Digitally enhanced events in Dublin: Lighting up a future post-pandemic?
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, Ireland has had a very strict regime of national public health guidelines around social distancing and the prohibition / curtailment of gatherings of all kinds in private and public spaces. In consequence, festivals and events were absent from the physical public sphere for most of 2020 and quite a lot of 2021. In recent months, restrictions have been gradually released and within the context of these national guidelines, public agencies have been trying to bring cities and towns back to life. Dublin City Council (DCC) established a City Recovery Taskforce in April 2021 expressly for this purpose and used its own funding, as well as national funding from Fáilte Ireland’s Urban Animation Investment scheme, and the Arts Council’s In the Open | Faoin Spéir programme, to fund a range of cultural initiatives.
In terms of strategic intent, as DCC thinks strategically about events in the latter half of 2021, it is largely with the aim of animating city spaces and increasing footfall. During the pandemic, the city lost a very high proportion of its international tourists. It had attracted over 6 million visitors in 2019 and these had generated just over 2 billion euro for the city, however, passenger numbers at Dublin airport declined by almost 78% in 2020 (Dublin Airport Authority 2021). Fáilte Ireland, the national tourism authority, is now working very hard to market the city as a place to visit for domestic visitors and locals as well as tourists. Overall, the city centre lost a lot of footfall which decimated commercial activity of all kinds. People’s physical movements were restricted by national public health guidelines, and so people began to work from home and developed new patterns of shopping online, socialising in local neighbourhoods and engaging in leisure activities closer to home. Currently, Dublin city-centre is struggling to attract suburban residents back in from neighbourhoods that built strong local customer bases among the new ‘home-working’ cohort during the pandemic. This is especially the case for the south-side of the city centre where footfall levels are struggling to return to pre COVID-19 levels.
Passive city animation
This challenging economic context is undoubtedly influencing urban decision-makers, and as the city thinks strategically about events now, it’s largely with the aim of animating city spaces and increasing footfall. In addition, the fact that social gatherings continue to remain problematic is an important consideration. In response, the city has begun thinking about events in terms of the opportunities they offer for ‘passive city animation’: a key development evident in the city is that DCC has invested in staging cultural initiatives in outdoor public space in ways that encourage people to move around the city rather than to stop, gather or cluster. In recent months, initiatives that have materialised include:
- the installation of Light boxes in Smithfield Square and in the Docklands. These depict art from the collections of the city’s municipal gallery, the Hugh Lane.
- a sculpture trail featuring work placed in 6 city locations, launched on Culture Night and lasted for 2 weeks.
- Dublin Winter Lights, featuring the projection of creative light displays onto 21 buildings and structures across the city.
- Living Canvas, a collaborative venture between DCC and a large property fund IPUT which will see large scale digital installations placed in 2 city centre sites from November 2021 for 12 months.
Typically, we understand events as phenomena that happen in fixed places to which people travel if they wish to experience the event. However, here, we are seeing events assume more mobile qualities. These events have no formal start or finish points, and no time boundaries. They can be encountered as one offs, but really, they are intended to encourage people to move around the city, experiencing the art and digital installations and the illuminated buildings as they go. They are intended to enliven and enhance multiple city spaces and to encourage people to experience and understand the city in new ways (Wylie 2005). Most of these events are digitally enabled and illumination is a key characteristic, intended to create events that are sufficiently enticing to draw people into, and around, various parts of the city; and to enhance the experience of tourists. All of these events are free and open to everyone.
Digitally enhanced events
Aside from their mobile qualities, a second obvious feature characterising these ‘events as passive animation’ is their obvious technological nature. To say that since the onset of the pandemic, events are returning in more digitised forms seems a very obvious statement. But it definitely is the case. Once events become digital in nature, their ‘potentialities’ (Pløger 2010) change and we are only beginning to understand what that might mean. In this Dublin case, we can see that in terms of their physical manifestation, the digital nature of events lends them a more mobile shape. This has numerous implications, including for public space. Technology offers tremendous flexibility to create events that can be used to manipulate flows of people around the city in particular ways. As already discussed, they allow a city to create events that encourage audience mobility at a time when large scale clustering of people is problematic or when large scale public space might be problematic for some reason. They also allow cities to control and manage the reproduction of physical public space in new and distinctive guises (Ebbensgaard and Edensor (2020). When they involve illumination, as most of the examples in this Dublin case do, they turn public spaces like public buildings and bridges into event spaces, and completely transform cities by night, making particular spaces look, feel and sound very different to usual.
Many cities have recognised the opportunities that using illumination in the context of events affords. Light festivals are not new (Zielinska-Dakowska 2016): the French city of Lyon has had one since 1852. Brussels has had Bright Brussels and Prague has had Prague Signal Light Festival since 2013. However, they are on the rise (Dell Aria 2021), especially in the UK (Vinter 2021) and in Ireland. Often, they involve lighting up a range of beautiful and spectacular public buildings, as well as bridges and other built structures and natural environments, creating a kind of ‘festive aesthetic’ (Kingsbury 2016) that ostensibly aims to delight, entertain and to please. However, the tensions and conflicts that shape public space (Madanipour 2010) are not resolved by illumination. If light festivals mean that some public spaces, usually those at city scale, get lit up, others, often only visible at street scale, lie in darkness. These illuminated spaces are examples of the festival spaces that Waitt (2008: 526) says temporarily suspend social relations and sustain ‘playful practice that may challenge established geographies’. Likewise, as Koslofsky (2011: 280) reminds us, such lighting practices alter urban environments, creating ‘new centres of power and new margins of exclusion’.
In Dublin, 2021 sees the city organise its 4th, and most extensive, Dublin Winter Lights. Offered in the shape of two city trails, the 21 spaces featured highlight the River Liffey with 8 of the lighting installations spotlighting 2 bridges, 1 ship, as well as 4 buildings and 1 south-side street adjacent to the river. These particularly highlight the city’s regenerated Docklands area, brightening further the already illuminated presence of several buildings in that area.
On the North side, the city’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell St features (2 installations), so too does Smithfield Square, the Hugh Lane Gallery at Parnell Square and most northerly, the Mater hospital. To the south of the river, distinct clusters stand out in the Liberties (3 installations), around Dublin Castle (3 installations) and what might be loosely termed the South Georgian area (3 installations).
Very obviously, it is intended that Dublin Winter Lights will positively boost footfall and commercial activities in the city centre. Equally, it is intended to create entertainment and wonder for the people who come into the city. However, the possibilities it offers for disseminating particular messages about a city are endless (Ebbensgaard and Edensor 2020). These digitally enabled events function in physical space as the passive city animation events as DCC intended, but they simultaneously create spectacular visuals that can be experienced in digital space. This makes them very attractive from a tourism perspective, especially at a time when tourism agencies are heavily investing in tourism imaginaries to attract people into cities once consumer confidence in international travel returns. Dublin Winter Lights is being disseminated across all kinds of digital media channels, reaching very large audiences of people who may never have been to the city. Its aesthetics underscore the beautiful architectural forms of the city while entirely rendering invisible aspects of city life (like homelessness, litter, building sites, vacant sites, etc.) that would jar with the values of the Visit Dublin brand.
Images of Living Canvas, recently launched at two sites in the city, are also circulating around digital media channels. Purportedly the largest ever outdoor digital installation for cultural use in Europe, Living Canvas is an initiative of IPUT, the largest real estate investment company in Ireland, in collaboration with DCC and a number of cultural institutions in the city. It will promote the work of 16 national and international artists, is part of the company’s placemaking endeavours and is about giving something back to the city (Hancock 2021).
Private corporations partnering with city agencies and cultural institutions to invest in cultural projects that create urban spectacles (as in Living Canvass), enable stakeholders create and disseminate certain kinds of messages that yield direct benefits for all concerned. For IPUT, collaboration with respected cultural institutions create a certain cache for the company; it raises public profile and enhances public standing. In a city with a serious housing crisis and spiralling rent costs (the 5th highest rents for expats across European cities, (Kennedy 2021) it would seem very valuable for a real estate investment company to be positively associated with the notion of ‘giving something back to the city’ and with high tech cultural production.
Digitally enhanced events and inclusion
An obvious conclusion to draw from the above discussion is that digitally enhanced events seem to make it easier than ever for cities to create spectacles that animate spaces and draw people in. Indeed, the particular kinds of festive aesthetics associated with events that rely on illumination seem very well placed to advance the entrepreneurial city’s array of tourism, city branding, economic development and urban regeneration objectives. But what about socio-cultural outcomes? Overall, there is lots of evidence emerging elsewhere in the Irish Festspace data to suggest that digitisation enhances opportunities for events to promote inclusion. It can help: expand audiences, broaden the geographical breadth of programme inputs, extend the ‘life after’ productions, create material for archives, etc. However, digitisation does not inevitably foster inclusion. Pre-pandemic, it was true to say that DCC recognised events as a vehicle for fostering inclusion, but this has been unsettled somewhat. There is evidence to suggest that while DCC maintained support for community-oriented festivals in 2020 as they migrated online, it may not have always done so in 2021. This is linked to the fact that virtual events do not deliver in the same way as physical events: they do not animate physical public space. In recent months there has been some disquiet on twitter about DCC’s Light Box project purportedly involving the replacement of street benches on which homeless people slept, as well as about the wisdom in providing Winter Lights illuminations while some citizens struggle to afford a home. Commentary like this is not at all widespread, but it shows a certain public awareness of how illumination is a way to control, transmit and manipulate certain kinds of meanings, values and meanings (Ebbensgaard and Edensor 2021). From the perspectives of DCC, corporates like IPUT and elite cultural gatekeepers, the urban transformations wrought are positive and unproblematic. They may even be a way of solving problems – IPUT, the company behind Living Canvas faced opposition earlier this year from local residents in regards to its efforts to redesign a city space now known as Wilton Park, the site where one of the digital art installation screens is located.
However, notwithstanding the above, there is clear potential for digitally enhanced events to foster objectives related to promoting inclusion, engagement and belonging. As evidence of this, Dublin Winter Lights provides some good examples:last year DCC worked with at least one community group on the design of the images used in the project and this year, photos of 76 people who work voluntarily in their local community are being displayed on rotation on the sails in Smithfield Square. In addition, DCC runs a children’s art competition to select images to be projected onto buildings. These examples show the potential that exists, but nevertheless, as events continue to digitise their activities as they undoubtedly will in the future, it is important to remain alert to what ‘inclusion’ might mean in the interest of ensuring that events fulfil their potential to build sustainable cities.