Cat and Éiméar McClay on their Market Gallery residency

Cat and Éiméar McClay are recent graduates who are crafting a singular body of work surrounding religious oppression and queer ways of being, through a heady combination of experimental writing and cutting-edge digital media technologies

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 05 Oct 2021
  • Cat McClay and Éiméar McClay

Cat and Éiméar McClay’s recent films take place in digital renderings of unpeopled rooms, decorated with Jesus and Mary branded candles. Floods come often, rising up and throwing the composition into disarray, all subtitled by the duo’s sensuously written stories. The narratives make allusions to wounds, injuries, juxtaposed at times with fragmented accounts of the miracle of queer sex. 

Speaking about their virtual props and sets, for the artists, these are a way of pointing towards “how the Catholic Church and the state interact in Ireland,” where the twin sister collaborators are from. In turn, they set out to counter the crosses and rosary beads with “magical symbolism, using knives close to skin, and abject bodily imagery alongside Catholic iconography as a way of talking about different forms of resistance,” in particular “witchcraft” and “heretics.”

Currently, they’re in Glasgow, where they live now, having arrived via four years at Edinburgh College of Art. Speaking about the move to Edinburgh from Ireland, this was the moment they came to fully understand “Ireland is still quite repressive compared to the UK. We moved to the UK as adults, but when we were teenagers, that’s when the gay marriage and abortion referendums happened. When we still lived there, it wasn’t so liberal, and in recent years Ireland is trying to improve its image in that sense.” They’re careful also to delineate the difference between the politics as being more progressive in Dublin than elsewhere.

Reflecting on the pervasiveness of the Church in Ireland, they started to track the shaping of people’s social and political perspectives in Ireland, even when not always "explicitly tethered to religion. People don’t necessarily practice Catholicism, but the attitudes are internalised. I found it really useful to look back and see how the Catholic Church had the social influence historically, when it was more obvious and violent. Those things linger in contemporary society and those people who are affected by that violence are still alive, and there are so many issues with how the [Irish] state interacts with that and continues to try and occlude information. In that way it is still disrespecting human rights of people, which were impinged within [violently repressive Catholic] institutions.”

This forms one of the motivations for the work they make. “We’re interested in that, in how [this history of religious repression] exists now and people’s relationship to identity and the state as Irish people, and people’s awareness generally to what happened. There’s so much occlusion! Even here people don’t know that much about it, neither do many young people in Ireland. We want to disseminate that information.”

It’s responding to this line of enquiry that for Cat and Éiméar McClay makes collaboration an essential way of forming the discourse within their work. “When we’re doing a political project, it’s easier to develop the ideas in dialogue. Not that we always have to agree, or form a common or homogenous perspective. [We’re not working with] individualist topics or concerns, so working together allows for more of a nuanced perspective.” But also, for them, it’s just a lot more fun than working alone.

As they describe how they work together, it sounds like they’ve given up drawing borders around each of their own contributions, ideas and interests. “We develop texts collaboratively writing into a Google Doc, and edit each other’s words. We don’t have hard boundaries around what we’re doing. We’re not that precious about what each does individually, we don’t think about it, it’s been a mutual thing for so long. Even when we [each] develop our own projects, we’re still informed by what we did together already.”

Right now they’re on residency in Market Gallery, where they’re working together on figuring out video game software, as well as making new video and writing. “We’re hoping to make some kind of game, as a way of conveying text.” They compare their project to online hypertext games, that see players making decisions and clicking through to decide the course of a story, often in fantasy roleplaying situations. What they’re planning is “akin to a hypertext but in 3D, where you navigate a three-dimensional space and find different pieces of text.” For now, this means writing the texts they want to include and teaching themselves the coding skills they need.

The work they’re making is ambitious and impressive, but they’re still inclined to be a bit self-critical on some of the behind-the-scenes patchy tech elements of their earlier work, even if these aren't visible in the films themselves. Nevertheless, after painstakingly crafting every object and surface in their animations, there’s just one comment to avoid when chatting to the powerhouse duo about their work. “We do get insulted when people ask us if we buy those packs of .objs [readymade digital renderings]! No! We make everything!”

Follow Cat and Éiméar McClay on Instagram @catandeimearmcclay, where they are sharing works in progress, including what they're making in their Market Gallery residency