newtownwhowhatwhere?, 2004

This project was designed as a dynamic archive presented on a separate website as an interactive archive database and an additional video made with participants. It stemmed from a dialogue rooted in the memories, stories and ideas of the history of the area in Galway city once called St Stephen’s Island but is now known by several different names – Newtownsmith, Woodquay, Waterside or Barracalla.

The web site was originally hosted at which is no longer active.

An archive version is available at

for information on the project download this PDF

This project is funded by the Department of Communications, Marine, and Natural Resources Commission for an Artwork in Connection with the Rollout of Broadband Communications Infrastructure in collaboration with the Galway Arts Centre

“newtownwhowhatwhere?” 2004

This dialogue began as a way of negotiating knowledge of the area which was the result of archive research completed for the Erasmus Smith Trust. This is an educational trust founded in the mid 17th century that was funded by rentals from confiscated lands after the Cromwell’s campaign. The Trust no longer owns land in the area and the memory and understanding of this odd absentee landlord is quite distant. What remains is a deep local passion for history and archived information that has never been made publicly available.

The process began as a series of public meetings that culminated in a public research room which was presented at the Tulca Visual Arts Festival at the Galway Arts Centre in October 2003. Several volumes of print-outs from the archive database were presented containing summaries and transcriptions of records from the Galway area that dated back to the 1660’s. These were made available and visitors who were asked to make notes on forms provided of records that were of interest or with questions related to certain records. These notes were used as a way of finding participants for the second stage of the project and also as a way of determining areas of interest from over a thousand archive database records.

This was an art project in reverse in that it began with a public presentation or exhibition with no final artwork until now. After this development phase of the project it progressed towards this web site with the video taping of short interviews with thirty-six individuals associated with the area. Some were from the original meetings but many were gathered through networks of families and friends who are or who have lived and worked in the area.

The work is multifaceted and utilises various multimedia technologies to dynamically relate to over 1,000 records culled from the Erasmus Smith Trust Archive database with the video interviews. The additional short video “Republic of Woodquay” was conceived of and made with several of the interviewees in response to the issues that arose during the interviews.

The text below was written about the films from the project which were screened during the Tulca Season of Visual Arts in the Board Room of the Galway Arts Centre – opening 6pm 29th October, 2004.

Created over a period of a year and composed of two films, one of thirty-six clips and one short docu-drama. newtowhowhatwhere? invites us to take a personalised non-geographic journey through the districts of Newtownsmith, Woodquay, and Waterside and focus upon the experiences and knowledge of its current inhabitants. The old, the new, the past, the present and the potential future, is captured by the camera and re-presented in individual interviews, which culminate in the short film that declares the “Republic of Woodquay” – a place that is both central and yet apart from the city of Galway.

newtowhowhatwhere? is part of a larger body of work by Alan Phelan – an extensive web project. This stand alone piece is about the people of the district, and the role of the place itself within their lives. newtowhowhatwhere? is about the active participation of people within the community. Phelan seizes the personal, sometimes immeasurable, and fragile experience of the individual and makes it powerful through simplicity. His video work is a form of sculptural practice that provides clear, direct elegance and becomes a repository of experiences. In newtownwhowhatwhere? these experiences transcend knowledge and recognise the personal behind the public face of his subject. This is reality without voyeuristic indiscretion or intention. Coloured with language and made personable through the people, technology creates the physical presence, and yet becomes subservient to the viewers relationship with the work.

In his practice, Phelan works in series. He enters and becomes part of the community, not as an outsider but as a confidant, a mediator of common experience. His practice involves intimate portraiture capturing time. He, as an artist, becomes invisible. The inclusion of himself as one of his own subjects provides reference to both his outside identity and yet his ongoing role within this community. The role of observer is transformed almost to the point of non-existence, leaving behind the artist as documenter. Each person, filmed in their home or work location, faces the camera and each share the openness and naturalness of reaction to the security of their place and display their unscripted reaction to the mechanics of production. The sober recording of reality is given sentimental, almost romantic, overtones both by the subjects and the subtle lighting that suffuses the work. Personal histories permeate the faces captured on film and become projections of past and present.

Paying great attention to detail, Phelan serves as a sort of visual archeologist whose work references the world of the everyday, the mundane. The work becomes an elaborate still-life, reflecting back through the artifice of arranged presentation how the individual and community tie together and sanction aspirations and needs.

Noel Kelly, The Arts Projects Network