Cliona Harmey

Dublin Ships

By Sara 0'Brien

Inside Dublin Port Company Feb 2015 photocredit: Ros Kavanagh

The city has become the primary domain of contemporary existence. By 2050 it is estimated that approximately two thirds of the world’s population will reside in urban areas as more and more people come to throng the expanding centres and conurbations of worldwide urban sprawl[1]. This growth has occurred in parallel with the ascendancy of capitalism such that cities are now the loci of an increasingly globalized and technologically mediated world, geographically fixed and physically grounded but also embedded in global networks of communication and circulation. Cities increasingly resemble ever rotating migrational turnstiles marked by transience, speed and perpetual flux, bustling with diverse activities that churn on day and night, making them, in all their globalized, capitalistic, consumer-oriented manifestations, a very particular kind of place, a distinct territory and framework with invariable implications for contemporary life.

The social theorist David Harvey identifies the concomitant compression of space and acceleration of time, alongside a disorienting experience of “sensory overload” from the increased plethora of imported global goods and images, as consequences of the transition to a globalized, post-industrial society.[2] The philosopher Fredric Jameson describes postmodern, urban societies as places where “time has become a perpetual present”[3] and life is a fragmentary, “schizophrenic” experience.[4] The space of the city, he asserts is somewhere in which there is now “absolutely no perspective at all”, entangled in the “emergence of a global, multinational culture that is decentred and cannot be visualized, a culture in which one cannot position oneself”. This is all, according to Jameson, “bewildering”.[5] And it is undoubtable that the contemporary city can seem a bewildering place.

One morning in early February of this year the city dwellers and commuters of Dublin may have experienced another kind of bewilderment when met with a new addition to the urban landscape at North Wall Quay. Overnight, two LED screens, one black and one white, displaying odd pairs of words changing occasionally but irregularly, had been inserted into the top of the Scherzer Bridge, an old grey, retrograde and industrial looking structure which forms an archway over the roads in and out of the city centre on the Quay. These screens are the latest work of Dublin-based artist Cliona Harmey, entitled Dublin Ships, and they constitute the most recent commission by Dublin City Council as part of the ‘Interaction and the City’ strand of their public art programme. The screens resemble the kinds of digitalized signs and hoardings that proliferate modern urban landscapes. They slot rather seamlessly into the light-saturated nighttime cityscape yet they induce a curiosity; they are intriguing and evocative but reticent upon first encounter of their origins or meaning.

"Dublin Ships", Public Art Project, Scherzer Bridge, North Wall Quay Dublin Feb 2015 photocredit: Ros Kavanagh

The screens are like the dislocated arrival and departure boards of a terminal in some foreign land where all one can see is the unrecognizable names of unknown destinations. Yet, despite the initial obscurity of the words (Ulysses|Samskip Endeavour, Jonathon Swift|Emden, Emstal|Francop, etc|etc,) they are in fact wedded to an integral part of the life and activity of Dublin city. They are the names of the ships entering and leaving Dublin Port at any given time, constituting a twenty-four hour live feed of the city port’s maritime traffic, to which those of us that remain inland are usually oblivious. The work is the result of preceding and ongoing complex processes of informational transaction, transmission and technological manoeuvring, and constitutes the result of a tailored system Harmey has established to sieve through a particular glut of information and digest it, such that it is ripe for assimilation into the urban landscape and the minds of its inhabitants. Harmey has set up an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver in order to collect the diverse streams of data emitted by the AIS transponders aboard every ship that comes through the port. To process this information she has secured an agreement with an online, community-based project ( that collects and publishes such AIS data whereby she essentially trades her receiver’s data for the name of the ship, which then appears on the screen

The colossal scale of these ships and the complexity of the on-going interactions and transmissions in which they are embroiled thus become telescoped into a rolling feed of slowly changing words on a screen. As detached bits of information these words are marooned from everything else that distinguishes the ships they identify, floating in isolation much like one imagines these ships do in the vast expanses of the sea. But in their isolation these words garner new kinds of poetic potential and their initially abstract nature is rendered legible through the accessibility of language and association. Disparate notions – of epic tales, exotic creatures, literary connotations, bravado and aspirations – commingle and cross-pollinate as a consequence of their simultaneous and/or successive appearance. They swell with strange narrative possibilities and become infused with new resonances, unfurling slowly within the streetscape.

Harmey significantly chose to filter only the names of the passing ships despite the wealth of other data at her disposal and presents them as part of a simple binary, a monochromatic minimal aesthetic that is deliberately austere[6]. But with this austerity also comes an obscurity and strangeness that elicits unconventional interpretations as the words and screens themselves become points for new conceptual departures from which alternative trajectories can be pursued. The work is not only a physical addition to this urban space but it also creates within it the possibility of new and fecund imaginative territory.

Dublin Ships forges a new crevice within the urban landscape through which other information can seep. This creates potential conceptual lacunae but it is also rooted by its materiality, its occupation of the physical space of a very particular facet of the extant architecture of the city. The Scherzer Bridges were built in 1912 to facilitate traffic along the urban waterways via the opening and closing of a balancing lock system. They are visually outmoded, bulky structures of large sheets and lengths of iron and steel bolted and welded together. Their industrial appearance resembles more the aesthetic of the grinding engine rooms and mammoth steel boxes that the named cargo ships contain than the curving, smooth glass-dominated architecture that surrounds them. The screens of Dublin Ships are now embedded within the bridge’s old counterweight, inhabiting the mechanisms of a now defunct system – whose function echoed the activity it now displays – to create a new hybrid formation, a re-activation of an old structure that forms a new kind of threshold in this urban space.

Dublin Ships install. Feb 2015 photocredit: Zak Milofsky

An anonymous interface between geographically proximate yet consciously disparate parts of the city, Dublin Ships transforms this static urban structure and infuses it with fluidity, with the ever-present, on-going activities of another space, that of the port and its ships and by extension the sea they inhabit. The photographer, filmmaker and theorist Allan Sekula describes the space of the sea as “the forgotten space”.[7] In a film of the same name Sekula and Noël Burch elaborate upon this idea, focusing especially on the cargo ships and containers that traverse this “forgotten space”: the “steel box that changed the world trading system” and the “one hundred thousand invisible ships, one and a half million invisible seafarers binding the world together through trade…floating warehouses plying fixed routes between producing countries and consuming countries”.[8] Stocked and unpacked, arriving and departing, transporting and depositing a profusion of goods from increasingly far flung locations to meet the needs of the post-industrial era, capitalist consumer, these gargantuan vessels relentlessly plow the world’s vast and turbulent seas, hauling the loads of contemporary cosmopolitan clutter, the precipitants of our ostensible “sensory overload”.[9]And yet, despite this inextricable link to quotidian contemporary life, their role has become largely eclipsed by fascinations with the wonders of the jumbo jet and high-speed connections and they have become as remote a thought as the lands from which they so often journey.

Dublin Ships addresses this oversight, channeling a new passageway that reinstates this “forgotten space” in the urban landscape and in the minds of its dwellers. It temporarily re-situates the hinterland and constitutes a direct link to the overlooked space at the coastal edge of the city that is in fact so central to contemporary life; it draws the peripheral into the centre, enmeshes the global more closely with the local. Harmey’s work compresses space; it closes gaps and remedies disjunctures, both physically and conceptually, through its exploitation of invisible systems of information and visual intervention into the tangible structures of the city.

The position of Dublin Ships as a public artwork under the auspices of Dublin City Council and its relatively central urban location serve to foreground the relationship of the work to the city. However, the work in fact first took shape in 2010 in an exhibition entitled The Idea of Distance at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Wicklow, which functioned as a test piece for the current public installation. For this Harmey constructed a simple sculptural apparatus to hold smaller versions of similar dual-colour black and white monitors, which transmitted the names of ships entering and leaving Dublin Port into the gallery space. The title of the exhibition itself alludes to the concept of space and it is invariable that aspects of the work might shift when re-presented in the differently charged context of urban space but it still encapsulates the sense of duration and slowness, “the ever-going onness” it exuded in its more minor iteration within the confines of the gallery space.[10]

"Dublin Port" in Unbuilding at Mermaid Arts Centre, 2010 photocredit: Paul Mc Carthy

It is Harmey’s first public artwork and with this she embraces the fact that people’s “relationship with the work is different”[11]. In its current public location the work becomes framed anew, garnering new associations and sparking different resonances than the white-cube space of a gallery may provoke. But it also establishes a greater level of contingency around one’s encounter with it. It is positioned at a busy thoroughfare where car drivers spin or edge past it in traffic, catching glimpses that may last for seconds or at their longest minutes, where pedestrians en route may stop to consider it but even in the space of fifteen minutes may only see one screen change, if any at all – and some may never inquire to know what it is even about. An individuals’ experience of the work may be fleeting but as a fixed part of the current landscape (for now at least) it can be returned to. Its constantly unfolding relay can build upon itself over time and the possibilities for more protracted and personal encounters with the work emerge.

Dublin Ships not only occupies space but takes (up) time. It is a twenty-four hour transmission in real time yet it is slow. It reminds in a way of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, (1993) in which he slowed Alfred Hitchcock’s film from the usual twenty-four frames per second to two so that it stretched over twenty-four hours, producing a distorted experience of the film that thwarted expectations, that strained time. Both works necessitate a length of time to experience them fully that is unlikely to be afforded but the difference with Dublin Ships is that the content of its future transmissions is unknown; it is firmly rooted in the present. Its slowness contrasts with the frequent bustle and brevity that jostles around it and in comparison to predominant contemporary encounters with technological inputs and outputs – instant updates, minute-by-minute coverage, time-saving swipe technologies – that increasingly privilege the immediate and aim to accelerate or circumvent the spending of time in daily life, Dublin Ships seems almost stilted. The sedate nature of the continuously rolling feed of ship names disrupts the often-frenetic atmosphere of this urban environment but, as Harmey puts it, “This has a link to more lived ways of experiencing time which are much slower than instant data” [12] and this allows the work to become immersive in its own way.

"Dublin Ships", Public Art Project, Scherzer Bridge, North Wall Quay Dublin Feb 2015 photocredit: Cliona Harmey

Although the public nature of Dublin Ships is a new departure for Harmey it incorporates many of her on-going concerns as an artist. In earlier works such as A Ship Comes In, a sound installation of a ship coming into harbor, and Timeline (both 2007), an installation of sound and video using simultaneously recorded information of a ship passing to shore, a pertinent interest in the movement and measurement of ships is apparent. Moreover, Harmey has long directed her attention to the “process of recording”, “timekeeping” and “transmissions”[13] and demonstrates a continual engagement with technology. This engagement with different technologies is central to Harmey’s practice. Technology is not merely a tool to access material for use within her work but often constitutes the very substrate, and even inadvertently the subject, of much of her work.

Where earlier works utilized recording devices and technological tools to gather information that was presented as more straightforward video works or sound installations her more recent projects have incorporated the technology itself into her aesthetic: ad hoc circuit systems, improvised recording devices, basic monitors, lengthy cables and coiling wires hooked up to rudimentary circuit boards. There has been a shift from technology providing a means by which to realize an existing idea to the possibilities of technology steering her thought processes. She describes technology as having “its own language”, its own “limitations” and “physicality” and is driven by how technology often “reveals little chinks”[14], chinks which Harmey seizes upon, infiltrates, appropriates and often re-purposes through her work.

"Flag" in Troposphere, Pallas Projects, Dublin photocredit: Emma Haugh

This approach is evident in Harmey’s other most recent work. For Troposphere at Pallas Projects in 2014 Harmey set up an antenna and used CCTV live camera feed and custom software in conjunction with live airline call-sign reception to create the exhibition’s main work, Data Sky, (2014). This resulted in a projection in the gallery space that combined the live transmission from passing airplanes with images of the sky that manifested as a live form of perpetual “electronic writing”, changing with the passage of planes above[15]. As part of Phoenix Rising: Art and the Civic Imagination at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (November 2014 – March 2015) Harmey exhibited Fixed Elsewhere, (2014). For this she set up another kind of antenna at various sites in Dublin. These captured satellite images of weather systems passing over the city, from which Harmey produced singular images that contained information captured over a protracted rather than instantaneous period of time, echoing the sense of duration encapsulated by Dublin Ships.

"DataSky" in Troposphere, Pallas Projects, Dublin photocredit: Emma Haugh

Harmey’s work frequently hinges upon the creation of her own modified systems, and the kind of DIY, “hacker” approach evident in this recent cluster of works has become definitive of Harmey’s practice. She devises her own ways to harness and present information already accessible yet rarely engaged with, forging her own paths and establishing new nodes in existing networks of information that are ubiquitous yet seemingly invisible, enacting her desire to give this ephemeral information material form, to “make it solid”.[16] Her work thus not only reveals the abundance of invisible information around us and the perpetuity of transmissions in the ether, but also the porosity and pliability of the monitoring systems in which this information is implicated, and with this her work enacts and encourages a renewed sense of agency towards the information that surrounds but generally evades us.

With Dublin Ships Harmey has created a kind of prolonged interlude within, and perhaps antidote to, the chaotic, “bewildering” experience that sometimes constitutes contemporary existence. This may be experienced as a meditative encounter with the gradually changing words, charged with poetic potential in situ. But also, the premise and production of the work itself, offers at least a partial visualization of the machinations of the “global, multinational culture that is decentred and cannot be visualized…in which one cannot position oneself”. Dublin Ships re-situates the periphery, it reinstates “forgotten space” and illuminates overlooked, invisible data that floats around us, such that it may, even temporarily, grant us with some perspective when there may otherwise be “absolutely no perspective at all”.[17]


But this potential perspective, due to the nature of the work, will only ever be temporary. Not because physical parts are prone to malfunction or even because its period of display will come to an end, but because with Harmey’s technology-driven, “hacker” approach comes inescapable contingency. The information upon which the work relies is entangled with the wider webs of interconnected codes and data of cyberspace. As Harmey remarks, “If someone in Cyprus decides to alter some bit of code the whole work could cease to be”.[18] For now Dublin Ships creates a very unique interstitial space within the city but it will ultimately close over again. The ships will continue to plow their routes, their rudders will churn, tides will foam and harbours will ripple in their wake, but they will recede again into the depths of our minds. But Harmey will invariably discover new information to shed light upon. She will find a new surface to scratch and another system to infiltrate.

  1. World Urbanization Prospects. 2014 Revision. [online]. Accessible at
  2. Harvey, D. (1990). The condition of postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  3. Jameson, J. (1984). Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. New Left Review, 146, 53 – 92.
  4. Stephanson, A. and Jameson, F. Regarding Postmodernism – A Conversation with Fredric Jameson. (1989). Social Text, 21, 3 – 30.
  5. Ibid. 4
  6. In conversation with Cliona Harmey 10th April 2015
  7. Sekula, A. (1995) Fish Story. Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag.
  8. The Forgotten Space: A Film Essay by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch. [online]. Accessible at
  9. Ibid. 2
  10. Shaffrey, C. (2010). Text for Unbuilding: “The Idea of Distance” (Text accompanying exhibition at Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray.
  11. Ibid. 6
  12. Cliona Harmey in conversation with Logan Sisley (2014). Phoenix Rising: Issue 2, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
  14.  Ibid. 6
  15. Text accompanying Cliona Harmey – Troposphere. Pallas Projects/Studios, 17/04/14 – 03/05/14
  16. Ibid. 6
  17. Ibid. 4
  18. Ibid. 6