Turner Prize winners 2021 bring the power of archive film content to the fore

The Turner Prize awards last December 2021 was a landmark event – it was the first time the coveted award was won* by a collective of artists from Northern Ireland and a welcome return to archive film playing an important part in an award entry installation.

Jane Jarvis from FAUK catches up with Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell one of the 11 Array Collective artists and Curator at FAUK member – Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive (DFA)

Array Collective, Turner Prize winners 2021

The victors, who received the prestigious prize of £25,000 at a ceremony in Coventry Cathedral, following the Turner Prize Exhibition at the city’s  Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, were the Array Collective, a group of 11 Belfast-based artists who have worked together since 2016 on creative collaborative actions in response to socio political issues.

Array Collective are Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell, Sinead Bhreathnach-Cashell, Jane Butler, Emma Campbell, Alessia Cargnelli, Mitch Conlon, Clodagh Lavelle, Grace McMurray, Stephen Millar, Laura O’Connor, and Thomas Wells


Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell

It was one of these artists, Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell, who after Art College joined FAUK member, Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive as a metadata assistant in 2015 and worked directly with archive film on the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage. Now working as Curator on the UTV Collection with such great knowledge of the content she passed on her enthusiasm and passion for this special tangible cultural heritage to her fellow artists.


We all went to art school and studied art – so when I started working in the Digital Film Archive as part of BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage basically I kept

trying to find opportunities to make archive film  into art projects! I’d collaborated on DFA projects before and since with Laura OConnor (who is also part of Wandaa feminist moving image festival in Belfast run with Rose Baker who is currently doing PhD on the UTV with Northern Ireland Screen). Some of the Array Collective were making their own activist films, working in heritage and investigating other forms of archive – so there was overlapping interests in using archive in artwork. I was the driving force behind using archive film because of my day job and understanding how to access to it. We were all interested in using history and mythology to explore the struggles we were currently in.”



In parallel to her work at Northern Ireland Screen, Sinéad would be collaborating with Array and others, out protesting about major issues in Northern Ireland, sometimes on a weekly basis – issues like legislative discrimination against LGBTQIA + communities, and campaigning for free, safe and legal access to abortion. As artists, they made costumes and banners – visual uplifting things for the protests.

Array Collective at Belfast Pride 2019, photo by Laura O’Connor, copyright Array Collective

We are a group of 11 artists, all based in Belfast but from a mixture of places, who got together with others in Belfast to protest for our rights. The core group who had a set of studios in the city centre already did projects together and the rest of us came together as we used this space as a base to prepare for protests.”

The Array Collective consolidated as a result of the invitation to participate in an exhibition in London called ‘Collaborate’ at Jerwood Arts, in Southbank (Oct-Dec 2019)


Jerwood Collaborate archive table © Hydar Dewachi
Jerwood Collaborate ‘As Others See Us’ video © Hydar Dewachi

Sinéad explainsWe used archive in different ways as part of the Jerwood exhibition. One way was that at the centre of our space we had a library resource area – with a lot of feminist newsletters, fiction, activist memorabilia and then a table in the shape of Northern Ireland with archive film – on ipads – that people could browse through relevant archive footage – The assumption was that people in London wouldnt really understand the context in Northern Ireland and archive films are really an immediate way for people to connect with it through personal stories. It was a mixture of current affairs films from the Digital Film Archive and activist oral histories.

The other way we used archive was we created a set of 3 mythological characters based on different issues in Northern Ireland then filmed those characters performing on the streets of London and in the Belfast Pride parade. Afterwards I worked with Laura O’Connor to select soundtracks and films from the DFA. She edited together in layers the new footage filmed in London and Belfast with the archive films of Northern Ireland going back 30/40 years. These were each shown on their own screen in the gallery with an accompanying banner”

She describes how Array Collective worked on creating layers with the archive film.

In one way it gives you context and invites you in and the other hand, by having lots of layersyoure having to choose where your attention goes – so there are layers of sound and layers of image so youre also getting something thats quite disorientating so it was good to have video works using archive in that way and then the traditional library kiosk type set up on iPads in the resource space where people if they saw a glimpse of something they were interested in they could sit and watch full versions of the original films.”

So how did Array Collective come to be a Turner Prize contender?

We don’t really know. Normally, the way the Turner Prize works is that people are nominated for their existing practice. So in a regular year, the jury would go round lots of exhibitions and they would nominate people based on a solo exhibition in the UK. As art students you follow different people whod been nominated or won it or had a sense of it but it was never on our radars, never something we were aspiring to do even as individual artists. When COVID-19 happened the galleries were shut so the first year Tate gave 10 bursaries to support artists and in the second year they wanted an exhibition so the jury debated lots of different approaches and finally settled on nominating 5 collectives based on the way they had been working during the pandemic and not on an existing exhibition of our work, so we had to create a new show for Coventry. It was a complete surprise but then such a massive opportunity and Northern Ireland doesnt get very many big opportunities so we knew we just really had to go for it and just throw ourselves completely into it.” **

But it wasn’t all plain sailing – Sinéad describes the juggling of jobs and the extra challenges of COVID-19 restrictions:

 “Everyone in the Collective has day jobs – so either working full time or part-time because they are doing PhD and there’s 3 parents of young children – 2 people were having their first babies so it was like this roller coaster we were on juggling our normal responsibilities that hadnt been suspended plus figuring out how to make the most of it. This all took place during the shifting restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic [restrictions in Coventry were constantly different to NI]. To begin with we couldnt even meet in the same room because it would break the COVID-19 restrictions in NI so met on zoom. We had to think about multiple possibilities, how do we put together a show that possibly nobody can touch, what social distancing will be in place or it might not even open to the public if we have another lockdown. So in the end it was a lot of pooling our collective experience to create something that did come together and work but the whole way through we didnt know what would happen.”

The Collective heard they had been nominated for the Turner Prize just a week before the announcement went public in April 2021 and it was all hands to the pump to come up with what their exhibition was going to be by the beginning of September. Again, COVID-19 restrictions were ever present as Sinéad explains

4 of us did a site visit to Coventry in May 2021 and met some of the other nominated Collectives but again they couldnt even have everyone all meet at once. We could be in Coventry at the same time but needed to be in 2 separate parts of the building because of everyone’s safety. Then the curator and curatorial assistant came over to visit us in Belfast to see our studio and discuss what the show might be – it was an evolving process.

We decided, because 2021 was the centenary of the partition of Ireland that wed do some kind of a wake for the centenary. We really wanted to do something that was for and in Belfast, so we staged an event to camera, filming over 1 night in Belfast in July – this was run in line with COVID-19 film production restrictions to keep people safe – and invited a series of performers and extras from beyond the Collective to respond to the idea of a wake for the centenary. Everyone who was invited came in costumes they designed around their interpretation of that theme.

We filled the venue with banners we had from protests and new banners made specifically for it  – it was a 4 hour evening of live performances and archive film that was then documented by a film crew and then distilled into the 3 screen 35 min video we showed in the Druthaib’s Ball installation in Coventry.”

Sinéad and her fellow artists called on performers and extras who were a mixture of artists and activists. One of the 6 main performers being an activist storyteller Richard O’Leary who Sinéad had worked with as part of the DFA when he was co-ordinator for the HLF funded The Troubles I’ve Seen project (https://digitalfilmarchive.net/news/the-troubles-ive-seen-1220). He tells his own personal stories as LGBTQIA+ rights activism (https://www.richardstories.com). At the D.F.A. Sinéad worked with Richard and continues to work with project volunteers to dig through the UTV collection to extract footage about queer histories in the north and south of Ireland.

‘The Druthaib’s Ball’ photo by David Levene

The Druthaib’s Ball was kind of a concoction of spectacle, costume, archive and mythology. The mood would shift e.g. we had a singer, Méabh Meir reducing people to tears using keening style of singing then the next moment there would be disco music and a fake glider – known as Belfasts bendy bus – would come bursting through the room, so youd have these highs and lows of emotion. It was interesting the kind of tone the archive could bring to the event and the installation – how do you bring into this venue the atmosphere of protest, that feeling of gathering in the streets so the sound on film played an important part.”

The Slapper performing at The Druthaib’s Ball, Black Box Belfast, by Ciara McMullan July 2021
The Morrigan film still copyright Array Collective and DFA 2019.001

One of the characters in the film was the Slapper, based on a young Bernadette Devlin and performed by Emma Campbell, both committed campaigners for abortion rights. The Morrigan film (also performed by Emma Campbell) about women’s reproductive rights the Collective had shown at the Jerwood exhibition was projected onto the Slapper’s long wig. The audio was from a Rally for Choice speech made a couple of years previously by Bernadette –  it was a powerful combination of  this political speech, archive footage about feminist struggles, the Morrigan character outside Westminster and the live body of the Slapper on stage in a room of activists




Sinéad explains how important it was to take the event from Belfast to Coventry and still have a reaction to it.

We didnt want to show it as documentation or just screen the film. Thats why we created the síbín. It exists in various cultures but its like an illicit pub. For us its significant – its the place where you gather after protest, you gather to start things, share ideas and instigate things – also a place where in one minute you can go from the best night in your life to the worst night in your life – a place where joy, excess and trauma are all mingled and co-exist. For the exhibition we wanted a familiar space to contain all these objects, layers of history and ideas – when visitors walk into to our pub at least they know thats a table, here’s somewhere to sit and thats the bar so you find a way to familiarise yourself with the place even though you might not immediately connect with the stuff thats in it. We stitched protest banners into a massive ceiling, created new pub mirrors using ongoing campaigns like Ban Conversion Therapy and No Toxic Gold Mining, the Druthaibs Ball film was shown on 3 large flat screen TVs and on the other side of the bar was a box TV showing a 35 min silent archive edited in sync with the Druthaibs Ball film with moments of deliberate connections between archive and film.

UTV Irish Names Quilt in Derry used in Turner Prize exhibition

For example UTV news coverage of the Irish Names Quilt (1991) – https://digitalfilmarchive.net/media/irish-names-quilt-5089 and Moses Fammeh giving out condoms during Belfast Pride (1999) plays during Richard O’Leary’s story about the chalice and AIDS. During the Slapper’s Toast footage of protests from across the decades play on the small screen.

The archive footage used for the Turner Prize and Jerwood was from Tourism NI, UTV (ITV Partnership with PRONI and Northern Ireland Screen) and bit of COI – as the DFA have the greatest scope to work creatively with these collections –

Ethically, we were conscious of how we worked with amateur film and the different intentions that rights holders may not feel comfortable with. And theres something interesting about using broadcasters perspective skewed in that way – looking at relationship of how media reports protests and activism. So it was interesting to work with UTV news and current affairs footage in that way. With the tourist board footage they were trying to communicate a mythical version of Ireland whilst there was a civil war going on that was consciously not being spoken about. Francis [Jones] and I had interviewed Robert Blair who had worked for the Tourist Board who explained that there was a reason in the 70s that they had continued to make these nostalgic films with lots of nature as they didnt know how long the civil war would last and if they didnt keep the Tourist Board going it wouldnt be there when its needed again. Through hearing his stories of their motivations totally transformed our understanding of the films. There was film we used called The Quiet Land with lots of crafts and rural locations – the Northern Ireland Tourist Board Film Unit, as a film production team, by making these quaint films were making ethical decisions about the future”

As well as the £25,000 prize for the Array Collective, they received global attention and, true to their cause, the Collective were keen to make the most of their new found fame.

Weve had a lot of press interviews and requests for student talks but also temporarily got the attention of politicians – but its the follow through that will be important. In the south of Ireland they are testing a universal basic income for artists – will the same happen in the North? Belfast is a small place and lots of people have been working to change things. We want to make the most of the momentum. I think the impact will unfold over time – Im told that Collectives have a very different experience to individuals so we are taking it a day at a time.”

As far as their studio space, Array Studios’ lease is up in less than 18 months and it’s under discussion. In Belfast, studio space is quite insecure so there is a lot of discussion with the City Council and artists in the city are demanding that something needs to change now. The Collective are hopeful but cynical as Sinéad explains;  Especially with a recent fire in Cathedral Buildings, intentions from decision makers aren’t enough. Well have to see how talk turns into action. Each member of the Array Collective has their own thoughts and circumstances regarding our own situation but the push for proper conditions for artists to live and work in is a decades long and continuing struggle for all artists in Belfast”.

But there is nothing that will ever take away from the night that the Array Collective won the Turner Prize at the grand ceremony in Coventry Cathedral. Sinéad readily admits that she was really prepared for not winning –  and happy at the thought of not getting on stage and not to being on TV! –

My main focus was to work on the show and try and make sure the pressure didnt change how we worked with and treated people. Our working relationship with each other is really important and Im quite shy so more than happy to stay out of the public eye and really trust the others to represent the voices within our collective.

When the ceremony happened it was the first time that the whole of Array Collective had been together in Coventry. Even though the show had been open to the public for 2 months, it was the first time the new mothers had seen the exhibition they’d been working on through their first pregnancies. Laura O’Connor had baby Paddy, 2 weeks before show and my sister Sighle was due to have Clíodhna the week the show opened – people sent so many lovely messages about seeing Array’s 3 kids there on the stage as part of the experience.”

There is no doubt that this prize winning project has had a positive impact on how people regard archive film and Sinéad has other thoughts too –

The pandemic massively seemed to change the presence of archive as people adapted to media production under the restrictions, coinciding with the ongoing mass digitisation projects by archives and broadcasters, we were suddenly starting to see more of this content being used more often on TV and online. Like during the 2008 recession when advertisers resurrected old adverts as marketing budgets were slashed. In the past the presumption seemed to be that new was better rather than seeing the inherent value in archive beyond talking head format documentaries. But when people have access in a way thats meaningful to them they want more – theres an appetite.

At Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive as a team we really love doing creative re-use projects – theres going to be more and more scope to see archive in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. Especially with our involvement in the ITV partnership (supported by Department of Communities), BFI Replay and Belfast Stories over the next few years. 

The material never ceases to surprise and enthral. When I worked as a cataloguer on BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage watching unedited rushes from the NI Tourist Board and home movies constantly sparked ideas –  often its potent enough without any interference.

Women Protest Against Strip Searches (1985) copyright ITV

Array Collective use archive as activist and learning tools – its a great way to rethink social attitudes through the lens of the past. Archive also gives an immediate sense and span of time and prompts an awareness that art and activism don’t exist in a vacuum. In Coventry, London and Galway it enabled us to invite visitors into the context around the artworks and find their bearings in our complex history. We even found moments of connection between places which we included: for example I found footage in UTV of the Coventry Women and Ireland Group protesting in Armagh in 1985 against strip searches of women prisoners and a feature on a family planning clinic in Galway during the 1990s. In each location we adapted the archive selection to resonate with that place and will have to think carefully about how we do this in Belfast.”


Going forward, Sinéad talked of plans for the Array Collective to bring their prize winning exhibition back to Belfast in 2023 for the city to savour.  They have already been treated by Belfast’s Lord Mayor to an open top bus parade through the streets in celebration before last Christmas!

There’s no doubt we will be seeing much more of the Array Collective’s work and, thanks to Sinéad, much more of archive footage. For starters, the Druthaib’s Ball has recently completed a 7 week run at the Galway Arts Centre and has been acquired by the National Museums NI as part of their permanent collection at the Ulster Museum!

Many congratulations to  Array Collective!

The exhibition in the Ulster Museum opens to the public on 24th February 2023. You can take a look at the Museum’s new acquisitions page here

Check out Array Collective’s website here and follow them on Instagram @arraystudios

and Northern Ireland Screen Digital Film Archive



* Helen Cammock’s The Long Note (2018) was nominated in 2018 – a new film work using archive that explores the history and role of women in the civil rights movement in Derry – https://vimeo.com/298026317 and https://lux.org.uk/work/the-long-note/

** This talk art podcast you get to hear the jury talk about their experience and how they made decisions – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/zoé-whitley-aaron-cezar-kim-mcaleese-turner-prize-judges/id1439567112?i=1000550011660

Official description from podcast – The Turner Prize is awarded annually to an artist born, living or working in Britain, for an outstanding exhibition or public presentation of their work anywhere in the world in the previous year. Every other year the Turner Prize is staged outside of London, with the 2021 edition being presented in Coventry as part of the UK City of Culture 2021. This is the first time a Turner Prize jury has selected a shortlist consisting entirely of artist collectives. The collaborative practices selected for this year’s shortlist also reflect the solidarity and community demonstrated in response to the pandemic.