The Sex issue. Illustration by Duncan Ross
Most people who don't live in Northern Ireland associate the province with sectarian violence, which is understandable. Sectarian violence is more interesting than the other stuff the region has going for it, like Rory McIlroy and Ash. But the media's coverage is myopic. Besides the two warring communities still at each other's necks—and the many poeple who want to consign those divisions to the history books—it's a province with the same pitfalls and blessings as any region in the UK.
Did you know, for instance, that in the aftermath of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, a narrative of gentrification has quietly woven itself around the standard-issue stories of bomb scares and parade violence? Following the truce, large sums of money flowed into Belfast, causing aggressive redevelopment of the city center. While mainstream journalists have dutifully documented the ongoing sectarian tensions, they have largely forgotten the backdrop to these events.
That's where the Vacuum comes in. Since 2003, Stephen Hackett and Richard West have been publishing Belfast’s premier satirical newspaper with the aim of challenging some of the preconceptions about the city and ridiculing members of its political and religious elite.
Unsurprisingly, such a defiant stance has led to some problems. After its editors published two issues called "God" and "Satan" in 2004, the council condemned it as "an insult to both Catholics and Protestants" and promptly withdrew the paper’s funding. In response, Hackett and West themed their next issue around concepts of contrition, and sarcastically held a "Sorry Day" in the city center.
I spoke to West on the occasion of his publication's 11th birthday.
The Money Issue. Illustration by Duncan Ross
VICE: Hi, Richard. How’s it going?
Richard West: I’m good. How are you?
I’m OK, but I assumed you’d be Northern Irish and your accent sounds English. Where are you from?
Yes, well, I’m actually from London. Stephen [Hackett], the other editor, is the one from Northern Ireland. He’s the director of an artist-run organization called Catalyst, and I’m the co-editor of a photography magazine called Source, both based in Belfast. We met somehow—I can’t remember—and started collaborating on various projects. Eventually we began publishing the Vacuum in 2003. I’d actually moved to Belfast in 1997. Before that I’d been living in Paris and for some reason just became interested in the place and decided to move there.
That was a year before the Good Friday agreement. Did you have any problems?
Being English wasn’t an issue—there had always been English people about… journalists, etc. Things were still a bit frosty; there had been a spate of shootings and people’s concerns about violence and sectarian divides were more pronounced than they are now. I still regularly visit the place because of work, but my family is in London, so I spend more time in England now.
How has the city changed since you arrived?
The most noticeable transformation is the center, which has been completely redeveloped. One of the Vacuum’s obsessions is the puffery that surrounds Belfast—its PR industry and the council’s control of town planning. There was a good example of this last year, when they commissioned an artist to create an enormous image of a smiling girl in acres of wasteland by the docks. Another one is the "Cathedral Quarter," which was supposedly developed as the city’s cultural district but ironically ended up forcing galleries to close. Elsewhere, entire shopping arcades have been mysteriously burnt down, and local developers regularly employ private security to make sure things like art openings don’t get "out of hand." In response to all this, we’ve commissioned columns like "What's He Building in There?" as well as unclassifiable flights of fancy.
In August 2003, the Danger Issue of the Vacuum is delivered to the office, which subsequently burned down.
Why did you decide to start the Vacuum?
It was a satirical urge, but we were both interested in printed publications. It’s just fantastic to be able to produce something very cheaply for a big audience; I think the bill for the first issue was something like £700 [$1200]. Another reason was because we wanted to discuss things in a way that the local papers and BBC Northern Ireland wouldn’t. Our first issue was about film, so we interviewed local filmmakers and talked about stereotypes. The whole of Northern Ireland is under a great slab of cliché, and we wanted to find a way out of that.
One common stereotype about people from Northern Ireland is that everyone has a black sense of humor, which isn’t true. Some people I know certainly have a self-deprecating sense of humor, but I don’t think you should generalize.
The God"Issue. Illustration by Duncan Ross
The God and Satan issues you published were certainly quite wry. Given the outspokenly conservative religious views of some members of both the Catholic and the Protestant communities, weren’t you worried?
No, and we’re still mystified by what happened, so let’s look at it. We did two issues: One was about God; the other was about Satan. They were a mixture of comical articles and some very serious ones. For example, in the God issue there’s a feature about church architecture, and a rather worthy piece by me about images of God from classical paintings to Jesus appearing on a tortilla.
The Satan Issue
What then happened is that someone at the council got upset and claimed that there’d been lots of complaints, which led them to withdraw our funding, but this didn’t make a huge dent in our budget. However, we later found out there was in fact only one complaint, which makes it all seem a bit ridiculous, and I therefore don’t really agree with this idea that everyone in the province is religiously conservative. Our readers are as likely to be into modern literature as they are into Slayer. Nonetheless, we ended up in ridiculous radio debates with local councillors and received various negative references by politicians who’d clearly never even read the paper.
The Sorry Issue. Illustration by Duncan Ross
Sure, but the Sorry Issue you published afterward was obviously designed to provoke, right?
Well, I hope so. But it was tongue-in-cheek, because the whole thing was preposterous. After the media furor, we received a letter from the council insisting that we apologize to the citizens of the city, which we thought was absurd, so we responded in kind. We managed to get the Sorry Issue together, which explored the concept of contrition as well as the different types of censorship that had occurred in the city during the last few years.
We also knew a few people who were up for some fun, so they staged some funny events. A bus drove around the city with a big “Sorry” sign written on the side, but the best event was held by one of our contributors who dressed up as a "Sorry Santa" in a tent in the city center surrounded by crushed Special Brew cans. It was early December, and he told people who visited him that they wouldn’t have any presents because the council had withdrawn them. I enjoyed that. But all the while this was happening, Stephen and I were winning awards, and since then we’ve published the newspaper a bit less and made a few films.
Sorry Day Bus: A "Sorry" sign is hoisted into place on the side of a hired double-decker bus.
So what have you been up to?
Right now, our next issue is going to be a follow-up to a film we made called Monster of Ulster about an imaginary world where Northern Ireland is populated by monsters that are treated mostly as an inconvenience and an embarrassment. We’ve also finished another film called Busby Furball that’s going to be screened at the Belfast Film Festival at the end of the month. It's difficult to explain what it's all about, but it includes scenes of sexual intercourse with a large fungus and a brain transfer machine. It’s a bit Beckett-y.
Generally speaking, we like collaborating with other organizations to explore new ideas. The English issue was a good example of that. We held an exhibition in the city at a gallery called Belfast Exposed, featuring photographs taken by the army of their own activities, mostly used for internal use. There were photos of glamour girls used to boast morale as well as well as shots of journalists being taught to fire guns. We wanted to get a number of different perspectives, but starting from the position of English people who had lived in Northern Ireland, along with a discussion of the army’s presence—that sort of thing.
Sorry Santa sits in his grotto on Sorry Day"(December 15, 2004). His presents have been withheld by Belfast City Council. Sorry Santa created and performed by artist Paddy Bloomer
Do you think there’s still a lack of coverage of what happens in Northern Ireland?
Self-evidently, yes. It takes something pretty dramatic to happen in Northern Ireland to be able to get on the news or the front page of the newspapers. There is a lot of low-level violence in Northern Ireland that just isn’t widely reported, and to be fair, a lot of people here probably aren’t very interested either. To an extent, this is a result of a lack of awareness about the history of Ireland and the history of Northern Ireland in general, but this is true of people in lots of countries. I remember explaining to a French friend that I was moving to Belfast, and it turned out she thought the IRA was the Icelandic Revolutionary Army.
Ha, that doesn't sound as scary, somehow.
The other thing is that while these things do happen, there’s still a big pool of talented people in Northern Ireland who are trying to escape from this narrative. Recently I saw that website, Loyalists Against Democracy, satirizing the flag protests after the city council banned the Union Flag from being flown on council property. I don’t quite know what to make of their take on things because I haven’t read enough. But what’s certainly true is that in Northern Ireland, things happen that are so stupid, you only have to publish them verbatim to make people laugh, and that looks like it’s going to be a tradition for some time to come.
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