My Cultural Life: Phil Hession

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland puts artists in 'Corners'

Phil Hession is a visual artist working in performance and video art. His work explores how oral traditions (song and storytelling) have evolved, and attempts to present these traditions in a contemporary manner.

What was about it Corners that made you want to apply?

I first saw the Corners call-out on the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website and there were many things about the project that appealed to me. I found the opportunity to visit the 'outer reaches' of Europe and to experience countries and cultures unfamiliar to me very exciting.

The opportunity to collaborate with artists working in other mediums was another big draw for me. Working with artists across disciplines provides the opportunity to experiment in new mediums. It also helped me to view my practice from a new perspective, to see things that I was previously unaware of. And, of course, the chance to tour my work throughout Europe was an exciting prospect. Not to mention a potentially career changing opportunity.

What idea did you submit to the ACNI for this project?

During the application process I expressed to ACNI and Intercult my interest in working with indigenous people: the Sami people in Sweden, for example. In particular I was interested in archiving indigenous song and teaching traditional Irish song to these communities. I hope that some form of cultural exchange takes place between myself and participants through the teaching and sharing of traditional song.

Did you expect to be selected or was it a surprise?

I was surprised to be selected. Not that I didn't have confidence in my ideas. I knew that my previous work demonstrated much of what Intercult and the ACNI were looking for in candidates. A large part of my work is about reflecting the social and cultural life of places through working with local communities. I've recently completed a video work for a community arts project in the Village in Belfast that addressed immigration issues, and I'd also worked with indigenous Taiwanese people in a song project. So I knew my work fitted into what they were looking for.

No matter how confident you are you, however, you never really expect to be selected for a project like this. So I was over the moon when Intercult and ACNI selected me. I am grateful to them for the opportunity.

You have already visited one of the Corner projects. What was your experience there?

In August I was part of the North Xpedition. We travelled by bus from the coastal town of Mo I Rana on the North Sea right across Norway and Sweden to the city of Umeå on the Gulf of Bothnia. It was an amazing experience.

We started the trip by sharing a flight with the King of Sweden to the north of Sweden. I doubt there's many countries where the king would share a standard flight rather than jump in his own private jet, but it fit with the Swedish culture. They have a saying that basically translates as 'We are all equal'. 

The landscape was breathtaking, with forests and lakes everywhere. I was lucky enough to see a moose running through the trees from the bus. Locals told us there were also bears, wild boars, lynxes and wolverines living in the forest. I wasn't aware that this type of wilderness still existed within western Europe.

I admired the determination of those we met to preserve the rural way of life within Sweden and the indigenous Sami culture, when they could have taken the easier option of packing up and moving to the cities. Due to the isolation and lack of industry people there had to be very resourceful. One man we met (Lars-Jonas Johansson) was a member of the Sami parliament, herded reindeer, gave tours for tourists and sold CDs of his rock band.

There were so many beautiful places and interesting people on the trip, but one story in particular stuck with me. Louise was originally from Greenland, but had been taken from her parents as a young child and brought to Denmark. The Danish government wanted to immerse Louise and other children from Greenland in Danish language and culture, eventually sending them back to Greenland to help develop society there. As a result of this Louise had lost her family, language and culture. 

Would you go back there to visit?

Absolutely, I'd love to! The scenery was beautiful. The expedition was quite intense. We would stay in a place for one or two days and then move on. So it would be fantastic to visit Northern Sweden again for a more extensive trip. I could spend time camping out in the wilderness and reconnect with people I met this time. I would love learn some traditional Swedish or Sami songs.

How is the project coming along? Any changes from your initial idea?

The project is in its infancy still. We are in the research and development stage at the moment, which involves artists visiting the different corners of Europe. The second Xpedition to the Caucasus has just ended and there's two more Xpeditions to come next year.

At the moment I'm just trying to process and hopefully gain some sort of understanding of what we experienced on the North Xpedition. I am pursuing my initial ideas of working with traditional song. Louise, the woman I mentioned above, told us she was taught a song as a child in Greenland but had forgotten it. I thought that perhaps I could teach her a song that might somehow help recall this song from her childhood.

On the North Xpedition I was partnered with a Slovenian artist called Miha Horvath. We're planning an exchange, where I'll spend a week in Slovenia and he'll spend a week here in Belfast. So who know's what will come from that. Hopefully something exciting.

Will you be visiting anywhere else?

Yes. Next year I'll be going to the Balkans, so I'm looking forward to that.

What part of the project are you most looking forward to?

I'm really enjoying this research and development stage. Who wouldn't enjoy travelling to countries they've never travelled to before and experiencing cultures new to them?

I think the second stage will be exciting too, when we have a concentrated period of time to develop ideas in collaboration with one or more of the other artists. But I suppose the icing on the cake would be for my work to be selected for the five year period of production and touring throughout Europe.

Other than Corners, what are you working on?

I was awarded the Artist Career Enhancement Scheme (ACES) by the ACNI in 2010. I've been mentored by the Context Gallery in Derry for the last year and as a conclusion to this scheme I have a solo show in the Context in 2012, so I'm working on that at the minute.

Corners will run until 2017 with the final aim of producing a number of significant pieces of European collaborative art.