The voice of John Mulholland is a rich, long-vowelled working class Ulster with a bone to pick. A life of dusty toil has gritted it to the core, and as surely as he has spent his working life digging into rock, so has it dug its way into him. ‘The more we do the more we get,’ he says, ‘but over time our lungs get set.’
He is among the last surviving tunnel tigers; a crew of construction workers – explosives specialists; a ‘rough squad of Dantes’ – contracted to blast, bore through and muck out the granite core of one of Scotland’s highest peaks, Ben Cruachan, between 1959 and 1965 to construct a major hydroelectric power plant.
Two years later, a ‘public’ artwork was commissioned and installed in Cruachan’s turbine hall; a marquetry mural by the English artist Elizabeth Falconer. Her relation to Cruachan was remote. The work executed in her London studio was shipped off on completion. ‘This place does not want me’ she says. ‘As a courtesy, I do not want it: I want what it has.’ If indifference is a courtesy, hers was amply reciprocated. A plaque credits the mural, which she has never seen in situ, to one Elizabeth Faulkner.
Falconer and Mulholland, who never worked together and may not have met, are dramatised in Maria Fusco’s radio play for three voices ‘Master Rock’, which was performed and recorded on site in Cruachan in October of this year. Each discusses in monologue their labour for the plant, from which they are subtly but profoundly alienated. They continue to work, all the same. In dramatic representation, at least, they continue to talk – their voices, notionally independent yet in concert, knead, manipulate and tease out something unfinished.
Their alienations are distinct. Mulholland at first appears deeply, corporeally connected to his work; a prerequisite expected of artisan and proletarian alike – that they are what they do. But his intense intimacy weakens with fatigue. Audibly losing it’s boom, his voice struggles under a mantra ‘Push skips up the loader. Muck out blasted rock. Push skips back.’ Reflections grow melancholy. In the end he knows the sublime drama of his task will be rendered meaningless ‘… for it looks like we found the cave, not made it.’
Falconer struggles more with distance than exertion. As a critical faculty, it’s expected of artists mostly by themselves. Her mural is narrative but she’s not much of a raconteur. She effectively theorises, furrows the brow of her image, interrogates symbolism, belabours composition, wonders if her materials will remember her. It seems unlikely.
Fusco has mentioned the influence of a Raymond Williams quote hypothesising the Welsh industrial novel as a work of voices and of one voice, not only of history, but of a contemporary conscience of history. The third voice of ‘Master Rock’ is that of the granite itself, a layered, sonorous, distorted groan of vaster temporality than our own. It’s ghostly enough to recall an occult materialism, a techno-geological uncanny of, for example, Nigel Kneale’s BBC horror story ‘The Stone Tape’ as much as it does the cultural materialism of Williams and the British New Left generation. As one of the stronger, more engaging projects to emerge from a recent geological turn in art, perhaps the success of ‘Master Rock’ relies precisely on making such distinctions moot.