Since Kevin Barry’s debut short story collection There Are Little Kingdoms in 2007, he has blazed a trail both in Ireland and internationally. His IMPAC Award-winning novel City Of Bohane will be followed up by Beatlebone this month. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Granta Book of the Irish Story and many other journals. He also writes screenplays, plays and radio plays. He has also collaborated with Irish artist and film maker Louise Manifold. Maeve Mulrennan spoke to Kevin and Louise about their collaboration.
Previous to working with Louise, Kevin Barry collaborated on a piece with Sean Lynch for Circa Magazine. Currently representing Ireland in the Venice Biennale, Sean Lynch’s work in sculpture, photography and video creates a new space for the material objects of history to be considered. The Circa collaboration involved tracking down Eamonn O’Doherty’s Anna Livia sculpture that Barry says; “was so cruelly removed from O’Connell Street in Dublin by the Corporation. We tracked her down to a depot in Raheny after a long investigation. I also wrote an essay about Sean’s ongoing Delorean project for the Dublin Review.” More recently, the author worked with acclaimed artist Kathy Prendergast on The Knowledge a monologue written as part of Prendergast’s map of routes learned by London taxi drivers. “Monologue for Cabman”, written from the perspective of a London-Irish cabbie, was performed by Barry in an old cabbie’s shelter near Charing Cross Road, London. Asked why he is drawn to collaboration, Barry jokes that; “it gets me out of the house. Writers live fairly lonesome lives a lot of the time – it’s you and the blank page and the four walls. And the rain falling down on my swamp in Co Sligo. So it’s nice to have workmates sometimes. Also I think visual artists have a tendency to be less stuck in their ways than writers are – visual artists are generally move involved with investigating their own practice, thinking about the ways in which they work, whereas writers often stick with the same rituals for years unending, and the danger in this is you can end up writing the same story or the same book again and again and again. Collaboration quickens your thinking and opens you up to new approaches, I think. I’m always excited by the possibilities it brings.”
Kevin became familiar with Louise Manifold’s work through artist and curator Michele Horrigan. He says of Manifold’s practice; “I felt drawn to a kind of eerie quality that runs through her work and I felt it corresponded a little with a vaguely gothic strand in my own work.”
Louise Manifold is based in Galway, and most recently co-curated Wildscreen, a two day film screening event, with filmmaker Una Quigley in Connemara. She has exhibited extensively in Ireland and internationally. Through sculpture, photography, text and film, the artist is repeatedly drawn to the margins of society and place, often combining scientific research with myth and story to present an alternative vision of reality to the viewer. Throughout all of Manifold’s work there is a persistent sense of disconnection and distance from the world of which one is living in, in favour of the creation of individual realities. The artist was familiar with Kevin Barry’s work before they met; “I really like Kevin's style of writing and he has a brilliant way of describing interior thought which I was very drawn to, also he has dealt with similar subject matter so it was both really.” She adds; “My work is very much about visual forms of storytelling, I work with language and text both as material and content for my work - I am drawn to written experiences that almost feel visual or sculptural, to a language of symptoms of ailments of an esoteric nature.”
The artist was working on some footage of a derelict theatre being torn down, filmed while she was on a residency in the USA. She was finding it difficult to come to a decision on what the finished artwork should be. It became clear that if the footage was to become anything, she would have to work in a different way than usual: “I didn't know Kevin before making this film, but I really thought he would be an ideal collaborator. When you approach someone you don't know and want to work in a creative way on something new, things tend to be a bit more structured. This structure really helped the work. When I did the initial filming in New Jersey, I didn't really know where it was going. I find the beginning of any work to be a bit like moving through thick fog, you know where you need to be but just not completely sure how to get there. It became clear that in order to get ‘there’ – to a finished film, it needed to move beyond being singular creative effort.”
The resulting short film, In Death and Fiction, was very much the result of delay. Says Manifold of the process; “I had been working for a while between 2011 and 2012 with transcripts of patients suffering from an illness called Cotard’s Delusion, an illness in which the subject is convinced that he or she is dead or immortal.” Manifold also cites Samuel Beckett as a clear influence on her methodology for working on In Death and Fiction. It was Beckett's research on Cotard’s Delusion that made the visual artist want to explore how language was used in the patient files to reiterate their conviction that they were dead amongst the living. This medical condition was also something that interested Kevin: “I was very interested when Louise told me she was researching Cotard’s Delusion, the psychological condition where a person believes him or herself to be dead. Imagining oneself into such a condition gave the opportunity for a strange little monologue. I was also inspired, I guess, by Samuel Beckett’s The Calmative, which was apparently prompted by his reading about Cotard’s Delusion.”
The artist wanted to emphasise this through written collaboration. This was the first time that Manifold collaborated with someone on text. Previous collaborators include weavers, psychics and of course, other visual artists. “I have scripted pieces myself for previous films and worked with some amazing actors to realise them,” explains the artist. “However, for this work I wanted it to become something more than that. The material I collected from the New Jersey theatre was very intriguing but quite loaded - I felt it needed that element of collaboration in order for the work to go forward. What was great also was that Kevin performed the text, which, for me really grounded the work into the ideas I had worked through with him. It also moved forward from previous video works I made such as A 49 year old woman and The Tiger Groom, in which there was much more emphasis on the performed voice.”
One element of the piece that is noticeably different to Barry’s fiction is that there is no reference to place. His short story collections and novel The City of Bohane are embedded in places that Barry expertly creates, making them as familiar to the reader as their own town or village. Says Barry of the collaborative process: “I showed Louise a first draft which was close enough to the finished piece but it did have a specific geography – it was set in Galway. Louise suggested cutting the geography and making it a kind of anyplace and I think this really helped. The narrated piece and the footage of the old theatre in New Jersey seem to me to combine well. The footage has a mesmeric quality which helps to lift the language of the piece.”
This mesmeric quality is rooted in a very practical cause.
The theatre was in the process of being demolished, So Louise did not have
access to artificial light when filming. “I
had to work a lot to maintain light levels in the space, as a result there were
lots of accidental lens flairs, which I really liked, and the technique is
often used to visually suggest drama in filmmaking. The flairs played a lot with
images and subsequently the subject matter in a strange way.”
The film, completed in 2013, is still being shown regularly, most recently at a medical conference in Dublin in December 2014. According to Barry, “It’s a very cool conference, actually, called DotMed, a kind of creative event for doctors and medical professionals. They showed the piece and Louise and I talked a little about the work. The writer and funeral director Thomas Lynch also took part – he’s an amazing man, with brilliant stories - I guess people know him mainly because his work originated the TV show Six Feet Under. It was really interesting to hear doctors talk about death – I guess it’s a kind of a taboo for them and a little uncomfortable for them to discuss!” The conference setting was at first a strange place for Manifold to show the film, which is usually exhibited in an installation rather than screening context. It did, however, lead her to think about an art audience from a different perspective: “It felt quite strange to have the work presented to an audience of doctors, particularly when it concerned a medical complaint. It made me think a lot more about audience in general and audience as part of the work. We had short discussion on ideas afterwards, but unfortunately I'm not a great public speaker - more like a public squeaker really - but it was great to have this audience which to me felt like a very new audience to view the work.”
Although not a collaborative venture, Louise and Kevin have worked together again recently, with the writer reading a section of his new novel Beatlebone over footage from Manifolds new film, Time Machines.
Louise Manifold will be exhibiting new work as part of 'Trauma' at the Science Gallery, Dublin from 20th November 2015 https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/2015 Her website is: http://www.louisemanifold.com
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry is published by in October by Canongate. It has been nominated for the 2015 Goldsmiths Award.