Black Mountain

13th – 22nd January 2009.  Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Group exhibition Locus of Control

Imagine a city Locus

Who controls and regulates public space. How can public space be openly negotiated and how can a participatory vision be realized through political, social and cultural strategies.

Christoff Gillen exhibits documentation of his final installation on the north west face of the Black Mountain, Belfast. In October and November 2008 Gillen’s progressive installation on the Black Mountain of letters and symbols culminated in the phrase ‘Imagine a City of =’.

Christoff Gillen:
While I do not term my work as that of an activist artist, it does lend itself to activism [1] .“What matters is that people of conscience are using their imaginations in the interest of social justice”.[2]

My main aim had been to create a piece of artwork on the mountain, which was either temporal or permanent. I feel that I have achieved this through an organic process. At the beginning I was not sure how it would unfold or how I could use the mountain
to provoke a dialogue. Imagine a City of = in itself consisted of temporal actions by the placing of letters and removing them, the reactions and responses during this time were an invaluable part of the process.The action will continue through a planting project designed to incorporate community project groups and I believe that the impact of Imagine a City of = will be a central core to the future actions planned.Thus creating a permanent artwork on the mountain.

Twenty five years ago I used to frequent the mountain during the summer months and there I found empty bullet cases left behind by the British Army, who used the mountain as a firing range. I collected the bullet cases and felt they were symbolic of what was happening in Belfast and indeed Northern Ireland. British occupation seemed to even consume the Black mountain. Around the same time frame I trained on the mountain as a fell runner this was my escape from the reality of what was happening to my town and my own personal difficulties. It gave me a sense of freedom that I had never experienced before.

For almost a year now I have ascended and descended the Black Mountain regularly so that I have experienced the mountain in all four seasons. When one is faced with only the natural elements one has to face ones own demons. It certainly was a contemplative time of self reflection and self analysis.Throughout I constantly questioned not only the process but myself and what this tumultuous project meant for my own self development. It became apparent to me after the first phase of the project that no longer was I leading the process but the process in itself had taken on a life of its own.The organic process that I wished for actually became

a reality, in actual fact it had taken more than I could have possibly imagined at the outset. Viz a viz global issues emerged in the second phase of the project.

I regard the project as an ongoing success. My dream of the mountain has become my reality.
“The role of utopias is not to be reached.It is to stimulate us to try harder.To be able to dream is already a dream come true”[3].

[1] Although my work on the whole is not that of an activist I have made a few performances/installations which have been purely political in nature.
[2] Nina Felshine, But is it Art? The Spirit of Art Activism. Dore Ashton, Back page, Bay Press Inc. 1995.
[3] Augusto Boal, Theatre of the oppressed, Pluto Press, London, 2000

Printing of images supported by Iris Colour, Belfast.

Related works:
Imagine a city of = planting
Imagine a city of = at QSS
Imagine A City of = at I AM
Anti George Bush gardening
Imagine a city of = HOME?

Locus of Control by Eddie Molloy
Cohesion in Contested Spaces by Pauline Hadaway


Abstract Title:
An Activist  Alphabet: Landscape Art and Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland

is part of the Paper Session:
Geographer- artists: creative practice as research tool? 3: Participating

Lia D Shimada, PhD* – University College London

“Post-conflict” Northern Ireland offers rich material for visual artists to explore the politics of peacebuilding in a divided society. For Christoff Gillen, the contested ground of Belfast is a canvas for provoking dialogue about place, identity and belonging. In Spring 2008, he launched an installation on Divis Mountain, the highest point in Belfast. On the eastern slope, Gillen and his team of volunteers created large symbols and a series of letters that, over several weeks, spelled the word “HOME.” Due to the sheer size and scale of his installations, the people of Belfast became unwitting participants of Gillen’s artistry, as he challenged the wider public to engage with Northern Ireland’s legacy of conflict.

In June 2008, I assisted Gillen with his installations, later incorporating both the product and the process into my own research on geographies of conflict transformation in Northern Ireland. This experience generates larger questions about the scope for geographic engagement with creative artistic collaborations. What kinds of challenges and insights do geographers bring to participatory visual art? How does geographic scholarship complicate, mediate and illuminate the relationship between the conceptualized project and its public reception? What are the implications for this process in a society recovering from violent conflict, where artistic expressions are frequently interpreted as controversial, politicized intent? In this paper, I draw on Gillen’s work – and my engagement with it – to explore the complex terrain between landscape art, participatory research and cultural geography in the broader processes of peacebuilding.

Original text link.

In the true tradition of the people of these islands I will tell a story, my story of the relationship with the mountain, from afar and then close up.

I lived last year in North Belfast, Workman Avenue to be precise – off the Shankhill Road, next to the Springfield/Workman separation gate, a pedestrian gate that opened early morning and closes at 9pm at this time of year.

From my bedroom window I surveyed the mountain daily. Often with intrigue.

From the car park of Tesco’s at Ballygomartin it seemed like the mountain was within grasp. And it was from there that the letters that appeared, almost by magic could be seen clearly.

Over the course of several weeks various white letters appeared and disappeared at fairly regular intervals. E, I, A G, M, I, N…….I, am, gine? Lots of confusion erupted in the community where I lived- people rand into the Stephen Nolan show- IMAGINE- was this a reference to John Lennon’s birthday? Taxi drivers, shop keeps, youth, house husband and wives – all wondered along with me.

I met Kris Spring last year and he was able to shed light on the seeming abstraction. He articulated the process that compelled him to use the mountain as a canvas- a canvas with a grand aspiration- to inspire the citizens of the city to IMAGINE a CITY of EQUALS. In our post-conflict era, I felt I was in the presence of an artist of our new times – a person prepared to dare for something different for our city – seeking to provoke a reaction of action – enacting hope in something we can all work towards.

I had the opportunity to accompany Kris, as his apprentice on two blowy November mornings.
We talked and walked from the Upper Springfield Road, up past Quaker Cottage, saying hello to the dogs along the way. Beyond and up the muddy way, a small path pathed out by cattle footprints – to the site of previous artistic happenings.

Hot and tired I let my eyes adjust to the scene before me – indulging in a Lennon moment I started to sing, Imagine all the people, living life as one – a sort of spiritual moment. Kris had mentioned during a brief pause on our ascent, that for him, the trek up the mountain was a sort of pilgrimage- and at that moment with the blood still pumping around my body at a furious rate – I understood.

Below I could make out Woodvale Pak, Conway Mill, Crumlin Road Jail, Samson and Goliath, the Clonnard Peace Wall…..the lines of walls that divided the map of Belfast were stark from above.

It was then that Kris explained why he had chosen this site to display his work – this piece of non-contentious land – a place where he could point an arrow of aspiration and imagination directly at the north Belfast peace wall.

As we unfurled the gigantic white plastic and began to peg out the edges with pieces of bamboo, I asked more questions of Kris….what did he mean by a City of Equals…..

He elaborated by saying the equality for him meant an acceptance of difference, ethnic, sexual, denominational, and acceptance of the new communities, and an end to the discrimination of division.

I was sorely impressed with the gutsy determination that has taken this man, pretty much single-handed to continue his artistic campaign to this scary height on rainy and windy days.

The symbols of a giant arrow and a pair of equals began to emerge. Care was taken by both of us to place the plastic signs at exact distances to maximise the visual potential below. Together we used a combination of eye and foot to create the optimum effect.

Kris clambered down the mountain to capture the image from a vantage point below and I was left on the mountain to ponder the significance of the action.

It takes people like Kris to provide new mediums of interest – it takes all of us to provoke a new imagination. We need to use the public realm to invigorate public debate on the type of society that we want to inhabit in the present and the future.

The use of the arrow to point a direction that is forward in its thinking and inclusive is genius. Simple and yet profound.

The weekend saw Chris up the mountain again, this time to highlight the numbers of innocent civilians who have died in the most recent incursion of Gaza. It is significant to couch our own future focus of hope for our wee island in the greater context of atrocities that are ongoing in the global arena.

So thank you Kris, for your determination to reclaim the public sphere for acts of remembrance and doing it in a sensitive and yet provocative manner.

All the very best in the rest of your work.