The dust has by now well and truly settled over ongoing restrictions. But the arts sector refuses to.
This, at least, is the resounding message proliferating through the online monologue moments, donation-based show streams and political backlash of recent weeks. In a reality that was reflected poignantly in the variety and volume of the Abbey Theatre’s 50-piece Dear Ireland initiative, each playhouse, company and creative must now articulate a reaction to the current upheaval that upholds their own specific truths.
For Cian O’Brien, the long-standing artistic director of the Project Arts Centre, the speed with which many of his fellow industry folk moved content online from March 12th was remarkable – though he does emphasise his own “slight resistance to it”.
O’Brien says that “unless the work is made to be online”, the general feeling emanating from Project artists is that “their work isn’t best represented in that way”. “When you look at things like NT Live or the Met Live where they have 6 cameras and they’re all HD, it’s different to one camera at the back of the Cube”, he remarks, as we chuckle in acknowledgement of the disparity.
What does that look like? How does that impact on the Box Office income for the performances? On the type of work we can present in the gallery?
Moving forward, O’Brien reveals that Project’s Autumn programme remains intact thus far. “It’s great to have a date from the Government saying theatres can reopen on August 10th and galleries on July 20th.”
But it won’t be a straightforward process. O’Brien voices his uncertainty: “What does that look like? How does that impact on the Box Office income for the performances? On the type of work we can present in the gallery?”
Such questions, O’Brien says, simply give way to spin-off speculations: “If we’re open and we can only have 20 people in the building, what does that look like? If we’re not open at all because we can only have 20 people in the building, what does that look like?”
Serendipitously, however, the people behind Project have long been working on the perfect contingency plan: Future Forecast, an initiative geared towards a time beyond, rather than our restrictive meantimes. Falling under the venue’s 2020 strategic plan, Future Forecast invites audiences and artists alike to contemplate “what a future Project might look like that has better points of access for a wider range of people, and how they would feel ownership of a space like Project, [while] recognising the challenges that art organisations face as gatekeepers for work”.
O’Brien explains that Project hopes to provoke the public’s moral and artistic sensibilities through a smorgasbord of public events, and self-coined “artistic interventions”. Given this pre-existent model calls specifically for outdoor and online delivery, O’Brien predicts that all of the venue’s upcoming work will fall “under the banner of Future Forecast in some way, shape or form”.
If the last eight weeks have told you anything, it’s that this sector exists hand-to-mouth
Future Forecast’s deeply embedded call for change sprouted from ongoing conversations between O’Brien and Project’s “provocateur”, Guardian and Irish Times columnist Una Mullally. Its key focus straddles enhancing accessibility, or “potential”, (O’Brien’s preferred term), and a drive “to make conditions better for artists”. If his position on the Steering Committee of the National Campaign for the Arts has taught O’Brien anything, “it’s the real inability we have as a sector to articulate how we work, what we do and the value or lack thereof that people place on it”.
“There’s a public misunderstanding of artists as people with their hands out looking for money or ‘always complaining’ – but that’s because we’re really struggling”, he says. “If the last eight weeks have told you anything, it’s that this sector exists hand-to-mouth.”
Despite being “heartened in one way” by pandemic discourse that re-emphasised the Arts Council’s integral role in the sector’s future, he says he was comparatively dispirited by the need for “negative flame-outs” in response to Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan’s statement on April 3rd. “It’s disappointing”, he says, “that after however many years since that department was set up under the first minister Michael D Higgins, that there is still a real level of misunderstanding around artists and artists lives”.
But for O’Brien, the future of the sector comes down to appealing to those who aren’t working in the sector.
“People are engaging with art in a real sense now because they’re at home”, O’Brien continues, noting the thousands who have watched Dear Ireland thus far. Project hopes to maintain these levels of artistic engagement upon re-opening, by enhancing accessibility, through Future Forecast. “It’s about demystifying the building a bit, because Project is kind of intimidating”, O’Brien explains. “It’s concrete, it’s blue, the doors are really hard to open – they’re simple things but they make it literally difficult sometimes to get in the door and all those little things add up.”
There’s a public misunderstanding of artists as people with their hands out looking for money or ‘always complaining’
Cutting the ribbon on the initiative is a series of eight micro-commissions, developed in response to Una Mullaly’s incendiary prompt. Unlike timed-oriented equivalents, Project’s artists are working at different paces to respond through a range of distinct mediums. The polished pieces will be released at varying points over the coming months, as O’Brien has “really … given the artists free reign”.
Dublin-based theatre company MALAPROP broke the silence last Wednesday, when its contemporary artistic intervention captured the attention of audiences and artists alike. Nyree Yergainhairsian’s piece will go live this week, with work from Brokentalkers, One Two One Two, Shaun Dunne, Junk Ensemble, Una McKevitt and Jose Miguel Hemenez to follow.
Through the lens of Future Forecast, the creatives behind Project Arts Centre invite us to start thinking about “not ideas of panic, pandemic, isolation, but really thinking about what can come after that”. O’Brien asks: “What are the green shoots and silver linings that we can see within the clouds that are currently, although not currently … swarming over us?”