Wednesday 16 August 2023

Legacy Blog: Kate McElroy reflects on her 4 years as Public Engagement Artist at Uillinn

Worlds within words, Kate McElroy, Uillinn 

Gallery tours were always a highlight of my job. It never ceased to surprise me how insightful people are when responding to art. People’s natural ability to decipher work and create meaning from what they see was immensely inspiring for me.

The second summer of my time at Uillinn was my first studio residency there. I was undertaking a Masters in Art and Process in MTU Crawford, and our studios were temporarily shut so the residency at Uillinn was of huge significance. Public engagement being the main aspect of my job and an integral part in my art practice, I decided to do tours of an exhibition of my own work. I became very interested in the Visual thinking strategies method and used this as the foundation of my tours. I wanted to turn the usual tour dynamic on its head and have the visitor’s viewpoint as the centrepoint. Perception and how each individual interprets and creates meaning uniquely has always fascinated me. 

Kate McElroy collage, Uillinn

Visitors could book tours one on one or in small groups and they proved to be fertile ground for conversation and meaning making. People commented on how nice it was to be asked instead of told. These tours ended up being very formative for how I conducted tours in the time that followed. I tried to focus on the visitors' experience and draw out from them their own insights in an open and non-judgmental manner. There can be apprehension for people when talking about art, people are often afraid of getting it ‘wrong’. I find it important that the open-ended nature of art is emphasized, and it is within its ambiguity that much of its significance lies. 

Researching and creating dynamic workshops and creative responses to the exhibitions was also an aspect I reveled in. Nose diving deep into the work to try and scope the artist's motives, methods and thematics was always a pleasure. One such example was The Interactive Museum of languages exhibition by Tomasz Madajczak and the Mother Tongues Festival. The aim of the show was to encourage curiosity in languages for young people with Tomasz building beautifully crafted, interactive works. For my part, I researched words that exist in other languages but not in English.

Again, I was interested in the idea of perception, could alternative words and concepts open up new ways of seeing or thinking about the world? The word that sparked this interest was kobade: a word I came across in As we have always done by indigenous scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. It means a link in a chain – ‘a link between generations, between nations, between states of being, between individuals. This concept Kobade invites awareness of our interconnectedness throughout time and space. One child’s comment to the project which included a gallery tour, workshop, classroom visit and exhibition of their work was.

‘I never knew that there were words missing in the English language. This project made me realize that.’ -Tara, Primary school participant

Kate McElroy and Sérgio Leitão, Uillinn
I curated children's exhibitions and the artists exhibitions in the stairwell and link galleries which developed into a strong interest for me. In my own art practice, I try to stretch traditional modes of presentation and display and I found this tendency also emerge in my approach to curation. Being creative with the concept and the framework is something that I really enjoyed, again trying to bend or open new modes of seeing is an intrinsic motive that underlied my approach.

Being an artist is something that was really nurtured in my time here and being given the freedom to allow my personality and interests sprout in my approach to working methodologies is something I am truly grateful for. The thing I will remember most from my time at Uillinn is the warm feeling I get every time I am in the building and that is because of the sincere, encouraging, and loving approach of the whole team at Uillinn. I can’t imagine a more supportive unit to have been a part of and it is a unique aspect of Uilllinn that many of the people who spend time here comment on. It is with the most heart full thanks and appreciation that I transition from this position, but its nurturance will stay as a constant scaffold in my life.

I am not the only one who finds it difficult to leave Uillinn and an online platform I set up during Covid lockdowns called Uillinn Coffee meetup for people related to Uillinn to keep connected will continue. The rhizomatic nature of Uillinn with hyphae all over the world continues to keep growing and quietly nourishing, an impalpable undergrid system permeating across space. Kobade in the making. 

Brian Fay, Gaelscoil Dr Uí Shuillabhain, exhibition tour 2023 

Kate McElroy, Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre

Kate McElroy's Website

Interview with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, The White Review

Friday 4 August 2023

Ham Sandwiches and Discipline: A Chat with Nóra Ní Anluain Fay and Sorcha Murphy

In the lead up to a festival week sharing of their performance piece 'Ham Sandwiches and Discipline', I arranged to have a chat with Uillinn Dance Resident Nóra Ní Anluain Fay and her longtime collaborator Sorcha Murphy. By the time I got a chance to sit down with them in their studio space in the Arts Centre they had just managed to do a run through of their work-in-progress and seemed relaxed and jovial ahead of meeting their upcoming Uillinn audience. 

Ham Sandwiches and Discipline, Nóra Ní Anluain Fay, July 2023

Planned to evolve into an hourlong piece, 'Ham Sandwiches and Discipline' is the brainchild of Uillinn Dance Resident Nóra Ní Anluian Fay, who grew up watching and attending GAA matches and being immersed in the world of it. She became taken with the idea of combining a sports world she loved with that of her artistic landscape. I asked Nóra about the process of developing new dance work and different ways in which residencies and festivals can assist in doing so.

“Well I’ve started properly making in the last two years since I changed department in college and the whole prospect of making always seemed to happen quite quickly in terms of generating content but it’s always been about having creative spaces and dancers as well that are willing to go for it.” 

Nóra elaborates that she found her training in The Netherlands allowed her to get started in building up a body of short scale work but to now have residencies and spaces that allow her to really delve deeper is the next step, “Having a space to dissect work has been great. So has having spaces like Scene and Heard to try out stuff, which is the role of that festival. Basically anything that can help us understand the work more and help us develop it.”

I turn to Sorcha for her thoughts about her Uillinn experience and her mind seems to be on scaling up creatively too, “This experience has been quite different to other ones because it’s so open and the piece is going to be an hour long. We’ve never made an hourlong piece before and it’s been super nice to have this space and the opportunity to do that because our other pieces were in the context of college and assignments.”

Nóra and Sorcha met in Dublin Youth Dance Company and were guided by their teacher Mariam Ribon to Fontys Dance Academy in Tilburg, The Netherlands. Nora shares that after her first two years of college she started to get drawn towards choreography and made the switch in focus for her third and fourth years. “That’s where I found movement language and kind of settled in more and started to figure out the type of work I’m interested in and what I want to make as well.” They now have three main pieces which they want to expand, which will be a focal interest moving forward.

I take this point in the conversation to ask about the topics and themes of previous work to get a sense of what to expect from their Uillinn showcase. “I get inspiration from other areas completely,” says Nóra. “Like ’Usual Programming’ was about reality TV and dating shows. ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ was about the social politics in parties and the last piece we did, ‘You Gotta Trust that the Future is Going to Be a Bit Sexy,’ which we will be doing here at the Uillinn in November, is all about coming of age and growing up.” 

Both artists’ responses around questions of thematics veer towards accessibility and affording an ethos of dance being for everyone and Nora asserts that topicality can be key to achieving this through their performances. “They’re all kind of universal and equally personal topics and we’re hoping that they can be accessible for anyone and everyone in that way because dance can be kind of an abstract language that can be hard to enter sometimes or to feel welcome to.”

“I think that the pieces all have a sort of more serious message or undertone but because of the comedic elements,” says Sorcha. “You can just take what you want from it so you could just watch it and think, “Oh that’s a funny piece. It was really enjoyable,” or you could, if you wanted to delve deeper into it, take different meanings for yourself.”

For Nóra, imbuing the work with a sense of tonal duality, if not complexity, offers autonomy for audiences to decide how they want to read it and Sorcha appears to be in emphatic agreement. And what strikes me most immediately about speaking to both of these collaborators together is how cohesive and considerate they are of discursive space. 

Nóra and Sorcha’s patterns of communication around their work seem clear, unmuddled and secure. There are no conversational collisions for the entire duration of the chat and I’m later unsurprised to see a similar flow and freeness to their dance cohesion. I inquire if approaching comedy topics in particular is helped along by the fact that they have been long-time collaborators and if that provides a level of comfort and complicity.

I think it has worked really well that we have known each other and danced together for so long,” says Sorcha, “Because we met when we were 16 and then we went to the Netherlands together, I have a really good understanding of Nora but also Nora’s work, which makes it easy to work together and I immediately know what she is looking for and what the tone is.”

“There’s a shorthand there,” agrees Nóra, “We definitely have that sense of a safety net with each other but we also find that we have the same sort of taste or preferences in terms of dance and art in general. We strive for the same quality and tones and characteristics within work. So if I can make Sorcha laugh with something then I know it’s the right direction so it’s a good springboard or signpost to know how an idea will work.”

Overall Nóra states that bridging main disciplines and tones and genres together is the main engine of the work they do so that the forefront of the work is dance and physical theatre merging together. “Then tonally a lot of more dramatic or serious notes come in as well along with the more comedic silliness and cheekiness,” she adds.

In one hilarious sequence of 'Ham Sandwiches and Discipline', Nóra and Sorcha perform a highly gesticulated choreography of post-match TV panellists providing a post game dissection in what I can only describe as (and this is not a technical term) hand dancing. Nora attributes this sequence to an afternoon spent watching The Sunday Game on TV and it being a somewhat formative moment of the piece itself.

“I think I first had this idea a couple of years ago about making a piece about GAA when I was watching The Sunday Game after one of the matches,” She explains, “I just saw the commentators hands and how expressive they were and that there was so much articulate movement in them. From there I was beginning to see a piece or at least elements of a piece coming together.” 

This piece has been a different bag for Nóra research wise as she has found herself really zeroing in on GAA culture at grassroots level. “Normally I use so many sources to create a piece but for this one it’s actually been quite loyal to the GAA and surrounding culture as a primary source.”

She has been reluctant to resort to any sort of obvious merges between sport and dance such as forcing themselves to physically bring the ball into it and both artists appear to have taken the most enjoyment and inspiration out of getting to know the players from O'Donovan Rossa junior ladies team. 

For Sorcha especially it has been a brand new learning experience. “It’s been interesting, especially for me because I am not in that world at all,” She says, “I don’t know anything about GAA so I have learned a lot these past two weeks but it was super nice to speak to the women on the junior ladies team and we got so much that we could put into the piece.” 

She elaborates, “A lot of the things they brought up was not about the sport itself. It was more about the connections that they make and how appreciative they are of everyone- the people who clean the fields, the people who drive them there and back.” I ask if any members of the team will be coming to see the sharing and both artists express that they hope so.

“We saw them play a match a few days later,” says Nóra, “After having spoken to them and knowing their mindset a bit and seeing them in action to kind of make the connection and transfer between those two points. It was a lovely, lovely insight into it.

When Nóra says, “They’re part of the piece now too,” it’s clear how much the GAA players’ input has meant in making the most out of their time at the Uillinn and converting the makings of a dynamic dance duet into a genuine team effort.

NAF Dance Website

Nóra Fay Dance Ireland Residency