Colm Cille’s Spiral has been a complex project with many elements. It addressed the apparently remote history of a 6th Century monk about which, as Clare Lees said in closing remarks to the project ‘We know nothing – right? Nothing’. It was firstly perhaps a project about the difficulties of history. It took place around six locations or knots, and each of these fractured into multiple locations (ultimately at least twelve places across the British Isles were sites for work, with others from the UK Ireland and Greece brought into play). So the project was also on the surface about territory in some way. It was ‘delivered’ by twenty-six artists and poets of varying artforms across those locations and resulted in some amazing and rich works. It gives a flavour of the richness of the project to note the media and practices included (poetry, typography, ceramics, photography, video, sound work, walking, singing, sailing, sculptural objects and installation, drawing, and the growing and documenting of online communities). A deeper look at the works, covered in more depth elsewhere on this website could extend this list. These artists have been supported and guided by five arts organisations, five universities, four independent curators and a network of advisors. This scope of time, place, people and institution gives a good idea of the projects’ complexity.

However it is important to distinguish between complexity and complication, because all these voices were navigating through and illuminating the same project and formed a related investigation around an easily grasped central point of gravitation. By finding their own interpretations and using their own networks and techniques these multiple voices were helping us all work through our own understandings.

The project was initiated by Difference Exchange and Clare Lees at King’s College London. The way Difference Exchange set out to work at these locations with these many partners was to extend an invitation to interpret the context that the project establishes, but to allow it to go wherever made sense for each different knot. A methodology of creative generosity has been indispensable for that and the partners we have worked with have in return, humbled us with their commitment and creative generosity.

Connections between the extreme past and the immediate present were traced and extended using a range of themes that, taken together, could be seen as forming a poetic topology. Ideas such as peregrination, divergence and return, confronting the centre with the edge (whether of map or mind) were used, challenged and themselves turned on their head. This involved transition and translation – from the Latin trans meaning across or beyond. And we weren’t just crossing time with Colm Cille’s Spiral. We were moving between lives (lives long gone, or ones current yet removed) and across parts of our own psyche. The project’s source material has many supernatural stories within it and for arts practice to consider them has asked questions of us and the ‘tools’ we use for understanding our place in our world of flux, disruption and emergence. Acts and discussions about creative practice, the edge of our mind, the serendipity of collaborations and the ‘working’ of emerging ideas demonstrated how knowledge can be performed, embodied and exchanged. This was a poetic topology powerfully laid out in interior, as much as exterior, worlds.

The stories of Colm Cille include disembodied voices emanating from the mists between islands to recount the life of the spirit. They tell of new use and production of images and words; a cultural and technological innovation comparable in scope and significance to the largest projects of the modern world (think moonshots or the internet for comparison). They also tell of cultural works, such as the Cathach of St Columba, that inspired such awe that they were taken into battle in front of armies (the earliest Avant Garde perhaps?). The fearful were scattered by art. Objects spoke with their own voices, but we’re at a loss as to how much to trust those voices. These stories also include tales of violence and revenge that are hard to square with our ideas of peaceful saintliness. Such profound otherness is deeply strange. We are staring into the depth of what Timothy Morton (2010:p41) calls the strange stranger. These collaborations – between artists and curators, artists and medievalists, academics and other communities of interest – effortlessly weave the geopolitical amongst the psychological, the fanciful and the critical. In some way perhaps it encourages an empathy for the many strange strangers we encounter outside of the circumstances of medievalism. These are very necessary movements, a timely empathy even if we must acknowledge the paradoxical impossibility of such attempts. The strange stranger is also within us and poorly understood even there.

This contemporary project shares a position of symmetry with this historical otherness. The history of Colm Cille addresses archaic ways of knowing and the infrastructure that supported and spread that knowledge. The innovation of monasteries was a remarkable establishment of radical otherness that could move parallel to political controls, crossing the boundaries of kings. It’s a journey that ultimately led increasingly towards independent enquiry and learning in the academy. In the contemporary moment the value of the academy is increasingly framed in direct economic terms with especial support given to science, technology, engineering and mathematical disciplines. This project and its collaborations sit opposite the time of Columba, looking back over the classical academy, sharing an interest in practices that can ask ‘hard questions’.

Whether this project presents a fractured academy, or an expanded one is not a question that is easily answered yet, but the thoughtful and imaginative people we have worked with from many sectors, locations and disciplines have responded encouragingly to the prospect of working in ways that are not easily done through other structures.

We borrowed the name and idea of this culmination of Colm Cille’s Spiral (The Fold) from Gilles Deleuze who used the idea as a tool for understanding our subjective relations with an outside world we are paradoxically inescapably part of. We are both joined and yet ‘other’. The Fold (both the exhibition and creative convention) seeks to bring the edges of the poetic topology back together. The project began around Derry~Londonderry and its outcomes are folded back there. The extreme past is approached not by jumping a gap (though that gap is seen and felt), but by tracing continuities however surprising. The radical other is sought by edging through the adjacent possible again and again.


As a postscript, I’d like to share an experience from the very last moments of The Fold: A Convention after Colm Cille

Through some amazing chairing James Kerr had directed the last session so that it concluded just two or three seconds before the scheduled time according the clock on the wall. After two days talking about art, poetry, rationality, serendipity and the unknowable, we’d enjoyed a rich culmination to a demanding project.  The project had in many ways really started eighteen months earlier with research trips to Derry – I still had a Derry~Londonderry City of Culture branded biro from that trip and I’d found it again in my jacket over the weekend. The timing and sense of closure pleased me. So as the last thanks and applause died, I stood to my feet to thank James and make these points to him, but at that moment I dropped this branded pen and it came apart when it hit the floor. Despite scuttling around on my knees for a minute I couldn’t find all the missing springs and washers needed to fit it back together again. To mention this uncanny event seems appropriate. Interpreting it is not so easy. Meaningless chance a rational voice would say. A more Columba-friendly reading could have this as a micro miracle, a symbol of finality, or release even, after a tricky project finally dissolves. Or perhaps we should stop writing – enough has been said?

I prefer to take this moment as an encouragement that the words for this project must now change. What was written previously will not be appropriate any more. Having ‘delivered’ the project, our thinking must go beyond the previous project bounds – those springs and washers have no use now. Our lessons must seek a new vehicle.

pen broke

The floor of the Verbal Arts Centre, 2:01pm 1st December 2013