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Catriona Gallagher: Investigating the Ecological Web of Place

The next guest on Between the Art is Catriona Gallagher, a visual artist based both in the UK and Greece.

Catriona was born in the South of England to parents from the North of England and Ireland. She studied Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art. After graduating, Catriona worked in Athens, Greece, on a couple of projects, one being the film and research study Perdikaki (2019). This took five years to complete, after which she returned to England to study at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, gaining her MFA in 2019.

Catriona’s work moves between film, drawing, writing and installation, navigating the overlooked details in our physical surroundings and the psychological landscapes mirroring them. She has participated in a number of artist residencies, most recently at Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC) in Northumberland, England, as part of the ENTWINED programme (2019-2021).

This is one of my favourite conversations on Between the Art so far as Catriona delves into the many webs of her work, including the interconnectedness between what we define as the man-made world and the natural world. Read on for a fascinating insight into an inspiring artist.

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

I work very nomadically. I’m often moving around from place to place, and I work site-specifically so when I find myself in a place for any amount of time, I work in reaction to it. In Athens, for example, I set up a studio project space called A-DASH with a few friends, which meant I was working in the studio from 2016-2018. Before I settled in Athens, I worked in Italy, creating site-specific work in an old theatre space; and for this past year I have been in Northumberland for the residency at VARC, working in a wonderful old stone building. I think the room that I’m working in is really important as it often comes into the work that I’m doing, and I often make architectural drawing of the space that I’m working in.

My studio space changes all the time! I don’t do so well with studio space at home. Right from the beginning, it has always been a conscious decision to move around frequently. After graduating from Edinburgh, I went straight into a residency in Athens which helped me realise that I wanted to keep moving. This impacted my practice quite a lot in the beginning as I realised that I needed to work with media which were transportable – drawing, as it is flat, rather than sculpture, which is harder to move around; writing in journals, and video, which I just need a camera and laptop for. These choices were conscious decisions as I remember thinking, “I need to be able to move freely so I’m going to work in these media.”

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

As I’m working site-specially, I often start with research about the place I’m working in and historical elements around it. There is a lot of writing and journaling at the beginning, and then I initially work in drawing and diagrams. This is a way for me to map out the research and get a handle on where I’m at, and then I often go out and film on location. I use digital video filming when I’m out and about, whether that’s in the city, or in the landscape as it was in Northumberland, or a particular building. Architecture has always been important in my work. I’ll then come back to the studio which is where I mentally process my work. A lot more drawing happens at this stage too; it’s like a meditative process for me as it keeps my hands busy whilst my head can make its way through my research. I’ve found a good balance with this process over the years, between filming out and coming back into the studio to draw and edit footage.

By the time it comes to present the work, I am trying to bring together and refine as many of the elements as I can. Because there is often a research focus, it often takes the form of an archive or a body of work. Installation is a way to show the resolution of my thinking, which often includes a film alongside the archive or collection of research.

What is the main subject of your inspiration?

I’m interested in what is man-made and what is natural, and the collision of these two things. I often look at architecture but also the way we, as animals, and other species live and move through these spaces. I’m interested in how humans design them and how time unravels a human structure.

When it came to working in Northumberland, it wasn’t so much the architecture I was looking at but the man-made forests. I see them as architectural in their own way because they are designed and implemented by humans for human needs, although using a living species.

I suppose it’s about the ecology and the power dynamics between all of these different things: the environment, the species, the inhabitants, what time does and how things change. Time is an important thing for me too as history comes into my thinking a lot. History and story are the same word in Greek, ιστορία or “historia,” and they have the same root. I’m often trying to look for oral histories and smaller, subtle things that indicate a different perspective on history, rather than what is written by people with power.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m resolving the work from VARC. I finished the residency at the end of April and at the beginning of September we will have the group exhibition of the two year ENTWINED programme. My residency was ten months long, and there are seven other artists in this programme. It will be a big showcase of the two years of work at Highgreen, the home of VARC, in rural Northumberland.

All of my drawings and physical work are finished, so while I’m in Athens, I am editing a new film about forestry plantations. It’s called Fell, play on the verb “to fell” as in to cut down trees, and the local word “fell” as in the side of a hill. All of the footage I collected over the ten months equates to about two or three films’ worth! I’m hoping to develop a longer film, a more ambitious production at some point, but for the moment Fell is a two-screen video installation looking at one particular forestry plantation on Emblehope Moor.

I’m simultaneously working on other projects that are developing in Athens too.

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

Place is the core of my work; it’s at the heart of everything I do, from my process of working site-specifically to the research into the places that I respond to. The theme for my residency at VARC was the ecology of place, thinking about how the landscape, the inhabitants, the rural setting, people’s lives and work form an ecological web that knits together to make “place.” The notion of place is essential for me to make work.

In terms of a sense of place, I’m thinking about what gives a place the feeling that it is itself. There is one work in particular where I tried to deal with this particularly, which is my most recent finished film Video Villanelle (for distance). This came out of lockdown when I was commissioned for an online exhibition Thresholds at MIMA, curated by Aidan Moesby. It was a really quick production, responding to the changing nature of home during lockdown. There were three artists in the show and we were all given the same brief. I intended to make a quick video, which ended up being 17 minutes long! It looked at being caught between two places: home in the UK, and home in Greece, as I found myself stranded unable to reach Athens in the first lockdown. It was made out of phone footage, just incidental stuff that I had filmed with no intention of it being used for a film. I edited two years’ worth of footage into a visual villanelle format, a poetic form which has an a-b-a rhyme and two repeating refrains, one being the UK and the other being Greece. The sense of place was really visible in this work because I was trying to make a visual and tonal distinction between Northumberland and Hertfordshire in the UK, and then Athens and parts of Greece. They look completely different and the sounds, textures, richness creates two different tones.

Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?

The natural world is a term that I am trying to grapple with at the moment: what is natural? This was something I was thinking about during my residency. The interconnections of the man-made and the natural world are at the core of my work, but it’s not a duality between the two, rather it’s a huge jumble together, you can’t pull them apart.

I’m particularly interested in non-human species that tend to be plants, or non-animal. For example: I was looking at a plant called Perdikaki (pellitory-of-the-wall) during my time in Athens, which is a common weed that grows from architecture. I’ve also made studies in the past into Elder, as in the flower, berry and tree; I also looked at the fig tree whilst I was in Italy, where it’s known as “the wall-breaker” because it often grows lodged in stone walls. Again, there is this relationship with architecture and plants that follow us. While I was in Northumberland, I was looking at Sitka Spruce, which is the primary crop tree grown in the North of England. There are others but Sitka is the most interesting, vilified and prolific.

"The interconnections of the man-made and the natural world are at the core of my work, but it’s not a duality between the two, rather it’s a huge jumble together, you can’t pull them apart."

Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?

Yes, I’m a gardener, or at least a balcony gardener! I have a little balcony here in Athens where I keep my plants. I used to have more but of course, having been away a lot recently, other people have been looking after them. They have mostly survived! I haven’t been able to attend to them as regularly as I would have wanted to. I also volunteer with a few gardens, helping maintain bigger garden spaces.

When I was in Northumberland, I got really into birds, although I think everyone did during lockdown! I hung a bird feeder outside the window, so I could sit with a cup of coffee watching them every morning before I went into the studio.

The natural world is a massive part of my life. Although I live in cities primarily, I’m not a city person. I’m constantly reminded that I’m a country bumpkin at heart! I always want to be immersed in living and growing things, so even while I’m living here in the centre of Athens, I spend as much time as I can swimming in the sea and free diving.

Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?

I try not to have any favourites as they change so frequently. Certainly someone who had a massive impact on me early on and someone who I keep close in my interests all the time is Charles Avery. He is a wonderful artist who made a very long study where he invented a fictional world, drawing and sculpting all the architecture, the creatures and the people who live in it. He makes these huge perspective drawings, several meters long. His work had a big impact on me when I first heard him give a talk during my foundation course, as it made me realise that the work could be an invention of a place or a different reality, with a different philosophy or way of looking at the world. All of the outcomes, the drawings and installations, are manifestations of the world, but the story is the work itself. This was a huge realisation for my own multimedia process, how everything can come together to represent my interests at the heart of it all.

More recently, there are so many artists I could choose, but one is Sarah Forrest. I like the way she uses rhythm in her film editing. I have learnt a lot from her work over the years.

What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?

To be responsive. Our situation is changing so rapidly at the moment – personally, professionally, financially. Everyone has to navigate so many different moving parts and obstacles. To be able to react to the situation at hand is the thing that has helped me most over the years, but it’s also been the hardest thing to learn. Rather than planning too much, see what comes up and respond to it; if that response is to sit and do nothing, relax and not worry about work, then that is also really important. Resting, mentally, physically and emotionally, is as important as the actual act of making. Being in the moment, rather than looking into the future, can help too.

"Pay attention to the things that are around us. I think this is the only way we are going to be able to deal with any of the multiple crises that are facing humanity. See where we are now and be observant to respond to the problems that we are creating and maintaining."

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

I guess this is the job of an artist: to have something to communicate to the world, although that thing can change all the time, constantly in flux. There is always something more to say.

For my work, ultimately the thing that has persisted the most over the years is to encourage people to slow down, to look and to sense. A way of paying attention to the things that are around us. I think this is the only way we are going to be able to deal with any of the multiple crises that are facing humanity. See where we are now and be observant to respond to the problems that we are creating and maintaining.

Catriona's Book List:

1. Practicalities by Marguerite Duras

It’s a lovely, little book of responses and reflections of certain moments in Duras’ later life. She is a fantastic writer and film maker, and is also one of my main inspirations.

2. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds by Merlin Sheldrake

I have just finished this book about mushrooms, and it’s fantastic! It is non-fiction, scientific where it needs to be but it’s also very lyrical. Sheldrake is a good storyteller and brings together some really interesting research.

3. Life Without Air by Daisy Lafarge

This is a wonderful anthology of poems by a dear friend of mine, which deals with microbes, breathing, respiration, suffocation, ecology and non-human species. The emotional state is always present. Lafarge uses ecology and natural sciences and sees them within everything going on within ourselves.

To learn more about Catriona's work, visit her website and Instagram @catrigallagher

For more information about VARC, head over to the website and Instagram @varc_arts

All Images: Artist's Own

Image 1: Fell, 2021

Image 2: Isometric Cube House, 2020

Image 3: Drawing of the Wind in the Apartment, 2013

Images 4, 5: Perdikaki, 2019

Image 6: Installation view of Perdikaki, 2019

Image 7: Aerial Scad Law Plantation, 2021

Image 8: Video Villanelle (for distance), 2020


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