Now You’re Talking! is a nine minute audio piece that follows the format of Episode 22 of Now You’re Talking, an educational television program that taught the basics of the Irish language during the 1990s. This episode teaches the basics of expressing pain and covers topics such as ‘Asking someone how they feel’, ‘Saying how you feel’, ‘Naming illnesses’, ‘Discussing injuries’ and ‘cancelling arrangements’. Now You’re Talking! uses each of these headings as a starting point to unravel expressions of pain in a vulnerable, minor language.
Susan Buttner uses a wide vocabulary of materials, responding to sensations and fuelled by intensive research she translates intuition into material experience.
Words are known to have meaning while objects are known to have utility. This dichotomy is present in Buttner’s work but in an unconventional sense. The meaning of a word is said to be two-fold: first it denotes a standard, ‘dictionary like’ definition; secondly it connotes a whole set of other meanings. Put another way, connotations are all of the meanings that are not in the dictionary. All the non-standard ways of using language and objects. Alternatively, we can reject this two-fold theory of meaning and remove denotation as meaning in favour of full-fledged connotation. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously stated that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’. Thus, language cannot be exhausted by definition alone but needs to be considered in its broader pragmatic and creative instances, for it is us who give meaning to a word, not any one copy-writer in Oxford. Similarly, we can extend this thought towards objects. Chairs are generally used to seat a single person, typically with four legs and a backrest. If that is the denotation of a chair, its connotation is that which is its actual reality. Chairs exist stacked, deconstructed, in kips and used as step-ladders. Visual art allows us not to reimagine objects but rather reveal that objects and language are often not exhausted by their denotation, in reality all that exists is connotation; or, its use in language.
Buttner’s work is not a manipulation of reality, rather a truer representation of it. Working from within a cultural system of objects she makes clear the unclarity of materials. By which insulation pipe sheath, polyurethane foam, and metal brackets do not denote their ‘general’ use in industrial contexts but reveals their form and properties, without associated utility. Meaning for a body of work like Chewing Gum in my hair exists in the connotations between items. Connotations between the materials from within an object; the relationship made between the acrylic on birch ply and the nails that mount it to the wall and the objects around it. Each item, each material, each intentional and unintentional fold or stretching of fabric and paint reveals a new, deeper reality we do not find simply by denoting utility. Rather than any didactic motivation, Buttner allows her practice to, as Guy Debord would say, dérive (or drift).
Put simply, her objects live in contraction and flux. Her objects are hard and soft. Intuitive but logical. Harsh + sensitive. Comforting in suffering. Empathetic despite indifferent. Harmful—confabulation. Supple yet violent. Silent beyond bold. Flesh mixed oil. Burnt in rubber. Scented by glass.
Buttner trusts her material to have meaning and potential at every level, before and after the studio. This allows the deeper reality of materiality and language to take centre stage. In this, her work finds its destination within each viewer.
Susan Buttner’s work Chewing Gum in my hair is on display at Draíocht from the 16th September 2021 — 22 January 2022 as part of PLATFORM 2021 – Worlds of Their Own, exhibiting alongside Ellen Duffy, John Rainey and Katherine Sankey.
Sara Muthi is a writer and curator based in Dublin. She is Managing Editor of in:Action.
Culture is the sediment in which power settles and takes root[ii]
Fuck your middle-class propriety! I’ve got desires to pursue…[iii]
Bonfires have routinely become public phenomena in Northern Ireland subject to the bourgeois gaze. Whilst media outlets refer to these spectacles in terms that delineate their danger to the public and, rightfully, condemn the inherent sectarian overtones which accompany them, it is necessary to contend the omission of the habitus in bourgeois representations of the bonfire builders as an aesthetic intolerance which mirrors that of the position it opposes.
If we follow Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus, we can suppose that, rather than being simply an unsightly, barbarous imposition of sectarian nastiness, the bonfire is the (meta)physical embodiment of the PUL [note a] cultural capital. In this sense, the PUL habitus is a non-economic and symbolic capital pertaining to a specific social aesthetics; the arbitrariness of a settled identity. It is a closed system of thought, an instance of an epistemological discourse we can refer to as a standpoint, and a perspective from which we can draw value beyond the immediate social prejudices upheld by the bourgeois gaze.
Terry Eagleton, in his dissection of culture’s collusions with power, inferred that
There has been much talk [in Northern Ireland] of the need for an amicable encounter between what is blandly known as ‘the two cultural traditions’, Unionist and nationalist. It is thus that a history of injustice and inequality, of Protestant supremacy and Catholic subjugation, can be converted into the innocuous question of alternative cultural identities.
Culture becomes a convenient way of displacing politics.[iv]
And in so being,
Culture and tradition can thus be disruptive forces as well as preservative ones[v]
What is unfortunate is that habitus becomes so deeply embedded that it often serves as justification for sectarian sensibilities. We hear the weaponisation of language; we see the effigial pyre; we smell the burnt rubber. There is no irony that advanced capitalism has been subject to schizoanalysis, and it follows that Bourdieu proposes the term misrecognition to consolidate such issues of habitual complexity. The sectarian attribute becomes a kind of Marxian false consciousness, differing only in that these mannerisms are conformed to because of social empowerment rather than ideological pressure. As such, we can suggest that the historically sectarian position of the PUL system is now rendered as an act of communal legitimation against the bourgeois.
This is how we seem to find moments of openness from the PUL community when the limits of class are broken through. In an empathetic example of the outsider-within, Irish photographer Enda Bowe demonstrates with his project Love’s Fire Song[vi][vii] the imperative of mutual aid to ensure the freedom from suspicion and dissolution of prejudice. In doing so, any question of ‘morality’ is removed in the scrutiny of the conflagrations as morality is, after all, a more archaic and reductive system of principles than that of the PUL. Rather, as a standpoint, the PUL system is a simply a habitual consequence of the Glorious Revolution and is, therefore, the essence of their Spinozan desire; that is, the effort to persist in existence.
J.C. is a writer based in Belfast
[i] Terry Eagleton, Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2018), 80.
El Putnam has been very active online in the past year. This article will trace the development of her work in this format since the onset of Covid and lockdown culture. Putnam’s work prior to lockdown used technology but in the context of live performance. In her work online the use of the media is a very relevant layer in her exploration of the relation between humans and technology. She was quick to explore its potential and a solid body of work has emerged.
In Spring 2020 her Facebook posts announced live-feed testers but still images and the time of the posts, suggested that I had missed the moment. I was confounded by announcements in the present tense and the inevitable ephemerality of what was announced. Was my connection at fault or had the ‘tester’ failed? In a Wildean sense though, the only thing worse than a failed test would be no test at all. I kept my eye on her posts.
Some time later there was a live performance which I accessed a couple of days late as it remained available on her timeline. The work, Context Collapse, featured Putnam applying paint to her face as she faced the screen. A projected video of her daughter, Sonja, appeared on her face. Her face had become a green screen and her head seemed to hollow out as she applied the paint. Sonja was walking on grass in the space of her head. This work continued a line of work by Putnam exploring the connection between mother and daughter, some of which I had seen in live performance.
Subsequent to this were several short videos of shadow and light flickering against walls and domestic surfaces evocative of the existence many of us led while confined to our homes during the mercifully fine weather of Lockdown I. More recently short digital animations were posted online. These shared an affinity with the shadow and light works in that both presented a simple animated surface: one by sunlight, the other digital. Abstract patterns of line and shape formed in colours green, pink, purple, blue. A lack of texture in digital art has often limited my interest but gradually these began to acquire more density and weight. Their insistent presence demanded my attention. One in particular caught my eye: squares in an accumulating sequence as if forming tunnels on a blank white space, bending and folding back upon themselves till the white ground was entirely removed. This sequence, quite like a screensaver, could run infinitely.
Now, having seen the collaborative work, An Invitation, with writer Mike McCormack, I realise that Putnam was using Facebook as a sketchbook, particularly with these animations. In the film of twenty minutes, similar animations have a more contexualised state. An Invitation was a collaboration commissioned by the late Maria MacPartlan as part of NUIG’s Arts in Action Programme for 2021. Initial conversations between Putnam and McCormack, who lecture in separate disciplines in NUIG, occurred in February 2020 just prior to lockdown. Subsequent communications were conducted remotely which adds a pertinent irony to the resultant work, the focus of which was the desire for connection within states of grief.
In October of 2019 Putnam’s father had died suddenly and as the two artists discussed their mutual interests of technology and robotics the theme of grief ‘asserted itself ‘ and led to much of McCormack’s writing, in which he ‘handed back her feeling to her [Putnam] in words’. This text was then narrated by Putnam and McCormack. It seems there was a very generous exchange of thought and feeling.
The film is a meditation on grief and the subjective voice is that of a droid who, in announcing itself establishes the interior disjuncture wrought by grief despite external appearances. The narration takes us through the coping methods adopted, with occasional touches of self-deprecation and dry humour – ‘I became a good runner with better times and healthy elevated heartbeat’. Formally it is comprised of voiceover, soundtrack, digital animations and video footage of Putnam performing to the camera.
The digital animations are superimposed on the silvery greys of the video which brings depth to a relatively flat shot. They appear and disappear intermittently and complement the verbal commentary in an abstract sense– the mosaic frieze of a DNA strand, circling scribbles that cloud upon her head, ascending bubbles quivering blue, purple and red. None of these are strictly illustrative but successfully coexist with the video and words. Interestingly in a Q & A after the premiere we learnt that that the visuals had already been completed when the text by McCormack was sent. There seems to have been a serendipitous complimentarity between words and visuals. Putnam explained that the words fit very well to the edit and in cases where she had not consolidated certain sections, the addition of the words was sufficient.
Desire for connection through the screen is expressed in both word and image as face and hand approach the screen evoking remote connections. There is a sense of attempting to gain access via the camera lens. Putnam’s face is frequently present but through a softening of focus her presence recedes at times. A striking sequence of a liquid being poured on the screen culminates in the formation of a perfect circle. It was like a petri dish and was then probed by fingers that smeared the harmonious shape. Her face later emerges within the holes of this viscous interface; suggestive of a final clarity. The transition surprised me and I was keen to play it back. A superimposed layer of animated drawing gradually diminished to allow this optical effect. From the deceptive hollows of the green screen face in Context Collapse (see above) to this moment there is a consistency of illusion but the latter shows great technical subtlety.
Despite the somewhat biographical nature of the work the theme of grief is universalised through certain choices – the voiceovers are processed, so slightly removed from the timbre of their owners. The narrative is also shared by both artists. McCormack’s voice comments upon grief as a social rite. As they discussed in the Q&A ‘grief is not something to be carried individually’. Putnam described it as a ‘feeling that cannot be contained […] a Dionysian feeling’. The title itself comes to the fore with the invitation to grieve. After a year in which many have faced huge restrictions to the expression of grief the film resonates with the awareness of these lost moments of expression.
Interlooping was an online performance by Putnam presented by Livestock in May 2021, the third of three performances that formed their Bealtaine programme, ‘Livestock: Viral’. While watching I took notes. What follows is drawn largely from the notes and attempts to maintain the feeling of being with the performance rather than writing of it in hindsight. To my surprise Interlooping is still available online but I have chosen to work only from my ‘live’ experience of it.
This wool, a costume in a sense, gathers to herself as a cloud of sheep’s wool; remnants, white, yellow and pink. Hands appear at times through the bundle, knuckle bones amidst the wool, strands pulled apart like an inflation, a tearing of tissues. A length of dyed yellow wool like a feather boa but rougher. The resonance of the ‘boa’ as constrictor is suddenly very strong in this unexpected association of the wool. The hand creeps through what momentarily appears as an ear orifice. The pink dye reminds me of pink milk in a milking parlour tank, a yield contaminated by blood. I digress. That is my memory.
This work is well tailored to the screen: I see little of the surrounding space, the activity is close to the camera (also a characteristic of An Invitation). Putnam’s pink hair is a close match to the wool. I learn later that the dyes are not those a farmer uses to identify his flock but her own use of turmeric and beetroot. The colours echo those of her hair and the tights she wears. A soundtrack of inhalations, exhalations, distortions, technical reverberation and the sound of knocking wood behind the wool. She is upon a wooden surface. A table or a floor?
Hands hold the wool close, kneading the mass in slow pulsations toward the camera. The sculptural quality is consistent. I am presented a sensuous organism and hold no anticipation, no anxious desire to know where this might go. The heart of the matter has been here from the start and Putnam is immersed in its exploration, texture, feeling, holding, embracing and tearing apart. The ‘looping’ of the title could describe her repeated processes with the bundle of wool.
Her arms are now more visible, limbs in the wool. Sinuous tendons traverse the back of her hand, emphasising her grip. The wood of a tabletop becomes clearer. The soles of her shoes cause that knocking on the wood.
Due to Covid there was wool overstock and low prices. It is this excess that Putnam got hold of via a Facebook group. Initial plans to spin it as yarn floundered but the wool acts as an insulator in this performance. The etymology of ‘yarn’ is revealing. It comes from the Old English ‘gearn’, meaning ‘spun fibre’ but can be traced further back to Proto Indo European roots – ‘ghere’ – meaning intestines. This sequence returns us to the mass of raw wool which envelops Putnam in Interlooping, the viscerality of which undercuts the IT derived title. At a certain point in the work the pink wool reminded me of milk I had seen in a milking parlour tank many years ago, contaminated by blood from a cow in the stalls.
The performance lasts about twenty minutes. Her face is appearing more now. What expression can serve this intimate relation with the material? Her eyes remain open but are not looking at the camera. Rather we are allowed to see her face, her private self in this activity. There is a resolve in her choice to allow her face to be seen emerge from the cocoon like environment of the wool, to be exposed. She falls slowly forward closer, toward the camera. I like how she yields to her momentum.
Soon after the images fades out, Putnam still within the mass of wool.
A further curiosity of the word ‘yarn’ is that it is an IT term to describe a package manager for computer code and allows the sharing of code with other developers. Putnam cited her interest in ‘packages of data’ as a metaphor for the experience of grief as ‘packets of grief’ containing the otherwise Dionysian feeling of excess she had experienced.
To complete this consideration of the titles and terms being used by Putnam I return to the first work discussed, Context Collapse, which draws its title from sociological theory on media. Within the realm of social media, it is ‘the flattening of multiple audiences into a single context’ as occurs with the sharing of information across multiple demographics
Putnam’s presentation much of her work online in this past year has often been without a framing narrative (particularly those sketchbook works), a characteristic of the context collapse. The phenomenon undermines whatever framing might exist. The diversity of the audience proliferates new interpretations. The works themselves are encountered on infinitely variable timelines. The result has been an unusually open view of her creative processes. But this harnessing of online platforms well suits work that aims to question the interaction of humans and technology. The titles themselves indicate an awareness of the arena in which she presents. By staying active, posting work and staying public her study of the human position within the field of technology has developed significantly.
 For further information on these digital animations see http://www.elputnam.com/emergent Why mention this bias and my change of heart toward the work? Firstly, I am trying to track my ongoing relation to the work El Putnam was presenting. But more importantly, and I realise this in hindsight, the competition for an artist to be viewed online is intense. There are so many short bursts of animation or film available that it is easy to move on after thirty seconds of anything. Even when I like something I might move on, scroll down or close the tab because I have had a sufficient taste of it. Of course even in a real gallery setting (which we may now access) there is competition from the lure of the virtual in our pocket but that is another discussion.
 El Putnam has told me that by posting these short animations the people’s responses gave her a sense of ‘what engaged people’.
 After the premiere of An Invitation An online Q & A, conducted by Marianne Kennedy (NUIG, Discipline of Drama and Theatre Studies) with Putnam and McCormack, gave great insight into the development and processes behind the work.
 The soundtrack is by David Stalling.
 Q&A with Marianne Kennedy.
 Livestock – Performance Art Platform. Their Bealtaine programme also featured online performances by Day Magee and Olivia Hassett.
 Q&A with Marianne Kennedy.
 The term grew out of the work of Erving Goffman and Joshua Meyrowitz. In his book No Sense of Place (1985), Meyrowitz first applied the concept to media like television and the radio. He claimed that this new kind of technology broke barriers between different kinds of audiences as the content being produced was broadcast widely. (Wikipedia)
Fergus Byrne is a multidisciplinary artist working in performance, sculpture, drawing and event curation. Underlying much of the performance work is the practice of life modelling of which he has extensive experience. In performance he tests the materiality of his body, sometimes combining such action with spoken word. Through rigorous physical discipline he creates mesmerising performances.
First you will reach the Sirens, who bewitch all passersby. If anyone goes near them in ignorance, and listens to their voices, that man will never travel to his home, and never make his wife and children happy to have him back with them again. The Sirens who sit there in their meadow will seduce him with piercing songs. Around about them lie great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones, their skin all shrivelled up. Use wax to plug your sailors’ ears as you row past, so they are deaf to them. But if you wish to hear them, your men must fasten you to your ship’s mast by hand and foot, straight upright, with tight ropes. So bound, you can enjoy the Sirens’ song. 
The twelfth book of Homer’s Odyssey describes Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens, creatures who lure sailors to their death with their song. The Sirens dwell in a green meadow surrounded by rotting flesh of those who have succumbed to their sounds. It is the Sirens totalising knowledge of the past that poses the threat of forced regression; “their allurement is that of losing oneself in the past” 
Upon the advice of the goddess Circe, Odysseus plugs the ears of his ship’s crew with wax so they will not hear the sound. Odysseus instructs his crew to bind him to the mast of the ship so he may listen to the Sirens’ song while unable to act on the death drive it produces. Odysseus hears the song and the ship passes unharmed.
Some translations of the Odyssey describe the Sirens’ song as warbling men to death while others describe the sound as an instrument of distraction. In the former it is the sound’s material and vibrational quality that acts on the very physiology of the listener, in the latter the song functions in an ensemble of seduction that destroys the listener’s faculties of reason, leading to the rocky shore and their death.
Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known from many stories! Glory of the Greeks! Now stop your ship and listen to our voices. All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,and they go on their way with greater knowledge,since we know everything the Greeks and Trojanssuffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know whatever happens anywhere on earth. 
In binding himself to the mast of the ship Odysseus demonstrates a refusal to be moved through the technical mastery of his acoustic environment which involves the exercise of discipline over his own body and those around him. He demonstrates a now familiar technique of affect management in which music is used only to maintain emotional equilibrium and potential productivity. Odysseus creates a privileged point of audition that allows for the consumption of the Sirens song as stimulus in privatised acoustic space.
To listen and be possessed by sound is to forego the possession of oneself. Something akin to a knowing that is non-identical and only legible in its displacement of recognisable patterns with unfamiliar dissonance. To listen in this way exists as both a tactic of resistance and the potential condition of sound’s weaponization, an imposed state of subjugation that denies subjectivity by overwhelming the senses with vibrational matter. Odysseus produces, simultaneously the conditions of, and a strategy of resistance to the disciplinary character of music.
For Adorno and Horkheimer, Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens’ song impoverished all music that followed. The once fatal noise of the Sirens is rendered inconsequential when viewed from this objectively distanced position, banished to the realm of art as atmosphere, of music in the background.
The bonds to which he has irremediably tied himself to practice, also keep the Sirens away from practice: their temptation is neutralized and becomes a mere object of contemplation—becomes art. The prisoner is present at a concert, an inactive eavesdropper like later concertgoers, and his spirited call for liberation fades like applause. This the enjoyment of art and manual labour break apart as the world of prehistory is left behind. The cultural material is in exact correlation to work done according to command; and both are grounded in the inescapable compulsion to social domination of nature. 
Odysseus’s inconsequential encounter demonstrates the successful abstraction of the Sirens affective labour, who’s newly carceral sonorities are reified and thus sterilised. The Siren’s song approaches the circumstance of all music in its fragile relationship with noise (always on the brink), who’s organisational property might dissolve at any moment.
What is at stake in Odysseus’ inconsequential encounter with the Sirens? It seems to suggest a kind of simulated intimacy, like ASMR, a whisper in the ear without the spit that accompanies it, or love without risk. Like the light music in the factory that distracts from the monotony of repetitive labour just enough to dispel the desire to resist, or the background sounds that provide the illusion of balance amidst precarity.
Might the ears of the crew filled with wax not also be some coerced resistance to the practices of listening demonstrated by Odysseus? What productive power might arise from failing to escape the Sirens song unscathed? To fail to master their song, to fail to escape unchanged?
 The Odyssey, Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson
 The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer. Translated by John Cumming.
Colm Keady-Tabbal is an artist and writer based in Dublin. Their practice explores forms of knowledge produced through and about sound.
Time is its own language. It is communicated in events, sentences; it’s structure fluctuating, punctuating in a dynamic rhythm.
Two and a half years ago, I watched my Father shrivel up from lung cancer, just as his Father before him. I vape as I write this, pushing a little cumulus across the room with the force of breath onto air.
‘Keening’ was a Paganic Gaelic funereal practice, a performance of ecstatic grief in the form of wailing. Often unacquainted with the bereaved, the assigned Keener acted as a proxy for mourners to express their grief vicariously. Historically, the role of the keener was assigned to female, matriarchal figures, lacking perhaps in its cultural mysticism a direct representation of complex male grief.
I’ve never understood myself to be male. I remember the first time my Father caught me sneaking out in girls’ clothes. His face haunts me. I do not however, despite identifying as genderqueer, believe myself to be exempt from male privilege, nor can I have escaped unscathed or unshaped by being raised and socialised as male. One such price was the gift of tears.
What I strangely miss about acute grief is, for a time, how easily I could cry, about anything. Before, I cried maybe every three years. It started mundanely with my Father frustrated and, at the time, on his own looking after two children whilst working grueling shifts as a bus driver. He let rip at some infraction on my part. I was scared, began to cry in earnest, to which he continued to shout “those aren’t real tears – those are crocodile tears!”
(I imagine a crocodile crying the river it waits in.)
And just like that, I couldn’t cry. I became convinced that my own, naturally occurring emotion was my body conspiring so as to manipulate other people. So I trained myself not to. I didn’t cry when I was sexually assaulted multiple times across many years. I didn’t cry when I went through conversion therapy at fourteen to make myself straight. I didn’t cry at the countless older men, for whom I was often The Other Woman, treating me as such. Even when I developed fibromyalgia, I didn’t cry for years.
It was over the course of the first year of grief that I sought to inhabit what non-toxic masculinities I had inherited from my Father.
I recorded, with his permission and enthusiasm, his last breaths. He knew me by then, he even introduced me by my chosen name to his nurses – he knew what I had to do. At that point, we had mutually healed, had come to understand each other beyond our ideologies. In my practice I had become convinced of the magic of performance. A couple of weeks after he died, I fitted a makeshift butterfly net with shards of rose quartz, said to contain feminine energies, playing the recordings from a speaker, and span the net through the sheer air, catching the otherwise masculine sound waves. It was a ritual, as my performances often are, to absorb what remained of him so that grief could begin. And so it did.
I began to keen in the presence of clear quartz crystals, vocally regurgitating what I had absorbed into these objects – death with a life of its own passed back and forth through vectors. The deviant in me thinks of “snowballing” in gay porn. Death and sex are bedfellows in my work. All I knew about sex growing up was that mine was a form of spiritual death, of separation from God. It’s strange, how both “I love you son – does it bother you when I call you son?” and “You can go live with those faggots!” Can be said by the same person and how both can be true.
I performed these five “male” keenings in direct violation of patriarchal suppression. I charged the crystals in a transubstantiating manner over time with the sonic energies of loss. The crystals, carried through successive iterations of the work – each reflecting the first four stages of grief. In 2019, a little over a year since his death, I performed Keening Garden Door in Tulca Festival, whereupon the charged quartz were set like teeth into a door frame. The portal was rooted in a mix of different soils, including some from my father’s grave. I keened a fifth time, before passing through the Door into Acceptance.
Until then, I had tried to orchestrate my own acceptance, in the only way I knew how – to grieve on my own time, alone, and intellectualise it into something to be consumed by other other people whether as art or trying to make other people feel better about my grief. It wasn’t enough just to share it or feel it – it had to be both, simultaneously. And in Keening Garden Door, it was. Multiple people rushed to me after each performance, some sobbing, sharing their own stories of loss, both recent and long ago. The keening was successful, reflected in function now as it had been long ago. Both were true having become real, and both became linked: people coming together in space and time so that they may feel through one another.
It’s strange how, not only in order to process our experience, but in order to realise it, we have to tell a story about it. Words are themselves inert, arbitrary, as perhaps all technologies are, but become charged with intention over time. Something happens, we recognise and speak it – to ourselves or to others – ergo something has happened. These increments link perpetually and acceleratingly until a whole history has proliferated.
I think of myself cuddled into his arms at twenty five years of age in that hospital bed, hating myself for not recording the prayer he spoke over me, because our memory isn’t always enough. And yet, it can also wait for us in hiding, anticipating its own rediscovery.
In The Male Keening (vi), I revisit this theme post-COVID, a more collective grief having eclipsed the world as I have wandered in a stupor from my own. The same crystals appear one more time, collected in a glass decanter filled with water, a brew of old grief. I drink from it, and keen again. The image reflects Ganymede the Aquarian, the water bearer, after my own Zodiac sign as I approach my Saturn’s Return, the time in one’s life where everything that has come before must be upheaved. Grief began as this great fog dispersed across everything. Over time, it condensed into various cumulus, more discernible shapes. Now it’s starting to rain. I’m not the same person I was. I mourn who I was as before all this happened as much as I mourn him. I thought I’d have moved towards healing at this point. I have and I haven’t. Grief reveals each moment in time before and since to be its own timeline. Perhaps people are parallel universes, life the intersecting point where they meet, death giving way to new permutations as the facets turn, time the language ting point where they meet, death giving way to new permutations as the facets turn, time the language incrementally communicating these iterations.
I miss you and I love you Dad. I miss the back of your head as you played the guitar at the kitchen table. I miss you gently explaining scripture to me, leaning on the wheelie bin out back with a smoke. I miss you moving your hand through my hair with painstaking delicacy as you prayed for me during my lowest points – we shared the same hospital bed in St Vincent’s A&E, where three years before I had lain, when I had tried to do myself great harm. You had stood over me and could only smile, with no judgement left. I then stood over you, promising to take care of Mom and my brother. Life’s strange poetry continues to riff.
There is a hole in my life, a hole in my understanding of myself and the world. You left me with the tools to love myself. I’ve been sitting for a year staring at them, their applications Greek to me, caught in a slow, barely controlled implosion. What I do remember you saying, in my ear, in those fifteen lucid minutes we had alone together in the chaos of those five awful weeks, was “I bless you son”. And you did. You always had. I hope, one day, when I cross that sea, that I will see you again.
With a desperate sense of urgency, Léann Herlihy writes a letter which contains no urgent matter. In a bid to touch an art community during a time where we have been starved of physicality, these words are available to read both online and in hand as physical letters can be posted to anyone living anywhere for free.
If you would like to receive or send a letter to an individual please email in:Action (firstname.lastname@example.org). We advise you to get in touch soon as there are limited amounts of letters are available.
A scan of a brown C5 envelope with a white rectangular label in the centre. The label has been printed with black typewriter font and is addressed to ‘anyone (who needs it)’ and to send to ‘anywhere’.
A scan of a cream textured A4 page. The page has black typewriter font printed on it.
For those who value the communal, live art has, temporarily, ceased to exist.
Its traces continue to make the rounds, but documentation’s ability to communicate anything of a performance beyond taxonomic secondary use is doubtful. It is the virtue of immediacy for live art, of its flesh and blood engagement, that ensures its current hiatus is unavoidable.
I find myself thinking more and more about those altogether strange things housed in our more naval-gazing museums. That lot that is gilded, mounted, stuffed, preserved. While these stewarding institutions resort to virtual tours and similar projects in this time of closure, when we consider the objects within and the relationship we as a public have with them, it feels somehow like business as usual. These things indifferently persist. Seeing them isn’t necessary. We know they’re there, and somehow, that suffices. They enjoy continuity in their objecthood within those walls. Uneffected. Unaffecting. If live art is fragile then we might consider these artefacts and their cultures antithetical to such fragility. My problem though is this one: why is there so little in their sense of authoritative permanence to draw on, given that a sense of stability might be useful in these times of such uncertainty?
Douglas Crimp’s On the Museum’s Ruin (1983) opens ominously with Adorno discussing the German term museal, meaning ‘museumlike’. “[It] has unpleasant overtones”, he notes. “It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present”. If our relationship to these museal objects was ‘dying’ then, I am tempted to suggest that it is has now expired. There seems something absurd in positing, given our current situation, the sort of disinterested engagement these embalmed things demand.
It is not a matter of priority, that people have more important things to be doing and don’t yet realise how much they miss these artefacts. In fact, at the time of writing, other than a concern for the more vulnerable in our society and an anxiety about global stability (if such a thing existed to begin with), one of the most organic global solidarities we see manifesting is that against boredom. If ever people had time, they have it now. My gut feeling is that we understand, whether consciously or otherwise, that dwelling on such sepulchral aesthetic relationships offers us little in a time when the unique fragility of life becomes heightened. If there is a practice to sustain the aesthetic relationships we deem vital to us, it should be a practice of life. Should you find there is a sense of restlessness, of anxiety, even of loss in its absence, is that not telling that live art might approximate such a practice?
Live art needs people, it needs life. As long as it requires this of us, we will irreplaceably require it.
Philip Kavanagh is a writer on art based in Dublin
I said good bye to my father over a WhatsApp video call not too long ago. He was connected to a ventilator and they were about to pronounce him deceased in a US hospital, as I sat in my home in Ireland over 3000 miles away. It all happened so suddenly; I was unable to get a flight in time to be there in person. The shock of the trauma is still raw as I write this—I haven’t yet fully accepted that it has happened. We had chatted regularly over WhatsApp before that day. Weekly, we would communicate through glitched video and broken sound (the poor internet connection and mobile reception where I live in the country made the formal parameters of technology apparent through their breakdown), sharing the ins-and-outs of our daily lives. These once magical tools of communication, now commonplace, have enabled us to develop a closeness despite our geographic distance. I never thought I would have to share such an intimate moment—a final goodbye—over a digital platform. I limited the postings of my father’s passing on social media. However, shortly after his death, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw an extended family member had posted about it. She also linked an article from a local newspaper. I was caught off guard reading about these significant moments, so close to my lived experience, from such an objective perspective. The thoughts shared in the piece were warm and kind, alluding to a legacy that exceeds what I knew of him. To me, he was dad; to his patients he was a healer who would take the time to practice care in a manner that is becoming too rare in today’s medical environment; to his hiking buddies an ambitious outdoorsman who knew the importance of training and caution, and as an Eagle Scout, always came prepared; to his fellow firefighters, he was the humble man who loved to cook and talk about his grandkids. I met many of these people at his wake and funeral, but I am becoming increasingly aware of the impact he had on others as more comments and stories are shared online, with websites and social media pages become memorials to his passing.
“Eight hours west sat a man alone on a beach mourning an inexplicable loss. He could only think of his loss in little packets of grief at a time, because the whole thing was too great to be borne.” Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Packet switching is a process of network transmission where data is broken down into chunks or packets for more efficient transfer. Originally, it was developed as part of ARPANET, the precursor for the World Wide Web, during the Cold War in order to decentralise transmission of data and avoid dedicated lines that could function as vulnerable targets to enemy attacks. In addition to being the structural and material form of the present-day Internet, enabling the social media memorials described above, packet switching also functions as an appropriate metaphor for externalisation and sharing of memories, extreme emotions like grief, and trauma.French Philosopher Bernard Stiegler studies the externalisation of memory through technology, with technology being defined in a broad scope as an instrument or tool that acts as a prosthesis for humans. That is, technology includes the computers, digital gadgets, and telecommunications networks that have become vital to twenty first century interactions, but also applies to the non-digital objects that are used to enhance human ability, such as writing, photography, tools and instruments, including those used in artistic production. In other words, art produced through, with, and as technology functions as the externalisation of memories, including thoughts and gestures that can be communicated to others without the originator present. All art, to some extent, is the externalisation of someone’s memories; sent adrift for the perception and reception of others. Aesthetic experience, therefore, becomes an opportunity for shared being through processes of transmission and uptake. Meaning is not guaranteed and may change over time, as interpretation varies depending on perception and reception. However, the externalisation of memories through art as technology defies the limits of corporeal mortality, as memories are no longer restricted to the finite parameters of biological function. Monuments and memorials enable life, in all its complexities, to continue after death, and not just in our minds, but as memories that are made concrete through technological fabrication.
Monuments and memorials have certain connotations when it comes to the carrying of memory, with monuments typically being used to celebrate or recall a certain achievement or major historic event, while memorials are used to publically share a loss. Both craft a narrative history through their construction, which is then shared with others and continues to develop and alter over time. For instance, the erection of Civil War monuments, marking the victories and heroes of the failed Confederacy in the southern United States, during the Jim Crow era of segregation, sparked protests in the Twenty-First century. People called for their removal, pointing out the (white-washed) Romanticisation of racism in American history at the heart of such commemorations. These monuments not only frame history but shape public space through the presentation of skewed and selective memories, promoting racist ideologies that highlight particular histories over others—in a mediation of the past through the present, and towards the future. The point I am attempting to address here is not whether it is right or wrong to remove these monuments, but to highlight the poignancy certain works of public art have in forming understandings of history as externalised memories, and like all narratives, are in process, unfinished, and always capable of refinement to incorporate those who have been silenced through their telling.Other forms of commemoration are meant to function as reminders of events in order to avoid their recurrence. Throughout Germany, little golden bricks can be found in the sidewalks. Each Stolperstein, or “Stumbling stone,” contains the name of a victim of the Nazi regime’s Holocaust. Situated discreetly on the ground, in isolation, these small brass markers identify a particular individual. Collectively these bricks form an incomplete network. The degree of trauma faced by these victims exceeds comprehension, with the decentralised memorial offering a strong formal diffraction of their experiences. The network form of the Stolpersteine is analogous to the packet switching network of the Internet; where grief is not consolidated, but dispersed in a ubiquitous fashion through our surroundings.
My father introduced me to photography when I was just a teenager. He gave me his Nikon 35 mm camera, instructing me on how to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and interpret the light meter readings. He lent me a tripod that I used to take pictures of flowers in our garden. After these negatives were developed, he selected a few photographs that he then enlarged and framed, hanging them in our house. Before this, I never thought of myself as an artist or capable of creative activity. However, that is where I began what became a life-long journey into the arts and ultimately, my career. After his death, I found myself in our basement, digging through photographs. He was not in many of them, as he tended to be the one behind the camera. One is an outtake from some photographs my dad took of mom when she was pregnant with me. The mix of light rays from the sun flare with the flowers obscure her features, but I find the slippage of her pregnant body into abstraction to be breath-taking. This photograph was mixed in with various albums photographs he had taken over the years; glances into nature that attempt to stabilise the beautiful happenings that surround us. I found his laptop and scrolled through his more recent images. I noticed that his technique has matured over the years. He has gone from more representative compositions to taking more creative risks through abstract intersections of light. I realised that the beginnings of this style were already present almost forty years ago in that photograph of my mother.
As I spent time in upstate New York with family, I found myself turning to the camera. I continue to take solace behind the lens as I photograph the minor details around me. These photographs are images I would have liked to show my dad as I try to replicate his style of shooting. I aim to capture the world through his lens using an imperfect gesture of mimesis. I have been posting these images on Instagram, though I do not reveal their significance, leaving them open to interpretation. Those close to me and my father recognise, however, that I am creating my own memorial on social media for him.
“The magic of an image is in how it arrests the rules of time, interrupting decay, refuting death’s obliteration. In each of these images is a testament to what death cannot consume, a gesture against annihilation.” Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media.
José van Dijck describes how photographs shot on a phone can be compared to postcards, where images with few words attached serve as a means of connecting ourselves to others. The experience of scrolling through these images on social media platforms like Instagram is ephemeral. However, social media images do not just disappear. They remain stored on massive databases that become distributed photographic networks. The boxes of photographs in the basement are now dispersed through binary code, into our shared web of communications. Media theorist and curator Laura U. Marks points out how in digital art “a point can unfold to reveal an entire universe.” Within each digital image on social media that we perceive, there is information in the form of code that serves as an interface to the infinite. As such, we are all entangled through our images—our externalised memories and their associated emotions.Massive emotions such as grief, especially grief emerging from trauma, can be challenging to narrate, with trauma, as art theorist Jill Bennett indicates, being “classically defined as beyond the scope of language and representation.” Thus, artworks that emerge from such loss cannot be merely communicated, but are shared through affective transactions, engaging others with these experiences without necessarily disclosing them. Grief is shared through systems of packet switching as memories (and at times data) move from node to node, intertwining us in a web of shared affect and emotion, whether through stone monuments, brass Stolpersteine, or digital photographs.
Frances Mezzetti, Between and Beyond, Out of Site, Clontarf Promenade, November 2008.
A description of the performance from Open Spaces brochure published by Dublin City Council reads:
Frances Mezzetti – Between and Beyond. 2.30-3.30pm
Nestled in the trees along the beginning of the walkway the artist will create a portrait based on her interactions with the local nursing home.
I was there that cold, rainy day on the 8th November 2008, where I witnessed several performances from Out of Site, the public outdoor exhibition of performance art curated by Michelle Browne. Out of Site included works by Amanda Coogan, Pauline Cummins, Gareth Kennedy, Alastair MacLennan and Dominic Thorpe, and others sited at different locations along the Clontarf Promenade and the walkway end of Bull Island. Intending to spend the day with the performances, I went first to the Bull Island performances before heading down the promenade, thus inadvertently missing some of the performances sited in the opposite direction. I was surprised when I later learned that one those performances, Frances Mezzetti’s Between and Beyond, was concerned with Rose Parsons (1930-2010), my partner’s elderly great-aunt who at that time was resident in the Clontarf Private Nursing Home.
When I recently met with Mezzetti to discuss her art practice she gave me a bundle of materials relating to Between and Beyond. Included were preliminary sketches of Rose in her 30s and as an ageing woman in her twilight years, a family tree that aimed at understanding Rose’s place within a large family, and detailed notes relating the different journeys Rose made around Ireland and abroad. As part of the research process Mezzetti also recorded an oral history with Rose. From the material traces I learned that Rose had a sense of adventure, and as a member of the Legion of Mary in the 1960s, she travelled to Venezuela where she lived for three years. Mezzetti told me that the local people Rose met were puzzled that she did not have a child. When she explained she was unmarried, they told her that was not important in their culture and that even the local priest had children. I tried to imagine Rose’s shock upon hearing this.
Mezzetti unfolded a large white translucent piece of fabric hemmed at both ends for me to view. I was reminded of a voile curtain panel, the kind often used to let light into a sitting room while still maintaining privacy. It bore a larger than life bust portrait drawn with a felt-tipped black marker of young Rose wearing a cross necklace, indicating the special place that spirituality held in her life. Grasping it in both hands, I held it high, gazing into the eyes of someone unknown to me but so incredibly familiar.
Mezzetti explained this fabric was suspended top and bottom by wire strung between two trees. She described the difficulty of constructing this hanging portrait, and the necessity of pressing the fabric up against a hard surface to provide the resistance enabling her to draw on it. I ran my hands over its surface, visualising the challenges this fabric posed for mark marking and imagined how Mezzetti’s hands touched where I touched. Evading my grasp, its silky texture slipped from between my fingers. Perhaps this material alluded to the elusiveness of memories, so real and yet distant. Mezzetti pointed to Rose’s hair where a faint trace of a word was still visible. In the course of the performance, she inscribed parts of Rose’s biography onto the fabric, and in turn, these composed the cohesive image.
At home I performed gestures of my own as I held Mezzetti’s two sketches of Rose in my hands. I swivelled my head between them, old/young, old/young, repeating the action several times looking at each feature: eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, chin. I did so in the hopes that these encounters with the documentation might enable me to identify shared resemblances between Mezzetti’s portraits of Rose and my children, one of whom nearly shares her birthday and exact name. Though I wasn’t in attendance at the live performance, I attempt to construct an understanding of it based on Mezzetti’s descriptions and the material traces of the performance I encountered, coupled with my recollection of the cold air on the seafront that day. Remarkably, Rose, at 79 years of age, was present that day to observe the performance. What was she thinking as she stood there on that windswept promenade watching an image of her youthful face unfold in front of her? Did it harken back to that exciting time when her travels took her overseas to faraway places? Did people watching the performance recognise the past and present faces of Rose?
When I showed some family members Mezzetti’s sketches and explain that Rose was present at the performance, they were fascinated. One recalled Rose returning from Venezuela and speaking only Spanish. Another remarked that Rose was a reserved person and marveled at the artist’s skill in establishing a trust with Rose. Recalling Mezzetti’s previous work as a nurse and midwife, I consider how her deep listening techniques and quiet confidence enable her to make meaningful connections with people. Examining the documentation and contemplating the performance eleven years after it took place, Between and Beyond raises several points of interest. I think of knowing about someone but not knowing them. I consider ideas about the meaning of individual memories in the context of wider familial histories and how performance art facilitates engagement with these histories. Though Rose’s life history does not belong to me or Mezzetti, the history attached to this specific performance finds new life in the present through our mutual engagement with it. When entrusting me with the performance documentation, Mezzetti extended her performance, enabling it to move between and beyond different layers of histories and their absences. In turn, this remembering and retelling of the performance suggested ways in which it is possible to enact new relationships to past performances.