Monday, 25 May 2020

Saying Goodbye

In February I arrived in Skibbereen, hometown of West Cork Arts Centre. To finalize my Master’s degree, I seized the chance of gaining more experience in Art and Education through a work placement at this established institution. Right from the beginning I experienced a warm and welcoming atmosphere and was deeply impressed by the liveliness of this place. I felt that I could learn a lot from this placement that would help me when I would start my job at a museum back in Germany. 

Three months later I can say that I actually did learn a lot but not in a way I had imagined at the beginning. Next to the knowledge of making pom poms and other handy skills I acquired, for example, during my work with artists Ana Ospina, Michael Stephens and Allice Halliday in preparation for the St. Patrick’s Parade, it is probably my knowledge on public outreach and the online world that has increased the most. 

Half way through my placement the public closure of Uillinn, home of West Cork Arts Centre, was announced and I had to go back to Germany. Working remotely from then on, everything took place online, including the educational programme where I had the chance to  contribute directly. Right after the closure, the online programme Uillinn Connect was established in order to maintain public engagement throughout the pandemic. Most of this educational work is dependent on social media platforms such as instagram and facebook where the Art Centre already had a wide audience even before the closure. What was new is that workshops, activities and such were not only announced online, but actually took place there. 

For me, having always been quite skeptical of a heavy use of social media, this new way of working was a real challenge at first. Not only did I have to create social media accounts to better understand how instagram and facebook work, I also had to throw my own scepticism overboard. In the end, all of this was easier than I had imagined. What I realized was that social media has potential to enable many people, especially in rural areas, to access art. Without this option, they might never have the chance to get in contact with the arts. Especially in the current pandemic society, it represents a space for artistic debate and educational opportunity, ensuring the human right to access culture, especially given that cultural institutions have remained closed to the public for such a long period of time. Uillinn Connect is a proactive invitation to children, currently without access to the arts in person, to engage in arts via online - not only during Covid-19, inviting the question, should this programme continue in a post-pandemic society, when Uillinn is reopened.

After adjusting my mindset a little, there was still the challenge of never actually having used Instagram before, and the last time I had a facebook account must be about 10 years ago, which is a long time in the online world. Luckily there were people around me who are real experts on this field: Justine Foster, Programme Manager of West Cork Arts Centre, Louise Forsyth, Communications Assistant and Kate McElroy, Public Engagement Assistant are the heart of Uillinn Connect and have been responsible for the Art Centre’s great online presence even before the pandemic. It was probably thanks to their hard internet work that I even found West Cork Arts Centre in the small town of Skibbereen, which led me to do a stay abroad there. Now, during these challenging times, they have gone lengths to transform WCAC, the former real life hub, into this great temporary online platform. “We have all learned a lot”, Louise says during one of the weekly Public Engagement meetings, and of course, we all agree. In an online meeting with Kate, who is quite used to creating social media posts for WCAC, she tells me that her posts have changed since the pandemic: “They are more lively. The posts are now essential to connecting with people rather than just documenting what is happening at Uillinn. I also wonder if we have a wider reach now, since people who did not have the chance to visit the Arts Centre in person are now able to use its online offers.”

One of these offers were the Daily Art Activities that were posted throughout April every day at 11 am on facebook, twitter and instagram. Working with Kate, I had the chance to create some of them.Uillinn Connect Daily Activities generally are designed in such a way that they can be carried out at home with as little material as possible and without previous technical knowledge. In addition, they contain a reference to an artistic work, which also represents the occasion of the respective activity. Many of the activities refer to the children’s exhibition Connecting or William Bock’s latest exhibition Land Walks, Land Talks, Land Marks and are designed to encourage children and their families to interact with nature and their surroundings, offering child-oriented examination of topics addressed in the various works used as an inspiration for the activities. The most difficult aspect was the right balance between creating an appealing instagram post and the delivery of educational content. One problem was also that once the posts went out, there was no chance to react to difficulties parents and children might have had when putting them into practice. Likes on Social Media give us some feedback, but do not tell us when things went wrong or really turned out great. A child’s laugh is nothing that can be substituted with an online thumbs-up. However, the fact that the archive of all the Daily Activities is now the most popular page on the West Cork Arts Centre’s website shows how much appreciated all the work was and still is. The Daily Activities turned into a huge resource for easily accessible art activities and will remain there even after the pandemic is over. 

A lot has changed over the past three months. The question regarding this new online presence, as Louise puts it, is: “Will we be able to keep it up, once we go back to normal?” That remains to be seen. Now that I broadened my horizon in this regard, I do think that there is positive potential in online education. It provides opportunities which are not possible without the world wide web connection, for example linking people from different countries - I myself am a perfect example for that. However, the online world can never be a substitute for real life experiences and I am very much looking forward to personally interacting with people through the arts and experiencing art with my body rather than looking at a screen. The challenge for the future is to combine the way things were before the pandemic with what we have learned since then. I believe for West Cork Arts Centre and all its engaged and passionate people, the turnout will be great. I hope I will have the chance to come back someday in the future to see this place where I have learned so much once again!

Monday, 18 May 2020

Rusty Frog Youth Theatre Zooms Ahead

They were only weeks away from staging their newest theatre production. Rusty Frog Youth Theatre had worked hard to get their play ready when, unfortunately, Taoiseach, Leo Varadka announced closure of all public institutions due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, including West Cork Arts Centre, the home of RFYT. The past two months have been a difficult situation for so many cultural institutions worldwide. For Rusty Frog Youth Theatre it put a sudden halt to their recent work. However, instead of shutting things down entirely, the Rusty Frogs decided to transfer their weekly meetings to Zoom sessions. Theatre via video conference - this idea took me some time to get used to, as I have always imagined theatre as something that needs space for bodily experiences. I was intrigued to find out how this could possibly work. 
Rusty Frogs at West Cork Arts Centre
In order to transfer the drama meetings to an online format, facilitator Maxine Acton was supported by Rhona Dunnett, Research and Development Officer and the team at Youth Theatre Ireland, who were very familiar with RFYT, having been in regular contact with the Arts Centre based Youth Theatre, “Like a lot of people in the country, COVID-19 has really accelerated our ability to work on digital platforms and work with video conference apps like zoom!”, she says, “Youth Theatre Ireland is always active on social media but the focus is always on communications, on sharing and promoting the work that we’re doing. Moving to a situation where we are creating all our work online and hosting digital events is a new thing for us!” 

This challenging situation presented itself with both opportunity and drawbacks, as Maxine Acton describes: “We were going to stage a radio play (as though being recorded in front of a live audience)  and we thought we could easily move this to the online setting but as only half our members were able to take part in the sessions this was not possible.” Additionally, issues of internet connectivity had to be overcome. However, the group soon found ways to adapt to the circumstances. “It seemed to me that the members joining in wanted to see other young people from outside their family and do something fun so I tried to adapt some games for Zoom. Charades worked reasonably well and required some acting skills but our biggest success in terms of fun has been a version of Articulate.” In addition to these games, the group engaged themselves in creative writing tasks or short story readings for a small audience of friends and family members. One workshop focused on their now postponed stage play, called “40 questions in 4 minutes”. Here, the participants were assigned the task of creating a sock puppet of their character in our radio play. With a slight shift of focus and the support of their facilitators, the Rusty Frogs have found ways to successfully cope with the technical and social challenges that present themselves along the way, so they might stay connected.
Online Sock Puppet Taks
Youth Theatre Ireland acted fast to find ways to support the creative activities of the 56 affiliated theatres across the nation, including skibbereen based RFYT. Also using Zoom, they created a platform for facilitators to meet, share their ideas and get new inspiration. Every Tuesday at 12noon, #youththeatretuesdays, 30 to 50 youth theatre leaders come together this way, learning from each other's experiences. Additionally, youth theatres can book “YT Clinics” with Youth Theatre Ireland's staff to work through issues that arise from this new way of working. “We hope that youth theatres like Rusty Frog in Skibbereen still feel like part of a national community and know they have a support network behind them as they try to adapt to digital work. It's been great having Maxine involved!”, says Rhona Dunnett.

For RFYT and all the other youth theatres across Ireland, the already mentioned challenges of bad internet connection or the fact that simply not everyone has the technological prerequisites to join in on the sessions, clearly limits the possibilities of online theatre. However the transfer to Zoom provides the participants of RFYT with a chance of gaining new theatrical experiences. As Rhona Dunnett points out, “They’re learning about new ways to tell stories and build characters and learning lots of new technical skills. Some young people are thriving as their technical know-how is becoming essential to keeping youth theatre activities going!”

The online sessions also provide a social distraction from everyday life in lockdown and offer an essential platform to creatively express and connect with peers. Rhona Dunnett points out: “The young people who are engaging in youth theatre workshops and projects are voicing their own isolation experiences. Through the arts, they are making sense of their own lives right now or distracting themselves from their own reality.” 

Still, as interesting and instructive as the Zoom sessions are, everyone is looking forward to the time when the threat of the pandemic is finally over and social contact is possible once again. Maxine Acton explains the challenges not only as a facilitator but as a performance artist, “I find it nearly impossible to imagine the next 6-12 months without live theatre. For me, the essence of both going to live theatre and performing in live theatre is the sharing of an experience, breathing the same air and feeling the energy in the space. Theatre online is a different form and a very different experience. Ultimately it becomes like a film with the audience at a distance and it can be done well but it is not the same and missing the most important ingredient, the shared energy. I miss going to the theatre very much and I really miss the artists I was working with.” 

It appears that this new format is more of a means to keep things going until theatre can take place in real life again. Zoom sessions will never really replace traditional theatre, since social contact is one of major aspects. “We all miss the shared space and dynamics and energy of live performance, not forgetting the cuppa tae (and biscuits brought each week by one of our members Padraig) and chats that were a weekly part of RFYT, adapting is difficult, but the members are definitely persistent and are finding new ways to bridge the void,” says Grainne O Brien, Art Project Assistant at WCAC who supports Maxine each week at the sessions. Perfectly explained by Emer, RFYT member 3 years, why they miss coming together, “The ability to move around. As someone who, generally, is more cautious and withdrawn, youth theatre was often the place where I got to burn most of my energy, where I was expected to, instead of having to sit still. Now that youth theatre has joined the menagerie of activities that includes sitting down constantly, I find myself missing the ability to jump and stomp and walk fast and swing my arms.” 

Despite the challenges Rusty Frog Youth Theatre is keeping a positive attitude. They are working to stay connected and creative together, and looking forward to continuing where they left off, as soon as the situation allows. In the end, participants and facilitators alike will have learned a lot throughout this unusual time and we as an audience can all look forward to new theatre productions which will definitely benefit from the experiences RFYT has made until then!

Check out their social media for news


Monday, 11 May 2020

Art Club Remotely

On Wednesdays and Thursdays each week, children meet in the workspace at West Cork Art Centre filling the place with noise, excitement and creativity. It is Art Club time. Professional practicing visual artists Tomasz Madajczak (Thursday Art Club) and Mark Beatty, and Marie Cullen and her husband Pól Colmáin, (Wednesday Art Club) of Working Artists Studios facilitating this unique approach towards arts for children aged between 6 and 12 years. The weekly Art Club workshops invite the children to experiment with ideas, discover self expression and learn new skills. 

Art Clubs has been delivered at West Cork Arts Centre for more than 15 years, with generations of children experiencing the unique interaction of an out of school experience in working with professional practicing artists, who generously share their own practices, giving children an insight into their working processes and vice versa, the artists are inspired by their encounters with the children’s imaginations.

“I really like art, because you get to make lots of friends in art class and you can just be creative and it really doesn't matter what you do, as long as you be artistic.” This response from one of the children participating in Art Club underlines the importance of social interaction during class  and shows how the children cherish the experimental and highly creative activities offered to them during this time of the week. For them, it is a fear free setting to an adventurous exploration of visual art.

Of course, artists and children need some time to acquaint themselves with one another and build a trusting relationship in order to obtain this great atmosphere. In an interview for the Uillinn Podcast series created by Gavin Buckley, Marie Cullen describes the challenges they were facing when they first started Art Club, for example overcoming language barriers. With the participants being of a multinational background, they soon realized that demonstration rather than explanation is the best way to elicit creative responses.  Through collaborative artwork, the children learn to find joy in sharing their experiences thus strengthening their bond to one another, but also the artist facilitators. These open and inviting methods offer children who are new to the group, an easy way to get involved and soon find themselves amongst friends.

When the Covid-19 pandemic led to the temporary closure of Uillinn, it also put a sudden halt on Art Club sessions. But the artists engaged their own imaginations to come up with some creative ideas to connect and communicate with the participating children, despite spatial distance, which was only possible because of their already strong social bond to each of the children.

Tomasz Madajczak, keeping a positive attitude, sees the enhanced opportunities this unforeseen situation brings along: “In the given situation everything seems to be unpredictable. The slow down of the busy time creates very valuable space for creative minds to reflect on life and the processes which they are involved in. Art Club is a unique opportunity for children to experience aspects of artistic processes which are introduced by practicing artists. These processes are influenced by the current situation, artists are asked to review their ways of working and engage in safer digital media based interaction with the public. The new situation creates a great potential to discover new ways of working, while reflecting on the previous experience. The combination of them both can stimulate new ways of working and creating.” 

In “Sound of an Unknown Place”, Tomasz invited the children from Thursday Art Club to make an artwork at home inspired by the sights and sounds around them. In a video he made especially for them the children were invited to watch, consider and respond in their own way, emailing back to Tomasz their work for Tomasz to bring it together as a collaborative piece. In this way, the feeling of community and sharing is still kept alive, even if the group cannot come together in real life. 

Keen to come away from the increasing use of digital technologies for young primary school aged children, staying at home, Marie and Pól invented their own way to reach out to their Wednesday Art Club through a postal project, called “Play on Words, Play Onwards”. The artists prepared a special envelope for each child containing a unique poem written especially each child by the artists; a selection of art materials; and a letter from Pól and Marie inviting the children to make a visual response to the poem. The children have since begun to return their artwork in the stamped, addressed, envelope provided to Pól and Marie, who will then compile a limited edition book to send back to each of the children. Some of the imaginative responses by the children have already been posted via West Cork Art Centre’s social media as part of All Ireland Poetry Day. Although the big reveal will be the hand made collaborative book, here is preview of the wonderful interaction between artists and child:

Artwork created by Adelaine in Response to her Poem
I am a little seabird, Puffin is my name,
It is our brightly-coloured beak
to which we owe our fame.

We spend all Winter far at sea,
eating fishy things
and when it’s time to lay our eggs,
we come ashore in Spring.

We dig a burrow for our nest
- or steal one from a rabbit!
And rear our chickies safe inside:
a very sensible habit.

We’re short and stocky, our chests are white,
our backs are soft, black down,
our faces, many people think
make us look like clowns.

My beak is huge and very bright:
orange, blue and yellow,
but despite my “smile”, my black-rimmed eyes
make me look a sad, wee fellow.

But, though my beak looks funny,
it has a handy trick
which I use whenever I’ve
to bring food to my chicks:

whenever I go fishing
for sand-eels for my young,
I can keep on fishing
while I’m holding ten under my tongue!

Once again, a beautiful inspiration of how the arts can bring people together even under the most difficult times and circumstances. Art can open our eyes to creative solutions and meaningful interactions, not only for the youngest among us. A little bit of colour, sound and poetry can make all the difference in a seemingly endless daily routine.