The Monthly discusses the Imagine Belfast Festival with Festival Director, Peter O Neill – Part 1

What year is this for the festival?

This year is the 7th year of the festival which is probably now the largest festival of its kind in Europe. This year we have over 115 free events and we have just added a couple of workshops, so it has grown substantially over the years.

The festival marries ideas, politics and the arts?

Yes, the festival aims to encourage discussion around these themes. There are other festivals which tend to concentrate on ideas, usually attached to universities; there are political festivals which concentrate on single issues and of course there are festivals which are run by campaign groups but none to our knowledge which allow for the wider discussion of current affairs using performance and other art forms and which focus on artivism as a means to implement change.  This is the only event we organise as we don’t have any staff or offices etc and we are regarded as relatively non-partisan!

Is there anything else that is part of the festival?

We think an important part of the festival is to discuss civic activism and built into the festival are ways of being politically and culturally active through public participation projects where people can propose the changes they would like to see.

Botanic Gardens, Black and White

Are there any barriers to participation?

We have a very broad definition of what politics involve. We don’t really engage with formal politics, as such, with political parties or politicians, in fact we don’t really involve politicians even in panel discussions.

We have the view that our festival week should be about new voices because, let’s face it, the politicians dominate the airwaves almost every other week of the year so we think it’s reasonable to have a week where they are not the key participants.

How do you get to be part of the festival?

We have a public submission process which takes place in November every year, when we encourage people and organisations to put forward ideas for seminars, workshops or performances and we encourage especially young activists to put forward ideas and if they need help to get something off the ground, where possible, we will provide that assistance to allow them to run their own events.

That is where most of the imagination and creativity comes from in our festival, and we very often get ideas for events or discussions that we would never have been able to come up with if it was just left to the organisers.

The Duke of York

The festival isn’t curated?

There is a small degree of curation when, having received public submissions, we fill in the blanks, particularly with a few headliners to attract attention to the wider programme of events.

This year we have Noam Chomsky, Bonnie Greer, Gavin Esler, Paul Mason, Sinead Gleeson, but also less well known cultural commentators such as Stephen Pritchard, the Community Arts expert who will be talking about Cultural Democracy. These high-profile speakers fill in gaps from the public submission process, but also bring people to the website and get them to check out the full programme

Do you have any key activities in the festival this year?

We have a project called “Build Belfast Back Better” in which people are invited to offer up three ideas to improve public policy in this post pandemic, post Brexit world we find ourselves in.

We are going to collate the ideas, pull everything together into a citizen’s manifesto and submit that to agencies such as Belfast City Council and see if we can stimulate some discussion on how we can re-imagine Belfast with citizens at the centre of it.

We also have commissioned a number of special festival projects and lots of discussions with young people such as the Secondary School Students Union looking at the impact of Coved 19 on young people’s mental health.

Beyond that there are events with older students looking at how the political parties are addressing young people’s concerns and there are other events with the Centre for Global Education addressing issues raised by younger activists around Climate Change.

See the Imagine Belfast Festival programme here

Part two of this interview is here

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