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The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community spacer The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community
Lukin at Wabsteids
by Eugene MacNamee
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culturenorthernireland.org, a new website funded by the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure, was recently launched at a swanky jazz-accompanied shindig, featuring free mouse mats, a wireless controlled presentation and fancy china supplied by the City Council. At this curious gathering government ministers rubbed shoulders with actors, arts administrators and computer heads, as Northern Ireland inched closer to a large scale presence on what I believe is known as the world wide web. This project has been executed by the Linen Hall Library Belfast (specialists in books and culture) and The Nerve Centre Derry/Londonderry (specialists in technology and dance music).
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Culture? In Northern Ireland? Are you having a laugh? The European Union recently deemed us to be less cultural that Liverpool, so presumably this was to be a small website, with an article about George Best, another on James Galway and maybe some mention of punk in the 70's. Even in the hushed vestibules of the City Council, scoffing of quite staggering proportions was expected.
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On one level, the level that sees all governmental tip-toeing or barging into the wrestling ring of culture as an inherently suspicious phenomenon, the scoffers have a right to be heard. It's called propaganda, and it isn't nice to look at. When every piece of cultural work must satisfy some form of efficient wish list in order to gain funding, when the government insist that art for arts sake is an entirely decadent product of the absence of focus groups, any website that seems to express the desire to define culture in Northern Ireland should scare the shite out of any self respecting citizen. When one sits down to er, log on, a slightly different reaction is produced.
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culturenorthernireland.org is split into two architectures, one geographical, one artistic. The geographical is simply an analysis of where we physically exist. The six counties and the two main cities are then split into different sub-areas. So Belfast City Centre becomes Great Victoria Street, The Docks, Smithfield and so on.
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The artistic architecture is split into the usual definitions of what makes up culture; visual art, music, literature, but added to these are topics such as industry and commerce, emigration and immigration, and sport. It adds up to a grid placed across the map of Northern Ireland that allows the users of the site to work their way through each artistic category by geographical location. Therefore when the site is finished, you can look up sport in Loughall, industry and commerce in Enniskillen and visual art in Muckamore. Ambitious to say the least, and the site has started with only Belfast City Centre and Derry City completed to any level of depth.
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This detailed break-down means that there are lots of holes yet to be filled, in fact the expansive nature of the project ensures that such holes will always exist, and the makers of the site are aching for any content to fill the void. Therefore the resounding clarion call seems to be 'fuck it all in the pot, and we'll se what kind of stews for eating.' There doesn't seem to be any great overarching philosophy or a master plan to impose culture on Northern Ireland by creating a 'culture' as we love to do in this part of the world. Unlike the Ulster-Scots creation that has taken place over the last years, or the invention of cultural nationalism in the last century, there seems to be no single story to this tale.
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So, you are Ingram from Wyoming and you happen to be idling an hour in the public library, and you surf the internet in search of Irish stuff because, let's say, your granny was from Kildare. In amongst the Green Linnets and political directories you stumble on culturenorthernireland.org. You won't see any definition writ large of what culture is in Northern Ireland, rather a bewildering range of articles on topics as far removed from each other as the invention of air-conditioning for use in hospitals and the Ulster Unit art group of the 1950s. Populist articles on Phil Coulter rub shoulders (perhaps thighs) with articles on the little known Sandy Row operatic maestro (and butcher) James Johnston.
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Ingram may leave confused and bamboozled as his ideas of what Northern Ireland is (Seamus Heaney or George Best) is mixed up with what Northern Ireland has forgotten (Danny Blanchflower or Hans Iten). Not such a bad thing. Of course much is missed out, but unlike set definitions of culture, the medium insists that this project is never fully defined, never closed.
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In this sense the website works. Culture anywhere is confusing and weird if looked at properly. The straining for shared history and one story over the last century has seen us sacrifice money and time to fund projects that were supposed to define our past and ourselves and help us move on. culturenorthernireland.org is funded by and involves some of the big cultural institutions that have made such a botched job of culture over the last years, people who usually minutely control what exhibitions we see, and how our culture is put before us. Somehow this website seems to have slipped out of control, probably due to indifference to the web's potential, and this interesting entity has come into being.
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I'm not the sort, but there are plenty who, on perusing the site, will fill their days complaining with an unbecoming glee about the mis-dating of this or the absence of that. Articles could be shorter, people could be included, t's could be more rigorously crossed, etc, but in the end that doesn't matter. I can think of no equivalent to this site in Europe. An unwieldy mess that has rough edges, dead-ends and dark corners, it has bright lights and low points. Rather like our culture itself.
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