What brings you a glimmer of light when times are tough? For musician Róisín Murphy it’s her sound system, actor and presenter Laura Whitmore has her dog, while Aisling Bea takes comfort in potato waffles, “so pure, so kind, so me”, the actor and writer says. All are featured on Notifications Off, a knitted extravaganza of an installation by Electronic Sheep, and a key element of this year’s First Fortnight Festival.
When you study history in school, some years are done in a matter of moments, while others take a whole term. At the moment it’s impossible to know if we’re in the former or the latter, but anxiety certainly feels at an all-time high. Meanwhile, the first two weeks of January are well documented as the time when the case files of mental health services surge. The sparkle of Christmas is empty and alienating for some and, when the promises of another new year ring hollow, peace of mind can be in short supply.
The First Fortnight Festival, which began as a conversation over a kitchen table in Tallaght more than 10 years ago, and has since grown to be a big event on the national calendar, aims to shine the lights of art and culture on narratives around mental health. This year it also brings warmth to the conversations through Notifications Off, a unique tapestry by the brilliant Electronic Sheep, who elevate knitwear into the realms of the artistic extraordinary.
The First Fortnight team are no strangers to the practice of eclectic commissioning. In 2020 How Aria? was an operatic composition put together by poet Stephen James Smith with Irish National Opera and St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. Other events have celebrated the wonders of walking a dog, the beauty of books and the power of poetry.
On show at Project Arts Centre, Notifications Off features Murphy, Whitmore, and Bea alongside Dylan Phillips, Vince Power, Gavin Friday and more, across its 3m plus span. Knitted in against a backdrop of luxuriant trees are portraits of the participants, and items with all manner of meaning. There are space invaders, ornaments, a beret-wearing swan, a horse, a television and lots of dogs. One entire panel features lyrics from Pete, a song by Phillips. Two of the dogs belong to Gavin Friday, co founder of the Virgin Prunes.
Stan and Ralph, a pair of longhair dachshunds who have been fixtures in the singer-songwriter’s life for the past 12 years, are snuggled up in the corner of the studio when we talk, via Zoom. “The amount of joy they have brought is phenomenal,” Friday says. Dogs are also good for forcing you to get out and about. “They bring you into the physical,” he says. “If I’m on the computer for a couple of hours, Stan comes over and headbutts me on the leg. And it’s the way walking with a dog introduces you to nature, the way they sniff everything, discover things. Going for a walk with my dogs and not taking my phone is wonderful, it really is mindfulness.”
Leaving the phone behind is vital, says Friday. “It’s all in that title: Notifications Off, which is such a great thing. We have to stop these phones and online social stuff dominating our lives. And with Zoom it’s constant. Your nine-to-five goes out the window.” Friday’s image on the tapestry comes from his Virgin Prunes days, when he stood out against the greys of 1970s and 1980s Dublin with his long hair and habit of wearing dresses. “It was quite controversial back then,” says the singer with understatement. “But it’s still very relevant today, with the gender fluidity questions that are around,” he says, noting that those questions were there 40 years ago, but remained mainly unspoken. “We’re living in a far more liberal world, I hope. For the moment, though, there’s all sorts of right-wing s**t coming round our corners, which is a little frightening.”
You get the sense, talking to Friday, that his confidence and sense of presence within himself has been won over time. Maybe it’s true for most of us: if we’re lucky we grow into versions of ourselves that are coherent, and that we come to understand and like. Friday grew up on Dublin’s Cedarwood Road, which must have something in the water, or to be licked off the stones, as his neighbours – and friends – included Bono and Guggi.
Our talk turns to the anxieties of our age. “We’re not really in tune with the real world as much as we were,” he says. He found the early days of Covid, “weirdly enough, refreshing. But there was a terribleness, and everyone was worried about what was happening to the world.” He lost a close friend, the music producer Hal Willner to Covid in April 2020. “He got it when there were no vaccines, and died. So I became quite anxious. But I remember the quiet, and people going for walks, and conversing. And when things eased up, you’d have four or five friends over.” Describing evenings of wine and chats, he remembers thinking, “maybe this is going to wake up the world to the fact that Mother Earth herself is in trouble.”
As we all know, that didn’t happen and, with the war in Ukraine and the fuel and climate crisis, events have spiralled, adding existential questions to the mix. We’re not exactly helping ourselves. “I spent some time in America recently, and I was shocked by [the] amount of people walking, young and old, all on their phones. It was almost zombified,” he says.
There’s something very apt about a tapestry as a means to explore all this, stitch by stitch. It’s deliciously old-school, homespun almost, even though the imagery is decidedly contemporary. Helen Delany and Brenda Aherne of Electronic Sheep are also Cedarwood Road alumni. The pair, who met while studying at Dublin’s NCAD, are known for their scarves, which carry stories, messages and memories. Their work can be campaigning and is always exciting. They remember seeing Friday in the neighbourhood as they were growing up.
“He was always like this positive, creative confidence. Sort of a force of nature,” Aherne says. “He’d be walking down to the bus stop, dressed like that. Can you imagine it in the early ‘80s? And we’d be thinking, wow. There’s a bigger life out there.”
Delany and Aherne’s stories – of the loneliness of expatriots (Delany lives in London), and bereavement, of travel and sadness, hard work and tricky hurdles, the clamour of the city, and the pull of the countryside – are also knitted in, as are emblems of some of the things that are wrong with the world. The pair have a wonderful creative chemistry, and are also proof that there can be great strength in compassion and empathy. As they talk me through the people behind the objects and symbols in Notifications Off, it brings the truth to the idea that everyone has demons to grapple with. That person who was rude on the bus? Who knows what is going on in their life, what they are trying to face, fight, or run away from?
Delany points to the area of the tapestry relating to First Fortnight director, Maria Fleming, who commissioned Notifications Off. Fleming, who cheerfully admits to being an Electronic Sheep “fangirl”, wore one of their scarves through her treatment for breast cancer. “It wasn’t bought to be my cancer scarf,” she says, describing how she had taken to wearing it while travelling. “So when I was sitting in the chair having my treatment, I would have memories of journeys, and be thinking of journeys I might be planning. So it brought me comfort.”
“It is about the objects that hold memories,” says Delany. “And the idea of people helping each other. And music,” she adds, pointing out the Mean Fiddler’s Vince Power’s choice of a record by his late friend, John Prine. “Helping people through tough times.” When I see images of the tapestry, it’s still in black and white. Colour is coming, as are separate panels of text from the contributors, giving you the stories behind the things that make them happy. It is a tonic.
The First Fortnight Festival runs on January 6th-15th, 2023. Notifications Off is at Project Arts Centre on January 6th-14th, including a series of workshops and events. It will tour to the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris later in 2023, as well as being exhibited in London. firstfortnight.ie / electronicsheep.com
Festival director Maria Fleming selects some highlights
Playing in the new Show Court of the Handball Centre in Croke Park, the home of the GAA, Timmy Creed explores his love/hate relationship with hurling through talking and playing wall ball, addressing issues such as toxic masculinity in sport.
January 7th-8th, €20/€25
Celebration of Hope on Nollaig na mBan
Erica Cody and Robert Grace are joined by Barbara Brennan of See Change for an evening of music, performance and hope.
Smock Alley Theatre, January 6th, €18/€20
Curated every year for First Fortnight by Stephen James Smith, this mix of spoken word and music is an annual favourite, with sessions in Wexford, Dublin and Belfast.
Various venues, January 12th-14th, €10
A Hopeful Poetry
Online workshop in partnership with The National Library of Ireland, celebrating the work of William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney and ending with a guided meditation.
Online, January 13th. Free, but registration essential