A blank canvas for a new North


Artists have a major role to play in re-imaging the North and also in re-imaging the legacy of the past, writes Bryan Coll

THE NEW Belfast now comes in six colours.

Blue, grey, maroon, fuchsia, lime and aqua. It also has its own "bespoke" typeface (called Moment) and a range of adaptable taglines. Belfast's new logo, launched this week at the Waterfront Hall, is the result of a 12-month rebranding exercise commissioned by Belfast City Council.

The heart-shaped design also doubles as the letter B, allowing a series of promotional slogans such as "B here now", "B vibrant" and "B dynamic+". According to the London-based branding agency that designed the new logo, Belfast's new corporate identity is "simple and flexible (and) succeeds in reflecting the edgier side of Belfast".

The new logo will appear on billboards, buses and major buildings in Belfast over forthcoming weeks.

"The time is right for us to build a thriving, vibrant city," reads the explanatory notes for the brand on the Belfast City Council website. "Proud of our heritage, we embrace the future to build an even better Belfast."

In a quiet lane tucked behind one of Belfast's main shopping streets, a different set of designers are also working on the re-imaging of the city. This group of young artists, designers and writers has gathered for the launch of The Garden Show at the Catalyst Arts Gallery.

The ambience in the former linen warehouse is more akin to Berlin than Belfast. On the expansive terrace that overlooks the red-brick facades of the derelict buildings next door, two wheelbarrows have been converted into barbecues. Beside them, herbs for flavouring salads and vegetarian hot dogs grow in a large ceramic bathtub.

After starting life in an office 15 years ago, Catalyst is now one of Belfast's leading contemporary art spaces, and retains a strict non-commercial ethos. Despite its meagre budget, raised mainly from fundraising parties, Catalyst has earned both an international reputation for its art work and local renown as one of Belfast's trendiest hangouts.

The current exhibition is part of Catalyst's summer-long Garden Project programme dealing with development, new architecture and urban regeneration in Belfast. It's not simply for artistic inspiration that Catalyst has taken on the re-imaging of its home city. The gallery is fighting its own battle with developers after learning that its building is to be demolished next year to make way for a car park.

Between visits to prospective new premises, the gallery's management is leading a campaign to have the building listed.

"This is one of the most exciting spaces in Belfast," says artist Miriam de Burca. "It gives emerging artists a rare opportunity to showcase their work and it will be so sad to lose it."

De Burca, a graduate of the University of Ulster, is one of three artists currently exhibiting at Catalyst. Her video installation You and Me, playing on a continuous loop on three small monitors, occupies prime position on the gallery floor. The footage shows de Burca's north Belfast neighbourhood filmed at sunrise over a three-month period.

Amidst familiar images from the interface area - flags, peace lines and painted kerbstones - are shots of empty sites earmarked for new apartment blocks and meadow-like gardens of weeds moving gently in the morning breeze.

Accompanying the footage is a raucous soundtrack of the street violence and sectarian name-calling that de Burca recorded from her kitchen window.

The piece seems to question the authenticity of the new, fuchsia-coloured Belfast brand. As the viewer faces de Burca's footage of gentrification and regeneration, the underlying tensions of the past are in full voice behind. "The question is, where do places like north Belfast fit into the model of today's Northern Ireland?" asks De Burca. "Who are we building this new city for?"

At the Belfast Exposed gallery, a 10-minute walk from Catalyst, John Duncan is exhibiting Bonfires, a new collection of photographs showing the build-up to the marching season. Instead of typical Twelfth Week images of blazing stacks of tyres and scrap wood, Duncan's photographs show unlit bonfires in empty, residential locations.

One shot of a bonfire on Belfast's Tates Avenue shows a towering structure squeezed into an area that has been fenced off for a development of new apartments. The images of the new neighbourhood on the developer's billboard and the slogan "contemporary living in the heart of the city" jar with the reality of UFF flags on lamp posts and Sinn Féin electoral posters, ready for burning on the bonfire.

"The bonfires are structures that have been a part of Northern Ireland life for decades," says Duncan. "But they're fast losing ground to new kinds of structures. There doesn't seem to be a place for them." Duncan's collection appears to suggest an eroded sense of identity in working-class loyalist communities. Rather than triumphant monuments to Protestantism, the bonfires look like abandoned monuments to a forgotten culture. One of the bonfires has been decorated with a Nazi flag. Unlike the Irish Tricolour, its purpose is to fly, not to burn.

For Duncan, such provocation is evidence of a deep-rooted sense of loss, one made worse by the North's rapidly-changing urban landscape. "You have the Twelfth of July being recast as Orangefest," says Duncan, referring to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's attempt to promote the marching season as a family-friendly cultural event.

"There seems to be a real drive to commodify everything in Northern Ireland for the tourist market. Whenever that happens, communities lose their sense of ownership."

As photographers like Duncan query the new face of Belfast at home, other local artists are becoming increasingly involved in the re-imaging of the North abroad. Next year, Northern Ireland will send its third entry to the prestigious Venice Biennale international contemporary art fair.

Belfast Exposed's exhibitions director Karen Downey has been selected to curate the entry, which will feature a new piece of work by video artist Susan MacWillliam. For Downey, Venice is a rare opportunity to broaden international perceptions of the North: "I think the role of artists today is to create a more complex image for Northern Ireland; one of a diverse, heterogeneous place. It's essential that we show [the public] other things and counter the reductive image many people have of here."

Although Susan MacWilliam's fields of interests - the supernatural and the paranormal - might signal a conscious move away from Troubles-related art, Downey is careful to point out that the conflict still has its place in contemporary work. "Some of the best pieces being made in the North deal with the legacy of conflict in our collective consciousness. We shouldn't just brush it under the carpet."

These physical traces left by The Troubles form one of the most dominant themes in the work of Willie Doherty, a Derry-based artist and Northern Ireland's Venice entry in 2007. Ghost Story, the video installation Doherty exhibited in Venice, is an unnerving piece of work in which the viewer travels along an isolated country lane, as a voiceover, recorded by actor Stephen Rea, recounts vivid memories of violence.

"They reminded me of faces I had seen on a bright, cold January morning," reads Rea."Troops spewed from the back of the vehicle as it screeched to a sudden halt. They fired indiscriminately into the fleeing crowd."

Despite the Northern Ireland pavilion being one of the most successful at Venice in 2007, attracting about 40,000 visitors, Doherty says he was "told off" by Irish reviewers for dwelling on events such as Bloody Sunday.

"People talk about re-imaging Northern Ireland, and I think artists have a role to play in this," says Doherty. "But I also think artists can help with the re-imaging of the past."

For Doherty, the international exposure gained by an increasing number of local artists has injected a renewed vigour into the arts scene. "There's more confidence among young artists in the North now," he says. "Venice re-enforces that. It gives us greater opportunities and connects us to the larger arts world."

Connecting the North to the wider arts world could be the motto for Derry's Void Gallery. In the basement of its converted shirt factory premises, staff members are frantically redesigning their main exhibition space. The gallery has less than 24 hours to turn the empty white room into an underground club for a three-hour set by leading electro DJ Ewan Pearson.

"In many ways, this place is still like a factory," says artist-in-residence Damien Duffy. "It delivers contemporary art to the city, but it's also a nexus for people who are generally creative."

Void adopts a determinedly universal approach to politics. Rather than showcasing works about The Troubles, the gallery has hosted performances by Palestinian rappers and exhibitions on the geopolitics of oil. "We're very much into showing cutting-edge, political work," says gallery manager Melissa Boyle. "But it's political in a more global sense".

At the end of the long corridor opposite the club-to-be, members of the Void Arts School, a group made up mostly of A-Level arts students, are completing their final pieces in preparation for their end-of-year exhibition next week.

At an easel in the corner of room, Paul Ruairi is painting Free Derry Corner, one of the best-known symbols of The Troubles. Ruairi has painted the gable wall in greyish white but is unsure what message, if any, he should place inside it.

"I was going to write 'So What?' " he says, smiling at the provocation of painting over the bold messages of the past. "I think that's what a lot of people are thinking now."

BRYAN COLL is the winner of the 2008 Irish Times Douglas Gageby Fellowship, awarded by the Irish Times Trust to a young journalist at the start of his/her career in memory of the paper's former editor Douglas Gageby.

His series on the theme "Out of the Night - the emerging Northern Ireland" appears on Thursdays in The Irish Times. It is also being carried on www.ireland.com