Kenan Summer 2014: A Bear Fellow Abroad
By Michaela Dwyer
Before the story and before the prose, the nitty-gritty.
(Note: the above is most certainly not an Irish proverb).
For the next few weeks on the Insider I’ll be sending you stories from Dublin, Ireland, where I’m stationed to assist with the DukeEngage Dublin program. You’ll also be hearing—through our Student Engagement Journals site—from the seven undergraduates participating in the program, with whom I’ll be working on their summer letters home as well as collaborating on documentary representations of the city and of their DukeEngage experiences.
Beyond the Insider, it’s a slightly different, though not disconnected, story. In reference to Ireland’s long history of emigration and new quandaries of immigration and multiculturalism, the DukeEngage Dublin program poses the question, What happens when a country of ‘senders’ becomes a country of ‘receivers’? I participated in DukeEngage during the summer of 2011, when the unemployment rate hovered around 14.7% and emigration of Irish nationals rose sharply to around 40,200, only slightly surpassed by the 42,300 immigrants entering Ireland that same year.
I return to Dublin this time around, three years later, with a documentary eye aimed at what has changed and what has sustained. Mostly, I’m interested in how life feels—for everyone living here, in tandem with the larger forces of migration, cultural integration, austerity, and national identity. Though “everyone” is hardly a feasible focus group, and “larger forces” can quickly become too abstract for the documentary medium. The medium, at least in my case, fuels itself from stories shared—which I’d, with great care, cluster and accumulate around general statements: I was here, it felt this way, it’s important to me because. And within the stories nestled within these statements, I’m interested in the unexpected, the digression, the spontaneous architecture of conversation and sharing. I seek ways to build this architecture into my documentary approach, to compose “a compass by which to get lost,” as Rebecca Solnit writes.
Three summers ago, my DukeEngage cohort devised a public survey project that set itself up, comfy chairs and all, in various spots throughout the city. We asked Dublin residents to tell us how they felt about cultural integration in the city, about race and ethnic relations. One of those spots was The Exchange, which describes itself on Twitter as the following: “Volunteer-run all-ages non-profit arts-cultural-social over-hyphenated open space in Dublin – currently in Limbo…” When I visited The Exchange in 2011, I noticed its demographic diversity; its volunteers eagerly chatting with one another; its literal and metaphorical openness: rooms cascaded into more rooms, large glass windows opened to the streets of Temple Bar. Galleries also served as performance spaces, hangout areas were spaces for discussion, workshopping, advocacy. Since its inception in 2009, the consensus-based, inclusive venue has been known as a vibrant community space in Dublin. It’s also committed to connection and learning through the arts, offering classes and exhibition space for the creatively inclined.
The Exchange made news recently when the Dublin City Council—also The Exchange’s funder and landlord—suspended the venue for a three-month “review” period due to claims of “anti-social behaviour” in The Exchange’s vicinity. Supporters of the venue argue back: isn’t closing a community arts center an act of anti-social behaviour? They point toward larger social issues: the perceived lack of safe and productive social spaces in Dublin for especially young people, the presence and direction of arts funding in times of austerity, the odd urban plan of Temple Bar, which joins at the hip progressive arts venues and tourist bars (and which I wrote about for Recess in 2011). If “anti-social behaviour” exists, the supporters say, it does elsewhere, and for other reasons that won’t be solved, let alone addressed, by closing The Exchange.
But still, the venue is closed for the time being, under “suspended inanimation,” The Exchange’s Change.org petition terms it. I’m hoping to unpack some of that inanimation and hear from members of the Exchange community about how that inanimation feels. What has changed? What has sustained? But also: What brought you to this space? What does it give you that other spaces do not? I want to hear from community members elsewhere: City Council members, neighbors, young people in the creative industries. What function do creative community spaces serve? How do we ensure our citizens’ access to productive, meaningful lives? What do changing demographics mean for urban organization? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posing these questions. Over the next few months, I’ll be producing a series of audio documentary portraits from these interviews, as well as writing a longform nonfiction piece about my time here—both over the years and in the present-tense. I continue to grapple with what it means to participate in and identify with a community; for me, this community typically intersects with the arts in some form, and thus I find myself here, with lots of questions.
I invite you to join me as I myself reflect, over the next few weeks, about what it feels like to be here.