City branding is a tricky thing. Cities are complex constellations of people, places, and events that although perhaps characterised by particular overarching ‘auras’ are nevertheless experienced in subjective ways. Moreover, city branding is also generally concerned with presenting a marketable version of the city that can be used to attract inward investment. So there is a constant tension then between giving voice to a version of the city that is reflective of the reality of urban life and presenting one that is going to be appealing to an external audience. Even outside of such economic concerns, there are many different ways to represent the city in both positive and negative terms. The city is a many-splendored thing that also encompasses the less desirable aspects of urban life that banding campaigns tend to obfuscate.
This may have been a lesson learnt by many in Ireland’s capital last week when the Uniquely Dublin competition announced its perhaps unlikely winning entry. Uniquely Dublin was organised by Dublin City Council and the Little Museum, along with Tourism Ireland and Dublin Bus. The competition website gave the following instructions:
“We’re looking for entries that celebrate Dublin today. If you have something original to say, we want to hear it. Show us something that surprises or delights us. It could be a cartoon of your favourite character or a poem on Sandymount Strand. It could be a poster for the new Dublin or a piece of local slang as we’ve never seen or heard it before. It could be a painting, a slogan, a piece of propaganda or even a song. Make us look at Dublin with fresh eyes. Your eyes. All you have to do is make a piece of work in one of the competition categories [film, animation, photography, graphic design, written word, visual arts, music] and send it to us. Works will be shortlisted by our distinguished panel of judges and then the public will decide the overall winner”.
Some of the shortlisted entries (which can be viewed here and here) are earnest in tone, but the eventual winner took a more irreverent approach to representing the city. The winning video entry entitled “Dublin City: a Radical Science Guide”, produced by Oisin Byrne and Gary Farrelly, has been described as “Flann O’Brien-esque satire” by the competition organisers. In the video we are guided through a Dublin where Liffey water cures syphilis, the national parliament shares its premises with Europe’s largest brothel, and the Spire is a commemoration of Ireland’s space programme. But as with any satire worth its salt, underneath the absurdity the video also presents an exaggerated depiction of current social realities in Ireland: gorgeous Georgian frontages masking cheap social housing and ‘Grafton Street’ a consumer wasteland of boarded-up shops.
Though tongue-in-cheek the video stands in clear contrast to the version of Ireland Inc that has been presented to the world, a depiction that frequently underplays the impacts of austerity in favour of putting a positive spin on the country. That the overall winner of Uniquely Dublin was decided by public vote is perhaps significant. Who knows, maybe the fantastical depiction of Dublin presented in Byrne and Farrelly’s video seemed more real to the voting public than the rosy outlook of the official discourse.