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!

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