8AM-8PM, THURSDAY MARCH 24TH, 2022.
Kate Catterall: Concept, research, design & development.
Kate Catterall & Paula McFetridge: Co-directors of the one-day event.
It is possible, despite ongoing sectarianism and inter-community strife in Northern Ireland, to create an opportunity for meaningful and collective remembrance of the Troubles[i] in Belfast City center.
Image 01: Drawing the Ring of Steel Event Poster, 2022. Risograph print 11”x17”. Kate Catterall
Historical image in poster, copyright Martin Nangle.
Location of the performance sites on March 24, 2022. Aerial photograph,1982. Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland, Crown Copyright.
Drawing the Ring of Steel[ii] was a one-day commemorative event designed to mark the 30-year ethno-nationalist conflict that consumed Northern Ireland, 1969-89, colloquially known as the Troubles. It took place in Belfast City Center from 8am-8pm on March 24th, 2022. It was designed as a moment of shared commemoration for all those who endured the conflict, while offering a unique opportunity to tell and gather stories about everyday life during the Troubles before that period passes from living memory. The project, conceived by Kate Catterall, was co-directed by Catterall and Paula McFetridge the artistic director of Kabosh Theatre[iii] in Belfast. Drawing the Ring of Steel was at once a memorial, a theatrical event, a design intervention in urban space, a story-gathering opportunity, and a form of socio-political critique.
Drawing the Ring of Steel was scheduled to align with the 50th anniversary of the construction of a 2.2-mile security cordon that encircled the Belfast from 1972, and it took its title from a British Army name for the cordon; the ring of steel. The cordon, dominated central Belfast for over two decades. The menacing a 12-foot-tall steel, concrete and barbed wire barricades were first constructed by the military corps of engineers in 1972, as part of a security response aimed at “designing out terror”[iv] during the Troubles. The ring of steel, initially intended as a temporary security solution, was a radical measure that endured and became a normalized part of the urban environment over time as explained in the GIS mapping project by geographer James Bamford, with Kate Catterall; Belfast’s Ring of Steel.[v] The cordon reshaped itineraries across Belfast and controlled all vehicular and pedestrian movement into and out of the city center. It protected the commercial center of the city and the British Army HQ from car bombs and rendered all inhabitants suspect until its slow removal between 1994 and 2002. Passing through the ring of steel, a defining architectural feature of the city during the Troubles, was one of few common experiences of the conflict that cut across class, gender, age and religious lines, making it the ideal mnemonic for a shared memorial device.
In 1998, after the internationally brokered Peace Agreement, recommendations for a shared memorial to the conflict were outline in the Bloomfield Report[vi]; a roadmap for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The proposed memorial building remains unbuilt, even as sectarian remembrance proliferates across the city in the form of monuments, heroic murals and gardens marking war dead, which have themselves become triggers for the perpetuation of violence and division in the city.
Meanwhile in central Belfast, urban development has erased evidence of the conflict era, including the ring of steel, and with it the last vestiges of lives lived out against the backdrop of the Troubles. The city has, until recently embraced an ethos of forgetting and ‘moving on’, which for Belfast’s aging population has made the city center an uncanny ‘non-place’: A place designed to elide their memories and all visual traces of the Troubles, making it harder to come to terms with the past and heal.
In 2019, John Alderdice[vii] noted that when conflicts transition from living memory and the baton of peacebuilding is passed on to the next generation, usually around the 20-year marker, the peace process is at its most vulnerable and so it is in Northern Ireland. Beyond Belfast’s renewed city center and in smaller cities across the Northern Ireland, inhabitants live in neighborhoods divided along sectarian lines. In these places “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” to quote Faulkner[viii], a reality felt most deeply in the working-class neighborhoods that endured the worst of the Troubles and have since 1998 experienced high levels of unemployment, addiction and continued internecine sectarian violence.
On contested ground Drawing the Ring of Steel negotiated Belfast’s troubled past and created a place where all inhabitants might participate in a public reckoning with suppressed memories of the conflict. The event created an opportunity to inhabit history, to share and gather stories about everyday life during the Troubles and insert learning about the past into everyday life; the event was free, public and encountered on the way to school, work or the pub. The experience of interacting with traces of the past in the city center on the day of the event, and even encountering the event through media coverage remotely, has initiated renewed conversations about how the city and its inhabitants are to remember the past and proceed with the process of peacebuilding across generations. The extent to which residual traces of the past shape itineraries through the city, attitudes and rituals made clear in the stories collected at the event and suggesting that it is imperative to acknowledge how the recent past continues to shape the present in Belfast.
On June 6th (5am) 2016, I transcribed an architectural drawing of a checkpoint (X24; military code name) in the ring of steel on the ground using chalk at duct tape. The drawing was located on the site of the historical security structure in Donegal Place, directly opposite Belfast City Hall. As I worked, I was surveilled by officers at the nearby Grosvenor Road police station. Two police officers arrived at 6am to enquire after a permit. The senior officer, in his 50’s, immediately recognized what the lines referred to and began to explain their significance to his partner. They talked for 20-minutes, then allowed me to continue and photo-document the experiment provided I remove all traces of it by 10am. The prototype was successful and functioned as a proof-of-concept for the project, offering clear and convincing visualizations that supported future conversations with collaborators and funders. The older officer had spontaneously used the image underfoot as a tool to discuss the impact of that historical moment with the younger officer, who in turn was able to inhabit that historical place. The architectural line-drawing had proven legible enough to serve as a mnemonic trace of the checkpoint in the ring of steel, so plans proceeded.
The conversations with groups and sponsors about Drawing the Ring of Steel started to shift the conversation about commemoration of the Troubles from the Bloomfield Report’s focus on mourning and victimhood and towards a celebration of endurance and fortitude.
Offering workshops and introducing the Drawing the Ring of Steel concept at public events in Belfast seeded two important creative collaborations that permitted the ex-pat originator of the project to ultimately execute it successfully. The first was Paula McFetridge, the artistic director of a renowned political theatre company in Belfast and the second was James Bamford, a local geographer who undertook the GIS mapping of historical images and site surveys, pinpointing the evolution of the ring of steel’s perimeter from 1972 to 2002. The mapping was an especially useful and persuasive tool as I engaged both collaborators and funders in conversations about remembering the Troubles through the grind of everyday life.
THE DAY OF THE EVENT
By 6am on March 24th, 2022, the architectural drawings outlining all four main checkpoints to the north, south, west and east of the ring of steel, were neatly inscribed on the historical sites in bright yellow railroad chalk and tape. By 7am vertical signposts with evocative images of the original ring of steel, a QR code linking to the project website, and sponsors information had been installed. At 7:50am actors arrived at their four checkpoints (4-actors at each site, working 3-hour shifts).
Location of the performance sites on March 24, 2022. Aerial photograph,1982. Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland, Crown Copyright.
At 8am the yellow-suited actors began to enact choreographed movements and direct passersby/ audiences/participants through the checkpoints, while period costumed actor/radio interviewers began to interview people enquiring about their memories and knowledge of the sites. The design permitted passersby/viewers/participants to inhabit a moment in history and to remember, or learn about, everyday life in Belfast during the Troubles. People going to work or school, meeting friends, or visiting for the day encountered the four checkpoints that had once controlled all pedestrian and vehicular movement into and out of Belfast City center. They considered the scale of the oppressive 12-foot-high fortress. They thought about the past and how these structures had been constructed to protect economic interests and security headquarters but had also rendered all people suspect.
Drawing the Ring of Steel, March 24th 2022. Period-costumed actor interviews passerby while yellow-suited actors perform choreographed search/frisk motions. Photograph, Kate Catterall.
Inhabitants alternately shared suppressed memories, reveled in telling told war stories, or chose to forget and walk past traces of the oppressive conflict-era structures. Regardless, all who encountered the site of the old checkpoints imagined and remembered a heavily securitized version of the city that was the norm for the duration of the Troubles.
“You see the lines and it takes you back and actually makes you realize how far we’ve come since those days thankfully.” [ix]
The actors gathered some 750 stories over a 12-hour period, a surprise because we imagined gathering under a hundred. Trouble anticipated at some of the gates did not materialize and the event took on an increasingly celebratory atmosphere, especially at one site that was situated at an open-air bar. News media covered Drawing the Ring of Steel throughout the day and over subsequent days, extending both the impact and reach of the event. Several contributors discussed how difficult it was to talk about the past with the current generation and that the project would help with that. Others mentioned how memories had been suppressed and that the past had been plastered over while political and social problems, a legacy of the Troubles, had obviously persisted. The project struck a chord, created a day of reflection, weeks of discussion and successfully proposed a way to remember together.
The abstracted images of the historical cordon proved to be an effective mnemonic, and stage set, for an event that gently surfaced suppressed memories of the Troubles, while affording opportunities to celebrate “how far we have come”. The architectural drawings provided a familiar trace of Belfast’s militarized past, that permitted an aging population to reminisce and share their stories of everyday life during the Troubles.
“This is where the old security barriers used to be (actor) … sure they’re still here love, they’ve never gone.”[x]
Image 04: Drawing the Ring of Steel, March 24th 2022. Yellow-suited actors perform choreographed search/frisk motions activating each of the four sites at regular intervals. While period costumed interviewers gather stories from passersby. Photograph, Kate Catterall
Drawing the Ring of Steel, March 24th 2022. Yellow-suited actors perform choreographed search/frisk motions activating each of the four sites at regular intervals. While period costumed interviewers gather stories from passersby. Photograph, Kate Catterall
The ring of steel is gone, but the stories gathered on March 24th 2022 will stand testimony to that moment in time moving forward. The stories gathered during the event varied greatly and depended on the age of the teller (teenage hijinks, stood in stark contrast to stories of invasive searches of prosthetics and prams/strollers), or the checkpoint typically frequented. For instance, the Castle Street (X17) checkpoint was located to the west of the city center and considered the most dangerous to patrol because it was the gateway to catholic West Belfast. This checkpoint was always manned by the British Military while Civilian Search Units, that seemed less intimidating, were permitted to man the other checkpoints by the late 1970’s.
Drawing the Ring of Steel was a performative counter-monument intended to “… undermine[s] its own authority by inviting and then incorporating the ‘authority’ of the passerby” (Young, 2008). It was not a guerilla intervention. It was not developed in response to an RFP, or commissioned by a public, or private entity. It was the product of a process designed to revive public discourse about the stalled peace and reconciliation process in the absence of any shared-public memorial to the Troubles, a mandated component of the internationally brokered Peace Agreement (Bloomfield, 1998). At the outset of the process, it seemed unlikely that such a large-scale, public commemorative event would be welcomed by Belfast, so the discussion generated by the visualizations and presentations were conceived as a polemic. The prototype, and newly created architectural plans, served as a talking point at meetings with over 80-politicians, civil servants, cultural and community organizers, educators and aid-workers, supporting those that still deal with conflict-related trauma.
Once the persuasive visual argument was framed, and conversations about remembering the Troubles through everyday experiences at the ring of steel was in wider circulation, the possibility that the event might actually happening took hold. It was a surprising and engaging journey that upended assumptions about the impossibility of shared commemoration and shifted the conversation about remembering the Troubles in Belfast from mourning the victims of the conflict (and blaming the other side), to celebrating the rather exceptional nature of everyday life as it was once experienced in this militarized zone.
Link to an edited video: Drawing the Ring of Steel, March 24th 2022.
Design intervention: The process used to develop this collaborative, cooperative, abductive design project is a hybrid informed by the work and ideas of J. Chris Jones, Nigel Cross, Donald Schoen, Herbert Simon, Klaus Krippendorff, Tony Fry, Horst Rittle et al, and my colleague Allan Shearer, amongst others. The following is loosely organized according to Jones’ approaches in Design Methods; liberally adapted to fit the project’s objectives.
Critical analysis of the Bloomfield Report (1998); memorial section. Research on site in Belfast (libraries, Public Records Office Northern Ireland, museums) Research into public art in the city and precedents further afield. Taking time (7-years in development) to connections (community leaders, funders, politicians and city council members), creating alliances, gaining trust, seeking information, listening, and learning.
Conversations with community leaders, funders, and city council members sowed the seeds for a new way of thinking about commemoration in Belfast. ‘Drawing the Ring of Steel’ is a concept oriented towards the idea of celebrating those who endured the everyday grind of the conflict and acknowledging progress that has been made since 1998. It is less focused on victimhood and death (Bloomfield 1998) a benefit of undertaking the project with some distance from the immediate rawness of the conflict. This approach encourages the inhabitants of Belfast to create new image of their city and inhabitants; a resilient community capable of addressing with their past(s) peacefully, playfully and politically.
Prototype: proof-of-concept 2016. It was important to test the efficacy of the concept early on, providing persuasive images and anecdotal evidence to share with communities and granting agencies and function as a provocation for workshops that tested the local appetite for a shared commemorative marker, 2017-2020.
Identification of local collaborators. Initiation of the co-design process. Undertaking a four-year logistics and planning process, necessary to bring the event into being: meetings, discussion, — getting buy-in from all political parties (some warring) — and securing approval for the installation/event from the Minister for Infrastructure for N. Ireland, the security forces, the Department for Transportation and the N.I. Roads Department for the area. Funding: Over a three-year period, funding was secured from all parties involved in the 1998 Peace Agreement – the U.S. State Department; the Department for Foreign Affairs Eire/Ireland; and Belfast City Council representing the U.K.
Development of a cohesive visual language for the event and collateral materials — drawings/set, signs, costume, choreography, media blasts. Invitation to participate in Imagine Belfast: Festival of Ideas and Politics 2022. Installation of accurate architectural line drawings of the four checkpoints (the set), and activation of the set with performers, participants, audience and passersby – March 24th (8am-8pm) 2022. Gathering stories from passers-by/audience/participants. Media blasts, interviews and broadcasts/publications.
The design process yielded a persuasive argument that gained traction in Belfast over time. The proposal, which initially seemed unlikely to come to fruition, became ‘real’ through a process of repeated presentations to (and discussions with) politicians, community organizers, artists, designers, thinkers, academics, funders. I am still taken aback that the event was permitted and that its intent was not upset by demonstrations or ‘trouble’ because it happened on the 50th anniversary of the day that Westminster enacted ‘Direct Rule’ ceding power from the local government at Stormont and commemorated the 50th anniversary of an oppressive British Military security structure alongside all those who had endured the 30-year conflict, ‘irregular war’, or ‘low-level war’, most commonly known in Belfast as the Troubles.
Articulation Phase II
The articulation phase is on-going in the form of a documentation website that will house anonymized transcriptions of those interviewed (a publicly accessible archive of the stories gathered on March 24th is also scheduled to become part of the new Belfast City Council initiative, ‘Belfast Stories’) ; the development of the Ring of Steel walking app; an invitation to exhibit and perform as part of Belfast’s U.K. City of Culture bid; presentations at professional conferences (3-to date); two book chapters (forthcoming 202X) and one book-length project (proposal in development). Most recently, on October 24 & 25 2022, Belfast City Council invited Kate Catterall and Paula McFetridge to participate to the ‘Belfast Stories’ public engagement phase by contributing three curated walks through the city; ‘Revisiting the Ring of Steel’.
BUILDING ON CREATIVE PRECEDENTS
“The very absence of an overarching agreement on how to deal with the past [in Northern Ireland], means that local level initiatives on telling, listening to and sharing stories from the conflict have acted to fill this [a] policy gap”[xi]. A gap that Drawing the Ring of Steel and 70+ disparate storytelling projects have sought to fill since 1998. Some projects deliberately engaged with one, or other community (protestant or catholic), others were intentionally cross-community. Some projects later housed their stories in university archives (more, or less publicly accessible), others shared their work through exhibitions and books/booklets. Most initiatives occurred indoors, utilizing a comfortable and safe spaces in community centers, or arts venues. Drawing the Ring of Steel, by contrast engaged its audience in a declared ‘shared space’, Belfast City center. It aimed to engage the broadest cross-section of the city’s inhabitants, seeking individual stories that spoke to and breached sectarian, class, gender and age lines, in order to create and archive and a picture of daily life during the Troubles. The project, activated all four quadrants of the city center (N,S,W, E) and engaged people during the course of their daily routines; reaching many who would not typically seek out cultural events held in discrete locations. The stories gathered during Drawing the Ring of Steel will become an active and publicly shared archive by means of a walking app, book, articles, exhibition, website, etc. The projects sharing snap shots of Belfast’s Troubles-era history as they act upon current and future inhabitants of the city.
The following projects have all demonstrated the importance of reflection through an embodied experience of history and locating such reflection in the midst of daily routines. Their example informed the development of ‘Drawing the Ring of Steel’.
The organization Healing through Remembering[xii] has initiated a number of projects that resonate, and Kate Turner the director, generously met and discussed Drawing the Ring of Steel with me. Her project Everyday Objects Transformed by Conflict[xiii] was particularly aligned, the exhibition presenting objects that functioned as mnemonics capable of evoking memories/stories; portals to the past situated within the present.
The Monument Against Fascism[xiv] (1986) Permanent Installation by Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz. Hamburg-Harburg, Germany.
Stolperstein[xv] by Gunter Demig (1996-on-going), Berlin.
Missing House[xvi], Berlin (1989) by Christian Boltanski.
The Vietnam War Memorial[xvii] Washington D.C. (1982) Maya Lin.
As the Drawing the Ring of Steel came to fruition, I discovered Teeter Totter[xviii] designed by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello with Colectivo Chopeke. It struck me that both projects were designed to strike a similar chord; reclaiming a space of pervious oppression by means of a critical, yet playful design intervention.
PLACE NI[xix] actively supported the development of Drawing the Ring of Steel from 2017; hosting a workshop in 2019. PLACE, until it’s closure in 2018 undertook important work at the interface between community-building, co-design, and planning. They also produced a podcast[xx]; an interview recorded on a walk around the ring of steel. Amberlea Neely, then director, has since established a new “creative practice and consultancy with a focus on arts, place and collaboration”; called ‘Starling Start’. Neeley is a leading proponent of design activism and place-based work in Belfast.
DRAWING THE RING OF STEEL LINKS
Project website: “Drawing the Ring of Steel”.
Project-related research and mapping site “Belfast’s Ring of Steel”.
Arts Next Magazine University of Texas at Austin, “Reviving Erased History,” Fall 2022.
The Newsletter. “Remembering the Ring of Steel that once surrounded Belfast City Center.” The Newsletter. Graeme Cousins Thursday, March 17, 2022.
The Irish News. “Performance art to stoke memories of Belfast’s ‘ring of steel’ security cordon” By David Roy, March 23rd 2022.
BBC Newsline. Robbie Meredith reports. BBC Newsline, March 24th 2022.
ITV/UTV. “Ring of Steel event marks 50th anniversary since the city centre security cordon” by Barbara McCann. March 24th 2022.
The Irish News. “Belfast city centre cast back 50-years for special ‘Ring of Steel’ live theatre event”. Marie Louise McConville, March 25th 2022.
[i] “CAIN Archive-Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland,” University of Ulster, accessed December 23, 2022, https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/index.html
[ii] “Drawing the Ring of Steel.” Project website, accessed December 21, 2022, https://ringofsteel-belfast.com/drawing-the-ring-of-steel/
[iii] “Kabosh Theatre Belfast,” accessed, December 23, 2022. https://kabosh.net
[iv] O’Day, Alan. “Terrorism’s laboratory: the case of Northern Ireland”. (Aldershot, Hants, England: Dartmouth Pub. Co 1995.)
[v] “Belfast’s Ring of Steel,” GIS mapping of the security cordon’s extent over time. James Bamford with Kate Catterall, accessed December 23, 2022. http://belfastringofsteel.com
[vi] Bloomfield, Kenneth. “We Will Remember Them: Report of the Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner,” April 1998, accessed December 23, 2022, https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/violence/victims.htm
[vii] From my own notes of an address made at the Peace and Beyond Conference, 2019, John Alderdice. First speaker of the house, Stormont, 1998.
[viii] Ford, Ruth, and William Faulkner.1959. “Requiem for a Nun”. (New York: Random House)
[ix] Transcription. Interviews and stories gathered during Drawing the Ring of Steel. March 24, 2022.
[x] Transcription. Interviews and stories gathered during Drawing the Ring of Steel. March 24, 2022.
[xi] Katherine Side. (2017) Legacy’s legacy: lessons for the Stormont House Agreement’s Oral History Archive. Irish Studies Review 25:3, pages 336-356.
[xii] Healing Through Remembering, accessed 2 January, 2023, https://healingthroughremembering.org/who-we-are/
[xiii] HTR Everyday Objects Transformed by the Conflict. http://healingthroughremembering.org/everyday-objects-transformed-by-the-conflict/
[xiv] (1986) Hamburg-Harburg, Germany. Permanent Installation, Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz.
[xv] Berlin, by Gunter Demig. On-going since 1996. https://www.stolpersteine-berlin.de/en
[xvi] Solomon-Godeau, Abigail “Mourning or Melancholia: Christian Boltanski’s ‘Missing House’” (Oxford Art Journal Vol. 21, No. 2 1998), pp. 1-20, accessed January 2, 2023, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1360612#metadata_info_tab_contents
[xvii] “Vietman Veterans Memorial,” accessed January 2, 2023, https://www.mayalinstudio.com/memory-works/vietnam-veterans-memorial
[xviii] “Teeter Totter” (2019), accessed January 2, 2023, https://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/beazley-designs-of-the-year/transport/teeter-totter-wall
[xix] “PLACE: Built Environment Center,” Belfast (2004-2019), accessed January 2, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLACE_Built_Environment_Centre
[xx] “The Infinite City” podcast. Episode 2, May 2018, accessed January 2, 2023, https://audioboom.com/posts/6849476-kate-remembering-the-ring-of-steel