I am currently involved with a research project to result in site-specific artworks in the area where I live. I am finding this difficult as I’m having to confront head-on my position within the imagined polarities of rural/ urban, insider/ outsider, and art that is made for ‘here’ and ‘there’.

A week or two ago I accessed the Irish Times archive and compiled the series of articles written by Emer McNamara, about her move from Dublin to Leitrim in the late nineties (every second Thursday September 1999 – June 2000).

This series was called ‘Living on Main Street’ and contain detailed descriptions that move from observations about people and life in the town (names included), to the author’s personal life, to the sense of the broader social changes happening in the country as a whole, and the northwest in particular. They make interesting, if slightly uncomfortable reading – I can identify with her migration from the east and its economic pull, but not her decision to make such a very public diary. It feels raw to me, and I can only wonder at the social and emotional conflicts that must have played out within the micropolitics of the town.

This idea of the ‘outside observer’ representing small town life to a cultured (or otherwise knowledgeable) audience elsewhere is as relevant to artists as it is to journalists, writers, anthropologists and others (see for example Hal Foster’s ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ and Alex Coles, ‘Site-Specificity, the Ethnographic Turn’). She mentions this herself, describing a sense of caution/ suspicion at some of the things she hears: ‘Now, I know enough about American anthropologists in the Aran Islands, who’ve been taken for folklore rides…’ (Thursday, October 14, 1999).

Some extracts:

Economic realities began to change my perceptions. And the return here after my one-and-a-half years in Dublin was clinched by my new partner, Tony, when he embraced the move with enthusiasm… I bought the house for £47,000… The garden is 130 feet long, and it comes with a small mews attached, referred to in these parts as “d’outhouse”. I’m going to renovate it as an apartment, to supplement my income and take advantage of the recently introduced tax incentives. I don’t let the fact that I know zero about gardening or tourism put me off. And, anyway, the move here is not so much a choice as a necessity…. Let’s put it this way, I don’t expect to be decked out in Birkenstocks and track-suits anytime soon.

Thursday, September 16, 1999

“I found your account of the closure of Agnes’s shop very moving,” one man wrote to me, “but surely you could find some positive stories from a fine town like Manorhamilton?” I’m afraid that life here just does not break down that simply, and as much as I could try to paint a quaint picture of a rural retreat, that is not the truth. Nor can I package that truth to make quaint lifestyle reading for people living in the city… When people ask what my column is about I usually say “urban chick moves to rural town” because I thought that was the easiest way to get the point across. I realise now that’s a lie, because I’m only trying to retain my street cred. I might as well just say: “But I’m not a culchie you know” and be done with it.

Thursday, November 11, 1999

“Here comes trouble,” I heard one woman say to another when shopping in Spar the other day. Even my bank manager was a little sceptical when I suggested that the column would ultimately be good for the town. “Don’t give me that,” he said. “Don’t be trying to convince me that you are working hard on behalf of the people of Manorhamilton.” “Yeah, but they won’t send a lynching party out, will they?” I asked feeling slightly ridiculous. “Not yet anyway,” he replied rather cryptically.

Thursday, November 25, 1999

Advertisements