The artist worked across three different care settings with people who already access the Burning Bright programme: St. Rita’s Unit, University Hospital Galway, Galway City; Sonas Day Centre, Galway City; and Ceantar na n-Oileán Ionad Lae, Lettermullan, Galway.
Burning Bright was established in Galway in 2003 to demonstrate, promote and develop the positive role that arts can play in care settings for older people. It is a process-based visual arts programme in which professional artists work collaboratively with participants. The Burning Bright exhibition forms part of the Bealtaine Festival each May.
- To create a series of workshops exploring older people’s perceptions of being active citizens in their care settings and in the community;
- To develop a project where attention is placed on process and incorporating different modes of communication as a visual art form;
- To use time-based and participatory art practices to explore the wealth of life experience held by elderly citizens and how they make a valuable contribution to life in Ireland today;
- To promote a sense of self-worth within participants, and beyond, through emphasis on the value of older people’s experiences and opinions;
- To find subtle and innovative methods to share their advice as collaborative artwork with the wider community of Galway.
My research-based approach led me to draw historically on the role of elders in tribal society as carriers of memory and life experience and how this role is often overlooked in contemporary society.
Storytelling and language have always been central to my own artistic practice, and this project was the first time I conducted workshops entirely through these processes, as a means to collaborate and create new work.
Over the course of eight weeks, I hosted problem-solving workshops in which each group dissected the dilemmas of the contemporary world. I reflected upon a lot of problem-solving strategies alongside memory and archival approaches as a means to working with participants. My subject matter often came from collecting problems from the problem pages of magazines. I asked participants for their responses, drawing on their life experience, which led to many wonderful anecdotal stories. Money, anxiety, inferiority complexes, government corruption, social media, and notions of gratitude were some of the recurring topics. The project was particularly successful in St. Rita’s where I often worked one-to-one at the bedside.
One individual’s response, ‘you only value listening when you lose the ability to hear’, signaled a course of action in which all the advice was then edited down as short, snappy and often humorous statements. My idea was to use these snappy statements in a way that could lead to wider public visibility and in places where they could be encountered on a day-to-day level.
We staged a series of night-time projections of text, a selection of 10 being presented at different times, in both Galway City and County. Each projection was a fleeting pedestrian event, and, like all good advice, it was meant to be encountered as a serendipitous accident. One of the text projections which was particularly prominent was the statement ‘Take care of your thoughts when you are alone’ which was projected on top of Galway’s Spanish Arch one evening in late January. Passersby expressed positive curiosity on a statement that reflected the area’s association with suicide.
We also brought the idea to SHS Sales, the company who produces Cara Matches, who agreed to produce limited-edition printed match boxes with the participants’ advice.
The public element of the project provided an exciting way for participants to voice their wisdom to a wider audience.
In addition to the temporary text projections, a limited-edition publication – It’s not the size of the candle but the brightness of its light: A little book of Galway advice – was produced as part of the Burning Bright exhibition at the Galway Arts Centre in May 2014. The match boxes were distributed throughout the city, including University Hospital Galway, and became part of the exhibition.
The project was evaluated by Galway Arts Centre and Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust, partners on the Burning Bright programme with Galway City and County Councils. Feedback was obtained through regular informal meetings with all the stakeholders on the project and written reports were submitted on completion of the final outcomes.
From my own perspective, the project had a lasting impact, marking a turning point in my creative approach through the positioning of conversation at the very centre of the work.
This approach challenged me at first. It took a little time to build relationships to the point where people were happy to contribute. I was fortunate that all participants were incredibly generous in this respect.
When you are making work that relies on personal narrative and the life experience of others it is vital to have an agreement around the perimeters of disclosure. Day care settings differ vastly from hospital settings. And so, on the first day of the project, it was agreed that advice would be donated anonymously.
It took some time to get across the idea of what active citizenship could be – many people felt their opinions did not matter in today’s world and that their individual life experiences would not be valued.
The development stage of the project received exceptional support from both Galway Arts Centre and Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust. Cara Matches, through their in-kind support, added a quirky dimension to the project and really fulfilled my aims of producing work that could circulate in the everyday, as opposed to just being part of an exhibition.
The decision to produce a limited-edition book of photographs and text took time to consider. I had originally planned to make the work as an audio recording pressed to vinyl; however, this presentation method did not have the same immediacy as the text-based approach which felt much more hands on, and, like good advice, could be easily and generously shared.
The positive responses to the outcomes of the project brought home the timeless nature of problems and how now, more than ever, there is a need to reflect on the wisdom of older generations.
Documentation and Dissemination
The project was documented through photography, audio recordings and written reports.
As part of the project, artist Louise Manifold and Maeve Mulrennan, Head of Visual Art and Education at Galway Arts Centre, attended a seminar hosted by the Community Foundation for Ireland in which they presented on the project’s process and outcomes.
Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust, Community Foundation for Ireland