time, their absence and the lack of cultural infrastructure impacted on the evolution of the city’s art scene.
CMC: From the 1990s on, the Cathedral Quarter had begun attracting small arts organisations and independent traders. The North Street Arcade, an elegant art deco mall was at its heart. The arcade was home to many of these cultural organisations, including Belfast Film Festival, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and the legendary Good Vibrations record shop.
SOUNDTRACK: Good Vibrations record shop commercial
CMC: The Art College was nearby on York Street, acting as a kind of anchor...
DJ: People had carried on coming here to study, but gradually over time there were fewer and fewer places that were exhibiting work. In Dublin, there was a glut of infrastructure. There was… public galleries, commercial galleries ... People’s career paths were so clearly mapped out that you didn’t really have to think about doing anything for yourself, or setting up some kind of project.
CMC: In Belfast, in the absence of cultural infrastructure, artists had to find new ways to develop their practice and make work public in increasingly difficult circumstances.
RMC: A DIY approach to the arts emerged as artists continued to develop work during the height of the conflict in the 1970s. Groups like the Art and Research Exchange were developing and sharing skills in what at the time was new media. Their space on Lombard street was home to exhibition spaces, a screen printing workshop, a darkroom, artists’ studios, and rehearsal space for local bands such as Stiff Little Fingers.
SOUNDTRACK: Stiff Little Fingers - ‘State of Emergency’
CMC: Pioneering groups like Art and Research Exchange, though short lived, left an important legacy that was continued in the 1990s by Catalyst.
DJ: By the time I finished my degree in ‘96, I was kind of, I knew that I wanted to live here, and that I was interested in the kind of projects that Catalyst Arts were doing. Catalyst had a focus on the kinds of artforms that people who don’t have access to a lot of materials can practice - so performance, live art, video, you know, things that people were able to turn their hand to relatively more easily - and which also they were able to bring out into the city.
RMC: An artist-led collective, run by a half dozen or so voluntary directors that rotate every 2 years, Catalyst became an incubator for new talent in Belfast. Many of its alumni went on to found new independent spaces, studios, and galleries around the city…
DJ: There was this really thriving, busy, kind of, if you like, an ecology of these kinds of organisations in the city. And always with a view to asking questions about how we use the city, and always with a view to bringing that back to some kind of political reading of the city.
CMC: As the city rapidly changed, this political reading became even more important. There was an influx of investment into Belfast from the 1990s, and the Cathedral Quarter in particular was undergoing changes. In 1989 a new urban development corporation, Laganside, had been set up. Its purpose was to regenerate 300 acres around the river Lagan. This included the Cathedral Quarter - at the time, a run-down area of warehouses and gap sites.
RMC: The regeneration agenda sought to create new uses for the Cathedral Quarter, including giving space to culture, loosely defined. As new pubs, restaurants and commercial offices moved into the area, space was retained in their midst for non-commercial uses in publicly-funded workspaces. Arts organisations like Catalyst were faced with a choice: be pushed out by the rising rents of a regenerating area or be overly constrained by the rules of these managed workspaces...
DJ: The idea was that these would be the kind of anchors around which the cultural activity would be able to grow. Catalyst, as I said, was in this little old shirt factory, and it was decided, when Laganside laid out the plan for the regeneration of the area, it was decided that building would be knocked down. So they were given the option to be re-housed in a managed workspace or to just move to another part of the city. So we had an AGM of the Catalyst members - some of us saying, you know, we should absolutely not go in with Laganside, it’s a really, really bad idea. And others saying, but look, we’ve got this opportunity for reduced rent in a building that’s going to be warm, that, you know is going to function. … So, at the end of the day, the decision was taken to move into the managed workspace on Donegall Street, where the Film Festival and Northern Visions are now, Catalyst took over two floors.
DJ: But we kind of very quickly discovered that you weren’t allowed to drill into the walls, because it’s a listed building. You couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that. The heating actually was really temperamental because it was this strange system that had been put in because it’s a listed building. And there were all these restrictions about what could be done - restrictions even about what time you could be in the building until at night. And so, after just a short period of time - maybe about eighteen months, two years - the decision was taken to break the lease and move out.
CMC: After leaving the managed workspace, Catalyst returned to their original concept of operating without a gallery space of their own. They joined other members of Cathedrals Quarter’s burgeoning scene and took an office in the North Street Arcade. In April 2004, a fire emptied the Arcade of its last tenants. The building has been derelict ever since.
RMC: Though many of its tenants, including Catalyst, relocated to other premises, that fire would come to be a defining moment in the post-conflict redevelopment of Belfast - long suspected by many in the area of being maliciously set to clear the way for more lucrative uses…
CMC: Urban regeneration doesn’t always involve moving art out, it can bring art into the city too, sometimes in controversial ways. As we follow Daniel around the city, he tells us about another moment in Belfast’s recent history, when the fight was not to keep art in the city, but to keep it out.
RMC: The peace process had prioritised the development & expansion of shared space - neutral space that isn’t associated with either Catholic or Protestant communities. For one thing, shared space would provide contact between people from opposite sides of the sectarian divide. Shared space was also seen as important to the process of economic recovery after the Troubles. New urban spaces were a way of communicating a new Belfast to attract inward investment and tourism.
SOUNDTRACK: Belfast 1991 advertisement
CMC: Shopping was a key activity for bringing people into a newly opened-up city centre. Though Belfast got its first modern shopping centre, Castle Court, in 1990, significant investment in retail didn't start up again until 2008, with the opening of the upmarket Victoria Square.
SOUNDTRACK: McGuinness/Paisley opening Victoria Square.
CMC: We followed Daniel to Castle Lane, a few blocks west of Victoria Square.
DJ: So we’re standing here on Castle Lane, which is a street that crosses over Donegall Place. And at one end, you’ve got the Freemasons building, and you’ve got the sculpture for Spirit of Belfast, and you’ve got the entrance to Victoria Square. And then you come across Donegall Place and at the other end of it, you’ve got Fountain Street, you’ve got Fountain Bar and you’ve got the headquarters of Concentrix. The headquarters of Concentrix is a building that in one recent DSD - Department of Social Development - plan, that building was supposed to be knocked down, and Fountain Lane would have continued on a new curved axis. So there would have been a new curved street going around to the right, joining up with Castle Street and then bringing you up to Berry Square on the entrance to Castle Court. The idea in the DSD plan was to create this link between the two big shopping centres, between Victoria Square - the new one - and Castle Court - the ailing, dying old one.
CMC: This proposed link would became an unlikely staging ground for a political skirmish between the competing interests of art and commerce.
DJ: What they were going to do… they’ve got their piece of public art at one end, at the Victoria Square end, they’ve got that kind of twisted metal thing called the Spirit of Belfast. And then at this end of Fountain Lane, they were going to put up a sculpture called the Magic Jug. And the idea of this public art, art was going to be used then as a signpost to help people get from one shopping centre to the other. Just follow the bad public art and you’ll get to your next shopping centre.
RMC: In an attempt to revitalise the older shopping area, public money was being invested in streetscaping and other public realm improvements, including a new landmark...
DJ: They sneaked in a little bit of money for a piece of public art. It was kind of put out in the kinds of magazines motorway sculptors want to read...
RMC: The art commission was advertised, DSD formed a panel with partners representing commercial interests to review submissions, and chose the winning piece.
DJ: It was going to be a big black, single piece of black granite in the shape of a large, tall, slender jug. About two metres, two and a bit metres I think. And the granite was going to be hauled from a quarry in China. And then on top of the granite, there was gonna be this metal shape, what they call a Triskel, one of the celtic spiral patterns that you see, I think this one was copied more or less from the spiral pattern seen on the stone at the entrance to Newgrange, the passage grave. So that was gonna be there in I think polished aluminium on top. And then on top of that, there was gonna be a kingfisher. So it was like a kind of public sculpture designed by a committee on drugs or something. And it was supposed to represent the history of Fountain Street cause Fountain Street was where the first public water supply was instituted. So this piece of public art was gonna tell us our history. And so that was good, that’s a good thing. So how could you complain about that?!
CMC: ...but complain they did. To the consternation of those championing the Magic Jug, Daniel and others got together to oppose it. Though they were critical of the design of the piece, their opposition focused on the process...
DJ: We don’t want public art to be used in this way. We don’t want commissioning processes for public art to be undertaken in this way. We want there to be more discussion about what public art is for. Why are we putting it in the city? Why are we spending money on it? This is not a question of whether or not it looked good. It was about how the thing had been commissioned - what it was being used for, and why... And what impact that would have on ideas of how art can exist in the city and what art can do in the city.
RMC: The Magic Jug galvanised concerns about how Belfast was changing, and about the place of the arts as the city developed. Events were held to discuss the Magic Jug, and to devise a response.
DJ: So there were some architects, artists, people interested in the urban environment. Started to put together a series of objections, organised a couple of meetings, had a meeting on Fountain Street - where PLACE used to be - spoke to some of the public agencies about it, and then, what we did was put together a planning objection. Because at that point they were looking for planning and we realized that the only way really to stop it happening was to put a planning objection forward that argued against it in precisely the kind of technocratic terms they used to impose it upon us. So we talked about sustainability, we talked about location and siting, we talked about value for money. And we talked about the amount of clearance around it. And we talked about how unsustainable it was to source the materials from China and so on and so on.
RMC: Unusually for a public art consultation, the campaign group discussed everything but what the art looked like. In the end, the Magic Jug was never installed.
CMC: No official response ever acknowledged the role of the campaign in blocking it; the DSD simply claimed they didn't have the money. Though Daniel felt confident that the campaign had played a role in this outcome, he acknowledges that their bigger goals were never achieved.
DJ: We won kind of one section of that battle, if you like. But we didn’t win in terms of getting the conversation that we wanted about public art commissioning processes and how important they are to understanding how the city is shaped and in whose interests the city gets shaped.
RMC: When it comes to planning, including planning for public art, public interests are generally confined to the consultation stage. This is where planning applicants exhibit their proposals for a period of time determined by law. At this stage, people can give feedback. They can support or object to the proposals, or offer suggestions to alter them in some way.
CMC: Whether or not that feedback influences what is built is at the discretion of developers, and the planners who give or refuse consent.
RMC: For Daniel, this approach to public engagement has real limitations...
DJ: You could spend weeks and weeks, months and months, speaking to people about what they wanted. Unless you’ve got a citizenry who feel they have a stake in the city, who feel they have some stake in the decisions being taken, who have been brought into the much larger decisions that shape space and have to do with who owns the city and who decides that, for instance, that regeneration has to do with retail. Unless people are getting involved in those kind of decisions, asking them, ‘Do you want a blue one or a pink one?’ is a fairly irrelevant question.
RMC: The debate about what gets built in the city, and for whom, isn’t new. As we walk, Daniel tells us about how his interest in public art took him back to the 1860s, and Belfast’s first modern transformation.
CMC: At this time Belfast was becoming one of the leading industrial cities in the British Empire. Though the Victorian period continues to be celebrated as one of unmitigated advancement, we learn that the development of the city was just as complex and contested then as it is now.
DJ: OK, so we're standing at the back of City Hall at the corner of Linen Hall Street, a building that is now Ten Square Hotel, and which was originally Otto Jaffe’s linen warehouse. Some people know it as the old post office or as Yorkshire House, it’s been different things at different times.
RMC: Two brothers, Thomas and William Fitzpatrick, were enlisted to build Jaffe’s linen warehouse on Donegall Square South. The Fitzpatricks would go on to quite literally change the face of Belfast.
DJ: Not only were they builders, they were also Belfast’s most important and most innovative stone carvers …. So what they started to do was to introduce this new style of stone carving, architectural carving. There was a few different things that were coming together: a kind of Venetian style or an early Renaissance style, building these kind of palazzos or loggia. And then incorporating these carved heads on the side, these, like, portrait heads. And on this building, they’re quite spectacular because they’re three-dimensional, and they’re sort of coming out of these roundels…
CMC: If you've ever walked around Belfast and thought to look above street level, you might have spotted these roundells, circular carvings adorning the sides of many of the city’s historic buildings.
CMC: The carvings on Ten Square, like much of the Fitzpatrick brothers’ work, depict faces - often mythological characters or ancient figures from classical philosophy and literature - but also, significantly, they represent the industrialists and innovators of the time…
DJ: And this is all about building up this Victorian idea of commerce and the arts going hand-in-hand. And that commerce was part of a whole kind of civilising programme that was supporting science, industry, the arts - and that all of these things were parts of the same enterprise. And it was obviously, part of that was saying that the empire, you know the established order, the kind of British system was benevolent, it was providing stability …
RMC: In the 1860s, a century before the Troubles would put Belfast back on the world stage, the city was at the forefront of Britain’s industrial revolution, and the industrialists at its centre were finding new ways of spending and displaying their wealth...
DJ: Look at this building - it was probably at the time one of the finest buildings in Belfast at the time. And to have it ornamented in this very rich way, not just with the roundels, but there’s other carvings around the corner and on other parts of the building - so really, really richly ornamented. But really saying, like, “Look how important we are, look how cultured we are, and look how we are improving the city.”
CMC: Industrialists like Jaffe had built their fortunes through the linen industry...with the outbreak of civil war in America in 1861 the transatlantic cotton trade was disrupted. As a result Ulster linen was increasingly in demand.
RMC: Developments in loom technology further drove industrial innovation, and Belfast established a booming industrial economy. There was an influx of workers who would provide the labour on which the mills and factories ran, and this meant new demand for housing in the city…
DJ: Behind the economic boom was a property boom, as so often, as today. There’s a property boom behind it. And all of the big names in building - H&J Martin, McLaughlin & Harvey - they all get started around this time. So around the brickworks on the Ormeau Road, Harveys are churning out hundreds of thousands of bricks a week along the Ormeau Road, and they’re building and building and building. They’re building the new suburbs out towards the south of the city, out along the Ormeau Road, out to Rosetta. Anytime you see these villas around the south of the city, with red and brown brick and these sort of arched brick fanlights above the door - these most often come from around the 1860s, 1870s. Just very rapid expansion of the city. Where we’re standing here on Donegall Square is starting to transform from a residential address into a commercial address. The same kinds of processes are happening all across the city. Old streets are being torn down and new ones are being put up. New parts of the city are being built where there was nothing before. Streets are being built on spec.
CMC: As the city population expanded through the mid-1800s, it also changed demographically with many of the new working class neighbourhoods populated by catholics migrating from rural areas, quadrupling the city’s population in 50 years.
DJ: Before the 1850s, you had cotton being spun and processed at home. And then, after the 1850s, you have linen being processed in mills. Concentrated labour. You have people being proletarianised, being turned from domestic workers - who were sometimes maybe working stuff that they grew themselves - they’re being turned into a working class, an urban working class, for the first time, in a really big way.
DJ: Also throughout this time what you’ve got is an incredibly sectarianised city. So, throughout the 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, there are periods when the town is just shut down by rioting.
RMC: The influx of Catholic workers during this period started to erode the Protestant majority in Belfast. This stoked the anxieties that were arising there from the Home Rule movement in Ireland as a whole. As people continued to migrate into the city, they settled in ethnically defined neighbourhoods.
DJ: There’s often this kind of rosy idea that prior to, what, the sixties, or maybe sometimes people kind of stretch back a little further, or maybe prior to 1921 - that within Belfast, you know, you had people generally kind of rubbing shoulders, getting along okay. Belfast has always been, since it became an industrialised city, it’s always been a deeply sectarianised, segregated city. And the places around the city centre that are orange or green today were kind of laid out that way in the 1860s, and around that time anyway.
RMC: Although the boundaries would harden as the conflict progressed through the 20th century, the sectarian residential patterns so associated with contemporary Belfast actually have their origins during this period.
CMC: So, all of these changes are happening - enormous, rapid social shifts - at the time when the Fitzpatrick Brothers were doing some of their most enduring work. But, of course, their work tells only part of the story of Belfast during that time.
RMC: What’s interesting for Daniel about the work of the Fitzpatrick Brothers is not just its historical context, but also how their work is understood as part of Belfast’s history today.
CMC: Given the city's more recent history, and all the turbulence of the 20th century, there’s been a tendency to look further back for positive imagery, for a past to celebrate. We celebrate heritage for all kinds of reasons, to acknowledge the ingenuity and achievements of the past, to feel connected with our ancestors, to learn how people lived in different times, or to admire the craftsmanship of period architecture.
RMC: We put heritage to use in the present too - by preserving and celebrating some aspects of the past, but not others, we shape the way we think about our collective past, construct the story of how we got to where we are, and imagine our possible futures. Heritage is a kind of nostalgia - a cultural habit that reflects contemporary anxieties. When the present is uncertain or unpleasant, we look for other times when things were better. But all nostalgia is selective.
CMC: Daniel argues that, in celebrating Victorian heritage, we risk omitting, forgetting, the inequalities that drove industrialisation and the development of Belfast. The late 19th Century, while the Fitzpatrick Brothers were being commissioned to adorn buildings around the city, was a time of escalating sectarian violence in Belfast.
RMC: The grandeur of Victorian Belfast, the eloquence and beauty of its architecture tells just part of the story of the city during a time that also includes social division, inequality, and struggles against exploitation as much as it does invention, innovation and industry.
RMC: Though perhaps not apparent at first glance, Daniel argues there is a common thread between the regeneration of the Cathedral Quarter, the Magic Jug, and the work of the Fitzpatrick Brothers - which is the use of the arts to progress the economic imperatives of the day.
CMC: In their stone carvings, the Fitzpatrick Brothers embedded messages on many buildings of Victorian Belfast. They used their art to elevate industry to a mythic status, making it equivalent to philosophy & literature as part of the story of human civilisation.
DJ: They weren’t just labourers - they weren’t just jobbing sculptors. I think they had quite a big hand in shaping the message. So I think, in that sense, they are quite like the public artists who are asked to adorn the city today. They're being commissioned to fill a space and they’re coming to it with their own ideas.
RMC: Public art, as a way of communicating a message in urban space, is always, to some extent, about power. Power to decide what gets built, who belongs, and what can happen in the city. It's an old issue, as old as cities themselves.
CMC: Those issues of power and space can be seen carved into Belfast’s Victorian buildings. The same issues were central to the work of the art and research exchange in the 1970s, and to the ethos of Catalyst Arts from the 1990s on. Questions of power and ownership were at the centre of the debates that surrounded the Cathedral Quarter, and the Magic Jug, and are at the root of skirmishes for city space around the world...
DJ: To only envisage art in public as something to do with these sorts of static monuments is really impoverishing - and it’s really revealing -- and I think this is why it’s relevant to our broader discussions about the city and the development of the city.
DJ: It’s really revealing of how decisions get made in the city - who takes them, how much choice we get given, and what kinds of choices we get offered. You know, it’s really revealing because the public art is meant to be the bit that appeases us and buys us off, you know? It makes the development seem OK. And so if you can get under the skin of that, and question that a bit, and wonder about how that’s working, you can reveal all the processes behind it.
CMC: The Infinite City is a production of PLACE, Northern Ireland’s Built Environment Centre. Make sure you subscribe in your podcast app or on iTunes so you can get future episodes as soon as they are released. If you like what you hear, you can rate us and leave a review on iTunes, which really helps us to reach more people.
RMC: You can support the podcast by donating - the link is at placeni.org/theinfinitecity, where you will also find show notes and some additional content.
CMC: We’re on Twitter at @infinitecitypod and on Instagram as The Infinite City.
RMC: The Infinite City is produced by Rebekah McCabe and Conor McCafferty for PLACE, with assistance from Maria Postanogova and Stuart Gray. It is supported by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Arts and Business Northern Ireland.
The Infinite City is our podcast. Through it, we tell stories of people and place, design and belonging, survival and celebration in Belfast & beyond.
Supported by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios & Arts & Business NI.
Music for Season One composed by Conor McCafferty.
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