Inside

Bláithín Mac Donnell

MA Photography, 2013–15

I studied for my BA at Goldsmiths. After that, I stayed in London for a while, tried to find work and get exhibitions. At that point, I decided I wanted to do an MA. I moved back to Ireland for a few months to work on my portfolio, got a full-time job and saved up as much as I could. 

My BA was a fine art degree with no medium specifications, and I chose the Royal College of Art’s Photography programme because I wanted to see how working in a medium specific department would challenge my practice. Although my practice now doesn’t engage with taking physical photographs, my practice really speaks of photography; I wanted to work within the sphere of photography and participate in the conversations that centre around that dialogue.

Before I started, I was making collages using photographic material. Around halfway through the first year, I became frustrated with how formulaic the work was becoming. We used to have ‘silent’ crits, meaning the artist isn’t allowed to talk about their own work; listening to everyone, I realised they weren’t getting what I intended from it. At the end, when I had my chance to speak, I started telling the story of the image. It became clear that the story was much more interesting than the physical image on the wall.

I wanted to question the nature of photography. Once you take away the physical image, what are you left with? I started making recordings of my stories, and then moved into performing the works live, speaking the image, so to speak. Working in the confines of a medium specific department while not making physical images was challenging at times. For some people on the programme, my work seemed outside of the realm of photography. I had to completely unpick my practice to justify what I was doing.

I can now talk about my work with confidence and that’s really helped me as I’ve gone on to apply for various opportunities and exhibitions. The challenge of finding a new way to explore image making without physical material really pushed my work. If I hadn’t been on that programme, I’m not sure I would have explored this new direction in my work. 

The next step was to improve how I perform and the modes of presentation. By the end of my MA, my approach was a lot stronger. For the final Show, I built a structure that became a performance space, but also existed as a work in its own right which I felt spoke of my practice, even when a performance wasn’t under way. 

I did the performance four times a day, for ten days and it was interesting to perform the same piece so many times. Every time was different because of the audience, and that was really exciting. I’ll be performing at two upcoming exhibitions: in one, I’m breaking my performance up into two parts, and for the other, I’ll be performing one-on-one to visitors, so I’ll be repeating the same monologue several times a day. My work in the Show has directly led to this approach of telling and retelling. 

There were so many opportunities open to me at the RCA: there was an open submission competition to visit the Venice Biennale, which was incredible; the support and promotion of events, inside and outside College, was great; there were opportunities for employment within the institution, so I worked in the cafe and at events; there was funding available for shows; and I received the Hardship Fund in my second year, which was a huge help.

My work will soon be in another exhibition with Photography and Sculpture alumni. In the first year, Curating Contemporary Art ran a radio station from the Dyson Gallery and played one of my pieces on the radio. I’m still working with those curators and, since then, we’ve done another radio show and exhibitions, most recently for the Artist Self-Publishers’ (ASP) Fair at the ICA. It’s great that the relationship is continuing to grow outside of the RCA.

"In the first year, Curating Contemporary Art ran a radio station from the Dyson Gallery and played one of my pieces on the radio. I’m still working with those curators and, since then, we’ve done another radio show and exhibitions, most recently for the Artist Self-Publishers’ (ASP) Fair at the ICA. "