Coal(d) Prayer was a site responsive video installation, shown in the small open-air ruin of a chapel within the Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.The work was developed during a four-month Scottish Arts Council residency on the island, and was an investigation into ruptures in empirical / historic narratives around bodies and power.
Scroll to the bottom of these images for more detail
The work was a way of using the moat surrounding the castle as a metaphor for the bodies of water surrounding the island, which also weave through the nearby isles. These like the moat, are often thin strips of water. Historically they were used as holding bays for ships coming in and out of the Glasgow docks during its busiest period, when the island was ‘flourishing’ and most of the current architecture was erected. The dockyards in Glasgow were where many of the slave ships were built, and the ‘merchant’ ships coming in and out were packed with ‘goods’ from the associated industries of the slave trade. Tobacco, rum, cotton and tea.
In 2007 the UK raised a token gesture toward ‘remembering’ as it marked 200 years since the abolition of slavery (at least in the form it took 200 years ago). Many of the public initiatives were framed in a way which clearly attempted to historicise slavery and racism, and the little recognition there was of the role of whiteness in this, was regurgitated in a way that managed to avoid any implications for dominant culture .
The day I arrived on the island was the day a person drove into the Glasgow Airport. I spent my first night on the island in a pub as the news broke. This moment became pivotal as I experienced unguarded expressions of racism from everyone in the bar. The Glasgow ‘airport bomber’ afforded white Scotland an opportunity to speak without censorship. Narratives being mediated in the initial throes of responses echoed almost to the letter the kind of responses Pauline Hanson’s standing for government elicited a number of years earlier in Australia (Hage 1997). People found an opportunity to make public a voice which had been ‘oppressed’ by the ‘political correctness’ said to silence neutral white bodies. This sense of being united by a common hatred or fear (in this case the manufactured fear of Asian/Arab peoples), led me to develop the ideas around choreographies of male bodies, vulnerability and power, which lent itself easily to the historic choreography of bodies within the castle walls; armies, gangs, collective and collected bodies. This baptism into Scotland was certainly formative and set the scene for how and why I wanted to make work.
This particular piece, Coal(d) Prayer integrated these ghosted waterways, by visually opening a tap above the moat, within the chapel ruin. The moat became a stagnant body of water into which history drains. I wanted to disrupt the idea that we can rid ourselves of history, I wanted to confirm its haunting, that we live within it, that we perform it, that it shapes us, shapes how we speak, how we walk in the world. As Barbara Kruger (2005) says, “power and its politics and hierarchies exist everywhere: in every conversation we have, in every deal we make, in every face we kiss”. Every time we ride the ferry to or from the island, we travel the same bodies of water as the slave ships; the buildings we house ourselves in were paid for with bodies; there is nowhere for history to go but back into the dirt, water and our bodies. I wanted to talk about memory and leaking, so the tap in the chapel opened a point for the stories to leak out.
This piece of work was my opportunity to discuss the intersection of two major areas of structural violence that contextualised and built the castle; the slave trade and the mines. Because of the climate of unchecked racism on the island (local shops regularly sold out of gollywogs) I was cautious of using imagery that would be reabsorbed back into racist narratives and so I focused the work on the bodies of the white miners. The piece in the chapel was a way of trying to link and make connections between race, whiteness and complex discourses around power; many of the people on the island related personally to histories of the miners, and the oppressions they suffered, however, it was not necessarily registered that this did not undo a relationship to racism and slavery.
The video begins with hands covered in coal. Eventually, after much scrubbing, it is washed off, down the drain (into the moat), leaving white hands. Through sitting the projection just below the cross, the moving image is located immediately within a library of Christian references to the washing of hands, in any context, an obsessive and loaded ritual. This ritual of washing or more specifically, scrubbing, is deeply evocative and associative in relation to trauma. A ritual associated with abuse / rape / guilt / history / blood on ones hands / Shakespeare’s unwashable blood / post traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorder / Mary Magdalene washed by Jesus, and poignantly, Pontius Pilate’s washing of his own hands.
To consider Spivak’s necessary divisions, I note there are both structural and personal points where this work links to the church. The structural connection being the institutional relationship of church to empire, the personal being the missionary impulse to colonise. This second aspect, being from the body, was the one that located itself within the chapel. With this work I hoped to draw links between ideas of ‘salvation’, empathy and sympathy as they relate to race and power. The ruin of the chapel is contextualised by the large monument it is fixed within, and therefore contextualised by its obvious historical relationship with power, and yet this provides a poetic fluidity. It has been worn down, through battles, fires, attacks, birds nesting and years passing. It is now a humbled place and without its ceiling or floor creates a very beautiful and contemplative theatre. This piece, like the other work I made for the site, was shown at dusk .