It seems as though things are slowly turning around. Some fifteen months after this parish found itself scrambling to address the sudden closure of live venues in the wake of the then-burgeoning Covid-19 crisis, and how Cork’s artists might be able to respond to it.
We’ve seen how things have played out - but we as a city have also had light shed on the issues facing artists living here, from precarious working conditions to being shunted out of the city centre, spaces and venues replaced with empty buildings, or worse, nothing at all. Further afield, pilot gigs have so far not tested attendees - or tracked/traced crew at work - leaving us none the wiser about the risks involved with big gigs.
But there’s cause for optimism - creativity in Cork has prevailed, and artists have made the best of circumstances, while tickets are slowly coming back on sale for gigs at bigger venues. The vaccination programme is rolling out, albeit with flaws, and the slow reopening of public spaces is happening, hopefully while numbers remain steady.
It’s into this picture that Cork Midsummer Festival 2021 walks, a reaction to the events of 2020, presenting a vital, vibrant and distinctly Corkonian mixture of socially-distanced installation art, public arts attractions and online streaming events, across the media of music, theatre, dance, film and visual art.
Pursuing a mixture of in-house programming and collaborations with local community groups, it’s safe to say that Midsummer comes with a certain grá every year, reaching into the heart of arts in Cork and creating something truly representative of the city’s community.
Director Lorraine Maye discusses the challenges and upsides of preserving that feeling, while reacting to the current and ongoing circumstances.
“We plan the festival a year, two years in advance, and we didn't know which way restrictions were going to go. I had lots of conversations with artists and arts organisations in the city that we partner with. A sort of framework for that emerged, within which we could basically create a Covid-proof festival.
“While we have a strand of events happening online, we have some outdoor events happening, because we kind-of thought that small audiences would be allowed to outdoor events. We had two sites that we'd identified - the Port of Cork and Elizabeth Fort.
“The festival has focused on platforming and supporting emerging artists. And, y’know, that was something that we really wanted to do within the festival this year, because it's been a really difficult time for emerging artists, in terms of having those opportunities to perform - and also those opportunities to cultivate new relationships, and connections with organisations and other artists.”
Amid the destination events and online streaming, however, is a strand of events that has the potential for a lot more play and experimentation in the coming years - the Art Gifts initiative, which allows members of Cork’s public to order an ‘art gift’ for a loved one.
The mystery performer heads to their house, and gives a small, intimate performance at their doorstep - a lovely injection of colour and entertainment for those of us that might be unable to get to, or apprehensive about, the city centre just yet.
One artist we can reveal will be getting dispatched to someone’s front door is opera singer Majella Cullagh.
“This is really an exciting little adventure, here. Because, number one, it's free. Number two, we're literally bringing art to peoples' front door. It's unusual. I mean, I'm used to standing on stage, and having a thousand people listening to me sing. So, it's wonderful to just stare someone in the face, and make them feel deeply uncomfortable (laughs).”
One imagines turning up to someone’s house and singing full-belt at the people that might answer the door presents challenges, alright.
“Luckily, this sort of thing suits my personality, because you can't just have anybody with the capability of singing classically. You have to have a personality - not just a singer, but a performer. I can't just walk up to someone's door and start singing, I have to say hello, have a conversation, and try to tailor things to what the person would like. It's a whole other set of skills.”
Another person that’s seen their role change and responded with a use of his wider skillset is the festival’s artist-in-residence, audiovisual/installation artist Peter Power.
Unable to work on his planned large-scale sound projects, Power is responding to the restrictions of the latter Covid era with ‘Content’, a series of diary entries, videos and other reactive art pieces over the course of the festival.
“My residency began last year, just as the real impact of the first lockdown had taken hold, I guess. In many ways, I didn't have a residency. The time we had to make the decisions about projects this year was back in January, and we were, at that point, under the impression that audiences wouldn't be allowed anywhere.
“It has, on a very real level, fundamentally disrupted all of the output that I would have been expected to do, not from the festival's perspective, but certainly my own.”
Power is honest in his own disappointment at events regarding his bigger plans, and how his role as an artist-in-residence has played out. Reckoning with the change in circumstances, it’s been a tough transition for Power, in many ways.
"The festival has allowed me to do whatever I want, but it's not what I wanted to give them. I wanted to give them more, I wanted to give myself more, I wanted to be much more visible. That's been hard for me to process, because I'm in residency in the middle of this pandemic. These opportunities are incredibly rare, and you try to do your absolute best for them."
Making the best of the circumstances is film-maker Tadhg O'Sullivan.
Working with composer Linda Buckley and author Doireann Ní Ghríofa on an adaptation of the latter’s acclaimed novel, he uses his medium to weave together the threads of narrative that permeate the book - contrasting footage of Ní Ghríofa reading from the Everyman Palace stage with his interpretations of the wild flights of imagination the story takes into the distant past.
“When I read the book, it's incredibly visual. And for any of us who work in the visual arts, when you're reading the book, you're with Doireann and her day to day domestic life, then you go with her into this world of the imagination, which is an adult world. So for a filmmaker, this is an absolute gift.
“When I started working on this, I had already thought about what it would look like, because when you're reading the book, you're taken there in your imagination already. So it's an incredible privilege to be able to take your own daydreams from when you're reading the book, and be given a platform to realize those dreams, and maybe share them with other people.”
After what we’ve all been through in the last 15 months, Cork arts re-emerges from lockdown into a city shell-shocked by the circumstances. Venues will have closed, some people may have moved on from creative and facilitation roles, and for all the cautious optimism, there’s ample reason for said caution.
Just before we hang up on a remote interview, Maye gets into her hopes for the festival in the post-pandemic picture.
“I would say in terms of the festival next year, we would hope to speak to some of that, as well. The festival uses the city as the stage, and we have done that this year, despite all of the challenges.
“But moving forward, when things open up a bit, I think there'll be an opportunity for us to maybe show what some of these spaces in the city could look like, what they could be for arts and culture, how they could be used by artists. That's something that's really interesting to me as we move into 2022.”
Cork Midsummer Festival continues online and in limited physical capacity until Sunday June 27. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.corkmidsummer.com.