WHAT is late-night art and how important is it to the city of Belfast?
As Soul II Soul sang out their 80s track, Keep on Movin', in the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival marquee, not only was I transported back to my art college days as everyone had a good-natured boogie, I thought this was a good anthem for last week – whatever is going on things are moving.
As Jazzie B spoke about the positive energy that he felt in the crowd and talked about his desire for universal unity, everyone danced and cheered all the more. Great to see the festival come back to life and people enjoying the communal energy of seeing stadium fillers in our home city.
So about Late-Night Art. It started as an programme from Belfast City Council’s Culture team who funded the city’s art galleries to open late. It helped develop and give a home to generations of artists and art lovers who exist in every city but were under-supported in Belfast.
It focuses on one night a month, the first Thursday, when you can be sure to meet like-minded people, view art and allow your mind to go where ever it feels like going as a result. At any time of the year you will find people going out into the night in pursuit of this free pleasure. Previous to this art openings were usually by one-off physical invitation, every gallery held its mailing list in high secrecy and the job of sending out the invitations was a laborious one.
The Council, by bringing this concept to Belfast for the first time, allowed the visual arts community to be seen more as a larger eco-system by the general public. By marking the first Thursday of the month in your diary, ensuring you're free and wearing comfortable shoes, you could view art with like-minded people, discover the contemporary arts side of Belfast life and see the city in a different way.
For some people the art in the city lives only in museums. Yet art is a living, breathing energy that is shaping and evolving in different directions every day. To experience late-night art is to experience this entity in real time.
Within so much of our not-so-recent past exploring parts of Belfast in the pursuit of art had connotations of fear. Should I walk down this alleyway? What’s around this corner? I never come over to this side of town, I feel uncomfortable, might be some of the thoughts rolling in people’s heads. But with art people have an excuse to be in different parts of the city than normal, they will pursue a location knowing that they will receive a warm welcome, a glass of wine perhaps. Meet friends, make new ones, look at art and on the night do something in the city that is free and welcomes everyone.
I’ve been at exhibitions at the height of the flag protests to find a hundred or more art lovers in a gallery. I've trekked out on a wet, dark night when everyone else is settling down to the telly to find I am rewarded with good or bad art and always an interesting conversation with someone who I’ve come to know through visiting exhibitions or had a conversation with about politics, or colour mixing or anything else that comes to mind when viewing art.
Why is this important? To me, art holds a critical place in any city, especially when emerging from conflict. Galleries are spaces where new concepts and ideas can be tried out. People can have a discussion about anything without coming to blows because somehow the sacred space of a gallery allows some space for new thoughts to arise. Not all visual art is contentious, of course, it can simply be pretty, boring, or pretty boring, as well as a myriad of different things. However, I’ve never found myself out in the city for late-night art and gone home without a new thought, an interesting conversation or a name or view of the city not previously known. Over time you realise with having gone to ninety per cent of the exhibitions in the city over a period of so many years not only are you witnessing in real time the artists of the city develop their practice, you become a keeper of the city’s art knowledge and, like all the others artists and art lovers before you since the dawn of time, what you do with this knowledge is up to you.
There are so many gallery spaces now you cannot do them all justice in one night, but it's thrilling all the same .
Late on Thursday night Turner Prize winners Array Collective were out in full force to support Jane Butler, one of their members whose show ‘This Is How It Made Me Feel’ at Pssquared Gallery in Rosemary Street runs until the end of May. Two years in the making, the half-light of the curtained gallery added extra drama to the circular mirrors with quotes and a long wall of light, peek-a boo cuts outs with filters that play tricks on the viewer's experience. Jane’s practice focuses on "the experience of trauma and the relationship of body and mind to external environments and how one person’s reaction to an event can be different to another’s”. Which seems particularly pertinent in our trauma-riddled city. Jane is off to Poland this summer to create a site-specific work in an art incubator's grounds.
Bbeyond performance art group took over the disused Allied Irish Bank in High Street and transformed this former bastion of money into a stage for their new commissions. Niamh Seana Meehan transformed failure into success with her day-long participation piece and helped those contemplating it perhaps to realise what people with maturity know: failure is simply a window into new realisations. French-born local artist Nina Oltarzewska memorised the dedicated audience of performance art lovers in the city with her idea of ‘conveying a message through text, as if too tender to be said’. The description may resonate with the messaging generation more – we oldies still like to speak.
The Department of the Communities supported a project space at Flax art studios for art graduates who had experienced some of their degrees in lockdown or had a few years’ experience. It’s hard to articulate the difference support makes for artists' careers or their ability to work and live in a city. I had a good chat with Daniel McCabe and I discovered he has been working remotely as a junior fellow with Ithaca, New York, and is now moving into a written Masters. Lockdown has changed the trajectory of his interests. Like many others.
Catalyst Art, now down Joy’s Entry, one of Belfast’s medieval alleyways, brightened the night with Dreambeam and his psychedelic interpretation of life, moving him further along his artistic path. His work has evolved since his degree show of feathered telephones and joyous peculiarities and it will be interesting to see what he does next.
While the Mac celebrates 10 years of art in the centre of the city, why not mark Thursday, June 2 in your diary for next month. If you’re not sure where to go, pick one place and ask from there.
Next week I will be looking at Euan Géber’s new photographic and concrete Cultúrlann exhibition, Disturbances, and Lucy Moyes' evocative skilled exhibition Behind the Eye.