LUCY ELVIS REFLECTS ON THE LEARNING OF THE TULCA FESTIVAL BOARD IN TERMS OF ACCESSIBILITY AND INCLUSION.
A 2017 study revealed that artworks capture an average ten seconds of gallery visitors’ attention before the next work, the next room, the next venue, or the world at large beckons. In thinking about accessibility, I’m struck by the ways in which not only the time signature of individual works or a wider festival might unfold, but also the temporality of bodies, and how they might interact with the often-conflicting impersonal timeframes of policy. TULCA Festival of Visual Arts takes place in Galway each year as Samhain spirits linger. Curated by Iarlaith Ní Fheorais, the generosity of TULCA Festival 2023 ‘honey, milk and salt in a seashell before sunrise’ (3 – 19 November 2023) helped to create a marked contrast between the microcosm of the festival and the city outside.
The TULCA team devoted an undercurrent of hidden time to making the latest edition of the festival accessible. This involved drafting online and printed information to include access statements; undertaking staff training in audio description; developing and administering accessibility riders for all artists; and setting up live captioning technology before each event. Professional captioning, whereby a person live-transcribes an event as it unfolds, was used at the opening and for several artist talks but came at a steep financial cost.
In the main TULCA Gallery, a patch on Jamilla Prowse’s Crip Quilt (2023) read: “Who would I be if I could just turn up, a glass of wine in hand?” It stressed the importance of ‘time unfettered’. Clearly, bodies that give and receive care – silently disciplined by the heaviness of infants, by battling the pressing fatigue of masking neurodiversity, or by navigating inhospitable thresholds – must exist in dual time signatures.
The use of audio descriptions for film works across the festival also stressed this double-time. Holly Márie Parnell’s Cabbage (2022) – a documentary film about her family’s move away and return to Ireland, instigated by a lack of support for her brother David – required viewers to wait for the version of the film they wanted to engage with. Likewise, Jenny Brady’s Music for Solo Performer (2022) at the University of Galway Gallery played on a loop that alternated between described and non-described versions. Viewers responded diversely to these interventions, and admittedly, it was challenging for those on short visits to venues; however, many appreciated the extra layer the description added to their engagement with the work. In the case of physical works, such as Prowse’s Crip Quilt (2023), the audio description made engaging with the work a deeper and more luxurious affair.
Policy, Practice & Support
TULCA has taken time to fully articulate an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) policy. Perhaps echoing our history as a practice-led organisation, we’ve chosen to implement and test feasible interventions first, rather than simply articulate best intentions. In this iteration of the festival – which closely interrogated the relationship between health institutions and those whose lives are defined by them – it was wonderful that diverse and differently-abled audiences were facilitated, and we look forward to continuing this support in future festivals.
The financial support received from Arts and Disability Ireland (ADI) for this year’s festival was invaluable. It covered the high cost of professional live captioners and also enabled TULCA to hire a support worker for artist Bridget O’Gorman, whose art practice has been irrecoverably changed due to the deterioration of a permanent spinal injury. We co-commissioned Bridget to make Support/Work (2023) – a large-scale sculptural installation of fragile ‘mobiles’, made from jesmonite and supported by pulleys and hoists, which occupied the front of the TULCA Gallery. In addition, The Birthday Party by Áine O’Hara – a celebratory event for the sick, differently abled, D/deaf, chronically ill, and neurodiverse people of rural Ireland, hosted at the University of Galway on 9 November 2023 – was made possible by a grant from Creative Europe.
Partnerships with Helium Arts and Saolta Arts facilitated bringing work to marginalised communities. Anna Roberts-Gevalt’s podcast, Ridgewood Sick Centre (2023) was brought to wider audiences through a partnership with FLIRT FM, while a showcase of works by young artists suffering long-term illnesses was delivered on the second and final weekend of the festival. Working with Galway County libraries allowed us to screen Edward Lawrenson and Pia Borg’s documentary, Abandoned Goods (2014) – chronicling the Adamson Collection of British ‘asylum art’ – in Netherne psychiatric patient J.J. Beegan’s (presumed) native Ballinasloe, alongside a talk from Professor Clair Wills.
One of the unique things about TULCA’s model as a platform for Irish curatorship is the chance to learn from a new curator each year. Iarlaith’s practice not only showed the importance of careful research, but also of the conceptualisation of curatorship, and festival curatorship in particular, as a kind of hospitality. Welcoming audiences to critically engage with the theme and be aware of the modes of delivery, mattered here. Each time Iarlaith gave a public talk, her effortless descriptions for the low vision and blind, or her encouragement for audiences to notice and engage with different supports, showed the power of the personal touch.
Creating spaces for rest across venues is something TULCA will certainly maintain for all visitors going forward. At the opening, extra seating meant people gathered in clusters and spent longer in the gallery spaces. Choosing to buy bench seating, rather than following advice to hire them, means that TULCA can use this furniture in future festivals. Likewise, production innovations – such as the lower hanging height of Paul Roy’s monoprint series in the main gallery space – facilitated comfortable viewing by children, wheelchair users, or those simply choosing to sit for a while.
Restfulness was further invoked in Bog Cottage’s faery fort (2023) – a mixed-media installation featuring ceramics, fabric hangings, rugs, seating, and a soundscape – which created a space for respite and reflection in Outset Gallery. Complimentary carer seats were provided at the premier of Leila Hekmat’s riotous and delirious film, Symptom Recital: Music for Wild Angels (2022) at Pálás cinema, and a safe, quiet opening was provided for visitors challenged by crowded spaces.
Actioning all of this for a two-week festival made us consider the longer time needed to facilitate audiences, for whom time is not their own. Returning to Prowse’s provocation, one wonders what TULCA might become as an institution, if we were able to invest in longer, iterative practices, different opening hours, and the hidden and sometimes costly support systems needed to transform time into space for marginalised audiences. However, TULCA is reliant on support from funders, partners, increasingly stretched local infrastructure, and the herculean work of a contracted but precarious team. Finding ways to intersect conversations about access with sustainability – while reaching beyond success measures that hinge on audience numbers, towards depth of engagement – is long overdue.
Dr Lucy Elvis is a curator, writer, philosopher, and lecturer, who currently serves on the TULCA Board of Directors.