Wednesday 24 April 2019

Lyra McKee

Journalist Lyra McKee was a massive influence on the development of my art practice over the past two years. She was sadly shot last week at a riot in the Creggan area in Derry. Police have since arrested an 18 and 17-year-old concerning the murder. I thought I'd dig up some writing I'd made about the subject.

Here are three extracts from some pieces of writing from last year, where Lyra McKee's journalism had influenced my decisions about how to progress with my practice. I was trying to boil down the essence of her article on post-Good Friday Agreement depression and her report on the subject gave me a bird's eye view and the clarity to tackle it head-on.
I’d like to try and convey an auto-ethnographic sentiment somehow via interactive & narrative work and feel that manipulating game engines as a medium will allow for a wide net of scope and execution. 
I made the decision to create work about the border situation in Northern Ireland, shifting from purely implied and understated narrative to using some specific anecdotal tools such as interview recordings or text, in conjunction with my more traditional landscape approach.

There is an excellent article by journalist Lyra McKee entitled Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies, which delves into post-war intergenerational depression in Northern Ireland, and I’d like to dig a little deeper into this specific area myself through such conversational interviews.

In previous works, I have experimented with the introduction of human figures with simple artificial intelligence, exploring their virtual environments autonomously. I found that in doing this, the overall concept suffered by having scores of digital men running around and killing each other randomly. Although this method is more faithful to the in-game online confrontations that I had been investigating, I felt that it had undermined the feeling of foreboding and the tension inherent in my other works, in particular, the project Digital Border.

Much later, following a long period of experimentation, I decided that my work would switch back to an implied narrative, with the preparatory work I'd made in recording stories etc. to go toward a critical paper exploring the relationship between post-GFA tales (such as McKee's) and the morbid eccentrics of Flann O'Brien.
My interest in this subject came after reading an article that helped to clarify my own experiences with growing up in Northern Ireland after the majority of the ethno-political conflict (The Troubles) had ended. Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies, written by Lyra McKee, outlined mental health issues experienced by people who came of age after the Good Friday Agreement.
The Good Friday Agreement was seen as a significant political development during the peace process in Northern Ireland, signed on the tenth of April, 1998. It was marked as both an agreement between the Irish and British governments, and between the majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland. It is understood by most as the unofficial end of The Troubles. By this time, most of the bloodshed had happened, and any post-GFA incidents were more widely condemned and typically seen as attempts from the lunatic fringes of paramilitary groups. Life in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement was about optimistically rebuilding the country and vast amounts of government and EU development money was introduced to bring both sides of the community divide together.
For people growing up in this time of ill-placed optimism, it appeared that there was little to worry about. Unfortunately, it only took 16 years for the number of post-Good Friday Agreement suicides to overtake the total number of conflict-related deaths during 40 years of The Troubles. Where it is clear that a period of community and mental healing was necessary, it appears that much of the mental health issues of living in a war zone have permeated from one generation to the next. Northern Ireland is unique in this respect, in that the conflict has been relatively recent, the location was in a first world country, and that there has already been an extended period of healing. Additionally, Northern Ireland was revealed to have the highest level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, beating current live conflict locations such as Lebanon and Israel.

Much research has been done in this area, most notable by Queens University Belfast lecturer Mike Tomlinson. It was not my objective to reinterpret or improve upon Tomlinson’s work, but to try to document and explore these experiences in some small local way.

This led me to try and understand this kind of intergenerational trauma through family (folk) stories. I collected a number of these via both audio recordings and written means from friends and family, and read up on articles posted by people in similar situations. My initial thoughts were to try and use my artistic practice to open a dialogue about these stories, including creating a self-playing game with some of the stories as both backdrop and direct narrative tool. I am ultimately happy with the work, but I feel that instead, my strengths in this area lie in using less direct methods of storytelling.

And a little on rising paramilitary glorification amongst the youth. I've written about Paul Donnelly and his interview on the Blindboy Podcast. Note that the following piece was written pre-Cambridge Analytica yet it is somehow strangely foreboding.
Part of the retelling of these stories is to indicate the idiocy of youth and for the future generations to attempt no such objectives/idiocies/follies. There is a worrying trend amongst the younger generation today, notably in areas of Belfast but easily imaginable in other locations around the country. The glorification of The Troubles for young people seems to be a growing problem. Belfast historian Paul Donnelly describes working with support groups for young people and how in some situations there is an uneasy reverence for people who have experienced The Troubles first hand. ‘It must have been class’. This is why we need stories like these, not only to show the flawed nature of these acts but also to re-contextualise this in an understandable modern day situation. 
I estimate that part of the rise in popularity of this problem might be from the use of social media and the internet amongst the younger generation. This ‘echo chamber’ allows people with dangerous fringe ideas such as nihilism, fanaticism, and sectarianism to find solace and blossom in these online communities. This runs in parallel to the rise in online countercultures such as Incels, 4chan and the_donald. 
Powerful algorithms on websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit actively redirect your own ideologies back into your timeline daily. This is dangerous in this context in that it allows for deeper separation and less critical debate, but in the context of blooming online sectarianism in the youth of Northern Ireland, it is suddenly much more severe. 
On the flip side, it cannot be under-appreciated what role the internet played in this healing process. Early internet days of fastfude, etc. was an online forum for people from Northern Ireland’s two communities to come together and discuss music. This was much in the way that the Belfast/Derry punk movement in the 1970s allowed both Catholic and Protestants to mix freely. Although fastfude is no longer functioning, those music driven communities have branched out into a healthy discussion into other areas of the internet and social media platforms. 
I feel this highlights a significant diversion between the storytelling of Flann O’Brien and modern internet communications. In each of my stories, the hero is ultimately an anti-hero, providing life-lessons through their own mistakes. It’s difficult to imagine anyone sympathising with the unnamed narrator or his murdering accomplice in The Third Policeman, but it is possible that if the murders in the book had a sectarian edge that it might be read differently, or perhaps even glorified.

I'm not sure I'll post the rest of the paper on Flann O'Brien. Maybe someday it will make an appearance.