About a year ago I spent some time doing a residency in SHIFT in Cardiff. SHIFT was a brand new and exciting art space in the centre of Cardiff, supported by the arts organisation & charity Axis. The space was absolutely huge, having been an underground Virgin Megastore back in the day. I instantly wanted to make use of the environment to make some large scale works, but it took me a little while to actually make any. I focused on smaller works and using the size to better understand my subject matter and composition before eventually sizing up to larger pieces. I’m happy with how that body of work turned out, and how it helped me realise what I wanted to get out of landscape painting.
During this time I experimented with an idea that I had left simmering on the back burner. I’d always been interested in the unusual (and disturbing) crossover of violent materials and children. I’ve written about this quite a bit, particularly regarding The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the freshly apparent glorification of ‘the good old days’ by kids. It’s something that has always been a big part of my work, and when exploring the historic violence in Northern Ireland using video game software, I found there was an inherent link between simulated online violence by kids and the real-life violence that influenced so many.
With this small project, I want to make something that bridged that link whilst also using new technology. I had a few ideas from before about using the idea of a balaclava in my work after seeing a piece by Paul Granjon–that had absolutely nothing to do with paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland–but it inspired me to use it as an object because it's such an iconic and thought evoking symbol.
I actually don’t like using Snapchat, but it has featured in my work and influenced my practice a fair bit. I suppose I referenced it most directly in a project emulating Willie Doherty in a lighthearted series of live online ‘performative’ pieces, and there is some similarity with the work I did with #rambo. I did personally use Snapchat for a few months when it came out but pretty soon after I gave up and stopped updating or checking it. I know it's super popular with kids, I imagine in part due to the 100% inaccessible UI that makes it inoperable to the boomer generation, a bit of an ‘anti-Facebook’. I thought it might be interesting to create something along the lines of a face filter that used a balaclava, and Snapchat’s relatively simple filter-making software allowed me to do this.
When starting this project I found it drew out some parallels between IRL activism, online anonymity, gaming culture, privacy, oversharing and illegal activities. Why not use a balaclava to hide your identity for online activities? I suppose the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask would be more appropriate when referencing these issues, but as someone from Northern Ireland, it's hard to move past the image of a balaclava and its inherent implication.
As it stands, I might break this work out for an exhibition some time. I understand it is possible to use geofencing to localise a Snapchat filter for events and such, or do I have a device in the exhibition with Snapchat locked in for people to post their own balaclava photos? Or why not both? Maybe a running feed on a display of people’s filtered faces when posted on social media and tagged with a specific hashtag. The balaclava model might need a little more fine-tuning and tweaking but the overall concept and execution is solid. Now to work on a face mask & ventilator filter for this COVID-19 pandemic…