Meet Array Collective: Behind Northern Ireland's Parties and Protests

Updated: Mar 1

by Charlotte Russell

 
"More people come and engage with a performance or a piece of art than they will read a manifesto"
A photograph of the members of the Array Collective art group. One of the members is wearing a Big Ben costume
The members of Array Collective (Photo: Jon Beer)

Existing in the ‘naughty corner’ of the art world, in the unstable precipice between protest and party, Northern Irish-based Array Collective are the Turner prize nominees challenging the way we consume art.


Sitting with two of Array’s members Emma Campbell and Stephen Millar on Zoom, my eye is instantly caught by a pink foil parrot floating above Stephen’s shoulder - it’s a pertinent indicator of their penchant for the playful.


"There’s a certain gallows humour we have and it’s definitely a coping mechanism," says Emma, detailing the mischievous cynicism that threads its way through the group's practice.

 ‘More people come and engage with a performance or a piece of art than they will read a manifesto’
Array Collective at an International Women's Day protest in 2019 (Photo: Alessia Cargnelli)

Formed in 2016 from members of Belfast’s small artistic community, the members are a direct product of their local area.


In an environment where orthodox religious conservativism still has a strong grip on daily life and politics, Array’s work directly responds to LGBTQ+ issues, abortion rights and gentrification. Or in other words, those who the system deigns to ignore.


As a collective of individual artists, Array often make bodies of work together, but not in the tangible, typical art forms that we traditionally come to expect from Turner Prize nominees.


In subversion, they create fleeting performances, playfully transforming each member into a makeshift character, made in response to a particular political event or situation.

In 2019 they created a flurry of characters both shaped by Northern Irish folklore and contemporary politics, and situated these performances within Belfast Pride and outside Westminster. Both locations altered the tone and reception of each piece, detailing their work as something which is in a constant state of emotional flux, that evolves and responds to their surrounding environments.


"More people come and engage with a performance or a piece of art than they will read a manifesto," says Emma, who perfectly describes the enigmatic pull that this collective of artists bring.


While their carnivalesque work teeters on the boundary between pleasure and discomfort, it importantly reminds us of the power gleaned from the collective joy found in a body of people who are all fighting for the same cause.


Following their 2021 Turner Prize nomination, Array received a slew of negativity from both art collectors and the right wing press, who to them, see art as an investment.


"How you can invest in Array I don’t know," says Emma who, like Stephen, was delighted with the feedback from these particular press outlets.

A protest banner on a bridge in Northern Ireland, one week after the decriminalisation of abortion (Photo: Simon Mills)
A protest banner on a bridge in Northern Ireland, one week after the decriminalisation of abortion (Photo: Simon Mills)

She adds: "I am absolutely thrilled by the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. [...] I would never buy it, but I nearly bought it just to have it." It’s plain to see that Array are clearly pissing off the right people.


Coexisting with political activism, Array’s art is anything but passive - critiquing the institution and conversing directly with the communities they support. As a collective, they are not only providing the blueprint for new forms of artistic production, but are also switching up our understanding of what can be deemed political protest. Centering around creating experiences that pull people together, they’re creating avenues for new forms of artistic consumption and I can’t wait to see what’s next to come.

 

Array Collective are currently exhibiting at the Turner Prize exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery Coventry until 12 January 2022.