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The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
Re-Imagining Belfast
by David Brett
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This collection of short essays reads as a reaction to the ignominious debacle of 'Imagine Belfast' - Belfast's bid to become European 'City of Culture'. Its writers are all deeply involved in the arts in some capacity; actors, directors, writers, commentators, politicians with relevant powers. The book is not a manifesto in the sense of promoting a single programme based on a unitary vision of progress. There are confusions between and within the contributions and, here and there, the sound of scores being settled in the general carve-up of responsibility for what has gone wrong in the past, particularly in relation to the city of culture bid. The stated intent of the editors was not to achieve harmony but to promote strong and diverse voices capable of moving the debate forward.
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John Gray and David Johnston in their contributions advance historical comparisons which serve to lift us out of provincialism - a condition which exists in time as much as in space. The current rhetoric of community, access, outreach, cultural identity is revealed as just that - rhetoric substituting for reality. Anyone with any shadow of historical understanding knows that most of what passes as 'tradition' is a retrospective invention, often fraudulent, and that 'community' is a fishy concept at best. Furthermore, that arts and culture are not synonymnous. In fact, culture can be and often is the enemy of art, just as it can be the enemy of development and freedom; Irish history is full of such examples. This point seems to have been lost on most contributors to this volume, who are in thrall to precisely these concepts which have been set for them by the current cultural bureaucracy. The narrow framework within which all comment is then situated means that generally the essays in this collection don't amount to saying much more than that we need more money and we need it well spent. This, of course, is unarguable, but leaves the most interesting aspect of the book then all the significant absences.
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Who, for example, would guess from this book that Queen's University Music School is the bi-annual host to a gathering (open to all) of contemporary classical composers and performers that has been, from time to time, something astonishing? The intensity of the Sonorities concerts is now backed up by the foundation of the Sonic Arts Research Centre. Ah! but it serves no 'community' and has no easy 'access'! Well of course not; it is serious. It strains the brain and sometimes the ears. You have to do some work. Another conspicuous absence is discussion of current professional visual art culture. There are a number of individuals and small bodies, notably Catalyst Arts, who have kept up a sequence of exhibitions in a variety of venues over the years, which have created the beginnings of that rare community - an informed and buying public for contemporary art outside the metropolis. Working over decades, they have turned Belfast into a modest-scale centre on a trans-national level for painting, performance and the like. Not only is there no mention of any of this, but none even of the internationally significant Ormeau Baths Gallery.
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The fundamental reason for these, and other, omissions, I conclude, is that the rhetoric of funding precludes mention of them. Rhetoric of this kind disables thought, and what is more makes discussion of quality impossible. We'd be better off without it.
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There are a number of real, not rhetorical problems that could and should be adressed and which do not require the kinds of arguments that play into utilitarian hands. They are really a matter of doing a proper job of making Belfast a city with art rather than a City of Culture. There is no time to list them here, but they are all suggested or inferred in the pages of this book. None of them are intrinsically sectarian though they are inevitably and rightly sectional.
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There should, obviously, be a determination to bring city-wide non-sectional amenities such as theatres and orchestras within the financial reach of everyone (Pam Brighton gives a very apt example). Grant in aid is the wrong concept; full financial commitment is the only and the proper way of doing this.
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One must also consider the physical conditions under which most art is now being made in the city; the recent fire at Flax Art Studios being an obvious example. Compare these conditions to those to be found in the offices of the 'cultural managers'. A precondition for a civic programme has to be to bang into the heads of councillors and politicians and media controllers that the arts are currently heavily subsidised - by those who produce them.
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