Derrysignpost

Colm Cille, the founding father of Derry, is attributed in a poem as describing the city as follows:

“The reason I love Derry /Is its quietness, its purity/ For full of angels white it is/ From one end to the other”.

We arrive in the city for our concluding event, ‘The Fold’, at a time when it could be described as busier than Colm Cille envisaged it in his mind’s eye, with impressive queues for the Turner Prize, nightly gatherings in squares to see the Lumiere Festival projections and generally a city and audience confidently in full swing for all the cultural offerings of Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013. With this event ‘The Fold’, The City of Culture itself and London Street Gallery become the containers for all six knots of ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’.

There was a word regarding Celtic Art that Dr Katherine Forsyth (Reader, Celtic and Gaelic Dept, University of Glasgow) used in her presentation at CCA in Glasgow back in October:  ‘interlace’. Interlace refers to the complex geometric patterns on stones, manuscripts and on jewellery, where motifs are looped, and braid and knots intertwine. The detail is so extraordinary that in some of the manuscript illustrations, it would take a magnifying glass to see the full picture.[1] This word ‘interlace’ describes my understanding of this multi-layered project.

So, if we pick up the magnifying glass and hold it up to ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ at its conclusion – ‘The Fold’- what can we see? The ‘interlace’ brings into full view the ‘knots’ of Glasgow / the Hebrides, Newcastle/ Lindisfarne / Bamburgh, Derry, Dublin, London / Bradwell-on-Sea and Lichfield / Llandeilo. The ‘interlace’ also braids the past and present, mirrored by a key objective of ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’s’ being to have a purposeful enquiry around the legacy of Colm Cille and how we can, from a contemporary perspective, respond to this extreme history. The ‘interlace’ reflects the project’s inter-disciplinary approach, bringing together academics, PhD students, poets, writers and practitioners, all at different stages of their career to make work on, quite uniquely, the one subject. It also, with Derry as both the origin and the destination, contains the complexities such as being invited to make work in response to a Saint that no-one can pin down. James Kerr (Director, Verbal Arts Centre) in describing his own local context as a city moving from conflict to post conflict, made a positive identification to explore the connection between the word ‘interlace’, and ‘interface’. The latter word is used in the Northern Irish context in phrases such as ‘interface areas’ where segregated nationalist and unionist residential areas meet. In this space and shift between different states, can ‘interlace’ as a word and as a signifier of complexities, better describe and hold ‘What has been’ and ‘What is’, whilst acknowledging the third dimension of ‘What if?[2]?

It was a real pleasure as the event unfolded over the two days, noting down the connections, discussions and debates. Time was referred to by Tom Schofield (artist, ‘The Word’) as an ‘accordion, stretching past into present and present into past’. Tracy Hanna’s (artist, ‘The Object’) glass lens’ captured fragments of a past only to be glimpsed in her installation ‘Everything’s moving below the surface’ (2013); whilst artist Ceara Conway’s last sung words of the convention were ‘I’m not afraid of time’. Which ways do history and the present co-exist in the Spiral? Artist Richard Higlett from the Welsh knot spoke about the sculpture he had made of two shire horses that were bridled together, and how in life ‘when one horse moves its head one way, the other horse’s head will move in the other direction’. Was this the divergence between past and present? On the other hand, Erica Scourti (artist, ‘Ethical Knowledge’) connected our contemporary experience in a unique way with the saints, in her statement, ‘the lives of the Saints can be described as a blog’, which for me, immediately made sense, giving me a new understanding of a book such as ‘The Life of Saint Columba’ by Abbot Adomnan, and taking away the division between past and present. This collapsing of time through contemporary language was also key in Dave Duggan’s exemplary presentation where he looked at the ‘concrete outcomes’ of Colm Cille’s legacy. All of these understandings can exist within the ‘interlace’ of ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’.

Professor Clare Lees (Professor of Medieval Literature and the History of Language, King’s College London), one of the originators of ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ along with Difference Exchange and a key ‘connector’ between the ‘knots’, observed that ‘Time is tempo’. I would like to adapt her phrase to become ‘Exchange is tempo’. It has been the speed of the flow between the disciplines involved and the people across the Spiral, through discussions, listening and debate, and the generosity of skills and time shared, that has led to new knowledge for all. This has not been a ‘one-sided’ project where information has only flowed in one direction.

Another theme that presented itself during ‘The Fold’, was the route that knowledge can take, which really concluded with the thought that it comes from and travels in all directions. Phrases I noted down from presentations and discussions were: Knowledge from above – hidden knowledge – knowledge with – knowledge over – embodied knowledge – academic knowledge – and ‘a renewal of knowledge through creativity’. Maps were used as a device both in presentations and exhibited artworks, to follow these knowledge roads, from Ceara Conway’s map detailing specific points of interest for her in the story of Colm Cille; to the walking tour between Colm Cille artefacts in Dublin; and Edwin Pickstone’s beautiful ‘Convocation’ map which both recorded ‘Convocation’s’ experience and offered a guide to the processes behind the artworks, with the group’s questions on land and the group’s intentions and ideas, at sea.

Movement’ was also a topic, from the exile of Colm Cille from Ireland to Scotland, the subject in ‘Convocation’ artist Jessica Ramm’s film ‘The Walking of the Peats’ which took as inspiration the Saint’s return to Ireland wearing ‘shoes’ made of Scottish soil; to the movement of objects such as the St Chad Gospels between Lichfield and Llandeilo; to the dance and rituals captured in Johnny Rodger’s presentation ‘Nor did fairies ever trip with such alacrity…’. There was also the movement of the groups and artists themselves as they searched for new knowledge, from the poets’ bus of Newcastle, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne; to Ceara Conway’s summer performance ‘Vicissitudes’ flowing down the Rover Foyle on a boat; and the journeys of the curators and artists whether from island to city as in ‘Convocation’ or down the motorway and byroads between Lichfield and Llandeilo in ‘The Book’. ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ has captured the profound movement of exile and emigration to smaller, more detailed movement, such as that described in Dr Linda Anderson’s poem: ‘Three deer loped into the distance/ as if they were saints’.

A key strength of this project has been the proliferation of voices, both historical and contemporary, and the connection to place, which has created the Spiral. Voices have come in at key times, in particular to elucidate another’s search for understanding. Others have offered new words which can be traced as having different impacts throughout the cycle of the project. A word such as ‘Peregrinatio’ was originally offered by academics at the first ‘Convocation’ meeting in Glasgow. It went on to become a key theme as one of questions for the ‘Convocation’ project  then found resonance with Thomas Joshua Cooper who realised that the word ‘peregrinatio’ described the movement of his practice, to journey to the edges of the world. The movement of single words, of knowledge and understanding through the Spiral was described by Dr Katherine Forsyth at the CCA event in Glasgow as: ‘a sending out and a gathering in; a sending out and gathering in’.

As we reach the end of our project and the last month of the City of Culture, will it be lights off? A number of the buildings including London Street Gallery, will, in the New Year, be handed over to developers, their function changing from galleries to hotels or venues for the creative industries. As the Spiral concludes and, as Mike Tooby (curator, ‘The Book’), put it, ‘the money runs out on Wednesday’, will ‘The Fold’ mark the conclusion of ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’?

The words ‘net’ and ‘knot’ share the same etymology, as Professor Clare Lees pointed out, so with the interlace of ideas, experiences and memories generated from the ‘knots’ of ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ and the networks that have formed between those involved, in terms of connections between people, ideas and developments in practice, I would conclude that this ‘Spiral’ will keep on turning.

Jenny Brownrigg


[1] Neither the magnifying glass nor glasses were invented at the time of these symbols being carved, etched or illuminated.

[2] Jim Harold, artist and audience member for ‘The Fold’, brought into the discussion the ‘what if?’ space, as one of the most important spaces in the search for new knowledge through creativity and discussion.