New director of Galway 2020 sets out a digital future
‘I come with the experience of finding the stories that need to be told,’ says Chris Baldwin
Chris Baldwin: “What I am now doing is meeting every single group, helping them to clarify exactly what their aims and objectives are, and how much these projects will cost”
Chris Baldwin, the newly-appointed creative director of Galway European Capital of Culture 2020, wants to introduce me to a pig. I’ve arrived in the Galway 2020 offices in the Cornstore to interview Baldwin, and the first thing he does is offer me a piece of his home-made Spanish chorizo.
“This is from Lily,” he says, deftly cutting up pieces of the late said Lily. “She was a pig three years old and twice my size.” The Galway 2020 team in the office gather round, and we all eat our unexpected delicious hunks of chorizo.
“Chris, if it doesn’t work out with Galway 2020, you can always go into the chorizo business,” one of the team jokes.
So, in addition to having one of the most high-profile arts jobs in the country, Baldwin’s CV includes that of accomplished charcuterie maker. We sit over coffee in one of the adjacent offices, and Baldwin puts sheets of densely-written lists on a chair beside him.
He has been in Galway less than a month, and has already met with 38 groups of the 58 whose proposed projects were included in the city’s winning “bid book” for European Capital of Culture 2020.
The three themes of Galway’s bid were language, landscape and migration. Over the next 10 days he’s scheduled to meet the remaining 20, so he is certainly immersing himself in the job right away.
One of Baldwin’s most recent roles in a 30-year international career in the arts was that of curator of interdisciplinary performance for Wroclaw, the Polish town that was a European Capital of Culture in 2016. So what exactly will he be doing in his role of director in Galway?
“The one thing that my work in Wroclaw has in common with Galway is that I came here to listen, and for the first month I am not even going to start talking about what my ideas are.
“Galway won the bid on the basis of the bid book and the promises within it, so we have a quasi-legal agreement with the European Capital of Culture project to deliver it. What I am now doing is meeting every single group, helping them to clarify exactly what their aims and objectives are, and how much these projects will cost.”
Baldwin can’t yet talk about the budget for Galway 2020 as it is in the process of being negotiated by its CEO Hannah Kiely. As he puts it, he is currently doing “a loving audit of everything, and by the end of August I will be able to come to some conclusion about how these proposals have changed since writing them. There will be lots and lots of space left in the bid book once I have gone through it.”
One focus he wants for Galway 2020 and beyond is developing digital arts in the city.
“We are very interested in promoting Galway as a digital capital of culture in Europe. So I am meeting all the digital artists at the moment, and seeing if that work can be strengthened and taken through by connecting with other European artists in that field. My address book is full of artists around Europe who could come and make work with Galway and Irish artists.”
Every city is different, so how long did it take him to find the particularity of Wroclaw for the purposes of its role as a European Capital of Culture?
“Each city has a different story to tell. Getting to know Galway is going to require a deep knowledge, but, more importantly, getting to know the people who have an even deeper knowledge of their place. Listening.
“And what’s important about Galway – because this is the European Capital of Culture, not the Irish capital of culture, or a regional capital of culture – that we need to find out what makes Galway specifically European. And then how to develop that conversation with other cities.”
With migration to Ireland and its western regions from a number of other countries, Baldwin sees different cultures and language as part of the inclusive remit of Galway’s plans for 2020.
“All Europeans are having to confront and manage the impact of mass migration.”
During his time in Wroclaw, Baldwin believed the particularity of the city, and also its universality, was identity.
“In 1945 Poland shifted westward, and Germany lost its east. Wroclaw had been a city called Breslau, a very famous German city, and it suffered the biggest example of ethnic cleansing ever seen in the world.
“Between three and four million people were moved, over a matter of months, out of that area and three million people moved in. Then there was a period when Wroclaw, from 1945 to the early 1990s, when Communism collapsed, when one of the most dangerous questions you could ask there was ‘where am I from?’
“I know this because one of the very first meetings I had was with an old man who was then in his late 70s, who told me he had asked that question of his primary school teacher when he was six and new to the city. He said, ‘why have you got a different accent to me?’
“The boy and his family was picked up by the secret police that night for him asking that question, and they were all taken to Siberia. He returned 18 years later, and he was the only one of his family to survive.”
Thus several of the arts projects Baldwin ran in Poland were large-scale, citizen-generated, story-telling works, and site-specific performances.
“It became clear to me quite quickly that there were huge ramifications about this silence from the war. It was the social trauma that had been repeated over generations, in all its darkness and bleakness, that actually was at the centre of the European experience for many, many people.”
Baldwin has half a lifetime’s experience of being a citizen of Europe, and is still “in mourning” over Brexit. Born in England, near Oxford, he spent 20 years living in northern Spain.
“First and foremost I’m a theatre director. I’ve been a theatre director for 30 years now.” Then he adds, “I’m really a farmer”.
He’s also a permaculture designer, and on the farm he lived on in northern Spain was an organic egg producer, grew vegetables, and had ducks and horses. His work as theatre director, curator and writer also brought him to Bulgaria for a year, four years to Poland and eight to Eastern Germany.
So how well does he know Ireland?
“I came a couple of times to Galway as part of the process of selection. I had been to Dublin once. So I am new to Galway, and new to Ireland. I’m going to be in Galway permanently for the duration of the project and some good time beyond I think.”
The director of Galway 2020 is on a steep learning curve about Ireland’s culture and cultural figures. The week we meet Mike McCormack, long-time resident of the Galway region, had just been longlisted for the Booker Prize.
“Do you know who Mike McCormack is?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Do you know who Michael D Higgins is?”
“Yes, of course,” Baldwin answers.
“Who is he?”
“Well, I think the history of Ireland is something that is going to be incredibly important to me. When I come to a place I spend my time completely immersing myself in the history and culture, so as I am new to the city and new to the country, I will make it my absolute obsession.”
I hear him out. “But do you know who Michael D Higgins is?”
“Yes, I do.”
By this stage I am pretty sure Baldwin is bluffing. “Who is he?” I ask again.
“One of the important leaders of the early revolutionary movement,” Baldwin says confidently.
I type. Then I say, “I think you might be confusing Michael D Higgins with Michael Collins. ”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, I am.”
We regard each other across the table. Baldwin knows that I now know he has no idea whom I’m talking about, and at this point of the interview we both also know bluffing probably isn’t the best idea between two tenacious people.
“Do you know who Michael D Higgins is?” I ask for the third time.
“Not yet,” Baldwin admits, with likable mortification.
I put the recently-appointed director of Galway 2020 out of his misery. I tell him who Michael D Higgins is, and his connection with the city. It’s unlikely he’ll forget that name any time soon.
Baldwin may not yet know the identities of people in Irish cultural and public life, but there are often advantages in being a newcomer in a small country and even smaller city when in a key role such as the one he now occupies.
“I think the thing is to come at the job with an open heart and an ability to listen,” Baldwin says.
“You have to have the ability to accept when you don’t know everything. I don’t know many, many things, but I come with the experience of finding the stories that need to be told.
I come with being able to bring a certain innocence to things, because expectations that we build amongst each other are often based on history and previous knowledge.
“But when you come with fresh eyes, and when you come with an ability to say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know about that, please tell me, because I want to learn’, that opens up new doors and new possibilities and ways of making things happen.”
The new director of Galway 2020 is less than a month in Ireland, and already, as he says, it’s proving to be “a beautiful surprise”.