Stroke City cuts a dash through politics of programming
CULTURE SHOCK:FEW FESTIVALS contain their contradictions in their titles. For what will probably be Ireland’s biggest arts bash next year, you don’t have to look far for the fault line. Its title is Derry-Londonderry 2013. Gerry Anderson’s “Stroke City” is alive and well: the hyphen is still the pivotal point.
The very choice of Derry as the UK’s first City of Culture provoked feelings that ranged from unadulterated local pride to allegations of cultural imperialism. The challenge for the festival’s head, Shona McCarthy, was not so much to bridge that divide as to somehow play with it. Is it possible to make the hyphen like the centre of a see-saw, a point from which you can tilt towards either side without falling off?
A festival programme is only a set of intentions, of course, but the one announced on Thursday is genuinely exciting. The fear, frankly, was that the City of Culture would be stifled by “parity of esteem”, “two traditions”, the careful calibration of one for the Fenians, one for the Brits. The intentions encoded in these gestures may be decent, but they end up precisely as gestures. The key word in “city of culture” has to be “culture”, and culture, properly understood, is open, complex and shifting.
It’s also, in the narrower field of art, supposed to be enjoyable. Hence the relief, that, in announcing the programme, McCarthy’s first words weren’t in the dead languages of political piety or, even worse, of the market. They were about the ambition to bring a sense of joy.
Derry has something to build on in this regard. Even when the Troubles were raging, the city had a more than decent tradition of trying to keep open a cultural space, one that could never be free of politics but that could, and did, live up to the basic duty of art to make apparently simple things complex. Derry has, of course, close associations with Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, James Simmons, Frank McGuinness, Jennifer Johnston and Seamus Deane. It was home to Field Day, which allied a broadly political agenda to a high, and therefore ambiguous, artistic ambition. It also pioneered, in Andy Hines and Shaun Davey’s brilliant pageant for the 300th anniversary of the Siege of Derry in 1990, a way of using art to make the potentially explosive business of commemoration richer and more fruitful – an example that should be recalled in this “decade of commemorations”.
But Derry also has a fabulous seam of the contrary and the individualistic, from Gerry Anderson, one of the greatest local broadcasters in the world, to Nell McCafferty and the great Nik Cohn. (Hands up who knew that Saturday Night Fever derives from a Derryman’s story, Cohn’s Another Saturday Night?)
Declan McGonagle, for a period in the 1980s, made the Orchard Gallery a major international space for avant-garde work. Musically, Derry may be linked forever with Dana and Phil Coulter, but it is also one of the great cities of punk rock and, just to be especially contrary, the home place of Neil Hannon.