The Other North

Life in Northern Ireland is 'the same, but different' in Jesse Jones' video work, currently on show Derry~Londonderry

Towards the end of the Second World War, the future of the Japanese empire was decided at a series of summit meetings of the Allied powers. Korea, remote and insignificant, under Japanese occupation since 1910, was to be temporarily divided between North and South, a short-term solution until the country emerged independent and united.

North of the 38th Parallel would be under the aegis of the USSR; a US military administration would control the country south of the divide. What could possibly go wrong?

The Korean War has never finished. There simply exists an armistice between the two halves of the country, between which, along the 38th Parallel, runs the Korean DMZ, the demilitarised zone that divides North and South.

In 2012, Irish-born artist, Jesse Jones’ research took her to South Korea and the DMZ. Out of her studies there emerged a re-examination of the conflict within her own country. And that took her to The Steel Shutter, a 1974 film documenting a conflict resolution therapy session led by Carl Rogers, an American psychologist.

In this, people from both sides (and neither) of the Northern Irish conflict, and from all classes and economic backgrounds, came together to describe and discuss their experiences of the Troubles.

The Other North sees Jones taking the transcripts of that 1974 session and creating with them a new context for the words. Actors take the parts of those attending the therapy session. But the actors are all Korean. And the session transcripts have been translated verbatim into Korean. English subtitles run across the bottom of the screen.

Jones has made things strange. Familiarity breeds a dulled acceptance of the norm. We are accustomed to seeing Western figures with Northern Irish accents talking of atrocities, bombings, intimidation, fear. Wrongly – but inevitably – it just becomes so much background noise.

By putting the words into Korean, spoken by Koreans, Jones restores sensation to the listener. And we do listen, even though the language is, to most at this at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Derry~Londonderry, unintelligible. It’s still language though. We can hear that.

There are recognisable patterns of speech; we can sense the syntax. And some of the words are familiar too. We hear words such as 'Shankill... Lagan... Falls.' And we know them. But spoken in a Korean accent, we don’t know them. There is a need to strain, to make an effort, in order to recognise. We listen, then, rather than hear.

And we read, too. As the subtitles appear, we read the ordinary words, the stumbles, the search for – and failure to find – the right phrases. Something strange happens to the words of ordinary people when they are written down verbatim. They stop being ordinary, because we’re so used to reading words which have been crafted by writers. So this way, the artless vernacular becomes artificial and alien, and therefore new.

This ramps up the impact of the words. We learn with fresh pity of the young girl desperate for a social life but able only to leave the house one evening a week to go to her Protestant youth club, where she will spend most of the night talking about how to get home.

Fresh pity too, for the businessman who stood surrounded by office workers evacuated from their workplace on yet another bloody day, listening to the bombs and to the cheers of crowds across the river, which accompanied each explosion. Jones has created a defamiliarisation zone.

In The Other North, 12 red chairs are arranged in a circle. On each sits an actor taking a role from the original session. The camera stays in a fixed point in the centre of the circle, then like a compass sweeps round the figures, describing the circumference of the group. The pace of the camera movement never changes.

The camera never lingers on one character or another. We hear a contribution begin, but we don’t necessarily see who makes it, until the progress of the camera reaches and then passes that person. So we see reactions, which may be ones of interest, or boredom, or self-preoccupation.

The actors’ movements and gestures are familiar. They light cigarettes, shuffle in their seats, cross their legs. They grimace, lean forward, look down. But somehow these everyday gestures are strange – the same, but different.

The process Jones has followed skews the normal, shifts it slightly, and gnaws away at the viewer, like an ornament put in a new place while everything else in the room remains untouched. The film is shown across a wide rectangular screen. (The seats at the CCA are a touch too close to the screen, giving a sense of uncomfortable proximity.)

The screen is split down the middle, reminding us of the divide that exists in both the Korean peninsula and the island of Ireland. Either side of the split we see shots of the group, although it isn’t the case that the characters stay only on their side of the fault-line. We’re reminded of the division, but we also see the sameness.

That motif – the same, but different – runs through the entire work. What we see and hear is local and global and banal and terrible. It has been said that the purpose of art is to lead us to a feeling of things. The Other North achieves this purpose.

The Other North runs at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Derry~Londonderry, until May 5.