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Artist Takeover by Etain O’Carroll – Activating our Archives

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In April 2020 Activating our Archives participant Etain took over the Modern Art Oxford Instagram feed for the day to share some of her photographs and reflections that have been emerging from the project. In this blog post we share her thoughtful words and images, which will be a lasting record of creative work in an extraordinary time.

Photos and words by Etain O’Carroll.

Photo by Etain O’Carroll

Taking part in the Activating Our Archives project, pulling out old work and attempting to reassess it has brought on a torrent of memories. But one of the questions we’ve been asked is to find a connection between our archives and our current situation, so I’ve begun to think about the nature of isolation and how our perspective on it can affect our experience.

In the onslaught of content and news we’re all consuming in these surreal days, it’s struck me how this period of isolation divides us as much as it connects us. Stuck at home alone under a 12-week shielding order brings very different challenges than juggling work, home schooling, bored children and domestic duties while cooped up in a small space. And both pale in comparison to being stuck at home with a violent partner, working on the front line or waiting for news of a hospitalised loved one.

Whatever our reality right now, I wonder if how we approach isolation is an indication of how we will survive it and, how we will react when it’s over? Having isolation thrust upon you is very different from choosing it. In better times the peace and quiet of isolation is something we often seek out. Right now, even the landscape is off limits though and I dream of space and peace, a few minutes without a chorus of ‘What can I dos?’, a break from the relentless bad news, the worries about health, finances and family, and some time to reflect, to clear my head and feel a breeze on my face.

Photo by Etain O’Carroll

Looking though my old images, it struck me that the lockdown resembles a family holiday in ways. Like isolation, one of the problems with family holidays is how intense the experience can be. It’s all or nothing. The imposed togetherness and abandoning of all routine can wear thin at times and there’s often an expectation that the down time could, or should, all amount to something far more than it actually does. What we need is contrast and variety. Too much of any one thing leaves us craving exactly what we can’t have.

I pulled out this image of a family holiday as the lighting, surroundings and composition of this image appeal to me but the memory that goes with it is far less interesting than the picture suggests. It was taken somewhere beautiful but where there was very, very little to do. It set me off wondering about the relationship between photography and memory and whether images help or hinder the process of looking back at our past.

Photo by Etain O’Carroll

Twenty odd years ago, I spent a couple of years living in remote communities in the Canadian Arctic. Places where there were no more than a few hundred people, no roads and the only way in or out was by air. Places permanently isolated from the rest of the world. Twenty-four hours of darkness in winter and 24 hours of light in summer. At the time, there was no internet access, and along with nowhere to go, there was very little to do. Everything was extreme and the extent of the flat, treeless tundra that stretched for miles in every direction was humbling. But having chosen to live in the far north, the isolation was an integral part of the experience and being a willing participant made it all a novelty rather than a burden. The middle of nowhere proved a powerful place to be and the empty space left me pondering my place in the world. I feel a similar pressure to reconsider my lifestyle now and to reflect on my choices, my impact on the world, on what I’m going to change when restrictions are finally lifted.

Photo by Etain O’Carroll

Right now, the lines are all blurred: work, home, school, whose advice you can trust, what figures reflect the actual situation, even what day it is. It’s hard to make sense of anything and difficult to comprehend the extent of the situation we are in. We know so little about this virus, how long this lockdown will last, what the world will be like after it’s all over, if it can ever be said to be over. This image was taken just after my mother died, Storm Diane had hit the UK and the weather perfectly reflected my mood, energy levels and profound sense of being set adrift. I feel a similar sensation now with everything so uncertain and uneasy.

Photo by Etain O’Carroll

Despite the freedoms we normally take for granted being removed, the boredom, the lethargy and the worry, I’ve begun to take delight in the small things in life: the clear skies, the stillness, the birdsong instead of traffic noise, the ability to simply go for a walk when others can’t. Everything seems more vital, more poignant now. When you look at it, this lockdown has many silver linings, not least being able to find the time to rifle through old work, find leftover materials and experiment with light for no other reason than the fun of it. Too often, we’re so pressed for time that the value we see in anything work related is only monetary, and I’m delighting in the sense that with nowhere to go, I can do as I please, experiment with images as much as I like, and my investment at home, somehow, in this crazy world, is enough to help keep others safe.

Modern Art Oxford’s Activating our Archives project is a live digital archiving and curating project led by artist and curator Sunil Shah, organised in collaboration with Fusion Arts Oxford. Click here to see live work surrounding the themes of storytelling, identity, communication and ownership in the digital space.