Between a rock and an urban place


Artist Mary Nally was struck by the potential of Inis Oírr for a festival where the visual arts, DJ-ing, music, design, architecture and fashion could connect, writes AIDAN DUNNE

IT’S FAIR TO describe Mary Nally as bundle of energy. In her various projects over the years she has demonstrated a zest for engineering ambitious cultural events on a shoestring, tapping into the energy and enthusiasm of the participants. Mildly averse to officialdom, she’s a social networker par excellence, though not in the cause of self-promotion. It’s more that she is driven by the idea of bringing people from different cultural disciplines together, lighting the touch paper, and standing back to see what happens. Luckily, she combines a liking for the unorthodox and the experimental with very practical organisational skills – and considerable sangfroid.

With Sharon O’Grady, she started Artisit? in Galway in 2006 as an alternative platform for young artists from Ireland and elsewhere. Her minimal funds, maximum goodwill model seemed to work with both participants and supporters. Her CV also includes spells at the Temple Bar Music Centre and as festival club manager for the Galway Arts Festival. Then, last year, she organised an event with fashion designers on Inis Oírr.

“I’d wanted to do it for a while,” she says. “And then I was surprised at how easy it was. The designers were really into the idea. We did this thing about reinventing the Aran sweater.” She was struck at the possibilities Inis Oírr – the smallest of the Aran Islands at just four square miles – offered as a cultural venue. It has the only arts centre in the Gaeltacht, Áras Éanna, a handsome and surprisingly capacious building, originally built as a weaving factory, with exhibition and conference spaces, a small theatre and other facilities.

At the back of her mind was the desire to organise a modestly scaled event embracing several of her passions: the visual arts, DJ-ing, music and sound art, architecture, design and fashion. “When you go to any festival or biennale you know it’s too much, you have to figure out what you’re going to leave out. I thought, be more relaxed about it, keep things on a comfortable scale. Then it struck me that you could do that on Inis Oírr.”

That’s how Drop Everything came to be. It’s a three-day festival of visual arts, experimental music, lectures, pop-up shops and knitting, taking place on Inis Oírr from Friday, May 18th, to Sunday, May 20th. Friday is visual-arts night, with a host of site-specific events and three Icelandic artists – “There may be a sauna involved,” Nally notes. The Icelanders will also segue into Saturday’s musical evening, as DJs, and there’s a set from another Icelander, “rising star” Sóley (Stefánsdóttir), whose first album is just out, and from Don Williams, one of the resident DJs at Berlin’s renowned Berghain.

As ideas occurred to her they got thrown into the mix. “I knew that I knew enough people to make it work.” What she didn’t anticipate is that pretty much everyone would say yes. “It’s an urban-style event in the most rural setting you can imagine. Somehow the idea of being on a rock in the middle of the ocean for a few days was immediately appealing to people.”

She enlisted Siomha Nee, who she’d worked with before, as production manager. “The phone just didn’t stop ringing,” Nee says, to the extent that she was slightly alarmed.

“Everyone is coming and taking part for free,” Nally says. “Apart from anything else, we didn’t want the branding that comes with commercial sponsorship. Where people are working, they are doing it just for their expenses, and a lot of people are working.”

As well as various strands of institutional support (from the Arts Council to the Co-op that manages the Aran Islands), they’ve also raised funding online via fund:it.

The other side of this coin is that attendance is free. “If you buy a ticket to something, you expect to be entertained and you give out if you aren’t. We want a different kind of transaction. The artists and performers are turning up because they’re dedicated to what they do. We want to ask visitors what they are bringing to it, what they want to make of it.”

It’s not all entirely open. Practical constraints dictate that people have to sign up for some events and some are already at full capacity (see

Highlights include the New York-based sound artists Soundwalk Collective (a collaboration involving five composers), who will arrive early and make a work based on environmental recordings made around the island. Likewise, Sonny Sanjay Vadgama will make a projected video installation and London-based Kevin Gaffney will be screening new video works. Among the other musical participants is experimental musician Daithí Ó Dronaí and analogue disco two-piece February and Mars.

In terms of fashion and design, Rosie O’Reilly of Re-dress, which runs the annual Better Fashion Week, will do a public interview with radical designers Sorcha O’Raghallaigh and London-based Raffaele Ascione, who began his fashion education at the Limerick School of Art and whose clothes have been worn by Lady Gaga, among others. Design groups mehimyou and We Draw Lines are also involved.

Are they sure Inis Oírr, with a resident population of just a few hundred, can cope? Not a problem, Nally says. She looks to her production manager: “Siomha will be running a pop-up restaurant.” Nee smiles, a little apprehensively: “I seem to be, yes.”

There are three pubs on the island, each featuring on successive nights as a main venue. There’s also a tea shop. “During the high season, a thousand people a day come through the island, and we’re getting in ahead of the season,” says Nally.

In many aspects of work and knowledge we live in an age of increasing specialisation, but Nally sees a great deal of cross-over in the fields of fashion, music, design, architecture and fine art. She is an advocate of the energy that comes from cutting across the boundaries. “Often, the way cultural events are organised, everything is very boxed off. I’d like to link things up a little. I love connecting people. I’m interested in what might happen.”