The Disappearing Wall in Belfast
A Third Voice is Starting to Emerge
Thomas Wells, originally from Manchester, has been living in Belfast forthree and a half years. Working primarily as an artist for the past 10 years, they have taken the role as Director of Catalyst Arts for the past two years, finishing the directorship at the end of March 2021. In this role, they were also responsible for The Disappearing Wall project.
By Amelie Sittenauer
Your organisation Catalyst Arts realised the hugely ambitious project “The Disappearing Wall” and organised workshops. Could you explain what Catalyst Arts does, what it works on and who’s part of it?
Wells: We were founded in 1993 in Belfast by a group of artists who were predominately students. It was felt that there wasn’t so much a platform for visual arts and performing arts within Belfast at the time. So, Catalyst was settled, I suppose a little bit as an experiment to platform new work that was happening in the city. The history of Belfast’s visual art scene is also quite integrated with organisations across Europe. During the time, in late 1993, it was the year before the Good Friday Agreement, so there was this wanting to look forward, to look forward beyond the borders of Northern Ireland and to look forward beyond the Troubles. To create more stable connections with other artists globally. So, in the articles that were written in 1993 it was decided– something which we still work towards - that we are artist-led, we are voluntary, and we are non-hierarchical. And I think that’s crucial, as there’s no management structure in a sense so that there is a manager and people work under them. We all work as a collaborative venture. Each director does two years and there’s a rolling structure of directors coming and going. So the operational side is constantly changing. In terms of our programming, there has always been and there will remain an obligation to support emerging, innovative visual and performance arts within Northern Ireland.
Belfast has a politically charged history. What did the project “The Disappearing Wall” mean for the city? What challenges and chances did the project pose?
Wells: From the beginning, we found this idea of the wall quite striking. For many European countries the idea of the wall and having a physical barrier between communities is part of their history and in the history of Belfast and Northern Ireland it is very resonant. So when we were first given the brief for the project there were some concerns around what the idea of a wall or a border means in the wider context of Northern Ireland. Obviously there have been psychological walls that have been built up over the time within the two communities of Unionist and Nationalist within the country. But there are also actual physical barriers and physical walls that are still present within the city. During the Troubles there were physical walls that were placed across the city to separate communities but also protect communities from each other –there was a civil war happening at the time. When we had the project we were very conscious that if we proposed “building a new wall”, this would bring up a lot of the trauma that is still very much embodied within the region. But what was also incredibly poetic about it was the fact that through the quotes engraved in the blocks that make upthe wallit would contain different voices from the international community from across Europe. And also that this wall would then be dismantled. And I think even this symbolic gesture of building a wall as a collective and then dismantling that through language and through discussion was incredibly poetic.
One of your ideas for the workshops accompanying the Disappearing Wall project in Belfast was to re-map the city of Belfast beyond geography. Why did you think this kind of re-mapping was particularly important for Belfast?
Artist & Curator Thomas Wells | © private
Wells: The borders go beyond these ideas of geography, I think they are very much part of people’s heritage, history and really part of people’s psychology of the region. Belfast especially and Northern Ireland is kind of split into these binary voices. Whereas there is this third voice that is starting to emerge as we move forward,through challenging these binary concepts of unionism and nationalism, protestant and catholic, et cetera. And it was just really important through the engagement process that we took reference from these binary positions but also created a space within Catalyst as a city-centre arts organisation, as a neutral setting to be able to host these voices. And that’s why we fight for our right to remain within the city-centre as an art space, because the minute you move into north, east, south or west you can very easily become part of the psychology of one of those quarters. So it was really important to move beyond this idea of geography and to look more at the common threads that weave throughout the city. One way we were looking at doing that is very much through storytelling, or just looking at the common things that kind of unite us and link us together apart from these binary positions of politics.
You held workshops like Tales of Embodiment or did a queer reading of historic spaces in Belfast. How did you choose the artists, how did the workshop concept come into being?
Wells: The art scene here is incredibly interconnected. So it was nice to be able to work with artists we have worked with before. Within this art ecology there is a tendency of always working with the same audiences, so artists, people who work in the field, students. And I feel with this project, just because of itswider reach, geographically and psychologically as well, it was really important trying to work with non-art audiences. When we looked at the original concepts of the workshops we knew we wanted to work with artists who had a history of engagement and working with individuals or with groups, but also, going back to the idea of going beyond geography, who wanted to highlight histories that are not always as apparent, or aren’t always so visible. So working with women in North Belfast, working with ideas of queer history, ideas of disability and also working with ideas of language, spoken language, became the themes that we wanted to work with.
The planning for the project started in 2019. No-one saw the Covid-pandemic coming and it posed a lot of challenges for the implementation. Ultimately you also had to change the location of the Disappearing Wall from a roof top to the Titanic slipways. How did that change the project as a whole?
Wells: It changed quite a lot. But I think the change of venue due to Covid was possibly one of the best things that happened in terms of how the project evolved. To have it down at the Titanic Slipways and to have this conversation around language and quotes and culture with people was great. So I think even though no one had control of the situation I feel like the fates were looking down and decided that that was a really beautiful place to kind of move it to. I talked about how Catalyst was this space of neutrality and I think where the wall ended up, the Titanic slipways, is another one of those new spaces within Belfast that has the same sense of neutral space about it.
“The Disappearing Wall” was adapted locally, but it is also a Europe-wide project. With the UK and therefore Northern Ireland having left the EU very recently, how do you think projects like the “Disappearing Wall” can help create a new understanding of ourselves as European neighbours, partners or friends?
Wells: I think on the wider level it would be quite difficult to measure and I don’t know if I really know the answer to that. I think for us as an organisation, for Catalyst, it only strengthened our position of the importance of having to work on a local, national and international level. Understanding that however the future presents itself, arts and cultures has to live and work beyond boundaries and beyond borders.
Looking back, what did you learn? What are you taking with you for future projects and how did it potentially alter your view on Belfast?
Wells: For me and Leah, who was project managing thisin the beginning, we absolutely learned to understand the limitation of Catalyst Arts. This was one of the reasons we quite quickly brought on our partner Urban Scale Interventions (USI) to assist with that. And I am so glad we did, because that side of the project, with the installation and all, would have been very difficult for us to manage. So learning your limitations is really important and definitely from an operational point of view, learning how different systems and structures work, that’s all part of it. Personally, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the response to it. I don’t think anyone was prepared how positive and quick the impact was down at the slipway. And also how vital those works are to the general public. I think as artists and creators and programmers we can get so tied up in our heads with the concept and theory and academia. And there is obviously a place for that but when it comes to engagement and when it comes to the function and the role of engagement,“simple” is so brilliant. And I am not devaluing the project at all, but I just think simple ideas that really tap into something that people need at that time are really beautiful. That was for me an absolute triumph.
Do you have a block with a quote at home too? Which one?
Wells: I do, I actually can’t remember the quote, but it’s the Virginia Woolf one. But a brilliant story: my colleague Leah is from Tipperary, which is a county in the south of Ireland. Her dad, who lives in Tipperary was contacting us on a daily basis when the wall was installed, very concerned about the structure, because it was a very windy week. And he was really upset that he couldn’t come up and see it because he thought it was such a brilliant idea. So for Christmas, Catalyst took a block and we wrapped it and signed it and Leah took it home for him to open on Christmas day. It was just so nice that people even on a virtual level were getting involved and wanted to be part of this project. That was great.