Is culture’s digital phase starting to fade or will online events continue?

For Cian O’Brien, director of Project Arts Centre, the past year has provided room to rethink approaches and reimagine spaces, though livestreaming has had its challenges

When Project Arts Centre reopened the Gallery on May 13th with Luminous Void, a celebration of 20 years of the Experimental Film Society, it was the third time the exhibition had been rescheduled. “The plan had been for this big programme of events,” says artistic director Cian O’Brien. Now some will be online, but there is an increasing sense that culture’s digital phase may be fading – though not entirely disappearing.

While Covid has made arts organisations up their digital game, and online events have removed geographical barriers, they are no replacement. “I have struggled to engage with work online,” says O’Brien. “Unless something really holds your attention, it doesn’t work. In a theatre you have that collective sense to bring you back if your attention wanders. Also, I’m spending my whole day in front of a screen, so I’m not differentiating. That’s a challenge.”

Nevertheless, O’Brien and Project have been directly engaged in facilitating pre-recorded and livestream theatre. In January, they partnered with Landmark and St Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn to stream Mark O’Rowe’s The Approach. “It was brilliant to be able to host Landmark for that,” says O’Brien. “It was a model for how to approach livestream. It’s hugely involved,” he continues. “It’s not as simple as bringing in a camera and plugging it into the internet.”

More recently, Project presented Nyree Yergainharsian’s Lobsters, which was pre-recorded, “allowing for less infrastructure”, says O’Brien in the tones of one who has become a weary foot soldier in the trenches of online theatre. Staff are not only needed to make the recordings, but when the streaming is going out live, people are required look after the audience and their own various technical hiccups. There are also online conversations to be managed as the team tries to create the communal feeling of theatre.


I tell him about my own excitement, and disproportionate disappointment at my first experience of the “virtual foyer”, with Druid’s brilliant production of Sonya Kelly’s Once Upon a Bridge. I don’t know what I had expected, but it was definitely more than a static image and some music that you’d usually associate with elevators. It seems my mistake was not to engage with the chats but I share the same feeling as O’Brien; after sitting in front of a screen all day, something is going to have to be really mesmerising to keep me looking longer.

Part of O’Brien’s job is to engage with other festivals and venues around the world. “The one I thought was a huge triumph was the Take Me Somewhere Festival. It came out of the demise of the Arches venue in Glasgow. The navigation was brilliant, they created a hub, and their opening show, The Making of Pinocchio, was truly excellent. It was done in this really lush, gorgeous, cinematic, but completely theatrical way.”

Take Me Somewhere, says O’Brien, managed to capture the sense of being at a festival, even though you were still at home. While he worries about digital fatigue, he still believes it is important to have events online. “We’re not back to normal yet,” he says. On the other hand, the “normal” in question isn’t necessarily something to want to go back to. He describes the enormous pre-Covid pressure on artists and venues to keep producing, making, touring and showing. “In a normal year, we would have been presenting over 700 events.

“There are different conversations happening with colleagues round the world about different ways of making and touring work.” Here, the considerations are not just Covid-related, but also weigh up the costs of touring in environmental terms. “It’s got people thinking about how to do things without the travel.” Covid also gave the Project’s team a chance to rethink what they do, and how they do it. “It has been a kind of luxury to have time to reflect on that.” Part of that thinking involves looking at the building’s spaces, and reimagining their use, including activating the billboard sites outside. An open call has led to three artist residencies in the Cube space in specially designed pods. “It’s kind of an experiment,” says O’Brien.

Safety logistics

Thinking of experimenting, I wonder how Covid will make itself felt as a subject, or a theme of future art works. “Different artists work in different ways. Some people will respond very directly and quickly. Others will take time.” On the audience side, he has found some wanting to escape completely, while others are looking for work that helps them to understand what we’ve all been going through. “One of the ways you can use art is to do that.”

O'Brien is working from home. In the background is a fridge, and I joke that it's where he's been keeping his fully rehearsed plays, ready for reopening. "We weren't expecting it so quickly," he agrees. "It will be autumn before we have a performance on stage, with people sitting in the audience." Instead ANU will take over the main theatre for A Secret Space, a collaboration between Owen Boss, Genevieve Hulme-Beaman and Rae Moore. Part installation, part durational performance, the audience is invited to wander through and experience the slow drama, in what O'Brien describes as "a great example of how we can create new live performance experiences for audiences in the context of current restrictions".

As far as seated theatre goes, he is looking forward to being back in action by the time Fringe comes around, although “our capacity will still be very small”. Another challenge is the logistics of keeping people safe. New seats are being installed, getting rid of the old cloth-covered seats, as there were concerns about wiping down. “We’re relying hugely on Theatre Forum for advice. They’re working with Slua Event Safety, putting together protocols. We’re lucky, the network is tight, and our production team are working with colleagues in other venues.” At Project you can book slots to visit the exhibitions, but O’Brien also wants to encourage casual drop-ins.

Many people have spoken about how the Spanish Flu pandemic was followed by the Roaring Twenties, and O’Brien wonders if we’re going to have a version of that – in terms of a flowering of the arts, as well the famous parties. There does seem to have been a favourable shift in public perceptions towards the arts and artists. A member of the Steering Group of the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA), O’Brien describes conversations about the wider impacts the arts can have, and how these are increasingly being recognised: “not just economically, but spiritually and emotionally...There have been good things coming through,” he says, using the example of the recently announced Living Wage for artists. “The devil will be in the detail, but it is hugely positive. The NCFA has been lobbying, the Greens got it into the Programme for Government, the Minister has been working really hard, but we’ll wait and see how it’s going to work.”

Things are coming to life again. “The first lockdown was very odd. There was no one on the streets. Now there are traffic jams again, though they are strangely hard to predict. But the atmosphere is becoming lovely. Yesterday I was having a coffee with a colleague in Temple bar and Clíodhna [Shaffrey] from Temple Bar Gallery walked by, and then another colleague came along. It’s very collegiate here, and people are starting to reappear. It makes a huge difference to your soul to be able to connect with people.”

ANU Productions The Secret Space opens at Project Theatre on July 17th.