BLOG 7th December 2020

Dreaming into the void

This guest blog was written by Paul Connolly, lead singer and frontman of Derry band the Wood Burning Savages. It is part of our Dreams Guest Blog series. This blog series is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Organisations Emergency Fund.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the opinions of the writer. Thrive is providing a platform for people who work in arts and culture to express their dreams for the sector post Covid and to create constructive debate and discussion. Publication does not mean that thrive endorses the views expressed.

‘There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.’ – John Cage

As I type this, the news crests like a lumbering wave that the department store chain Debenhams is to pull out of its Northern Irish stores. With the fast-fashion leviathan, Arcadia Group, set to announce similar news regarding its Topshop concerns across the UK, this leaves scores of people across NI unemployed and closer to the harsh reality of being jobless during a pandemic.

I‘m also thinking of the Eason’s staff who were dealt a similar blow earlier in 2020, when the Irish company chose to close their Northern Ireland locations, a hammer blow for the workers but also for the new authors who sold their books there, the local artists who bought their paints and supplies there and so on. I’m a firm believer that everything is linked; commerce, culture and creation are an interwoven ecosystem strengthened and elevated by their closeness to one another.

The death of traditional, brick and mortar High Street purchasing happened a long time ago, the formaldehyde has just been wearing off layer by layer with every passing year as we choose to give Jeff Bezos et al more of our money. We did this because it was handier or quicker and meant that we could do other fulfilling things with our loved ones like getting lost on Netflix menus with option overload or scroll endlessly through Instagram getting adverts for unimaginable kitchen utensils and Nicolas Cage face pyjamas on

As these businesses collapse and pull out of locations they leave chasms, be those economic or more literally, an empty physical space. Empty shopfronts, shuttered and sunbleached, like gaps in the once toothy smile of your city or town centre.

Always remember, it is your city, town or village centre.

It doesn’t belong to the Philip Greens of the world who tell you how to spend your hard earned cash. It belongs to you. It is your will, your civic wishlist that act as the brushes, the tools and energy that will restore it, breathe life back into it.

I put it to you that we in Northern Ireland are sometimes guilty of complaining that nothing ever happens when we could be making something happen or force ourselves to go and be a part of the thing that is happening. We’re certainly guilty of concerts being squashed into timeslots which begin too late and end too early so that we can hit the bar before last orders and get the last round in. Aside from beginning a book on how antiquated, terrible for the hospitality sector and deeply mistrusting of the public Northern Ireland’s licensing laws are, I will try to stay on topic.

What can we do with these empty spaces? It is my dream that in a post COVID landscape, we can utilise these spaces as performance or workshops spaces for people of all ages and needs eager to immerse themselves in the Arts, to create and to interact in real time with others, something we have all been starved of this year.

Northern Ireland is home to a vast and often under-tapped wealth of creative practitioners, be they visual artists, musicians, actors, theatre makers, screenwriters, videographers, sound engineers and so much more. These are specialised skills which take a lifetime of practice and enrich the lives our population in immeasurable ways. There is a romanticised, globally held notion that in this part of the world weaving stories and music are innate to us and it is, if we allow these opportunities to be nurtured and championed.

From my own work this last decade as a touring musician, songwriter, community arts workshop facilitator, event staffer and other things necessary in the gig-economy of the 21st century, I am often overwhelmed by the academic and holistic approach the vast majority of my colleagues take. They are ready to take the knowledge of how to operate specialised equipment, how to write songs or lyrics, to create and manage events and share it with strangers simply for the reason that they will create something new with this shared skillset.

I have been lucky to work in all manner of places and spaces from bespoke, dedicated centres to windy, muddy, torrential rain soaked festival fields doing just this too, teaching things as diverse as songwriting, live performance, digital illustration and more. The fundamental and funny thing I have learned is that it is never the building that defines the success of the practice but the willingness of those gathered.

So let’s stop dreaming and talk about what could make this a reality. At its core, it requires a will, a will from local council authority and building owners to buy in and allow their spaces to be used by local creatives. Not to be used for Penn & Teller Las Vegas style, flamethrowing, insurance nightmare, magic shows with tigers leaping from shelves, savaging mannequins and scaring the people in the Starbucks next door, but for workshops teaching screenwriting, songwriting, photography, illustration and any number of things that require the barest of equipment (electricity, heat, pens, flipcharts, laptops, iPads, projectors, a small PA system) and the most basic of furniture (desks and chairs).

So who’s going to staff these pop-up skill-sharing spaces?

Look around you, those same event crews, songwriters, broadcasters, writers and so on and so on, who in 2020 had their diaries pulped overnight by COVID. The gig economy, for better or worse, has increased our need in the creative industries to be Swiss Army knives of usefulness and adaptability, fulfilling roles and posts we may not have placed ourselves in before. An Access NI background check and a lesson plan for a deliverable set of modules (if accreditation is the goal) is almost everything these creatives will require to set them on the path to operating in these transformed spaces as a facilitator giving even more to the community than they already were previously.

I am a firm believer, and I think you are too, that the Arts is a transformative and powerful element in engendering pride and confidence in ones self. Unlike any other activity, to engage in the Arts, whether music, event management or otherwise, equips each of us almost unwittingly with an iron-clad ability to rationally and compassionately solve problems and build bridges.

This is why it is my fierce belief that to simply let empty retail units gather dust or be salivated over by greedy smalltown, vulturesque, property playboys is an act of cultural crime when they could be used as centres of learning, of social interaction in the age of digital loneliness. I have seen first-hand in our cities, towns and villages, the power of the Arts and how it can transform the lives and the outlook of our youngest and our oldest.

I could write chapters on the cross-generational, mental health epidemic Northern Ireland is suffering, particularly in the underfunded and often overlooked northwest.

Rather than do that though, I want to ask you for a favour.

The next time you are walking through your town or village, count the number of vacant shopfronts. Imagine now, how many people we could be re-skilling, how many young people we could be igniting the creative minds of and how many of our current creatives we could be offering a stake as a bringer of change to.

The spaces we have built can never be truly empty; they hold wasted opportunities without our will to fill them.

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