An interview with Lucy Medlycott by Meadhbh McNutt

Lucy Medlycott is a fluent conversationalist. As co-founder and executive director of ISACS (The Irish Street Arts, Circus & Spectacle Network), she spends her days connecting people and advocating on their behalf. The role translates clearly in the passionate inflection of her speech. It’s a passion that has carried Lucy through 10 years of supporting artists and organisations in the development of their public art forms.

An alum of the Sculpture Department at Limerick School of Art & Design, Lucy took an unexpected route to Street Arts. Martin Folan, her tutor in the early 90s, reframed the very concept of art for her, when he invited the students to take their creations to the streets. “At one point, he came in and said, “Why does the work have to be in a gallery? Why can’t we take it to the street? Will we do something for the St. Patrick’s Day Festival?” “Yeh, sure,” they replied. A typical nonchalant art student response. Martin’s idea saw them crafting giant sculptures in an abandoned factory at the Docks in Limerick. “an unsavory place to be in the early ‘90s,” laughs Lucy. Her creation took shape as a 16ft ghost, reflecting on our need to confront the past, while her fellow student, Colm reenacted the assassination of President F. Kennedy. Unexpected sights at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Limerick.

“None of it was very carnival,” says Lucy. “It was all kind of conceptual. We put these things on cars and drove them through the streets.” The project was a moment of realisation for Lucy.

“Why would we make these things and put them in the gallery, where a limited audience is in attendance? Those that do go can be so well informed and educated that they’re often bored to death.”

The parade cast the unspoken expectations of the gallery in a new light. Today, we see this realisation in the popularity of socially engaged art. Street offered an authentic moment of engagement, and The St. Patrick’s Day Festival allowed the students to introduce themselves to the wider community in a direct, exciting way.

“The St Patrick’s Day Festival is a community celebration of our identity, of who we are,” says Lucy. “Every single scout group or Taekwondo club is marching down to represent their community. They’re standing up and being proud of who they are. As artists, we should be out there among them.” For Lucy, this transition to the street was not only a matter of thinking about the audience. The audience itself comes to shape the work.

“Put the artworks on the street, and every mother, child, grandad or passerby – everybody has access, and can react to them. Instead of the audience coming to you, you go to them.”

As to the cultural significance of Street, Circus and Spectacle, she adds, “There is no doubt in my mind that these artforms have a major impact.” “The creation of both Macnas and Spraoi,” she adds, “with their carnivalesque spectacle culture, are just some examples of how Street Arts transforms the cultural identity of a city.”

Macnas 'gilgamesh' 2
‘Gilgamesh’ by Macnas. Photo by Julia Dunin

Creating ISACS

ISACS is Ireland’s leading support and advocacy organisation for the development of street arts, circus and spectacle art. When asked what unites these different disciplines, Lucy explains that “while ISACS is so many things, this idea of being on the fringe hits the nail on the head.” Common to all members is the drive to bring their artform directly to the audience and move beyond the establishment.” ISACS is both national and international. Of the 200 plus members, roughly 15% are internationally based. “We are a very engaged community. We are often in the same places working on the same projects, connecting and sharing and exchanging.”

After making artworks for the street with Martin, Lucy and her peers set up a company together. “When we left college, we had to make our own jobs. I worked on that for about 20 years. Slowly, I realised that it didn’t matter how hard we worked; the sector was still undervalued and left behind. If we didn’t come together and make a unit, we would get nowhere.” While Lucy went about organising Street Artists around common goals, Ulla Hokkanen from Galway Community Circus and Chantal McCormick from Fidget Feet, were busy doing the same thing within the circus communities.

“We decided to come together. We organised a meeting with all the people we knew across the sector and asked the question, “What do we want?” The overwhelming response was recognition. “Not money or jobs, but recognition.”

Given the tiny pot of arts funding available at the time, the group wanted to make sure that the project would be worthwhile for the sector as a whole. “We asked everyone at the meeting, ‘Are you prepared for us to do that?” They said, ‘Yes, because we need a voice at the table.'” ISACS started its journey with 10 members. Today, it has over 200 and growing still, following a 25% increase during the pandemic.

Considering the recent growth in interest, Lucy has a few theories. “A lot of the Street Arts and Circus people weren’t really interested in joining a network because they were so busy going from gig to gig. They couldn’t see the benefit when they were already busy,” she says. “Then, when the pandemic hit, they were like, “Wow! We need to apply for support.”

Lucy became a counselling hotline of sorts. “Then there was the transition to out of doors. People were told that they can’t perform inside. Suddenly, theatre people were moving towards the Street, filled with curiosity.” People from theatre were reaching out and connecting with the street. A pleasant surprise for Lucy. “That’s almost the definition of recognition,” she says. “The transition tells me a lot. Dublin Theatre Festival recently put on a show with Broken talkers and Algorithm called RISING. Was it in a theatre? No. It was under the banner of Theatre, but it was Street Art.”

Looking Forward

Regardless of the pandemic, Lucy has noted an immense growth in the sector over the years. “I put that down to a few key organisations such as Fidget Feet, Galway Community Circus, the National Circus Festival of Ireland, Cork Circus Factory, Macnas, Spraoi, Circus Gerbola and more pushing for a change. ISACS also plays a part in that.”

ISACS brings together three distinct art forms under one umbrella, each with their own unique history.

“The circus has a particularly long, rich heritage. We especially respect the generations that came before because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Another part of Lucy’s role as executive director is to encourage the next generation of artists. “A normal day for me is spent at a desk on the phone,” she says. “While it’s not how I envisioned my life, it makes me feel good that I can help others to achieve their dreams. I have a lot of contacts from my 30 years in the sector, and I recognise the challenges that newcomers face.”

At the moment, Lucy is driving to Inis Oírr with two acrobats. “We’re bringing two artists to do a residency at Áras Éanna.” After hosting FRESH STREET #3 with Galway 2020 in Áras Éanna in 2019, the relationship has continued with regular residencies. “The acrobats wanted to do something in rural Ireland,” says Lucy. “It’s exciting for us as the arts activities are just as valid in a place like Inis Oírr as they are in the heart of Dublin’s fine institutions. In some ways, it’s better to experience something unique and intimate with only 20 other people in the audience.”

This takes us back to the roots of ISACS. Rather than showing up and taking a seat passively as a viewer, waiting to be entertained, Street arts and circus want you to join in on the journey.

“It’s taking art back to what it should be, which is almost like a pilgrimage.” These public art forms take away the social expectation that you must sit and be quiet and controlled until the end of the performance. The expectation is completely flipped with Street or Circus because the audience is in control. They decide when they stay, and they decide when they go.”