As Quarter Block Party sets out to re-imagine what the city’s historic quarter can be this weekend, one group of artists sets out to fill in the blanks left by vacant spaces left on North Main Street, creating a group of ‘Imaginary Neighbours’. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with installation co-creator, Gergő Lukác, and Quarter Block Party co-organiser Eszter Némethi.
It stands as proud as ever it has, for better or worse. North Main Street, at the centre of the city’s ‘old’ quarter is an important lifeline in traversing the city, linking Shandon Street and the Northside to Barrack Street and the Lough beyond it. A historically proud area for businesses and trade, the street has seen the ups and downs of arrivals, departures, and the seemingly endless cycle of boom and bust over the years, forging a strong and resilient community of traders and the loyal custom that keeps the area alive. For the past five years, Quarter Block Party arts festival has sought to breathe new life into the area’s vacant spaces, nooks and crannies, with music, performance and public engagement, doing so right as winter gives way to spring.
This year, a group of visiting artists from Budapest in Hungary have given specific consideration to the issue of vacant retail units and lots in and around North Main Street, devising a number of interactions and provocations through street art, installations and performances, among which is an intriguing proposition: ‘Imaginary Neighbours’. Asking workshop attendees to imagine the people and stories that could fill the empty spaces and open new possibilities for the area, the project sees the ideas rendered as images, drawn onto kites, to be flown during a special parade later in the day. At a time when vacant properties risk creating vacant neighbourhoods, co-creator Gergő Lukác explores the process of getting a conversation going beforehand. “Approximately 300 people live on North Main Street now. In theory, it shouldn’t be so difficult to reach and convince people to participate, but in practice, it definitely is. This is the reason we created a three-step strategy. First, posters will appear in the streets with our faces, to not be complete strangers when we show up. The second, to send letters to the residents, with more information about why we arrive. And lastly, to get to know them in person, on those four days when we arrive in Cork.”
Further to the process of finding out who will have “arrived” at the workshop, the stated theme of who is “yet to arrive” in real life hangs poignantly over proceedings: our city is to become a City of Sanctuary for refugees, and the artistic community works hard to create place for them wherever possible. Such concerns, though relevant, will be explored indirectly, via the simple process of imagination, as well as the chats with locals, says Quarter Block co-organiser Eszter Némethi. “The workshop, and the parade propose a curiosity and gives space for thinking together, about what it might mean to live together. What it might mean to move in to a very specific place, with a very specific history and situation. Like Gergő said, there are 300-odd people living on the street, that’s six busloads, a very small community. I think to be in the same room with your neighbours in itself is quite exciting, even if it is temporary.”
Reclamation of real and imagined spaces are a theme for the parade: vacant living and retail spaces have always been a feature of the city centre, like cavities, in its forward-facing nature, and in recent years, have coincided with the death of community arts spaces like Camden Palace Hotel, commonly falling victim to property hoarding and an inaction on infrastructural issues and changes in customer habits. For Nemethí, public art like this is an attempt to find a common way to suture up the disconnections with the city centre that have followed. “With Quarter Block Party, my personal question is: ‘what is the place of art on a street?’. And I like to propose this question to artists, traders, residents. To think together, because I think the answer is not simple, the dynamics change. The values and priorities shift. I learnt a lot about how much space there is on North Main Street for art, often more than I thought. Often in places I didn’t anticipate! But I also think ‘sensing’ this place requires a continuous dialogue, and it’s a slow process, a negotiation of differing value systems. It’s not the point to fill temporarily vacant buildings, meant for trade or living with art. It can help to lift spirits, but I think it’s possible to find more meaningful connections.”
The workshop was developed as part of the Common Ground programme of cultural exchanges between Cork and Budapest, that runs over the course of Quarter Block Party weekend, with the help of the EU’s Erasmus+ programme. For Lukác, the challenge was working from Hungary alongside Cork-based Némethi and the Quarter team, with all of the challenges that occur. “In Common Ground, we work and research on how we can reach and engage local communities through the tools of art. We work in small groups, along different approaches of the topic, everyone according to their main interest. We were interested in how to involve the people who actually live on this street, and what’s the topic we could catch their attention with. ‘Imaginary Neighbours’ was then designed especially for North Main Street residents.”
Quarter Block Party has, for half a decade, explored and shone a light on spaces and interactions for local people along the city’s old quarter. The initiative and effort that organisers like Némethi have put in to bring life to spaces that could otherwise be construed as ‘left behind’ by development and gentrification cannot be underestimated. “I think in the margins, the places where people do not look, wild and magical things can happen. There is a possibility for things to emerge and develop. And it might be hard to establish or eradicate things, but I also think this is the strength of these places, that they change, but also persevere. I think North Main Street is one of these wild spaces, just that it also happens to be in the very middle of Cork.”
The ‘Imaginary Neighbours’ workshop takes place between 1pm and 6pm on Saturday February 9th, at the Middle Parish Community Centre on Grattan Street. Families are welcome. The Parade of Imaginary Neighbours then sets off from Skiddy’s Castle Plaza at 6pm. To book a place, email firstname.lastname@example.org.