The Occasional Man is an ongoing collaborative effort, between myself and the artist Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell.
It is conceived around our fictionalising of the timeline of a retiree, who’s certificate of retirement from British Rail in 1978 was discovered in a Glasgow picture framer.
The piece is a continuation of work begun in 2016, in Wolf Art Space Rotterdam.
In The Beginning
<– The certificate of retirement, found in a Glasgow picture framers shop.
The Occasional Man developed around our interest in the ideas of individual fate, particularly in the face of whatever its opposite is. The document was a fortuitous find, it provided us with something around which to hang this line of interest, and thus begin the process of building an artwork. The year- 1978- acts as a fulcrum, situating us at one end of a line that, at the outset of his career 32 years prior, begins in the aftermath of World War II, and continued on from 2015, the year we commenced the collaboration proper. Its a significant year, being the year Saatchi and Saatchi’s General Election campaign for the Tories begins. This lineage encompasses the decline in the value of the individual as a part of a society, just as politics vaunted the very idea of Individualism and the unprofitability of the community of individuals. Looking back from our vantage point now, in the unrealised country, the life of this man, Duncan, seemed to resound with poignancy.
With a certain amount of caution and regard for the ethics of using the man named in the certificate, we set about anonymising the character. So he became Duncan, mononymous, the basis of the character in reality became less relevant to the narrative we were creating, this was abetted by the unplanned relocation to Belfast which opened up a ‘once-removed’ aspect.
Moreover, the idea of A Character became a central part of the conceit- he had performed as himself until that version was extinguished by the forces around him, he now attempts to become that self once more, become a valued player, and so heads for an audition as an actor. He spent his days watching tv, living vicariously through it, and now he lets it enfold him totally. This also began to feed in to the idea that perhaps he is all along just sat in front of the tv at home in 1978, an ashtray full of cigs on the arm of his chair- the dream sequence is a soap opera trope that lends itself to the unreality we are trying to construct. It is an ambiguity we want to leave unresolved.
Duncan then became the character that the audience would inhabit, as they enter the small world we constructed and visit his life at its nadir. To achieve this, it was important to make the experience fully immersive all the while trying to find a balance between overload and obliqueness.
Pacing becomes key as does repetition of certain motifs (such as the houndstooth pattern), repeated dialogue, call backs, the use of a memorable tune (from UTV’s Do You Remember? programme) and an aesthetic unity to what is a sprawling artwork, both physically and conceptually.
To help ourselves in navigating the work as it evolved, we held a writing workshop of sorts in a small dressing room at the site. The back and forth between us, mixed with the aura of the location and some essential viewing of source material from the Ulster TV archives (facilitated by Screen NI), plus a few late nights, resulted in a script of sorts (as yet unfinished). The intention was to have copies of this as props within the work at different locations (the reception area, make-up room and on the bar).
It was important within the script that we didn’t present a linear narrative that was easily digestible and left no loose ends. As a piece of the work, it too had to embody the ambiguity that we wanted to maintain, and so it uses flashback and changing tense to create a disorder, a dejavu. Further, the very idea of Duncan’s audition being scripted begins to chip away at any certainty the audience may have about the character’s, and therefore their own, position within the work. We tried to achieve a kind of miasmatic fugue, but with an element of the tv melodrama.
We made an approach to FLAX artist studios, who are currently occupying the former Ulster TV centre, Havelock House. Making the shift from Glasgow to Belfast was opportune, given the suitability of the space to hosting a multimedia, immersive event. It also connected us with Northern Ireland Screen, who are working to digitise the archive of UTV, and from whom we got permission to use material from the archives within our work.
The site is a sprawling but dense warren of corridors and rooms of mad volumes, filled with the remnants of the infrastructure of its former tenants.
The site, its history and the new location all enriched the project and actually served to ground it in a more contextual manner. The barren atmosphere and sense of abandonment all crept in to the aesthetic we pursued and seemed an ideal fit. The year of our setting, 1978, also represents a different era of media, when TV was the thing and the scale of fame, prestige and success pinned to it are, today, mythical. The arc of TV’s fortunes (its attendant personalities and dominance in collective mindscape) also echo the arc of our character, and that doubling up acts as something of a direction to the audience.