The Workers Ritual (2015), film installation located in Powers distillery engine room (view of 16mm projector playing 'Distillery workers processing sugar beet' 1935). Photo courtesy of the artist
To create a context specific project in a disused whiskey distillery engine room in an art college, you have to be industrious. First, access had to be negotiated; in this case a lengthy process that took months and involved numerous conversations with the health and safety department, who didn’t grant Loretta Moore permission to use this space until the final few weeks before the NCAD degree show. Then, a new ramp had to be constructed to allow visitors safe temporary access. After travelling to Havana, Cuba, to research and film her footage, Moore cleared out the strata of debris and unfinished works left by previous students, set up her equipment, and was present in the space a number of times each day for the duration of the degree show exhibition to screen footage, manually preparing the film rolls after each viewing in preparation for the next, in a back room on a makeshift rewind bench. In art colleges, learning and labour coincide. The invisible actions in the process of ‘making’ underlie the presentation of a final ‘consumable’ product, be it a degree show, a barrel of Irish whiskey…or a bottle of Cuban rum.
Loretta Moore’s degree show, The Workers Ritual, offers a material and historical exploration of the distilling trade. Situated in a section of NCAD's buildings, in an engine room that was once part of the old John Powers Distillery, the installation combines footage shot by Moore in Cuba earlier this year, with archival negatives and film sourced online. The room is tall and narrow, with peeling walls tiled halfway with green ceramic tiles. It houses huge dark cast iron pillars, beams, panels, and wheels and cogs that in their heyday would have turned and spun – the power house of the distillery. The imposing bulk of inanimate machinery dominates this space, and gives it an expectant air, as if the components may just heave themselves back into live. The potent smell of oil and metal still hangs heavy. Placed on top of the metal railing surrounding the machines are matt metal viewing cases containing transparent images. Daylight streams into the space from windows above, and directional shafts of light temporarily irradiate the images in the viewing cases through their panel-less sides, tops and backs. Others house battery-powered candles at different stages of their life span, their orange glow flickering softly as they slowly diminish. The stills they illuminate depict groups of workers unloading trucks, crumbling buildings , and other frozen vistas associated with the Cuban brewing industry. Aesthetically, it is difficult to distinguish between the images that Moore has photographed and those obtained from distillery archives; all carry the patina of a bygone era.
Loretta travelled to Cuba in January, a month after the US relaxed its travel restrictions, in place since the trade embargo imposed in 1960, and freer trade between the nations may now ensue. US travellers can now bring back hundreds of dollars worth of Cuban rum and cigars, and the country’s tourist industry will receive a economic boost with the influx of American tourists. Not all restrictions have been lifted on the socialist state, and it is unclear to what extent the Cuban government will open up to foreign investment and develop the modern infrastructure the country needs to support expanded (tourist) industry. However, as trading relations thaw with its neighbouring superpower, whose administration aims to “empower the nascent Cuban private sector”, it is undeniable that the market economy that has so long been held at bay will continue to slowly change the country’s economy and society: “the fate of whole strata of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the "solipsistic" speculative dance of Capital, which pursues its goal of profitability in a blessed indifference to how its movement will affect social reality.”1
For now, on the surface – judging by Moore’s footage – Cuba remains unchanged, a living museum, still existing in some type of semi-permanent ‘retro’ stasis. Nestled between the dark machinery, are 8mm and 16mm projectors which, when switched on at 12 noon, 2pm, 6pm and 7pm whirr into life, animating the space. It is not possible to watch all of them from a single perspective, as they project their beams on simple cardboard cards. They dislocate time and span different eras and geographies, featuring footage filmed during prohibition times in Havana in the late 1920’s; distillery workers preparing sugar beet in Germany in the 1930’s; a US and Cuba propaganda newsreel from the 1960’s; and contemporary Cuba, filmed in 2015. The 35mm film Moore has shot looks as if it was produced in the 1950’s, and documents everyday life in Havana: a boat in azure waters; shots of the city in warm sunlight; old buildings; a funfair at night; salsa dancing.
The Cuban distillery industry has its roots in a violent colonial past; the production of the raw sugar cane used to make rum was supported by centuries of slave labour. Its autocratic regime has a poor human rights record and is known to restrict and censor its citizens (and artists also, as was highlighted in late 2014 with the detention of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the government’s actions to prevent a performance she had planned from taking place). Moore’s project does not attempt to address this aspect of Cuba’s loaded rum history, or its precarious present state, directly. The quotidian details in her footage feel light footed and dreamlike, and references to the country’s distillery industry remain tentative: a glimpse of a bar in Havana; workers in canteens. The brief projections and the still images in their cases operate as temporary visions, spectres. They speak of time passing, of fleeting rituals, of the temporality of changing methods of manual and mechanical production that appear and disappear in an instant. As new methods of production and new markets present themselves, blue collar labour as it once existed may indeed remain a thing of the past. The Workers Ritual’s ephemeral intangibility is in stark contrast to what is left behind: a monument of heavy steel components that seems like it could remain in this distillery-turned art college for another hundred years.
THE SPECTRE IS STILL ROAMING AROUND! Slavoj Zizek http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/the-spectre-is-still-roaming-around/