Old Borders, New Technologies: Visual Culture and Social Change in Contemporary Northern Ireland

  • Paula Ellen Ann Blair

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The diverse convergence of film and visual art practices in contemporary Northern Ireland is indicative of its complex network of contested spaces; its visual culture is being radically re-shaped in the wake of the Troubles, and has become increasingly open to globally employed artistic influences and methods. Clearly, these factors challenge the expressive and social capability of traditional filmic practices to engage with the complexities of a post-conflict society, complexities such as forms of imprisonment, questions of testimony and historical enquiry, social control, changing landscapes, memory and trauma.

    This research project is grounded in film studies and stems from an interest in contemporary film from and about Northern Ireland. This context encounters two initial issues: firstly, how mainstream film production portrays Northern Ireland; and secondly, the lack of female film-makers. To redress such limitations, the research considers how issues of imprisonment, surveillance, trauma, and myth-making are being dealt with in moving image visual art, i.e. video installation, live performance, and mixed media. This extends the conversation about visual culture and social change in contemporary Northern Ireland beyond the traditional cinema and television screens and into more experimental areas.

    The thesis hybridizes the language of film theory with those of ‘new media’, ‘expanded cinema’, and ‘digital arts’, categories of converging art forms that are becoming increasingly institutionalized and explores questions such as: How might these experimental works inform or shape ideas for more mainstream film-makers and producers? If more mainstream practitioners begin to address the issues raised by this thesis, could such a shift lead to a more distinctive style in Northern Irish moving image production? How are new technologies blurring the boundaries between film and wider film culture, reorganizing traditional modes of moving image production and distribution? Does a broader context for Northern Irish film and visual culture allow for greater inclusion of women artists? How successful are these film and visual artworks in subverting the ideology of mass media representations of the conflict? Do such works effectively disrupt canon formation within the context of contemporary Northern Irish film and visual art?

    In addressing such questions, the thesis has been structured around four conflict-related themes, and examines works by practitioners such as Sandra Johnston, Duncan Campbell, Willie Doherty, Locky Morris, and Brian O’Doherty. These works fall between rigid definitions and provoke multiple socio-political, cinema, television, and art histories. Although the world no longer watches Northern Ireland with the intensity it did during the Troubles, the issues still emerging from that conflict are internationally recognizable, and are often registered within a more global visual culture. This thesis recognizes visual artists’ criticisms of the processes of mass media and its contribution to conflict, by using those same processes, and intervenes on attempts at canon formation for Northern Irish film and visual art by looking at work according to identified connections between modes and themes that reflect a society moving away from its segregated, categorized past.
    Date of AwardDec 2011
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Queen's University Belfast
    SupervisorDes O'Rawe (Supervisor)

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