Cork project puts the spotlight on grow houses and human trafficking

A multi-sensory installation is set to run as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival, shining a light on cannabis grow houses and the people trafficked to work in them, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork project puts the spotlight on grow houses and human trafficking

Visual artist Marie Brett, creator of The Day-Crossing Farm multisensory installation which explores issues of human trafficking, modern day slavery and drug farming, as part of Cork Midsummer Festival 2021. Image credit: the artist.

WEST Cork-based visual artist Marie Brett says that before investigating her current project about cannabis grow houses and the many people who are trafficked to work in them, she had no idea how somebody could end up with a debt bondage.

“It could be as simple as somebody’s parent falling ill and having to borrow money to take them to hospital,” she says.

“They’re then indebted to a loan shark who might suggest to the person that they can work overseas, earn a bit of money and pay off the debt. It’s so shocking. 

"I thought it would be a lot more sinister and dark. But it’s so everyday. Somebody’s family could be poorly.”

Marie’s multi-sensory installation, entitled ‘The Day-Crossing Farm’, includes live performance in a secret Cork city location, exploring human trafficking, modern day slavery and drug farming. Commissioned by the Cork Midsummer Festival in dialogue with justice and advocacy organisations, scholars, gardeners and people with lived experience of trafficking and forced labour, Marie hopes it will get people thinking and talking.

It’s important, she says, that there’s an awareness that people working in grow houses or cannabis farms are not necessarily criminals. Many of them have been trafficked and might not be able to express the experience they’ve been through.

She said: “People are terrified. It can take time for their story to unfold. It’s been really interesting looking at the training around this issue in parts of Europe and America. It’s very much citizen awareness.”

‘The Day-Crossing Farm’ is a reference to people who don’t have the paper work needed to cross over to another jurisdiction.

“‘Day crossing over’ is a colloquial term, implying that someone is going from one jurisdiction to another for the day because they wouldn’t have the papers to stay long term. But in a much bigger sense, it alludes to trying to seek a better life. ‘Farm’ references agriculture, something to do with trade,” Marie explained.

'Growhouse' by Marie Brett - Midsummer Festival 2021 - Cork, Ireland. Picture: Jed Niezgoda
'Growhouse' by Marie Brett - Midsummer Festival 2021 - Cork, Ireland. Picture: Jed Niezgoda

The people who are trafficked are told they’re going to be gardeners. That might suggest a rural idyll. But it could be just a grow house that they’re sent to.

In keeping with her desire to speak to people on the ground, Marie met with people who had been trafficked.

“It took a lot of negotiation to build up trust. 

"I spoke to people who’d been trafficked and enslaved and forced to work in grow houses in Ireland. 

"Interestingly, in the last 12 months, there has been a lot of training in terms of awareness raising globally. I’ve been able to sit in online at a lot of training all over the world with people who’ve been trafficked, so that they can share their story.”

Marie says the amount of people trafficked to this country is considerable, but a lot of it goes unreported.

“You have to be aware of the nuances of why someone is incarcerated in a grow house.”

The authorities, including the gardaí, are becoming more and more experienced and knowledgeable about human trafficking and identifying victims, says Marie.

“Sometimes, people who’ve been trafficked might not even know what country they’re in. They may not speak the language of the country. They have no money. They’re totally dependent on someone dropping by once a week to give them basic food.”

Trafficked victims in cannabis grow houses wouldn’t know if it’s day or night.

Marie explained: “The houses are dark as the windows have been blacked out. The light is on timers. It’s all to do with keeping the plants healthy. 

"The lights go on and off at intervals. You feed the plants, nourishing them, mixing chemicals for them and trimming them. That could be a trafficked person’s raison d’etre.”

It’s thought the cannabis stays in Ireland. The trading of it “could make a whole other chapter”.

Does Marie think cannabis should be legalised here?

“When something is illegal, such as drink, it’s known from history that it brings an underground trade. Our project isn’t taking a stand in terms of whether cannabis should be made legal. It’s more about the realities of what is happening in the country. There’s the whole debate about cannabis use for people’s health. But we don’t go into that.

“The art project is not a publicity tool to campaign for the legislation of cannabis. But hopefully, it will raise some questions.”

The multi-sensory installation is being created and experienced at a secret location in Cork because it’s a reference to people being put in secret grow houses.

“We’re going to provide transport to take people to the site. (Only one or two people will be brought to the location at a time.) They won’t know where they’re going but we’ll try to make them feel calm and safe. The installation and live performances will take place in a series of different rooms and spaces. There will be filmic audio/visual installations that are quite sculptural. And there will be live music with performers projected on a really large scale.

“We have a wonderful opera singer (Emma Nash) and violinist, Julian Halpin performing. There will be plants growing in the space. The installation will be immersive with objects that you move into and around.”

The gardaí have donated equipment that they’ve seized in the course of drug busts.

The ambitious piece is produced in collaboration with film maker, Linda Curtin, composer and sound designer, Peter Power, and lighting designer, Sarah Jane Shiels. It is funded by the Arts Council, the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, Cork Midsummer Festival and Cork City Council.

The Live Installation Event is from June 14-20. The film streaming is from June 14-27. There is PG for online viewing.

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