Introduction

The earliest known museological writing in the western world, Inscriptiones by Samuel Quiccheberg, is a 16th century text that details the practice of organising the world’s objects into curiosity cabinets. This was essentially an instruction manual for the creation of private collections, with an explicit imperial agenda. The constructs and absences underpinning cultural and historical representation pre-empted in Quiccheberg’s text are addressed in Ailbhe Ni Bhrian’s latest film installation, Inscriptions of an Immense Theatre, in Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. This work considers the cultural repercussions of colonial museology and it’s ripple through time into modern imperial legacy.

In response to the thematics of heritage, loss and imperial legacy raised in Ni Bhrian’s exhibition, students of Art in the Contemporary World, NCAD, invited academics and practitioners from various fields of research and practice to contribute a written response to questions such as:


The Ontology of the Artefact aims to create a platform for discourse surrounding the artefact and its displacement, creation, destruction and reimagining within museology through to contemporary visual culture. The textual and visual contents within this publication form a digital archive through the interweaving of voices from various fields of research and practice, including archeology, architecture, social activism, digital media, remix culture, fine art, postcolonial studies, Irish national history and photography. Ontologyoftheartefact.xyz is a website coded from scratch to host this virtual cabinet of curiosities. The digital artefacts are in the public domain, on a platform designed in universal modern coding, intended to decategorise the artefact and participate in a subversion of museological cabinets of curiosities and all they represent.

We would like to sincerely thank all of our contributors for their valuable submissions.

Aoife Banks, Nathan Cahill, Kate Friedeberg
MA Art in the Contemporary World


Contents

‘Michael D. vs The Rubberbandits (Horse Outside Remix)’, Owen Gallagher

Michael D vs The Rubberbandits is a critical remix video — a digital meta-artefact crafted from sampled fragments of extant digital media artefacts. Critical remix videos (CRVs) necessarily involve the modification and recombination of pre-existing materials, intentionally crafted for the primary purpose of critical analysis and reflection through praxis. This remix is composed of previously published audio-visual materials, including footage of President Higgins broadcasting a national address from Áras an Uachtaráin on St. Patrick’s Day, juxtaposed with shots from The Rubberbandits’ Horse Outside music video. The recut audio track is a transformative work, utilizing fragments of the dialogue from Michael D’s speech recut into an alternative syntagmatic sequence, beat-matched to a version of Horse Outside with the original vocals removed, with the exception of the chorus where Blindboy Boatclub and President Higgins duet through the process of paradigmatic substitution.

The CRV is critical of several targets, to varying degrees. While the primary critique targets the historical British Empire, subtle critiques are also levelled at materialistic contemporary Ireland and its symbolic figurehead, our President.Michael D’s speech reflects on the centenary anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent Irish independence. The meaning of his lyrics arguably promote freedom over oppression; idealism and imagination over materialism; independence over imperialism; and Higgins presents this message in his usual well-spoken, highly articulate manner. The lyrics of Horse Outside also reject materialism and promote freedom, albeit in a very different way, through frequent coarse expletives, crude slang and symbolism. The horse is a widely understood symbol of freedom without restraint, and in the song, the ‘no frills’ horse wins out over its materialistic adversaries’ flashy ‘souped-up’ rally cars. However, this is where a close analysis of the artefacts reveals a number of ideological conflicts and contradictions in the messages promoted by both The Rubberbandits and President Higgins in their respective critiques of materialism and colonial imperialism.

The horse as a symbol has been utilised by numerous car companies, such as Ferrari, Mustang and Porsche, in their logos and branding. These elite expensive cars are at least an order of magnitude more materialistic than the Honda Civic, Subaru and Mitsubishi are in comparison to the horse in Horse Outside. As such, the Rubberbandits’ use of the horse as an anti-materialistic symbol is somewhat weakened because, ironically in this context, car companies have been using the same symbol to appeal to consumer culture for over a century. President Higgins’ critique of imperialism is also weakened, primarily due to the fact that he is broadcasting this message around the world from his residence, Áras an Uachtaráin — an artefact and residual symbol of the British Empire. A century ago, in 1916 Áras an Uachtaráin was known as the ‘Viceregal Lodge’ and it was occupied by the Viceroys who oversaw British rule in Ireland. The mansion building was the official seat of colonial power of the imperial crown in Ireland from 1782 to 1922, and was not handed over to the Irish state until 1938. Éamon de Valera sought to have the building demolished and rebuilt as the new Irish presidential residence; however, World War II broke out and there was not enough state money to proceed with this plan, so it was decided to occupy the existing building instead. Knowing this, Áras an Uachtaráin, with its visibly colonial architectural artefacts and décor, cannot help but conjure painful memories of our past oppression, despite its contemporary occupation and ownership by the Irish state.

Michael D still image https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20P-UCFKAx8
Michael D vs The Rubberbandits presents many layers of signification, similarity and contrast between the source material artefacts, as well as juxtaposition and alteration of meaning through the remix process. Higgins and The Rubberbandits are from Limerick. They are champions of the arts in Ireland. They feel very strongly about 1916, Irish freedom and the dangers of materialism in contemporary Ireland. And they really love horses. By bringing them together in this video, I hope to encourage critical reflection on the topics they present so passionately through their work, in an entertaining way. Enjoy!

Owen Gallagher, Ph.D. in Visual Culture


N.B. The original artefacts were broadcast on Irish television (RTÉ 1 and RTÉ 2, respectively) and published online by the official Áras an Uachtaráin YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnzP7e_jbqo), and the President’s official website in 2016 (https://www.president.ie/en/news/article/st.-patricks-day-address-2016-president-michael-d.-higgins). The Rubberbandits music video was broadcast via the Republic of Telly programme and published on RTÉ’s official YouTube channel in 2010 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljPFZrRD3J8).

‘The Artefact’, Helen McAllister

Artefact – noun - a useful or decorative man-made object
Origin – Latin - Arte – using art

Factum – something made

(Concise Oxford English Dictionary)


While archaeological finds are called artefacts, can all that is made be called 'art'? Indeed there are creative solutions in shaping made objects, but should the intention of these activities be called ‘art’?

Inherent in the notions of ‘What is an artefact?’ is something of history, yet the use of the word artefact is found in the contemporary art course at NCAD – Textiles Art & Artefact. This acknowledges the creation of art as artefact but also that an object made for a function can become an artefact.

I cite two examples.

In the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennale, ‘Elements of Architecture’, one object displayed illustrates when an object becomes an artefact. Walking quickly through the section on ‘lifts and elevators’ I was more interested in watching people engage with and in art works. I had stopped to look as individuals read a blurb beside a rusty lift. On all occasions after reading the individuals went back to relook at this object. All, without exception, changed their demeanor, some personal significances was happening. Through curiosity, or darn right nosiness, I read the blurb, I too revisited and relooked at this passed-by object. I was moved and understood immediately the reverence that now seemed bestowed on this sacred totem artefact.

This object was the lift that had saved everyone in the Chilean mine accident of 2010. It was the year’s ‘feel good story’. This was no longer a functional object, now ennobled in a gallery context, this was elevated (no pun intended!) to ‘Artefact’ status.


The shoe is my second illustration of object becoming artefact. Shoes have a rich discourse as object, artefact, metaphor, and communicator. Sue Townsend’s comment, ‘I can’t be the only woman to have displayed a pair of shoes on the mantelpiece. Whenever the telly was rubbish I would gaze at them’, showcases this discourse.

Once in Rome’s obscenely over-crowded market, I exercised my two passions for shoes and finding a bargain. Once freed of the body-evasive crowd, I discovered one of the pair was missing! So against all logic, I headed back into the scrum, stupidly it must be said, in the hope I might find the missing shoe, or to find it still on the stall, or to buy a replacement pair; none of the above happened. What happened next with the remaining single shoe is the crucial shift from object to artefact. I proceeded to bring the single shoe home; on display in my home for over 20 years! I have often looked to the shoe, wishing I could wear them but there is no ‘them’ — the pair does not exist (metaphors abound here!). Yet this single object is forced into being an artefact amplified with some masochism in its constant display.


What I cite are clearly personal experiences and responses to objects / artefacts, but they suggest that the subjective, relational interpretation can define an artefact as opposed to a fixed taxonomy and definition.

Dr. Helen McAllister

‘The Ontology of the Artefact’, Benjamin Gearey and Brian Mac Domhnaill

For most archaeologists, an ‘artefact’ can, perhaps deceptively, be defined as anything from the past we find worthy of enquiry: What is this object? How old is it? What wood was it carved from and what age was the tree when it was felled? How was it crafted?

Clearly defined, if circumscribed, answers from the application of appropriate analytical techniques: this object is a trough of uncertain function, carved from alder wood; the tree was 54 years old when it was felled, around 2000 years ago in the Iron Age; the tool marks on its surface show at least six metal tools were used in the carving process.

Object at the end point of enquiry, interrogated, examined: artefact, this much we can know. Perhaps put on display, but probably not, museum stores are full of objects that will never be seen by the public.

But no matter how many scientific methods we utilise, how much data we accumulate, crowding in close behind: why did they choose alder wood? Why this specific tree, felled at that particular age? Did the six tools all belong to the same person? Answers out of the reach of any scientific exposition…


An expanded definition of ‘artefact’ in the light of ongoing controversy: a human-made object of cultural or historical interest, removed by the passage of time from circulation within its origin culture, appropriated or acquired by an individual, authority or organisation and held due to its significance, rarity or value. Such an object does not necessarily have to be ‘something made’ (factum) using art (arte) as the name suggests.

During The Pallasboy Project we encountered three very distinct examples of prehistoric human-made objects (now artefacts) removed from their locations of origin, stored and/or displayed in state museum facilities. In the case of the Pallasboy Vessel and the Red Man of Kilbeg these objects were almost destroyed by industrial peat-cutting but were identified as ‘artefacts’, excavated and conserved prior to removal to a museum facility for storage with other refugee artefacts.

The Ballachulish ‘Goddess’, an Iron Age anthropomorphic figurine, discovered in Scotland in 1880 by workmen digging a ditch, was at first retained by the landowner, a clergyman, who proudly displayed his find to interested visitors. But ‘this pagan relic’ seems to have unsettled some of those who came into contact with it: not all encounters with objects from the past must be comfortable. The Goddess’ initial encounters with the workmen, the Reverend and his guests and scholars, were arguably ‘pre-artefact’ and possibly all the better for it. Eventually The Goddess made her way to the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, where she remains on display - although the wood has split and dried out, creating a face that looks eerily like that in Munch’s famous painting ‘The Scream’. In 2018 we set out to reconnect the present day community of Ballachulish with their prehistoric past by making a replica of the Goddess on site and leaving it for them to display and finally bury locally. Sometimes it is perhaps best to let the artefact go and engage with the making of a new pre-artefact, human-made object. The repatriation of an artefact, however justified, can never restore the pre-artefact object to its original context and existence.


Benjamin Gearey, Lecturer in Environmental Archeology, UCC, Cork
Brian Mac Domhnaill, Former Archeologist and Artist

‘From Artefact to Metaphor: The Work of Emily Carr’, Melanie Otto

In “The Art of Mexico: Material and Meaning” (1977), Octavio Paz begins his discussion of pre-Columbian aesthetics with a reflection on the Aztec sculpture of the Coatlicue Mayor. Excavated in 1790 during construction works at the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City, the sculpture was put on display for a brief period, only to be reburied until after Mexican independence. The ancient artwork was perceived as an insult to our understanding of beauty, an example of an entirely foreign aesthetics representative of the Americas at large. Paz concludes that reading the Coatlicue Mayor in the way the ancient Mexicans did may be illusory, but our contemporary response to the artefact is no less real, especially once we accept that reading the art of another culture or of our own past always involves an act of translation - of transforming artefact into metaphor.

The work of Canadian artist Emily Carr represents such an act of translation. Between 1908 and 1912, obsessed with the idea of a ‘vanishing’ aboriginal culture, Carr travelled to First Nations settlements in British Columbia, including the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, to sketch indigenous totem pole art. Her initial impulse was documentary, creating a record of artefacts she found were rapidly deteriorating. In spite of her assumptions about the ‘vanishing Indian,’ however, totem pole art has survived to this day. Yet for Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest, who, unlike the Mesoamericans of the past, traditionally work in wood, totem poles have a natural life span. Poles from the historical past may be archival to our Western understanding, but they were intended by the Indigenous artist to return to the earth.

Over time, Carr developed a genuine desire to engage with Indigenous aesthetics and to translate it into her own practice. There is much debate around Carr’s often problematic relationship with First Nations culture, but her work raises an important question: what happens to an artefact when it is translated into a different medium and into the contemporary moment? If we follow Paz’s reasoning, Carr could not have read aboriginal art on its own terms. Her paintings are translations of artefacts into Modernist metaphors that often misrepresent the Indigenous artistic intent. In the context of the brutal dispossession of First Nations from their land and culture, Carr’s ‘translations’ are acts of appropriation and cultural theft, turning First Nations themselves into artefacts.

At the same time, Carr’s art was an attempt to connect with the Indigenous storyteller. Totem poles are traditionally carved in red cedar. The working title of her 1941 memoir Klee Wyck, in which she revisits her field trips, was ‘Stories in Cedar’. The study of artefacts is museological, whereas totem poles in Indigenous contexts belong to the oral archive. Carr’s visual and written ‘Stories in Cedar’ engage with this storytelling tradition; they translate artefacts into the contemporary moment where they become the metaphors by which Carr imaginatively connects with a sense of place, developing a new visual idiom in the act of surrendering to interpretive ambiguity.


Melanie Otto, Trinity College Dublin


Skidegate beaver pole, archival photograph


Emily Carr, A Skidegate Beaver Pole, 1941-1942

‘What is an artefact?’, Emma Gilleece


An artefact is a material thing that has subjective cultural significance placed on it either when it was created or retrospectively. Its importance might be on a local, national or international level.

‘What sociological, political, cultural, historical factors turn an object into an artefact?’

An object becomes an artefact based on the value that a community attributes to it such as the technology that created it, its connection to a person of note or its association with an historical event.

‘What artefacts may represent contemporary imperial constructs of culture?’

I find buildings the most fascinating artefacts as they express the dominant norms in aesthetics, both externally and internally. Research into a building’s construction reveals the politics of the day between land and labour cost (if not built by slaves), artistic intent of architect and values of client. Institutional buildings demonstrate civic aspirations, power and sometimes other influences such as religion, while vernacular architecture expresses local traditions and materials.

‘What artefacts may represent absences in cultural representation?’

In general this would be artefacts of the marginalised citizens of a society or people not represented in our mainstream media such as the Traveller Community in Ireland. In our increasingly consumerist culture I would like to see artefacts that represent the frugality or custom of mending and passing down that we lost along the way, or reminders of the vulgarity of the Celtic Tiger so that we don’t follow its paw prints again.

‘Can an artefact be digital?’

Yes it can and increasingly in this social media age more of our records of historic events will be digital. It is safe, long-term storage that will be the future issue.

‘Can an artefact be contemporary?’

An object is not an artefact upon completion but must wait until a community or institution assigns cultural value to it. However, it does not necessarily take generations to see this so yes I believe an artefact can be relatively contemporary.

Emma Gilleece, Architectural Historian and Conservationist

‘Traditional’, Colin Graham

I had it on a postcard but I can’t remember where I got the postcard. Neither can I recall where the postcard is now. I used to archive every piece of ephemera I collected, convinced that at some future time I could realise its shimmering potential. The postcard is somewhere in the house, I’m certain, but the files are chaotic now, scattered in disorders that reflect my failed intentions to make some meaning out of their contents.

I can remember, though, why I kept the postcard so carefully, at least for a while. In 1994, around the time of the IRA ceasefire, a poster, which was the original for the postcard, appeared on walls in Belfast – A4-sized, white, with a black and white photograph of a knitted Aran balaclava (eye holes and mouth hole) and the word ‘TRADITIONAL’ in sans serif font underneath. Nothing else.

The postcard I have lost was a postcard of a poster of a photograph of a thing that had been labelled and catalogued and given a description. Its pleasure was that it took a language of authority (the one-word description, the straight-on, deadpan photograph) and displayed it ‘fly’. It was an irruption in, and through, and out of, and then past, solemnity and ideology. It was dangerous because it was ‘fly’, and dangerous because it was simply and cheekily defiant of the things that were hard to articulate as defiance. A photograph and a word, that’s all. But framed in a society darkened under the weight of its own structures, using the visual language of the artefact to create a spark of difference, of some other way of seeing and understanding. It was a memento of meaningful difference.

Out of the informal archive of memory, out of the collective social media memory, and out of the archive of Circa, Susan McWilliam was able to find a copy of Gavin Weston’s ‘Three images from a fly-posting project’ (1994) and tweet it to me. So I have it again, virtually, even though the postcard remains untraced.

https://twitter.com/susanmacwilliam/status/1085162014669000705


Colin Graham, Maynooth University

‘True Type Font’, Fiona Hallinan

http://notalittlepony.com/cian_font.html

This is a font made up of letters selected from samples of my brother's handwriting. Each letter has been scanned onto a template and then uploaded to a programme that processes the PDF into a true type font file.


After my brother died, I started gathering notebooks and pages of his writing to make a collection. People should see all this, I thought. But nothing I found seemed adequate. In the time after he died, he had never felt more present. He was louder than ever, to me. I wondered about what really sets apart the living and the dead? I was immersed in him and his people, by their and my ideas of his ideas. In my mind I carried a heavy folder stuffed with representations of past versions of him. Yet when he was alive and I thought of him it was not through representations. Instead there was a glimpse of him in the present (it is harder to look directly at a person right in front of you) and then a future of him that lay unknowable and unending ahead. After he died his future was suddenly, starkly known; what was missing was his potential, that unknown. This font is a digital tool that should be activated. In writing I imagine potentials.

Fiona Hallinan

‘Oppositional Artefacts: Archival Justice and the Disruption of Irish Cultural Memory through Vukašin Nedeljković‘s Asylum Archive’, Jenny Carla Moran

In the past few years, Catherine Corless’ uncovering of the mass plot of hidden infant remains in a septic tank in Tuam sparked new engagements with, and inquiries into, the hidden abuses in Irish Mother and Baby Homes.[1] Corless’ research did not quite ‘discover’ something that wasn’t really known, per se, rather she exposed evidence of a reality with which much of the Irish population were already familiar. I refer here to the erasure which has been integral to formations of Irish identity following independence from Britain, and reactionary perceptions of Catholic ‘superiority’.[2] There is still much erasure surrounding the abuses of Mother and Baby Homes, however, not only because of the continuing extensions of the government inquiries into these institutions, but also because of white-washing and archival injustice.[3][4] This kind of injustice continues today through Irish cultural mis-/rememberings of racialised violence, assimilations to white supremacy, and, of course, the Direct Provision system (DP).[5] I propose that Vukašin Nedeljković’s Asylum Archive (2018) is oppositional to these injustices as a visual archive documenting DP from within.

I have argued elsewhere that engagements with Ireland’s colonial history are not critical enough of the state’s assimilation to white supremacy in relation to our ‘post-colonial’ status.[6] In our schools, for instance, we frequently learn about Irish colonial history outside of the context of global power structures and imperial violence, leading many students to understand Ireland as a victim of colonialism, and perhaps even as comparable to postcolonial nations in the Global South, without necessarily questioning our state’s continuations of imperial violence. This is not only analytically lacking, but dangerous, particularly in an era where myths about Irish colonial history are used as a scapegoat for anti-blackness by white supremacists.[7] When we talk about imperialism in relation to Irishness, therefore, we should always be considering our own state’s position and contributions to contemporary imperial violence, in order to challenge reactionary nationalistic Irish cultural memory that perpetuates erasure and therefore supports the continuation of this violence.[8] One way to do this is to interfere with this erasure by documenting the realities of silenced spaces, such as Mother and Baby Homes and DP centres, through archival justice.

Nedeljković began the works for what would become the astounding resource, Asylum Archive, while he was in DP, from 2007 to 2009. He documented his environment through photographs and videos, and continues this documentation of DP centres today, highlighting their locations and their dehumanising conditions. Interestingly, Nedeljković’s documentation features a focus on what Ronit Lentin calls spaces of repression which ‘always return to haunt’, rather than catering for a more popularised consumptive gaze in documentations of peoples who are being dehumanised.[9] His documentation is stark and isolating, and shows the links between this contemporary injustice and not-quite-buried histories of abuses in Ireland.


Vukašin Nedeljković, ‘The Old Convent Direct Provision Centre, Ballyhaunis’, 2018, Asylum Archive


An image which speaks to these links, which I haven’t been able to remove from my head since I first saw it at Nedeljković’s launch of Asylum Archive in July of 2018, is that of a room in a DP centre in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, which was previously a convent.[10] The high-ceilinged, inert room is like an artefact itself, but has clearly been converted to a ‘dining room’ by way of a few tables and the insertion of Coca-Cola and Tayto vending machines, despite residents of DP centres having no right to work for money, nor having available income outside of their pitifully-low weekly allowance. The machine stands under the columns and alcoves (which look to have previously been stain-glass windows) of the convent-like interior, dichotomously materialising the realities of the for-profit exploitation of vulnerable peoples as facilitated by the Irish Church-government.

The reality of racialised exploitation in Ireland is no longer uncommon knowledge, with issues surrounding DP frequently making headlines in Ireland’s most popular publications, however national shame surrounding DP has not yet entered our cultural memory (I say ‘yet’ as this may happen retroactively, as it did in relation to some aspects of gendered violence in Mother and Baby Homes). Nedeljković’s honest documentation is radical, then, specifically because it impresses upon cultural memory, rather than sensationalising or making spectacles of violence. Like Corless, Nedeljković uses his work to uncover what is really already known about violence in contemporary Ireland, through archival justice which opposes the myths of nationalistic mis-/rememberings, and therefore a cultural ontology of ‘Irishness’.

Jenny Carla Moran, @jennycarlamoran

NOTES:

[1] See more on the 2015 Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes as ordered in the Commission: S.I. No. 57 of 2015.
[2] Messenger, John C. Inis Beag, Isle of Ireland. New York: Holt, 1969, pg. 3.
[3] See the latest update on the ongoing extensions of this inquiry in McGarry, Patsy. “Mother and baby homes commission seeks extension to finish report.” The Irish Times, 9 Jan. 2019, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/mother-and-baby-homes-commission-seeks-extension-to-finish-report-1.3751684. Accessed 18 Jan 2019.
[4] For more on white-washing in representations of Mother and Baby Homes and institutional abuses, see Adaser, Rosemary. “Ireland’s forgotten mixed-race child abuse victims.” The Guardian. Youtube, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC_CpnwZPYM. Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.
[5] For further information on Direct Provision, see Doras Luimní’s campaign information.
[6] See Moran, Jenny Carla. “‘Ach Ba Gá Dom Labhairt Leat:’ An Foclóir Aiteach and the Presence of Queer Culture as Gaeilge.” Mulosige, 14 Jan. 2019, http://mulosige.soas.ac.uk/queer-culture-as-gaeilge/. Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.
[7] See Hogan et al’s research into the white-supremacist myth and uses of “Irish Slavery,” for example, in Hogan, Liam, Laura McAtackney and Matthew C. Reilly. “WHY WE NEED TO CONFRONT THE ‘IRISH SLAVE MYTH’ AND HOW TERMINOLOGY IS NOT SIMPLY SEMANTICS.” History Ireland, vol. 24, no. 2, 2016, https://www.historyireland.com/volume-24/the-irish-in-the-anglo-caribbean-servants-or-slaves/. Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.
[8] See Reina’s research into how this has affected sexual abuse scandals in Ireland, in Reina, Aisling. “Rape and Sexual Assault Narratives in Ireland: How and Why We Trivialise and Normalise Sexual Violence.” BA Thesis. Trinity College Dublin, 2016, https://www.academia.edu/26016979/Rape_and_Sexual_Assault_Narratives_in_Ireland_How_and_Why_We_Trivialise_and_Normalise_Sexual_Violence. Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.
[9] Lentin, Ronit. “Disavowing Incarceration: Asylum Archive Making Ireland’s Direct Provision System Visible.” Asylum Archive. Dublin: Nedeljković, 2018, pg. 5.
[10] Nedeljković, Vukašin. Asylum Archive. Dublin: Nedeljković, 2018, pg. 151. (Image reference)

‘Ether - can an artefact be immaterial?’, Rachel O’Dwyer

You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.
Albert Einstein

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, early inventors imagined an invisible medium called ‘ether’ to account for the propagation of radio waves. The properties of this ether were heavily debated, but most agreed that it was an invisible gas or fluid, a matter pushed to the limits of materiality, much finer than air, that filled the whole of space. The ether was an invisible and boundless medium that could act in any point in free space, collapsing time and distance, creating as one inventor put it ‘links between mind and mind’.[1] It was both a medium for communication and the element in which communications circulated.

Later, the concept of ‘ether’ was used to imagine how wireless signals could be zoned, owned, and controlled in arrangements that resembled those over physical land. In the early decades of the 20th Century, the first radio acts declared the ether to be a space for ownership, to be divided up into bands of frequencies for specific purposes (such as cellular communications, satellite, radio navigation and so on) and auctioned to the highest bidder.

Throughout the 1990s the Maori community lodged claims with the Waitaingi Tribunal contesting the New Zealand Government’s right to own and sell radio waves. These claims were based on historical documentation of celestial communications in Ngāti Porou mythology, namely histories of the creation of an ethereal space between the gods and the people, through which communications flowed downwards, connecting all things between the earth and the sky”.

The existence of some space or thing called the ether was ultimately disproved by Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, which demonstrated that radio waves could propagate without the aid of any medium at all. Invisible waves do not traverse some invisible medium or space known as ‘the ether’; they are the medium. Ether is just like any other thing – railway lines, fiber optic and copper cables – that facilitates the circulation of stuff across time and space, but with the crucial difference that with ether, there is no ‘thing’ as such. Nonetheless, long after the ether had fallen out of scientific favor the concept continued to be used in journalistic and regulatory literature around radio. There is no ether, but we continue to act and transact exactly as if there is. We map it and sell it and even trespass in it.

Rachel O’Dwyer, National College of Art and Design

NOTES:

[1] Oliver Lodge, The Ether of Space, (London & New York: Harper and Brothers, 1909), p.99.


Astrologer Robert Fludd’s Seventeenth Century engraving Integrae naturae speculum artistique imago provides a visualization of this ethereal medium. Fludd mapped the astrological spheres of the planets, the stars and the matter of earth and designated a rarefied middle region of the universe called the ‘middle spirit’ or ‘ether’ that acted as a conduit between the material and the symbolic world.


FCC Radio Wave allocation chart

‘A Pile of Dust’, Kathryn Maguire


Kathryn Maguire, ‘Cylandics’, 2018, exhibition and exploration in Butler Gallery, Kilkenny


‘What is an artefact?’

For me an artefact is something that was made by humans that was somehow important to that person or helped them to live better. Whether this object has function or is decorative is irrelevant. There was a sense of urgency to create the object and the making is imbued with meaning whether personal or cultural.

‘What sociological, political, cultural, historical factors turn an object into an artefact?’

Something that withstands time, is a mystery, an object that represents a culture or people that no longer exist. Objects that are charged with the essence of the time they were made in. Time is distilled within the object.

‘What artefacts may represent contemporary imperial constructs of culture?’

Things or objects that have been removed from their original settings or place and used for other purposes. The colossal Elgin marbles of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Greece stand as a warning, or an omen, in the British Museum. Every time I stand before them, a shiver runs through me as I am aware how they were obtained as debt booty in a time of occupation of Greece by the Ottoman Empire. Either they should be returned or the true story of their provenance should be on display. They were procured in the 1800’s and an excuse from the British Museum is that 'the Parthenon sculptures were “a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries” and were a part of “the story of cultural achievement throughout the world” which the institution’s exhibits tell.’ In this time of Brexit these colossal works, if returned, may be an example to the World for all artefacts to be returned to their origin.

‘What artefacts may represent absences in cultural representation?’

The Cycladic sculptures and figurines made throughout Greece by the mysterious Minoan Civilisation made in the Bronze and Neolithic Ages represented the dead, the FAF or folded arms figurine was a votive or effigy to the dead — every household would have one made to honour the deceased. They had a function beyond the realm of decoration. Many were made but only few now survive in private and public collections worldwide. The face and body has inspired some of the most influential aesthetic artworks in the world such as Amedeo Modigliani, Head of a Woman, 1910/11 and Brâncuși’s graceful marble bust Sleeping Muse I from 1909–10. The vogue for Cycladic art that arose with the avant-garde’s appreciation spurred an illegal traffic of artefacts that has only complicated the study of Cycladic culture. As a result of such looting, “many of the Cycladic art objects now in Western museums have no provenance or any description,” Getz-Preziosi explains. The historical significance of Cycladic art has been additionally convoluted by the proliferation of for¬geries produced during the 1960s.

I visited the incredible Akrotiri in Greece and saw the remains of an entire civilisation obliterated to a pile of dust from the local active Volcano which was incredibly humbling and fascinating. Trying to piece together the puzzle of the life that lived there. To see the remnants of homes preserved in Volcanic ash and see the incredibly advanced life of the mysterious Minoan and Cycladic civilisation. Unfolding the story, I visited the local Museum housing some of the artefacts that were once used in the Akrotiri times and dwellings. These same folded figures and long nosed faces would stare at me from a Vitrine in the British Museum later that year on a research trip — this time the vitrine was haphazardly situated on the route to the lavatories. I remember the guide in Greece told me the folded arms were a way to honour the dead. A common visual at many Greek funerals, I pondered how insincere it was to house this votive to the dead in a glass display on a toilet route.

‘Can an artefact be digital?’

I have different views on this but in the wake of a War and an obliteration of a culture if an object survives as a digital representation I think this has the power to become an artefact.

‘Can an artefact be contemporary?’

In 2017 rapid response collecting was created to urgently collect new works that had a deep impact and representation of time. The Pussyhat Project aimed to turn the march into a 'sea of pink', creating a striking visual statement of solidarity for women's rights in protest against the incoming Trump administration. An estimated 4 million people took part in sister marches in over 600 cities around the world on the same day. On 13 February 2017 one of these Pussyhats entered the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) collection as part of Rapid Response Collecting activities. Rapid Response provides a way for the V&A to engage in a timely way with important events that shape, or are shaped, by design, architecture and technology.

Kathryn Maguire

‘The Dispossessed Image’, Eoin Flannery

History, and its narration, are often affiliated with a commitment to textual representations, while memory is more often associated with the articulacy of the visual image. From critical postcolonial perspectives, readings that contest the confirmatory logic of the static photographic image, it is important to suggest that photographic images are legible as contradictory, subversive and ambivalent. The scene below was taken at the home of eighty year old widow, Margaret MacNamara, from Bodyke, Co. Clare, who was evicted on 2 June 1877. The photograph was taken by a correspondent of the Pall Mall Gazette, Henry Norman, and it was not atypical in the visual economy of late nineteenth century Ireland – specifically during the Land War and the later Plan of Campaign. This image is both provocative and suggestive of many issues concerning the politics of visual-cultural representation, the ethics of colonial and postcolonial discourse and the semiotic of visual representation. The scene is clearly staged; it operates within an artesian economy of agenda-driven over-emphasis. In accordance with the limits of such early forays into photographing indigenous populations, the scene is exterior to the domestic dwelling, due to a lack of interior light. Each subject is properly attired, and the image bears some hallmarks of touristic portraiture. In one respect, agency belongs to the instructive photographer, as the artistic consciousness choreographs the eviction display. Despite the historical background of eviction, the quaintness of nostalgia proves a suitable ‘other’ for the civilising glare of the modern photographic artist. Yet, can we detect or decipher any resistance in the image to such an over-determining optic. How does the colonized, unhomed object of the image respond?

Henry Norman, ‘Widow MacNamara in her fortress


From this latter viewpoint, can we speculate that the image oscillates between conformity and subversion, as it replays the tropes of native Irish authenticity, while concurrently projecting a degree of ambiguity through the Widow MacNamara’s defiant gaze? In addition to the physical location of her body as obstacle, the firm and ennobled gaze of the Widow is not a blank stare, neither is it merely addressed to the photographer or the photographic lens. We can re (or re-read) this image as a socially directed visual enunciation, the returned gaze speaks to the absent consciousness of the viewer. It is at this point that we can identify a more radical inflection of the allegorical (to which the photographer’s ‘passive’ Irish female has been reduced).

Though produced as allegory at a figurative level, the Widow’s awareness, her visual injunction to the beholder reminds us of her, and other, situations of pitiable economic suffering. It is this volatile dialogue between the real and the figurative that makes this form of allegory so effectively subversive. Eschewing the privacy of self-absorption, the Widow’s framed gaze presents her as a figurative construct and as a photographic representation of the material realities of a colonial society. Her gaze abandons the self-absorption of the artistic representation and the privacy of personal suffering, becoming symbolic of a wide-ranging concept of justice and solidarity in shared suffering.

Eoin Flannery, University of Limerick

Image source: Henry Norman, ‘Widow MacNamara in her fortress’, Part of National Library of Ireland Eblana Collection, National Library of Ireland on The Commons, NLI Ref: EB_2662