VSB Intern Esther Andare writes about the gradual return of our arts and culture scene as the end of the pandemic – hopefully! – gets nearer.

As everything is rapidly opening up, the city is reinvigorated with the hustle and bustle of people shopping and going about their merry way. It is a great feeling knowing that we are slowly creeping back to normalcy and that all the things that we have all yearned for, such as live music or a drink out with a friend, are now within reach.

It is a fact that the arts and culture sector has taken the biggest hits because of the pandemic, and subsequently, the way we regard culture and the way we consume culture has changed. Earlier in the pandemic, the idea of a ‘new normal’ was thrown about; however, now that hospitality and leisurely activity are back, I have seen a drift toward things going (albeit slowly) back to pre-COVID times. This would be an exciting avenue to explore now things are reverting; as a society, are we going back to normal, or will we implement some of the valuable lessons learnt during the pandemic?

With this year’s Belfast Photo Festival, the seamless integration of the in-person and online events really showed that it was possible. Across and In-Between, which is currently exhibited in the Golden Thread Gallery, was one of the stops; it has been great to see people come in and discuss their thoughts on the show. Not only does this pay reverence to the ongoing topical discussion centred around the border and Brexit; having people in the gallery adds to the idea of living art, as does artist Suzanne Lacy’s desire for people to discuss and write down their thoughts about the show within the exhibition space itself – therefore, counteracting the concept of ‘passive’ art. I believe that this would not have been possible if the gallery was not opened to the public.

Recently, from my own experience going around some of the stops on the Photo Festival map, I actively felt the difference between physically being in the galleries viewing the art and consuming culture online. I enjoyed seeing how the shows were installed, the thought that goes into how the work is presented, and the additional meaning it adds to how I perceive it. This is something that I truly believe cannot fully be realised with online alternatives.  There is a difference between having to walk around a piece and only seeing the artwork in a video or picture form on a screen. It’s a great option… but it does not come close to the real thing.  The layout and positioning of a piece or a photograph adds to the understanding of work, particularly when thinking about why something is placed in your way and its significance towards the meaning of the show.

In my role at the GTG, I have been fortunate to facilitate some in-person workshops with groups of women from some of Belfast’s newer communities, supported by the VSB. After doing pre-recorded workshops and Zoom workshops over lockdown, it is a real relief (as it is for many things) to interact with people fully and not have to talk into a screen. Seeing the same women come back and having the opportunity to build relationships with them has been so valuable.

However, getting to this comfort stage wasn’t easy for me; I had a nasty case of re-opening anxiety. To put it frankly, I felt afraid returning to normal, of being over-stimulated by encountering people, and I had a creeping fear that by going out often, I’ll get too comfortable and would somehow forget about the pandemic and the social distancing rules. It took an understanding that I am not ignoring the pandemic or the regulations by going out, provided I followed them to the best of my ability and remained cautious. 

And I think it is essential to emphasise the need to support local businesses: local creators, venues and events may have taken a bigger hit than the ‘big dogs’ that profited from the pandemic, such as the primary streaming services.

So, even if it is the one place that you go to in a week, support local galleries and art spaces, there are precautions put into place that will make you feel at ease!