In 2019 the ISACS Network together with our partners at Circostrada and in collaboration with Galway 2020 -the European Capital of Culture, presentedFRESH STREET#3 – International Seminar for the development of Street Arts.
The event took place from 22 – 24th May, in Galway City and Inis Oírr, in association with the Áras Éanna Arts Centre and the National University of Ireland, Galway.
This is an extract from the post event report of FRESH STREET#3 – which focused on the theme ‘Place and Identity’ and was carefully explored through discussions, immersive walks and artistic presentations.
The feature below was written by Mary Paterson, a writer and curator who attended the event and works between performance, literature, and visual art. Her ongoing projects include Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations.
Imagining FRESH STREET
This is the Claddagh Basin, Galway. It’s a site of communal happiness and sadness, says Ulla Hokkanen, the director of GalwayCommunity Circus (GCC), as we walk alongside the hiss of the river. These grassy banks are where the people of Galway come to celebrate and to remember; these turbulent waters reflect the lives of the city and sometimes take them too. In 2014, Galway’s mayor called for nets to be installed beneath the river’s bridges in order to deter suicides. But on the days we visit, the place is filled with students drinking to mark the end of term, gazing towards the impossible horizon.
This nexus of meanings is why Hokkanen has chosen the Claddagh Basin as the site for Wires Crossed, a 72-hour spectacle of community river crossings conceived by GCC and the Ecole de Cirque du Bruxelles, which will take place in 2020. For three continuous days, residents of Galway will walk across the rapids on a tightwire: a real and symbolic journey which hopes to both represent and repair the mental health crisis affecting the town. Each crossing is a personal achievement as well as part of a large-scale event that stretches beyond any individual’s capacity. This is, then, a literal bridge over troubled waters: a community gathering that makes public the private struggles of all involved, and cheers everyone on to succeed.
Wires Crossed is also one of the flagship events of Galway 2020: a year of events to celebrate Galway’s tenure as European Capital of Culture. Accessible, engaging and wordlessly profound, this project epitomises many of the aims of the wider programme as expressed by the 2020 organisers: ‘creating new ways of thinking, new ways of working’. Building on the myriad meanings of Galway’slandscape, it is also rooted in the life and soul of the city — ‘authentically of Galway’. As Helen Marriage, artistic director of Galway2020, says, there is already an abundance of street arts in this city; the 2020 programme is simply an invitation to make these artists and organisations known to ever bigger audiences.
This is the context and the setting for FRESHSTREET#3, in which people from around the world meet to talk about the life and work of street arts. We are gathered to imagine the future, as well as to reflect on the past, to think about how to survive, as well as how to dream. We meet not only in Galway, where we are treated to a preview of Wires Crossed (amongst many other things); but also take aday-long trip to the island of Inis Oírr.
Conceived for the opportunity of Galway2020, Wires Crossed is also subject to the pressures placed on street arts in an international context. The expectation for Capital of Culture status is that it inspires culture-led economic regeneration. ‘Citizens can take part in the yearlong activities and play a larger role in their region’s development and cultural expression’ says the European Commission, which has been running the European Capital of Culture project as a European Union initiative since 1985.‘Being a European Capital of Culture brings fresh life to these regions, boosting their cultural, economic and social development.’ A Capital of Culture’s events are meant to appeal to everyone who lives here already and also to enact a radical transformation from the status quo.
Who, then, is this art for? Who decides what it is meant to achieve? And how do artists, producers and audiences interact with these pressures on their own terms?
In a conference session on the creative process, Didacienne Nibagwire from the Ishyo Arts Centre in Rwanda invites us all to write a letter to someone who is not here. This, she says, is where her creative process comes from: imagined conversations with absent friends. She describes the way this practice began — when, as a child, she missed her family, who had been killed in the genocide in Rwanda. Sitting in a lecture theatre in Galway, it is hard to imagine that type of absence or that type of pain. I write a letter to a relative who has dementia, and then I stop, because it is making me cry.
Nobody does anything in the street in Rwanda, Nibag wire tells us: people don’t eat in the street, don’t kiss in the street. Terrible things have happened in these public spaces. Memories hang like fog, dampening people’s movements. The performances that Ishyo Arts Centre stages on the streets of Kigali, then, are not just a matter of making things happen in public space but also of making public space happen. They are an attempt to start real conversations about things no one should have to imagine. In this way, they perform a similar double function to Wires Crossed: part representation, part act of repair. And, just like Wires Crossed, they are works of art that speak of and with an audience integral to their location.
Nibagwire’s presentation is an important reminder, too, that street arts are not always vehicles for positive emotions. We might frequently use the language of ‘fun’ and ‘tourism’ to communicate about street arts to funders, policymakers and commercial interests. But the connection between art and public space is relevant to every aspect of civic life. During the same conference session, Mike Leahy from Spraoi International Street Arts Festival in Waterford City, Ireland, says he started making street arts because he was bored. In relation to the context Nibagwire has just described, his admission raises a laugh — but it’s just as serious, and just as profound. The boredom of young people signifies a failure of the social contract; as Leahy describes it: nothing happened in his town, and he had no hopes for the future.
When Jean-Jacques Rousseau first described ‘the social contract’, in the eighteenth century, he was arguing against enslavement, aristocracy and the unequal application of the law. His utopian ideal was a society in which everyone shares equal rights and responsibilities, agreed by consensus and governed by direct democratic principle. Rousseau was writing 30 years before the French Revolution when people still believed in the Divine Right of Kings; a century before Europeans called a halt to their slave trade; and longer still until the right to vote would be extended to a universal franchise. His ideas seem extraordinarily prescient now. But they also prove that it is possible to think differently that radical ideas will reach further than you can imagine.
When Leahy began turning his boredom into art, however, he was not enacting an ideal version of society — he was simply expressing himself. For years, Leahy says, the art he made wasn’t even very good — he was learning on the job, with no person, no perfect form, to teach him. Similarly, Nibagwire’s letters to her family were born from her private grief. In very different ways, they are both describing an intimate transformation of personal experiences into social impact. Social impact is often lionised — or instrumentalised — as the outcome of public art, but it always starts with a meaningful engagement on a private level. Just as a social contract must be based on the consent of everyone involved, so the collective impact of a work of art derives from its effective impact on the individual.
Indeed, Rousseau’s near-contemporary, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, argued that the primary purpose of art is to prove that other people are real. We all travel through life, Kant said, assuming that the people we rub shoulders with in the street share a consciousness similar to our own. It is only when we are in the presence of great works of art that we know they do. To meet a work of art, said Kant, is also to meet the intention of the artist(s). Or, more specifically, to meet the artist in the intersubjective (that is, in the zone where two private people meet) discovery of their intention: to speak to the past together, to soothe a wound together, to find an echo for the nameless things you feel.
We are on the island of Inis Oírr, a two-hour boat trip into the Atlantic, watching a work in progress by jugglers Kate Boschetti and Liam Wilson. This is an island marked by movement, and walls. The movement of people from these islands across the wild sea to North America is the stuff of story and song, but there is a more profound movement stitched into the landscape of Inis Oírr, too. The ground has a limestone base, which makes it impossible to farm, so each field on the island is man-made. Hundreds of closely packed, dry stone walls cover Inis Oírr like tightly written spells. The first farmers moved sand and seaweed into these tidy pockets, and today this palimpsest sustains the island’s current wave of movement — tourism.
Boschetti and Wilson have built a new wall on a bare piece of land overlooking the ocean. Alone, against the green-grey sea, the wall represents place and displacement at the same time. Its materials and shapes are unique to Inis Oírr, but the wall has been built out of context — displaced from a tool of survival into an aesthetic idea.
Unlike Hokkanen, Nibagwire or Leahy, Boschetti and Wilson have not spent years living in the site of their latest work. They are visitors to this place: artists in residence atÁras Éanna (‘the most westerly arts centre in Europe,’ says its director, Dara McGee), who have been exploring the remote island for a month. If Wires Crossed is imbued with symbol and metaphor, then, Boschetti and Wilson’s work is more concerned with vision and form. And yet in this way it, too, is rooted in the earth. Asked if they could see this work being performed elsewhere, they both laugh: not unless they could take the rocks with them!
At one point the artists disappear behind the wall, and a tiny bird flies straight into the sky, as if on cue. The crowd laughs. In the Q&A that follows, we describe this extraordinary coincidence to the artists, but they didn’t see it — they were facing the other direction. Part of the gift of this performance, then, is an attention of looking — an attention that exceeds the intention of the artists, even while it reads their intentions in unintended ways. Relocating Kant’s intersubjective encounter into the sensations of a body, the contemporary philosopher Brian Massumi describes the experience of art as a type of attention. Art happens, he says, when you sense meaning but you have not yet decided what anything means. Massumi describes the ‘aesthetic realm’ as a moment of potential, in which more than one thing can be true at the same time. The bird in Boschetti and Wilson’s performance is a function for the work of art, as well as (unintentionally) a function of it. The bird’s flight connects the artwork to the natural laws of the land, and the artwork transforms the natural movement into something else: a strange cameo, perhaps. The bird, in other words, means something and nothing at the same time.
This moment inspires a gentle piece of performance on the part of the audience, too: laughing at the surprise, we perform ourselves as a united crowd, all sharing the same thought about the impossibility of the bird.
If art works through modes of attention, then this type of physical performance could be described as art with a universal appeal. Juggling is an international form that transcends most language and cultural barriers— you don’t need a particular kind of education to intuit the relationships between objects and bodies, here. Watching these jugglers in this rural setting, I am reminded of modernist painting of the twentieth century— abstract forms based on the land, the sea, the sky. Like a Piet Mondrian grid, Boschetti and Wilson explore the limits of how we understand the real world. Throwing and catching these unforgiving rocks, they neither submit to nature nor dominate it. Instead, they play at the edges, push at the borders, toy with the balance of power.
As the applause dies down for Boschetti and Wilson a group of schoolchildren, who had crept into the audience part way through, begin to sing. The FRESH STREET crowd turns to enjoy this new show, a demonstration of spontaneous island life — both responding to the inspiration of the visitors and displaying their own artistic heritage. Well, not quite. ‘That’s a school group visiting from the mainland,’ McGee tells us as we reflect on the afternoon in the courtyard of his art centre. ‘They saw an opportunity to make a few Euros.’ Public space is never quite what you imagine. Or rather, it is everything that you imagine, and many things besides.
In his keynote speech, Jay Pather, a curator and professor of art in public space in South Africa, shows photographs of an artist lying in the doorway of an art gallery during a private view. She is wrapped in blankets, stretched across the threshold, and almost completely ignored by the wealthy art goers who attend the event. As an image, it is both shocking and familiar. The sight of poverty cheek by jowl with wealth is present in most large cities, although ‘sight’ is perhaps the wrong word. So naturalised is the modern, urban cityscape to homeless people, beggars, street dwellers, that the presence of them as people is barely seen at all.
Or rather, it depends on who is looking. Pather’s work troubles the nature of public space in South Africa in order to make people look at the overlooked, and in order for the overlooked to return the gaze. One of his festivals uses the metaphor of ‘infection’ to curate art in public space across Cape Town. It’s a powerful word that signifies the rapid spread of new ideas, as well as the reactionary forces that will be flung in their way. (Note that Rousseau’s book on democratic equality was banned in Paris, and ceremoniously burnt in Geneva, shortly after its publication.)
To illustrate his approach, Pather shows us a photograph of Cape Town from the air. On one side, the wealthy white suburbs: detached villas, lush lawns and swimming pools. On the other side, the townships filled with poor, black workers: shanty towns built from metal and dust. He describes the latter as labour camps, housing manual workers for the suburban elites. The difference in living standards, then, is not a mistake but a strategy: the townships are an asset exploited by and for the dominant class. This is why Pather’s festivals draw audiences through disparate territories, beginning, for example, at the transport points that deposit commuters into their working day, and threading into the squares and avenues built with very different kinds of people in mind. In this way, his work echoes global movements based on the ‘right to the city’ — a concept of resistance to the capitalisation of urban pace, as developed by the philosopher Henri Lefebvre. As the geographer David Harvey has put it, ‘the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is … one of the most precious and yet neglected of our human rights’.
The mention of human rights has a particular resonance in the South African context, in which the historic wealth of the white elite was accrued via a brutally racist apartheid regime. 25 years since the system was dismantled, politically, there have been no financial reparations for black South Africans. The resulting economic segregation fits perfectly the shape that apartheid left (or did not in fact leave) behind. This twisted situation is, indeed, what members of the South African shack dweller’s movement, AbahlalibaseMjondolo, mean when they describe their living conditions as ‘the unjustified breach of the promise of a “better life”’ — a social contract that is not so much broken, as based on a pernicious and cruel lie.
Pather’s aim, then, is not just to change what happens in Cape Town, but to change the entire way the city is imagined. As well as infection he talks about ‘resistance’ and ‘pushing back.’ From a European perspective, it’s interesting to note this subtle difference in tone. In Europe, we tend to talk about healing and repair. Marriage, for example, describes art in public space as innately democratic, because it takes place in spaces that belong to everyone. The implication is that there is an ideal communal psyche — a democracy, or a social contract— to which we all belong.
Of course, the historic wealth of Europe is based on the same brutal racism as South African apartheid: apartheid was, indeed, a European idea. At the borders of Europe, now, there are camps of displaced people, prevented from entering one of the richest regions of the world by policies of violent exclusion, outsourced to unaccountable enforcers. Many immigrants who do enter Europe are trafficked into modern slavery, and many more are kept in poverty or detention. When we talk about our public spaces, then, what kinds of public are we talking about? What kinds of spaces do we mean?
FRESH STREET#3 coincided with the 2019 European Parliament elections — a vote happening simultaneously across all 28 EU member states. This huge, democratic process is a moment of reimagining on a continental scale. At the time of meeting for FRESH STREET#3, we don’t yet know the results of the elections, but we could perhaps guess at the sharpness of the divide. When the votes are counted, they will show a huge surge in representation for far-right, nationalist parties — like the German Alternative für Deutschland or the Flemish separatists Vlaams Belang — who campaigned on the basis of national pride, protectionism and immigration controls. And yet there is also a widespread surge for Green parties, committed to international collaboration in the face of climate change. Half of the EU’s population, in other words, is voting for borders, and the other half for bridges. The moderate consensus that has dominated the EU for forty years has lost its security.
What are we trying to repair? What are we trying to return (to)? Where do we think we are going?
In his plenary session for FRESH STREET, the Italian anthropologist Paolo Apolito makes a moving case for how difference can be understood within a larger whole. His solution, articulated in Italian to a largely English-speaking audience, is jazz. Jazz is an art form that depends on disharmony as much as harmony, on improvisation as much as practice. ‘Change is always happening,’ said the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson.‘That’s one of the wonderful things about jazz music.’ Crucially, Apolito’s metaphor is not for multiculturalism — the failed experiment in which cultures live side by side, without acknowledging the need to adapt to a different context. Instead, he advocates for a consensus in which difference is not a matter of exclusion, but a principle for taking part.
What kind of borders are we protecting?
By speaking in Italian, Apolito is also making the point that homogeneity does not need to be the basis for understanding. His performance lecture is an effective demonstration of transnationalist ideals. But as we dance out of the lecture hall behind a band of musicians, I wonder if this is too much like easy listening.
What might it mean to infect our cities? What might it mean to make space?
In this moment of anticipation — Galway perched on the edge of European Capital of Culture, the EU perched on the edge of a new parliament — it feels strange to be absorbed into LUXE’s parade Imramh – TheShip of Destiny, as it moves slowly through the streets of Galway. It is one thing to sympathise with the politics of art in public spaces, but quite another to put your body inside the work of art, and to feel it happening to you.
I watch in silence, alone in a collection of strangers. Suddenly, the dancer makes way for a huge parade of glowing boats — and now, a dreamlike flotilla moves gloriously through the town. The sun has set, the lamp in my hand reflects the glow of the procession, people come out of pubs to take pictures, and I realise that I am no longer a stranger: I have become part of the body of this parade. It is an uncomfortable sensation: to be watched by people who constitute an audience, and whose gaze constitutes me as a performer. The route is slow and I have no idea wherewe are going. In this moment of exposure, I’m acutely aware of all the shifting parts of my identity: as a woman, a tourist, an outsider, an English woman in Ireland, a Jew in Europe. My identities rattle like costume jewellery. I don’tknow what to do with my hands.
Is this a form of consent, or participation?
How do we know the difference?
Eventually, I relax into a moment I don’t fully understand. The music flows through me and I know I ‘pass’ as someone who has a right to be here. In this moment of not-yet meaning, I am alive to impossible truths: I do and do not belong. There are some things that I cannot imagine, and other things I don’t want to.
My experience of public space is inextricably linked to my relative wealth, relative whiteness, relative education, relative age, and relative freedom of movement. My methods of understanding public space are drawn from Eurocentric world views. The ambivalence I feel inside a celebration of another community’s public spaces is also the ambivalence inherent in these worldviews, as they are instrumentalised in the service of financial growth: am I ‘authentically of Galway’, or part of its ‘cultural, economic and social development’? Perhaps what Apolito is really saying, is that as well as listening to jazz, we need to commit fully to the improvisation of it: moment to moment, one to one, personal to political. This would reconcile the attention required from art, with the criticality required in public space. It would reconcile the rights we have to the city, with the responsibilities we have to each other, including the others who are not being seen. And when I say reconcile, of course, I mean hold, uncomfortably like a series of spiky truths. Here is a series of spiky truths.
Europe is built on place and displacement; movement and walls. There are exclusion zones filled with bodies at the borders of our wealth. Our belonging is based on an imbalance of power.
The artist Orlagh De Bhaldraithe walks onto a stage with flowers in her hair. ‘I have a vision,’ she says, ‘of a day of global art and activism.’ Her words come at the start of FRESHSTREET but echo through all its experiences.
FRESH STREET#3 after movie:
Establishment of a new artistic residency:
An artistic residency programme was developed in partnership with the Áras Éanna Arts Centre on Inis Oírr through an open call. The successful applicants were contemporary juggler duo: Kate Boschetti (Italy) and Liam Wilson (UK), who together stayed on Inis Oírr for a month creating and building a new site specific work for the island and with the place. They were joined by Andrea Galad who has created a documentary of their time there entitled Out of Land.
ISACS were overwhelmed by the incredible and powerful response to FRESH STREET from both the delegates, stakeholders, partners and the public – Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.