Feature | K-Fest 2017
My journey to Killorglin’s K-Fest begins in a slow fashion, as I miss my connecting bus from Killarney because the Tralee train from Heuston arrives in Kerry a few minutes too late. Killorglin isn’t the easiest town to get to – when I initially try to figure out the logistics of getting there, Google advises me to fly to Kerry airport from Dublin. When I finally make it onto a Bus Eireann coach, I end up stuck in traffic for twenty-odd minutes just before the bridge that leads into the town. I certainly wasn’t expecting this gridlock in such a small town on a Saturday afternoon, but I also hadn’t expected to find such a vibrant festival here.
Killorglin is the type of town people think of when you identify yourself as Irish in a foreign country. It’s small, but with a high pub-to-resident ratio. The buildings are all painted in brightly clashing colours, and you’re as likely to see a tractor at the traffics lights as a car. There’s also the familiar sight of a number of vacant spaces where shops used to be, something that has become standard across the country since the aftermath of the recession. The team behind K-Fest have come up with a unique use for these abandoned spaces, however: bespoke gallery spaces.
Most of us expect a certain type of space when we go to look at art: white walls and minimal decoration are associated with the typical art gallery. K-Fest flips this idea on its head, setting up shop- quite literally. Over the course of the festival, I find myself wandering into a sweet shop, an abandoned off-licence, garages, houses that are on the verge of being derelict. Each location is marked with a bright sign declaring it a gallery, bringing the term back to the most basic definition- a building that displays art- without any pretence. This appropriation of buildings into gallery spaces reveals something about K-Fest as a whole: a relentless determination to create a festival without the infrastructure (Arts Council funding, traditional gallery spaces, easily accessible transport routes) that one would expect to be necessary.
This spirit means that the normal barriers to accessing art for the layperson disappear. The artists hang around the spaces where their works is displayed, read books (I spot some Vonnegut and Orwell novels lying around), chat to each other, eat pancakes, and explain their processes and work to curious Killorglin residents. It’s a welcome break from the gallery openings which can sometimes feel like an exercise in training to be a socialite. There are no carefully curated outfits or conversations, and imperfections such as mouldy walls are embraced and provide a new backdrop to the artwork.
This unconventional nature is reflected in another aspect of the festival – albeit one that should not be considered unusual – and this is the fact that female artists are found at every turn. A particular highlight is the work of Sinéad Keogh, a multimedia performance artist. Keogh’s piece, a short film projected onto the wall of a dilapidated kitchen, is focused on the dance of courtship between a female vampire and the lady of the house. It is a sensual piece that places female desire at the forefront of the narrative without fetishising it, and as viewers crowd into the small room to watch, the film refuses to acknowledge the audience and instead remains enraptured with the couple’s story that is told through slow and heavy dance pieces. Another piece by Jessica Bonenfant Coogan is a movement based installation highlighting the labour that women engage in while simultaneously being oppressed through a choreographed routine that makes use of rocks to visually represent pressure. Across the street, Mellina van der Valk exhibits selfies positioned as art to investigate the feminist impacts of social media self-portraits.
Curious about the thought process behind this small festival, I picked the brains of artistic director Neil Browne about the history of K-Fest, how it’s evolved, and his top picks…
Could you tell us a little bit about the concept of taking art off the walls at K-Fest?
This is something that happened organically this year at the festival. We had a lot more ceramic, sculptural and audio-visual work than previous years. We’ve always had a huge painterly following so we wanted to open the doors (and floors) to more 3 dimensional work this year. We are constantly setting challenges for artists within the surroundings, viewers within the works and for our curators within the spaces. K-Fest holds an annual submissions process for artist. We received about 350 submissions and narrowed it down to just under 150, so it’s really the selected visual artists who dictate the look and the K-Fest arts committee to curate the spaces.
How has the festival evolved over the years?
What started as a one-time event, primarily focused on gigs within a town, has turned into a multi-discipline festival that has multiplied and expanded annually. The primary focus shifting to visual arts from local, national and international artists. In 2013, we hosted 40 artists across 8 small galleries. 4 years later in 2017 we’re occupying 35 venues in Killorglin, running over 70 live events from music, art, kids events, drama, poetry, film and street entertainment, all for free as well as hosting 140 plus emerging artists across all disciplines over 3 and a half days.
How has the decision to work with an increased amount of sculptors affected how K-Fest will look and feel this year?
Because of the high number of ceramicists, sculptors and audio visual works this year, so much of the displays in galleries were on the floor or on plinths, they were hanging from ceilings, projected in corners or echoed down dark hallways. It became tangible, eerie, sensual and provocative. We find that this, combined with the street entertainment this year, turned walking through galleries and between galleries much more of an experience. You couldn’t at any point during the weekend be in Killorglin and not be engaging in some aspect of K-Fest.
K-Fest’s ethos appears to be to involve the local community in the artistic process as much as possible. Do you think this helps to create a more unique artistic experience?
Our local community, businesses, organizations and individuals, fund 75% of K-Fest, but they are also 20% of our visual artists, much of our street entertainment and K-Kids programme, and also contribute some to our music, spoken word, and drama programmes.
In addition to the actual artist and performers, though, we find that overall there’s a strong ownership of K-Fest by the local community, that they feel the festival belongs to them — not that it’s simply a festival held in their town. Over the years, local residents and visitors alike have been entering gallery spaces for the first time. Killorglin wasn’t a town of art aficionados when K-Fest began, but now it kinda is, in a very casual way, it’s an artsy town. People who had no previous experience with art are buying their first art pieces while some of the emerging artists are making their first sales. This year, so much of the town got more deeply involved than ever before. Business windows featured displays alluding to our 2017 theme, “The Future is Bright” and many had Oscar Wilde quotes in support of our spoken word/drama programme. People even participated in poetry readings, who had never done recitations before.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you chose the musicians who would play the festival – were there tangible connections that you could see between their work and the work of visual artists?
We always lean toward cutting edge and emerging — although both artists and musicians range from emerging to established. Like our artists, many of our musicians’ performances were also dynamic, like RSAG, who gave an audio-visual one-man spectacle!
What are some of the highlights of the festival for you?
The arts prize, The Screaming Pope Prize, is always a highlight on the Sunday night as the marquee arts event. The event is always a fun, familial event that spawns one winner from our 140-plus visual artists. Our three judges, made up from industry professionals, practicing artists and K-Fest allumni meet and hold discussions with artists over the festival and ultimately decide on four finalists and one winner of the prize. The winner gets €500 cash and the peer recognition symbol of distinction The Screaming Pope Prize sculpture. This year, 2016 L.S.A.D. paint graduate Niamh Porter took home the Pope for her piece ‘The Shell Centre’.
K-Fest returns to Killorgan on June 1-4 2018.
Featured Image Source – Courtesy of Damien Slattery