This parish has made a habit in recent months of asking artists what they want from the post-pandemic picture in Cork city and beyond - and as we’ve sized up the slow return of arts events and eventual reopening of society in general, it’s become an ever-more timely question.
What do we, as artists, facilitators, gig-goers and other assorted hacks want from a city that’s been forced to adapt to sudden and dramatic changes in the past 16 months? Where might we be able to go? What will be available to us? How much of it all is contingent on the wider impact of the housing crisis, and people’s post-lockdown changes of mindset and motivation?
One project in Cork city centre has set out to examine the potential of empty spaces in the locality - the TEST SITE project, running until September in the plot of land opposite the Bridewell Garda station on Kyrl’s Quay, blends art, architecture and urban ecology.
By creating a temporary venue, suitable for outdoor events like small-scale gigs, arts installations and talks, and complementing that presence with walks and tours of the nearby area, the crew behind it is working to find answers to the question of public space and sustainability in a changing city.
“We came together through an art and environment-making course that I put on and Ailbhe (Cunningham, architect) joined, and the site became the focus for the whole group,” says artist Aoife Desmond, of meeting her collaborator on the project.
“We made a zine out of that, and myself and Ailbhe had really enjoyed the process of working together, but we also deepened our relationship to that site, and began to really care about it, and we wanted to take our ideas further.
“The pandemic happened in the midst of all that. We would have known that the site was going to be developed and sold on, and that we wouldn't have a chance of being able to do anything with it, in a sense.
“But when the pandemic happened, we recognised that there was a pause, and that we may actually persuade the Council to let us do something with it temporarily.”
The process of working to get permissions to work on a spot like the one on Kyrl’s Quay meant engaging with the council and other stakeholders to outline their intentions and what could be done for the community with the project.
Cunningham, as an architect, was familiar with the council’s plans for the city, and had an eye on the other end of the pandemic when considering the project’s raison d’etre, and public engagement.
“It was very much a dialogue - establishing our ideas, putting them down on paper and giving visual references of projects, examples that had worked successfully of these kinds of temporary interventions and sites - and then establishing relationships with each of the parties.
“Like, Michelle Carew, when she came into place in the arts office, but also the property management officer, Stephen Fox, as well, he became paramount in the discussion, because as the key holder and the carer for the site, while it's being tendered or eventually sold for development, it really fell down to him buying into the idea.
“So it was really a matter of generating understanding, number one, and then support for us using the space.”
The biggest of a few interventions on the site is the building of the venue’s pavilion, featuring a stage constructed with circular economy and sustainability in mind, and inspired by the area’s industrial architectural heritage.
Designed by Cunningham and collaborators, the stage’s roof features a Belfast or Portlaw truss, similar to the nearby sawmills - but in place of glue and nails, it was designed with hand-cut joints and bolt-fastenings in mind, both reducing waste, and allowing for easy assembly/disassembly for possible use in other spaces around the city in the future.
“It's trying to make a physical example of something that is significant to the city and then draw on sustainable, regenerative practices and make something,” Cunningham says.
“We're going to have a materials passport that will show the sheer quantity of materials used to put together a small structure, and then the key, I suppose, is that something like this, that it doesn't just pop up as a festival. While it's temporary, on this site, that the building is durable, it's really high-quality material that can be disassembled and then reassembled in another site permanently.
“So that it's something for the community, it's a space that they can come and feel held in a physical space, to discuss the ideas of how the city develops, and how they would use these materials better. It's just one example of how to make a space that then actually holds community, that welcomes community into it.”
The group has put out a call in recent times for local community groups to submit proposals for uses of the space - and for volunteers to get involved with the running of the space as it fulfills its remit.
The announcements are starting to happen, and they include the return of Echo resident Stevie G’s Vinyl Love on July 18, a community affair that sees over a dozen guest DJs performing back-to-back sets in the summer sun (fingers crossed!) to raise awareness of Sexual Violence Centre Cork and its Safe Gigs initiative, aimed at highlighting sexual harassment in concert and festival settings.
There’s been a range of limited visual arts interventions on site, and the Notes to Cork billboard company/content agency is lending its weight by covering the site’s hoarding in posters it calls PIPs - Public Information Panels, informing the public of community initiatives and means of direct action in the city.
Meanwhile, weekend seminars on topics close to the themes of the project are in the process of being confirmed, with talks, tours and musical performances being centred around urban planning and its responses, the city centre’s biodiversity and the area’s architectural heritage.
This project points at the slowly unfurling post-Covid future that faces our city, in the wake of changes in our use of spaces, and in our perception of cultural spaces, architectural convention and the role of projects like this in our understanding of the city itself.
Cunningham discusses the work that the TEST SITE project has put into what could prove to be the early days of that wider conversation.“Aoife and I, we come from two different disciplines. But between ourselves just working together, we've actually had this huge knowledge transfer, where we started thinking differently about how we engage with the place.
“We'd love to see that we provoke people to become more actively involved in how the city shapes and then actually just to give them some skillset, or a little knowledge boost, in how you can be more active. Just to see sites like this, how a space like this is developed for the community, which are the residents of the city.
“Then, asking what are the versions that marry everybody's needs together, so that the large commercial needs, and then the very small local needs, the amenities, the public space, all work together in the city's fabric.”
For more information on the TEST SITE Project, as well as event announcements and bookings, go to https://www.testsitekyrlsquay.ie.
To volunteer and get in touch, go to https://www.twitter.com/testsiteproject.