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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Luke Withers: An Archive to Die for

The penultimate Documentary Photography student I'll be showing is Luke Withers. Sometimes you get somebody who knows right from the start what they want to do and most of the time when somebody knows what they want to do in the first year, it's a bad thing for a multitude of reasons (starting with it's probably a bad idea to begin with), but with Luke it's a good thing, because it is a fantastic idea that needs room to breathe and time to grow into its own skin.

That's the way it is with Luke. Right from the first semester he talked about the Black Mountain of Belfast, its history, the way it was used for surveillance, for protest, for war and for peace. 

The project didn't get finished, indeed it has only just got started during his time at Newport but everything else he has done leads into it, including the project he'll be showing in the final year show. 

This project is called Territorial Volumes. It is a hydrological take on Gibraltar, how the place is dependent on water and is defined by water, both fresh and salty. It's a project that connects to Luke's fascination with mapping, the grid, and the ways the topological and the historical overlap. 

This is what he says about the Gibraltar project.

Territorial Volumes 

Gibraltar is a 426m limestone rock which rises from the Mediterranean at the gates of the Atlantic. Due to it’s lack of natural resources, the disputed territory relies on desalination for its drinking water; a process wherein saltwater, drawn from contested seas, is separated through a membrane into freshwater and brine. This water is stored in elevated, subterranean reservoirs cut into the rock. The elemental bodies that constitute the territory; rock and water, become entwined in the geopolitics of the place through their disruption, distribution and depiction.In foregrounding the elemental, the visuals of sovereignty are reduced to the constituent components of territory, rock and water. The subterranean infrastructure both demarcates the territory and supports the life of the population, which is itself in flux; experiencing the bodily reality of borders on a physical and molecular level, through movement, habitation and hydration

The project that is still in the making has similar preoccupations as the Gibraltar work. Hills are involved, verticality, surveillance, borders and hidden forms of communication. Put it like that and it's like a trail of bloody footprints from one project to the next (which starts below). 

But the most fascinating thing about Uncertain Entanglement is the archive that is involved - an archive that goes way beyond photography in its historical value. While Luke was a student at Lagan College (Northern Ireland's first integrated college), he met Brian Rowan, a journalist. 

Rowan had worked during the peace process as a carrier of messages between paramilitary groups and the British government. During this time, he received messages and notes that he passed on to lead negotiators. It is a jaw-dropping selection of scrawled texts tying in to key points in the peace process, linking to moments that would define both British and Irish history for years to come. 

Most astonishing is the materiality of these notes; they come on betting slips, on old fish and chip wrappings, on napkins, on scraps of newspapers. It's an astonishing thing to behold, and sadly I haven't beholden them!

It also indicates the contingency of history. There's a little bit of Tess (of the d'Urbevilles) in all these little messages. The flimsiest fragments carrying the weightiest of messages, written in cafes, bars and the backs of cabs, there were a multitude of ways in which the whole message-carrying affair could have gone completely wrong. 

This informal mediation is referenced in the project, but so are the military communications that emanated from Belfast's Black Mountain, so is the surveillance that pervaded the city. So in a way the project becomes a hierarchy of communication, but it's an upside down pyramid where the most fragmentary scraps are the most vital, where the human element of historical message-bearing outweighs the complexity of modern communications. 

Contact Luke at: luke.withers23@gmail.com

Follow Documentary Photography's 3rd Years at Two Eyes Serve a Movement on Instagram here

You can see this and other documentary work in London opening 16th June at Seen Fifteen Gallery, Peckham. We'd love to see you there so come and say hello!

And if you do have any spare cash and want to be a patron of some truly great photographers, go to the Kickstarter Page here. And thank you so much everybody who has contributed and made sure we hit the target. It is so appreciated!

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