Plotting Places and Practice – by Ellen O’ Connor

Plotting places and practice                              

By Ellen O’Connor

This text is an exercise in shaping words around my practice as a young Irish artist who moved away to a big city! An untangling so to speak, as moving away has hugely moulded my practice since leaving art college in Ireland. Without these moments of exploration my practice would be in a very different shape, place and rotation. A lot of us move overseas, and it is a continual occurrence that many young Irish artists abroad are defining and redefining their practices as a result of the dislocation. Maybe you are in the same boat as me, and these words may help you unravel and contextualise some of the shifts and jolts that producing work outside of Ireland inhabits. 

‘Slips and Wishes’ – watercolour. Image courtesy of artist.

I read a lot of artist statements, interviews, and lengthly deep dives by arts writers on the practice of specific artists. When words are arranged with impressive language on who an artist is, what they do and why they do it, connecting the dots so to speak, it both delights and intimidates me.

It delights me in the obvious sense that I can connect  more with the artist, reflect on their work, enjoy the language, feel interested and overwhelmed in an excited way (an important reaction I think, to art that engages me). 

It intimidates me because I struggle to see a practice looped into a closed circle of words, I think, “how well defined!” “how professional!” “how perfect!”

I wonder at what stage of my artistic career I will be able to close the sentences of my artist statement and feel satisfied that that is who I am as an artist. Maybe I shouldn’t think too much on this, as not all artists are so focused on words, but I do like words and I would like to be delighted by my own one day. The ability to see your practice in words, and to be satisfied, is important to me. 

Not to make this a travel log, but for context: 

I moved to Vancouver, Canada in August of 2018, after graduating from IADT’s BA in Visual Arts Practice. I was lucky to receive a recent graduate Erasmus grant, which covered my moving costs. It is relatively easy to obtain a Canadian visa as an Irish person, a privilege to recognise, and my relationship with my Canadian boyfriend has allowed me to remain here as long as I have, through sponsorship.

Prior to moving, I found a small Vancouver gallery with interesting programming (a quick google search, nothing fancy, I was lucky to find it). I reached out to them and the curator, Denise, was accommodating and kind and welcomed me to join their space in an internship role when I arrived in Vancouver. 

The switch to a North American art community was initially intimidating, I knew so few of the references to places, art spaces and artists. Small fish big pond. The way everyone spoke about art was initially a bit jolting, different to the art scene in Dublin. I was adapting to a new environment where I had so few frames of reference. Leaving any kind of bubble will shock you. At times I found myself nodding my head with a slightly dazed expression on my face as I stood on the edge of a circle of Vancouver art women talking powerfully about upcoming symposiums or events, referencing important speakers or artists coming to town. 

Choreographer Ligia Lewis and performer Keyon Gaskin came to the gallery, and we turned the building into a dance studio for a week. I spent a day attaching sponge matts to the entire floor space. They called it the ‘Breathing Room,’ a publicly accessible rehearsal space and reading room for discussion and presentations, and I could feel my brain gears shifting a little, as this was exciting work, and it felt important. 

Not long after starting my work at the gallery, I was introduced to the curator of another art space, an artist run centre for contemporary art and new music. The centre promotes critical investigations into and surrounding media-based, anti-object, and ephemeral practices, with particular attention to the contexts and economies in which art is produced, as well as housing one of the largest video art archives in Canada. They hold residencies, exhibitions and performances among various other collaborative endeavours.

One summer afternoon in 2018, the curator, Allison, invited me to the centre. She took me on a tour of the building, slowly explaining the various elements of the space, the roles and tasks and equipment. She was a new type of woman to me, a calm and collected west coast art scene woman. Cool would be the word. Nonchalantly telling me she was heading to LA for the weekend to meet some artists, and that she had a sore foot from a slip in her yoga class that morning, as well as a divulgence of insightful comments about current artistic practices in Vancouver.

She asked me about my practice as we sat outside in a garden area, watching the rest of the staff preparing a shared lunch together. I remember feeling a little stumped, I’d spent an hour listening to her describe this centre and community, trying to absorb the entirety of this large scale hub for artistic practice. My own practice felt very far away.

For several months, every Tuesday, I edited video art for their archive, as a volunteer, As I am primarily a lens based artist, it was fascinating to see an artist run space with such an expansive media archive and impressive facilities in video art preservation and production, funded by members and benefactors.  It felt very new to me, and I soaked in a lot of new understanding as to how art centres can successfully function as part of a community. I think if I was involved with the centre now I would feel more settled, as it was unsettling and blurry to move overseas in many ways, and diving headfirst into the Vancouver art scene did make me feel tentative and quiet at times. I began to see some different avenues of fascination for a potential career in the arts (still not entirely sure how to pursue those avenues but I think I am technically doing the right things?!) 

There are no clear steps. Art world jobs still firmly hold the vaguest map for plotting a career path. I’m saying nothing new here.

My own practice was pushed to the side for a while. In Ireland I had worked primarily with moving image, availing of art college equipment, film studios, friends with technical assistance, actors, and largely collaborative projects. It took me some time to realize what I was interested in making art with and about in Canada, the core intrigues were the same, the means of production seemed unclear. After I finished up working in the two art spaces, I took a job in a bakery in a posh part of the city. This taught me more about certain aspects of Canadian life than any of the art spaces I connected with. I also co-rented a studio for a time with a fellow Irish artist who had also moved to Vancouver. We couldn’t afford it for long but it was an important step in reinstating my practice, and I started to make work again.  

Like many artists, I began to think a lot about the sea. Initially I was thinking about the mass of it that separated me from Ireland. I read a greek myth about the River Lethe, an underworld river where, if you drank from it, you would forget everything from your life before, and enter oblivion, oblivious. In the obvious sense, my interest in it was steeped in my own personal displacement, I was drawn to the expansive and mythic properties of water. I made a moving image work titled Lethe, where I tackled the subject of memory, displacing it not into human subjects, but into water, ice and dust. I thought a lot about water- memory, freezing, holding and flowing with my own traces of dislocation and consequent forgetting.

Sick of bakery life, (long and early hours, amazing croissants), I applied for an internship with  the video production department at MoMA, New York, on a whim. I got the job and had only a few weeks to wrap up my time in Vancouver. I found myself boarding a plane to New York in January of 2020, feeling excited and terrified in tandem. Working in MoMA was an invaluable experience that boosted my confidence and opened my eyes further to the possibilities of fulfilling art careers. I had the opportunity to grow tall and feel truly excited by big museum art again in an invigorating way. It is from that internship that I feel my current more settled and consistent art practice has developed.

I didn’t intend for this text to be a chronicle of my internships, but through writing this, I’ve realized that physically working in the arts in the new places I moved to helped me to integrate and situate. It helped me find my way back to making new work in my new locations, work that made sense to me. This may seem obvious, but did not appear so at the time. I felt like I was on some other mission. It certainly wasn’t the end goal to rediscover my own physical art making, but that is what happened, as the practice that I had carried with me to Canada needed some reinventing in order to progress in a new country. As I did myself.

My current work is titled Slips and Wishes, revolving around ponds and portals, theories on wishing and alternative documenting processes. 

I have been watching a large pond in my local park in Montreal where I live now, for several months. It has slowly frozen solid and then melted and often formed interesting fissures, cracks and gaps. I am deciphering the pond in documentation and reimagining it in moving image and composed scans of watercolours, cyanotypes photographs, text and found specimens such as pond moss. The work is building a narrative around a mystery of the pond as a portal, a space between two watery places, through an examination of wishing theory. The work is stemming from reading about old wells in Co.Sligo in the Duchas Schools Collection, a collection of folklore compiled by schoolchildren in Ireland in the 1930s. Recently my practice has opened up to become more interdisciplinary, not just moving image as it was before, but physical works too. I’ve found myself drawn to watercolours, thinking about paint pigments and early photographic processes. My practice has always been focused on the process of making itself in some way, and it feels right that I am exploring some of the more traditional methods of image making. Painting, cyanotyping, scanning, recomposing images and then pulling them forward into more digital environments. I am currently animating watercolour scans around video footage. My practice has slowed down a little, more paced and purposeful as I move from research and theory into creating visual works.

It is a privilege to look in on a new culture, even if it feels like I am behind a window, peering in instead of belonging. It can be lonely, but it is entirely unique and something that wakes your brain up. After three years of window peering, even more so in the last twelve months, I have been reflecting more and more on the idea that through immigration you become more familiar with your own culture. An element of being abroad that I didn’t expect has been an urge to reach home and connect more with Irish history, and the art scene in Ireland in general. Canada is beautiful and vast, the forests and parks take my breath away, yet I often peek around the natural landscapes searching for reminders of home, a whisper of familiarity.

I had never thought about what it means to be Irish, or considered that my art practice was not only ideas based, but location based. I think that being far away from home provides you with a tangible sense of your identity that was hidden before, and there can be a lot to unpack in that, it can be creatively fulfilling to engage with it.

I spoke at the start of this text about wondering when I would feel settled enough to happily full-stop the words on my artist statement. I believe I need to realize that it is not about closing off your practice with finality in a sentence, but rather about finding the correct language that opens it up endlessly.

Kind of like the challenge of moving out of your comfort zone and navigating a big city with your art practice at the bottom of your suitcase, and trying to dig it out without damaging it, and then realizing that instead, it is an opportunity to spill it wide open.

Ellen O’Connor is an Irish artist and video editor who works across moving image, photography, paper works and text. O’Connor graduated from The Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT)’s BA in Visual Art Practice in 2018 and is currently based in Montreal, Canada, having recently completed an internship with the video production department in MoMA, New York. Her work, ‘Lethe’ was selected for the annual  MExIndex Screening in 2020.

Her practice is concerned with exploring the murky spaces between the real and the fictional. She happens upon and responds to locations, literature, myths or histories that bring various documentary techniques into conversation. She is interested in duality, rehearsals, deciphering cinematic processes and re-imagining spaces in alternative narratives.

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