Last Friday saw the return of Belfast’s Culture Night, and by all accounts it was complete success, bigger than before both in terms of events and attendance.
On the other side of the world, in the North-East of Portland, Oregon is a street called NE Alberta Street and on the last Thursday of every March through to October is an art event called Last Thursday. The police shut 15 blocks (about a mile) of the street, and while it is an “organised” event there is no programme of events, no registration for performers. People just turn up and do what they want anywhere they find a space.
At a Last Thursday event, you could find metal bands setting up in bus shelters, artists painting portraits on the sidewalk or throwing up a gazebo for a makeshift gallery, a drum circle in the middle of an intersection or someone setting up an advice booth in a gateway (price: Bad advice – Free, Good advice – $1). And fire, a lot of fire: fire jugglers, fire breathers, fire sculptures, fire dancers…
That mile of the street is packed solid, from 6pm through to 10pm every last thursday of the month. Residents walk around in their dressing gowns and slippers and no-one bats an eyelid.
The elements that make up Last Thursday and Culture Night are the same; the art, the music, the performances, and the multitude of reasons people attend – to socialise and meet or make friends, to look at the art and watch the performances, to see something new they’ve never seen before. And yet, with all the similarities, something feels different.
Last Thursday doesn’t feel like an event, it feels like a true culture night, not something that needs a huge fanfare. Whilst Culture Night comes with a sense of occasion and formality, advertising and printed booklets heralding what is organised and where, Last Thursday has the feel of something completely organic and spontaneous, showing this is just what they do in Portland, Oregon, this really is the culture that they live and breathe every day, a culture so brilliantly portrayed and parodied by the TV show Portlandia.
‘Culture’ is a very loaded word in Northern Ireland, misappropriated by politicians, community representatives and people from all sides to justify their actions and beliefs and everyone understands the word in different ways. But is there a sense that its use in ‘Culture Night’ seems to be contributing to making it a meaningless word?
There is nothing wrong in the slightest with people on stilts juggling, wrestling, roller derby, painting zebras, spray painting, or fire dancing or any of the other myriad events that took place last Friday. Culture Night is for many a showcase event trying to make people aware of the art and diverse range of things Belfast has to offer, but for all its successes it doesn’t have the organic feel of Last Thursday, the structured and co-ordinated nature of the event giving it a sense of ‘forced’ occasion that stands in stark contrast to Portland’s feeling that anything could happen, which it frequently does. But perhaps that might just be a cultural thing too, with Belfast all too happy to fall back into old habits in the aftermath of Culture Night, propping up barstools and ignoring the fact that many of these things go on all year round. After all, Belfast city centre isn’t a ghost town most evenings for no reason – there people have to go somewhere.
But there’s a sense that bringing culture to the people isn’t quite a lost cause, with the Late Night Art events that take place on the first Thursday of every month throwing open the doors of Belfast’s many art galleries and attracting many who would not normally be there. Portland has a similar event, but it could be that Late Night Art could compliment what Culture Night could be, Late Night Art’s strictly curated content being granted to the public by gallery owners, rather than the freedom that Culture Night could conceivably offer. Giving artists an opportunity to showcase their work in galleries is one thing, but allowing people the freedom to take part in events and do whatever they see fit to do is a tremendous opportunity that would put Culture Night on a level pegging with Portland’s thriving scene, allowing people to embrace art by the people, rather than art for the people.
So, whilst Culture Night was a success, maybe it’s only part of the journey. The #CNB365 campaign is an attempt to kickstart a motion to increase the visibility of the arts in the city, and there’s every possibility that the punters who decide to have a go at Culture Night will find themselves getting involved in more things. But, if we don’t truly live by the ethos of Culture Night, if Culture Night could easily become an event that we put on once a year, then pat ourselves on the back about how great we are for doing it, and tell each other how much we’re looking forward to it again next year. And if that complacency sets in, maybe the culture it will really end up celebrating is the culture in Northern Ireland of only being able to have fun when we’re told to have it, in a regimented, disciplined and officially sanctioned fashion. Iain Holmes
Watch the official Culture Night Belfast below.