It is needless to say that present day Belfast is a very complex, sensitive context tightly wound up with the well-known aftermath we know to be the Troubles. Stepping in from the outside onto Northern Ireland’s traumatically unresolved terrain it is difficult to feel you should have anything to comment, as if doing so would be wholly out of place and ignorant of the fragility of the context. Oona Doherty’s Death of a Hunter at the Golden Thread Gallery translates the contemporary conditions of working class lives in Belfast to an audience outside of the context from which her movement is spawned.
London born, Belfast-bred choreographer Oona Doherty works within the context of such politically and historically charged spaces. She however does not look back to Belfast’s Troubles, nor does she deal with such political matters explicitly. With that said, indirectness is not indifference, in fact quite the opposite. As many Northern Irish artists must, she deals with unimaginably sensitive spaces carefully and considerately. Doherty however aware of the socio-political context she must be pays forensic attention to the seemingly familiar patterns present in the working class culture of today.
Death of a Hunter is Doherty’s visual arts debut. Trained as a dancer and now a practicing choreographer, her work is not what is expected to be found in a visual arts space. Her subject matter and execution in collaboration with video makers and sound artists give the work the oomph to seamlessly slide into a gallery context. One space in the gallery showcases a multi-part video work while the other hosts an installation composed of the heart-breaking presence of a crashed car.
The multi-part video installation is difficult and at times uncomfortable to watch. Each short film deals eloquently with a differing aspect of the physico‐sociological state as witnessed by her within Belfast’s urban culture. The first episode of Doherty’s video installation is titled Lazarus & The Bird of Paradise. Here is where I believe the cream of the crop of Doherty’s practise lies. Her lone figure lies motionless against the indistinguishable clamber of familiar loutish behaviour that acts as the score for this work. Soon she gently arises like a man possessed, being swiftly glided to her feet in relation to the weight of her own body. Her movements following this is the result of forensic observation of “smicks”, a derogatory term used to describe young lower-class persons of brash behaviour. It is the energy of this culture, the subtleties of an unsteady stance, a shrug of the shoulders and a rub of the nose which by itself may not be doing much but is threading a line between anxiety, fear and unrest that Doherty “tries on”, as someone would try on an outfit. She splits and splices these urban gestures with her unique style of contemporary dance that I can only describe as guttural. Unlike our general perception of contemporary dance in which the face stays motionless, Doherty utilises facial expressions to further try on these urban attitudes wholly to become completely engrossed in the character she takes from.
Her movement is visceral and sets the scene for the following episode, Sugar Army, which abstractly regurgitates recognisable gestures of young defiant girls, posturing to the camera. Once again this work is generally not consumed by those considered to be the subject matter. Rather what Doherty does is she delicately and intentionally presents to us these characters in order to suggest an understanding of the deep psychological past that may have created such a culture. The work through her movements and direction are humanly honest and reveal a painful society which far too often lacks empathy.
Oona Doherty’s Death of a Hunter runs from the 20th of October to the 3rd of November 2018 at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast.
“I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved
The performance opens with a darkened space and the only light coming from a small projector held by one of the dancers as she spans the room. It is Super 8 footage that appears to be home movies. The aesthetic is shaky yet characterizable of this sort of documentation. The framing is awkward, shifting and truncating bodies as the amateur cinematographer becomes enraptured in the excitement of the moment being captured. It is footage that is familiar yet the figures are anonymous. The dancer moves the video over the floor, then the members of the audience; always in motion so that it is only possible to catch a glimpse of the flickering frames. At some point the projector shines directly into my eyes so all I can see is that source of light, knowing that something is playing back, but unable to look at what is unfolding over me. The projection is then onto the backs of the other two dancers. Bodies become screens and shadows interrupt the ghostly nostalgia.
Fragments consists of a bricolage of actions, images, light and sound; a scrapbook of gestural experience that is drawn from the mundane, abstracted, and reconfigured through the process of trying to recall moments. Actions repeat, flowing through the dancers so that not one dominates the space nor a single gesture. Motions coalesce and then splinter apart.
The repetitive actions became ritualistic as if the dancers are trying to withdraw experience from the recesses of the mind. The multi-sensory aspects of sight, sound, and touch took on the significance of trying to capture something, a whatever, that cannot be represented, but only alluded to through the process of recollection. Touching the body, the clothes, and the face: yes I am still here.
There is a narrative to Fragments that cannot be accessed. Instead, the performance captures the process of trying to recall them while losing them. Memories are created through the details—a touch, a sight, a sound, a smell—little figments of sensory experience that coalesce. Therefore, what can evoke or trigger a memory can be some minor element, which in and of itself is simply forgettable. The repetitive, simple gestures of the performers, the flickering video, and layering of the soundtrack all allude to this process, provoking broader questions: how do our memories inform us? How do our memories inform those around us? What happens when we can no longer access these memories?
The dancer returns with the projector. She again scans the room with its flickering lights dappling the faces and bodies of the audience. Another dancer holds a mirrored ball in her arms. As the light of the projector casts over its fractured reflective surface, shattering the image and dispersing it throughout the room, I am mesmerized by the fragility of the light as it swirls around the room; cracking someone’s celluloid reminiscence.
Fragments is created by Jessie Keenan and includes performers Marion Cronin, Siobhán Ní Dhuinnín, and Sarah Ryan. It ran as part of the 2018 Dublin Fringe Festival, September 11 to 14 at the Complex Dublin. Images by Carrie Lewis.
*a liminal-point at which a hybrid entity consisting of organic human and technological mechanisms is in the process of becoming a cyborg, though does not yet have a body. The ‘city’ in this case suggests a hypothetical destination in which the cyborg is integrated into contemporary metropolitan society.
The way I see it, Composition 2: Notes on Breathing + Space exists on three layering planes. The intersections that form the meat of the work happen between
the visual and the vocal
the organic and the technological
the past and the present
A pitch black space, reminiscent of a void due to its lack of perceived corners, sets the scene for this performative visual and vocal work. There is an effortless symphony between the unique yet repetitive technological sounds and the queued lights spotlighting the microphones with ring-lights tracing the circular rim of free-standing speakers. This ensemble is the second composition in this project between Siobhan Kavanagh and Adam Gibney.
Various repetitive breaths and vocals along with a loosely-musical and technological sound assemble in reaction to the gallery space. A space such as this, comprised of concrete walls and ceilings, with layering blackout curtains along with contrasting supple flesh form the canvas for these technological and organic sounds. Not one of the cracks, crevices or surfaces are to be taken for granted in the translation of these heavy vibrations. The plane which is responsible for the technological sounds and the plane which is responsible for the breathing vocals weave together in such a way as to be fundamentally inseparable. While separate planes of sound, it is clear both were created with the other in mind, developed simultaneously and cohesively. The live vocals from Kavanagh add a dimension of depth between the past recorded breath and the live improvised breath. This sometimes incomprehensible shift back and forth between the live and the pre-recorded, along with the way in which these audible elements vibrate against the organic breath of the audience present is what makes this work a half-way point to a cyborg-ian place.
Composition 2 seems to have been equally assembled from human breath and technological ‘breath’ per-say. Even if it were not for the technological breaths in this work, the layering and persistence of the enunciated pre-recorded human breaths we hear would not be possible without the technological mechanisms devised by Gibney. A cyborg extends beyond typical human limitations by incorporating mechanical elements to become more-than. Ultimately, while a physical cyborg body is not explicit, nor intended, a cyborg breath is present in Composition 2. What Kavanagh and Gibney create is a liminal void in which these possibilities between the technological, synthetic breaths live in a non-hierarchical space with the largely favoured human breath.
It is important to note however that this work is titled Composition 2: Notes on Breathing + Space. The work does not set out to create or make a statement on any particular truth or possibility. It is a note, an experiment in how these elements may co-exist, interact with each other but also with a wider physical audience. It is a one-off possibility, a comment, a particular observation they both wish to share and make possible.
By intersecting these complex planes between the visual and the vocal, the organic and the technological and the past and present in an informal, non-didactic, rhizomatic-ish way the work reaches, I believe, a place half-way to cyborg-city.
Composition 2: Notes on Breathing + Spacetook place on August 10th at 6.30pm. The work was developed by Siobhan Kavanagh and Adam Gibney and was a commissioned piece from The Complex as part their Visual Art series in the Ground Floor Gallery. Photography by Misha Beglin.
It was the depth of the darkness that first struck me. The rick blackness mingled with my fingers as I thrust out my arms to avoid colliding with anyone who may be wrapped in it. The darkness of the two monstrous screens nullifies place-specificity, as the figure of giantess emerges and disappears into its shadows. The past, present, and future are collapsed into a single plane.
Images of a gigantic woman jump from screen to screen, forcing the audience to shift position to catch a glimpse of her. Lights flash in various points, transforming the experience of watching a film to an immersive experience where witnesses are unable to passively sit back and absorb what flickers before their eyes. Her movements shift forwards and backwards; pulsating rhythms creating breaths of light and sound
The room is a body; a negative space that envelopes its inhabitants so that it is not empty, just as the womb is not a void. Bodies of women slip through the shadows, making their presence known through the tapping of shoes as they walk, the rustle of a curtain being pulled along its track, the amplified scraping of paint from the wall. Women working in the shadows that obscure their presence, overlaying it with an opacity that cultivates an oceanic darkness embracing the audience. This embrace is illustrated by two gigantic arms that circle the room, moved along the track and directing the movement of the space’s occupants. The arms become an extension of the monstrous presence on the screens; a fractured body without organs. She is beyond the audience, surrounding us, with her ephemeral presence. Her shifting movements through the different screens, light, and material elements make the cinematic apparatus quiver, causing it to perform.
This is my second time witnessing Jesse Jones’s Tremble Tremble. I was able to experience it in its debut context in the Arsenale as the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This time was different. On a personal level, when I most recently experienced the work, I carried a one-month old sleeping infant on my chest as I walked through the gallery, listening to her vocal quivers punctuate the soundtrack. Recently experiencing the radical bodily process of pregnancy and childbirth, combined with the physical and mental exhaustion of caring for an infant, I engaged with the work in a distinctive, psycho-biological level that offered solace to my wrecked self as a twice over mother.
The differences of experience extend beyond the autobiographical. Other variances emerge from the context of the exhibition. The Arsenale, which was the old ship building facility of Venice, is a distinctive work of architecture. Its long voluminous halls are transformed every two years into the galleries of the world’s longest running contemporary art event of its kind. Art is in this context is far from autonomous, with it functioning as politics by other means through its national identification (which is part of the Biennale’s appeal for me as a certified student of International Relations). Thus, the gendering of politics on this international stage in affiliation with the Irish nation is significant.
This brings me to a third reason Tremble Tremble was different, since it was now being presented after the repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution that equated the right to life of the fetus with that of the mother. As Jones recently articulated, the eighth amendment meant that “A man is a man is a man is a man, always. A woman is sometimes equal to a foetus.” However, this is not the extent to which Irish laws are influenced by implicit and explicit sexist biased. While the project may have been rooted in a desire to propose an alternative to eighth amendment—the Law of In Utera Gigantae—its drive for political and cultural change is by no means restricted to it. The current political events of Ireland make it timely, not resolved.
The women of the shadows make the apparatus move, quiver, and quake. They are the ones whose work is unseen, but create an impact that is experienced in multifacted and multi-sensory ways. What draws me to Jones’s Tremble Tremble is not what is seen, but what puts the system in motion through actions shifting in the shadows. The invisibility of presence becomes a metaphor for the underacknowledged and undervalued reproductive labour that makes many human civilisations possible, but it also cultivates sites of instigating resistance and change. What emerges from the darkness is not all that matters, since it provides only a glimpse of what exists beyond illumination.
There is a quote by Silvia Federici from the exhibition catalogue that I read in tandem with Jones’s project: “Since the power to be affected and to affect, to be moved and to move, a capacity which is indestructible, exhausted only in death, is constitutive of the body, there is an immanent politics residing in it: the capacity to transform itself, others, and change the world” (47). I read bodies as extending beyond the limits of the human corporeal entity and into the complex ecologies that make life livable. Through the envisioning of this body as a giantess, there is a shift in the grounding of patriarchal culture that has perpetuated the oppression of women. The recent changes to Irish legislation may be the highly visible event that indicates something is shifting, but let us not get distracted as to ignore what is happening in the shadows. There is still much more work to be done.
Tremble Tremble by Jesse Jones and curated by Tessa Giblin was exhibited at the Project Arts Centre 7 June to July 18, 2018.
Federici, Silvia. “In Praise of the Dancing Body.” Tremble Tremble, edited by Tessa Giblin, Project Arts Centre and Mousse Publishing, 2017.
I enter the NCAD white box gallery space that overlooks Thomas Street from a panoramic window. Photographers mill about the place adjusting their cameras while writers patrol the area jotting notes in their notebooks. A series of objects are placed in the gallery space with a focal point of two black blocks in the centre of the room. I walk around the space inquisitively looking at the objects: a piece of clay on a white plinth, a green rope that smells like the sea, beet-roots in a glass jar, pudding in a plastic bag, a bag of plain flour, a cluster of small pink and white stone sediments, a white cloth spread square on the floor & a large roll of drawing paper.
As the co-curator of Anticipation: Actualisation, Muthi is concerned with the status of the objects in performance art. She suggests that the prevailing discourse in live art theory is the dialogue around the performing body and the politics of embodiment. Muthi suggests, however, that there is little discourse surrounding the material objects used in performance art. She states that these objects have both an intimacy with the artist and a performative dimension of their own . These objects become the ‘traces’ or ‘afterlife’ of the work post-performance.
During the performance…
Audience members gather in anticipation outside the gallery space. I exchange small talk with a trendy art student in a pink hat. Our attention shifts to Muthi and Dr. El Putnam as they introduce the performance as an in:Action event. The audience enter the space to sit or stand in different areas of the gallery. The performers enter; Leann Herlihy wears a long flowing taupe coloured dress, a large muzzle on her face and black boots on her feet. Rachel Rankin wears a long white cotton blouse, three quarter jeans cut at the knee and bare feet. Ciara McKeon wears skin coloured stockings covered with a Little Mermaid mini skirt. She wears a matching Little Mermaid sports bra and a pink wig on top of her natural brunette hair
McKeon lays on the cluster of the small pink amd white stone sediments as if she is lying on the beach like a mermaid. Her movements are slow, subtle & developmental. Herlihy walks around the space with a slow and heavy foot fall as if she were a prisoner limping along a path, she sings: ‘a tissue, a tissue we all fall down’, progressively, her plodding stammer of a walk transforms into a long stride as she shifts gear into a jog. She is like a whirlwind in the space building the energy in the room. Rachel Rankin holds her white flowing blouse in a bundle as if cradling a baby, her actions are subtle and introverted. Progressively over time the maternal image that Rankin portrays becomes clearer as she plays with a mountain of flower on the ground, as if she were on the beach with her children. Paula Fitzsimons unexpectedly bursts into the space wearing a smart black suit jacket and trousers. She heaves into the space a clear plastic bag of rocks, and uses them to create a path from the gallery door into the centre of the room. Fitzsimons seems to play the persona of an administrator as she walks on the black stones in her black boots; her main actions consist of sticking white flowers onto the NCAD gallery window with her saliva, blowing red powder onto a newspaper and interacting with the audience by asking them to read instructions from the palm of her hand.
Over time each performer improvises with a new object; McKeon stuffs beet-roots into a stocking as if it they were ovaries passing through a fallopian tube, Rankin gazes intently on a beetroot resting on her hand, while Herlihy furiously runs around the room clasping the jar of beet-roots to her breast when she bumps into Rankin. Smash. Crimson beetroot juice stained flour splatters out in shells of glass across the space.
After the performance…
The performers reach a natural conclusion to their improvisations. Throughout the performance the audience were moving from one part of the room to the other. There is no one focal point so the audience are given the freedom to watch whichever performer that catches their attention. Although performing individually, the actions of McKeon, Fitzsimons, Herlihy and Rankin complement one another energetically. In general; Fitzsimons and Herlihy are the more extroverted performers. Heirlihy generates energy by running in the space while Fitzsimons engages the audience through participatory cues. McKeon and Rankin explore a more subtle level of performance where their energy is more developmental than the others. This basic contrast of performance styles creates a dynamic in the room where I was neither distracted nor bored.
The performers leave the space. The audience members, writers and photographers also leave. What is left behind – broken glass and crimson stained flower on the gallery floor – are the ‘traces’ or the ‘afterlife’ of the performance. This ‘afterlife’ opens up the possibility of a new gallery piece independent of the performers.
The audience, performers, writers & panel members enter the seminar room adjacent to the NCAD gallery for the post-show discussion. Muthi and Putnam chair the discussion with the panel members: Nigel Rolfe, Dr. Sarah Pierce, Dr. Hilary Murrary and Paula Fitzsimons. I open my notes:
‘Performers score = precise & repeatable structure of actions
Performers score = action (eg. playing a persona, text, movement, use of objects & materials)
Performers score = symbolic play of actions & materials = generation of meaning
In Theatre = script + blocking + use of costume, props & set
In Dance = choreography + use of costume, props & set
In Martial Arts = sequence of attack & defence
In Live Art = performer’s improvised actions (inspired by a central concept) + use of costume, objects & material
Dynamic relationship between structure + improvisation through the score = performer’s flow – performer’s presence & ‘nowness’
In Live Art performer’s score is much less codified than that of a dancer for example & is largely improvised but driven by a central concept
Dramaturgy = Montage
Montage = intersecting performers scores = stage images= architecture of meaning = frame of reference that structures the audience’s experience that allows audience to interpret meaning in the performance
Live Art: Anticipation – Actualisation: Performers intersecting scores + materials + objects. In Live Art, dramaturgy, generally, ‘rises & falls’ ‘manifests & dissolves’ as the creative potential of a material is exhausted & performers move on to the next improvisation. Whereas in dance & theatre, generally, the dramaturgy is consistently maintained due to the codified nature of the performer’s scores.
Looking up from my notes, I tune back into the panel discussion. Muthi is clarifying her central thesis: that live art discourse has generally focused on the performer’s body and the politics of embodiment, while now there is now an opportunity to shift the discussion to the use of materials and objects within live art. That these materials are the ‘traces’ or ‘afterlife’ of the performance that have their own performative dimension and post-performance can become the site for an exhibition independent of the performers. Fitzsimons adds that the objects that she incorporates into her work are deeply personal and so to introduce unfamiliar materials into her practice would fundamentally change the nature of her work.
The panel come to the general consensus that the essential quality of performance art is ‘nowness’ and ephemerality. The immediacy of the performer & the observer in shared space and time. These thoughts are echoed by theatre directors Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook that emphasise the direct relationship between audience and actor as the essential component in theatre.
The conversation takes many twists and turns as the panellists discuss the curation of live art and the inherent conventions embedded within the gallery space. In this regard the gallery is much like a theatre where audience members lean how to relate to the art work through a history of convention brought to life in the present moment through the inaction of the performance. In the theatre for example, audience members have learned to applaud the actors at the curtain call while in live art observers have learned that they can change their position in the gallery space as if they are viewing a visual art piece.
After, the panel conversation continues at the pub where we discuss the possibility of how live art can be taught as a practice. Theatre, dance & music academies fore example abound with pedagogical approaches to learning & teaching, so why not Live Art? Live Art has a documented performance history arguably traced back to the late 1930’s with Jackson Pollock’s action paintings and I have personal experience of studying performance art in University.
Two pints down and walking towards Christ Church, I reflect and my mind keeps on coming back to the rise and fall of dramaturgy in Live Art.
The Rise & Fall of Dramaturgy in Live Art
Montage is ‘to compose’, ‘to put with’, ‘to mount, to put together’, ’to weave actions together’ & ‘to create the play” (Barba: 2006: 178). Composition is the arrangement of performative actions & materials put in relation to one another to create a dramaturgy. Dramaturgy is the architecture of meaning, a frame of reference or a doorway into the performance world that allows the audience to experience and interpret the live event.
The performer engages in a process of composition as he or she arranges the materials and actions of their performance into a score. A director embarks upon a similar process when editing all the performer’s scores in relation to one another to create the overall dramaturgy of the piece. (Barba: 2006: 178)
Although I am writing in response to a Live Art event, theatre director Eugenio Barba’s observations on dramaturgy and montage are relevant to all artistic and cultural events. The purpose of art , from an ancient Greek perspective is to uplift the spirit by connecting with beauty – beauty with a capital ‘B’ where art works like that of Michelangelo’s David or The Sistine Chapel, for example, are earthly embodiments of an archetypical or primordial idea of Beauty residing in the Jungian notion of The Collective Unconscious. Perhaps this classical formulation on the purpose of art has ben challenged by post – modern and post – structuralist theory in its deconstruction of Enlightenment Values, yet , the essential purpose of art as a means to generate meaning and meaningful experiences remains. Therefore, the craft of creating dramaturgy is an essential vehicle in this process.
Traditional genres of art will generate and communicate meaning through conventional forms whereas more experimental art such as live art will achieve this through a more improvisational form. In both cases, however, a dramaturgy or an architecture of meaning is constructed by the artists as a vehicle in which audience members can experience, interpret anc perceive value in the work.
In my attempts to record the performers scores from Anticipation: Actualisation, I eventually gave up when I reached the fifth page of my note book. Unlike a classical actor or dancer, a performance artist won’t be able to precisely repeat their performance score. In live art the dichotomy between structure anc improvisation favours improvisation where performative actions are driven from a central concept rather than a codified set of actions.
My experience of Anticipation: Actualisation was the ‘rise & fall of dramaturgy,’ ‘a bleeding effect’ of slowly progressive striking images that engaged my attention as performers explored the creative possibilities of the material. These striking images provided a temporary dramaturgy, an ephemeral interpretive frame in which my subjective experiences were filtered through to spark associations in my imagination. The strongest moments of the performance where when artists improvised together to clarify – and bolster the stage image through interactive and improvised scores. The exciting aspect of watching the‘ rise & fall’ of dramaturgy at this live art event was that both audience member and performer alike where discovering the creative potential of the materials together. Neither observer nor performer knew the result of the artist’s actions and therefore the immediacy of the moment was palpable.
This ‘rise & fall of dramaturgy’ through the ‘bleeding effect’ of striking images in Anticipation: Actualisation was like watching a red dye slowly casting a crimson shadow over clear water until there was enough information for the brain to interpret the image as ‘blood in water’.
The interaction between the performer’s actions and objects were essential in developing these scores that would produce striking images and ephemeral dramaturges in-order for audience members to engage with.
Muthi’s thesis of opening up more discussion into the materiality of performance art asks performers, audience members and theorists alike to re-evaluate what kind of interactions takes place between artist and observer, ultimately asking: What is the purpose of performance art? If the ancient Greek formulation: to connect with Beauty with a capital ‘B’ has been challenged through postmodern discourse then performance artists must find an adequate replacement.
The generation of meaning and the creation of meaningful experiences crafted though a clear dramaturgy seems to me like a good place to start.
I feel that an interdisciplinary approach to performance making is necessary where theatre directors and performance artists share their practice. Performance artists are very good at creating embodied and visually striking images, while theatre directors have the dramaturgical eye to sequence those images to tell a compelling story through the body and the materiality of performance.
Barba & Savarese (2005), A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer, Routledge, Oxon
This is the first essay of a series invited respondents to Anticipation: Actualisation, which is the first performance event to be organised by in:Action editors EL Putnam and Sara Muthi. It took place on 21 March at the NCAD gallery and involved performers Ciara McKeon, Paula Fitzsimons, Léann Herlihy, and Rachel Rankin. The post-performance panel included Nigel Rolfe, Sarah Pierce, and Hilary Murray. Stay tuned for further written responses to the event by Francis Halsall, Tara Carroll, and Jesse Hopkins. Photography by Misha Beglin.
Jack Beglin is a youth theatre facilitator, arts administrator, and visiting scholar to the department of contemplative performance at Naropa University, Boulder, Colarado U.S.A (2016), Jack is interested in the intersection of theatre & live art. Writer at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2011), The National Student Drama Festival (UK: 2011), The Manchester Flare Festival of New & Experimental Theatre (2016 & 2017), and The Dublin Live Art Festival (2017).
Four performance artists; all female. An eclectic, random assortment of materials and props. A live audience. One hour in a formal gallery space. These are the predetermined conditions of Anticipation:Actualisation at the NCAD Gallery, creating a performer’s playground for four individual, spontaneous, un-predetermined performances to unfold alongside and amongst each other.
The audience clings to the walls, encircling the designated performance space in the centre of the room, defined as much by the toppled plinth, the glass jars, newspaper, lard, and many other materials as by the artists who inhabit it.
I sneak in and move to a gap by the window, quietly lower my bags, I freeze, embarrassed, when a coin drops from my bag and clangs to the floor.
I scan the room:
There’s a young woman methodically moving a pile of flour, from ground to arms, and back again.
Another in a pink bikini and bright pink wig. Both legs bound by one leg of a pair of sheer tights; a mermaid gazing out to sea from the shore. Except she is sitting and moving in a pile of pink salt, which is painful and nasty.
The third in plain white with a dog muzzle over her face. She starts circling the room softly singing ring a ring o’ roses, increasingly become louder, faster, more manic. She above all feels like something I’ve seen before; the mad woman.
These pieces of art all begin to evolve within the same space and timeframe, but each on a slightly different frequency, or plane of reality. As an audience member you slip in and out of these alternate frequencies, entering the narrative of one performer and then easily moving onto the next when the point of focus shifts. The ‘mad woman’ drops a glass jar and it shatters, my focus swings away from the dreamy pink mermaid and into this sudden violent explosion.
In one of his essays on beauty, ‘Prom Night in Flatland’, which I was reading the same week as I attended this event, Dave Hickey makes reference to the “fourth wall” that a certain group of late eighteenth-century French painters (Greuze, Vernet, Van Loo…) would endeavour to drop down the picture plane, effectively sealing the scene off from the viewer, and putting them into the non-participatory position of “objective moral observer” (1993, pp. 43–4). All eras of painting have utilised this wall, inviting the viewer into the scene, or intimidating them out of it. I consider that it is an ongoing struggle for performance artists to overcome or dissemble this wall that keeps their audience at a safe, sterile distance from their work. Everything the artist does relates in some way to this wall, playing to or against it. Currently I am comfortably settled in the ‘audience sphere’, in a predetermined plane outside of the performance.
A woman in black sweeps in and out of the room freely, pausing at a point and then leaving. I momentarily wonder if she is a part of this performance, playing the part of ‘curator’, so definite are her movements. Her freedom of movement makes clear her status as an organiser or facilitator of the event, she has a right to the sacred performance ground. She attracts my attention because her movements fragment the distinct worlds between art and viewer. She is neither in the performance, nor fully out.
There is a hierarchy of art-viewers, audience-members, emerging. The photographers too have license to move freely, in the noble cause of getting the best shot.
What the audience does and doesn’t do when confronted by a piece of live art comes up in the panel discussion following the performance. The performance artists on the panel express the frustration of trying to shake a viewer out of their passive role. Nigel Rolfe states that there are two types of audience members; those that cling to the walls, and those that don’t.
I feel embarrassed at my embarrassment when my coin fell.
In response to the critical tone against timid viewers, Sarah Pierce says a rather lovely thing about considering attentive presence over the period of the hour as a valid form of participation. An immediate sense of relief, a space opens up.
The fourth artist has arrived, late and loud. She is pouring black shiny stones from a heavy sack before her, forming a pathway into the room. In doing so she forces her way from the outside, through our audience-sphere, into the performance-sphere by physically building her own path. Once ‘in’, she doesn’t stay put; she’s smashed her way through the invisible walls and can now move freely. She moves around the viewers’ circle, playing something on her phone which she holds to each viewer’s ear. One by one they get up and walk – confident, self-conscious, or amused – to the other side of the room.
Later, she has a bowl of dry leaves or flowers. Slowly, intensely, and somewhat repulsively, she presses them to her tongue and then sticks them to the window. She makes eye contact with me during the act. I feel included.
She’s successfully mobilised the sleepy audience, establishing dominance and creating a feeling of suspense. Now we’re forced to encounter the situation in an altered way, and waiting to see what she’s going to do now that she’s established control. It feels vulnerable leaving your position on the other side of the fourth wall, no longer protected by formal gallery protocol.
She continues her slobbery ritual, and I check in with the other artists.
Pink mermaid is wrapping a roll of cling film around her lower body; her tail being upgraded.
The woman with the flour is quiet—still—she has something round in her mouth.
Mad Woman is sitting against the blocks rhythmically rubbing a slab of lard through her hair, soon it’s clogged and white with fat.
Suddenly, un-expectedly, she picks up a white bedsheet and approaches a viewer sitting in front of me and asks if she can rip it. There’s a struggle; the audience member takes this task seriously. The woman sitting next to us fumbles for a key to help. There’s a slight feeling of panic rising, the wall has been broken, one of our own has been given a distinct task to complete, what if she can’t do it? How long will she keep trying before it gets really awkward?
The sheet rips and Mad Woman takes one end and hurries off with it, pulling the sheet apart.
The moment has passed, and soon she’s back circling the room again.
Anticipation:Actualisation made explicit the conditions surrounding live art, reminding me to consider the big questions: how does and should a viewer encounter a piece of work, specifically painting and performance?
I go on a date with a computer scientist, I’m telling him about the RHA open submission, and how thousands of artworks will be anonymously judged. He wonders if a robot could be programmed to screen the artworks for passable features and filter them into a more manageable next round that would be judged by people. Outraged, I fluster; but encountering a piece of art is a human, bodily, experience! Technology is not capable of this experience! The whole point of art is for human beings to encounter it!
He looks frightened.
Leaving the panel discussion I peep through the glass doors of the NCAD gallery; the people are gone and what remains is the physical evidence of their movements through the materials that filled the space. Heaped flour, shattered glass, slimy leaves on the window pane, a mangled stick of lard, pink pigment with letters scribed into it, and a path of shiny black stones leading you in the scene. It’s very beautiful, and quiet, a messy map of what has occurred here, an after-image. Very much like a painting I realise. A painting may be considered as the material evidence of the artist’s physical movements, after the act. Performance, rather, invites the viewer into the physical act itself, and in doing so sometimes makes the viewer implicit in the end result. In this case there was an encounter between artists and materials, and there were witnesses. Where the lines between art-maker and art, art-maker and art-maker, viewer and art, viewer and art-maker began and ended up is difficult to definitively say.
Anticipation: Actualisation is the first performance event to be organised by in:Action editors EL Putnam and Sara Muthi. It took place on 21 March at the NCAD gallery and involved performers Ciara McKeon, Paula Fitzsimons, Léann Herlihy, and Rachel Rankin. The post-performance panel included Nigel Rolfe, Sarah Pierce, and Hilary Murray. Stay tuned for further written responses to the event by Francis Halsall, Tara Carroll, Jack Beglin, and Jesse Hopkins. Photography by Misha Beglin.
Hickey, D., 1993. Prom Night in Flatland, in: The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. Art Issues Press, Los Angeles.
Our cities are awash in spectacle. Walking along urban streets tends to mean being bombarded with images and actions competing for attention, over saturating the senses. The question arises: how to cultivate a provocation in the midst of oceanic stimulation? Such propositions becomes further complex when the artists producing the work are foreign to the context, where the space of execution is already strange and unfamiliar to the creators — though such a stipulation can act as a benefit since the everyday has yet to become mundane. Seven artists from the Mobius artists group (Marilyn Arsem, Daniel DeLuca, Anna Wexler, Sandrine Schaefer, Mari Novotny-Jones, Milan Kohout, and Jimena Bermejo with her collaborator Chris Brokaw) recently traveled from Boston to Belfast in order to create new performance works in public spaces around the Cathedral Quarter area of the city as part of Transactions, an international exchange between Mobius and Bbeyond. Over the course of two weekends, the artists infiltrated different alleys, benches, walkways, intersections, and other thoroughfares, cultivating experiences within the energy of life that flows throughout the city.
Each artist utilized a particular tactic for navigating the social terrain, at times presenting an action that was enough out of the ordinary to invite a pause, as Marilyn Arsem did as she meticulously sewed parts of different stuffed animals together to make new creatures next to a bus stop at Castle Court Shopping Centre. Inviting passersby to sit alongside her and converse as she undertook her task, Arsem’s nonchalant demeanor while performing made the out of the ordinary actions seem in sync with the scene around her, despite their obvious strangeness; evoking a sort of emotional navigation where human interaction becomes a medium skillfully crafted and molded by the artist.
What struck me when witnessing these performances is how each artist introduced a framing of experience within public life, in absence of the physical and mental parameters that a gallery introduces. This was accomplished through the purveyance of an attitude that allowed the artist to claim presence in a space, which Anna Wexler managed to do in an effective yet unobtrusive manner as she paced the Queen’s Bridge area of the city. Dressed in a blue cloak, Wexler shared the story Mary Ann McCracken, a 19th century abolitionist who distributed anti-slavery leaflets well into her eighties along the Belfast docks area to passengers on their way to the United States. Evoking the spectre of this activist, Wexler drew connections to current acts of systemic and explicit racism through the distribution of pamphlets that combined excerpts of McCracken’s texts with those from Angela Davis, Patrice Cullors of Black Lives Matter, and others in order to emphasize how the need for abolition and anti-racist activism continues. Like Arsem, her gestures invited prolonged conversations along the bridge, where social activism and aesthetic intervention are cultivated on a human-to-human level. Along these lines, Daniel DeLuca sublimated his presence into the urban milieu through the invitation to physically distribute written messages from one place to another, guiding his navigation of the city in unanticipated ways.
The ability of an artist to claim a presence in a foreign public place — to dwell within it (thank you to Siobhan Mullen for drawing this to my attention) — was accomplished by Sandrine Schaefer in her new iteration of the Pace Investigations series. Over the course of 15 hours, Schaefer inhabited Exchange Place, engaging in a series of actions and gestures with objects that made her presence, while subdued, just strange enough to disrupt the transitory energy of the walkway. The nuances of her performance became strikingly apparent when the Belfast May Day Parade marched along Donegal Avenue, creating a juxtaposition of public performance with each highlighting the particularities of the other. Schaefer was spending this time sitting in a chair reading a book, though in the middle of walkway — breaking the customs of stasis in public space, where such occupations are usually shifted to the side. Against the backdrop of the parade, people walking through the alley would make exaggerated efforts to not notice her presence, making their acknowledgement all the more apparent. Schaefer’s actions tended to be subtle and carefully enunciated, which gave their seeming non-purpose an overwhelming sense of intention, allowing her to stake her presence in this transitory space throughout the course of the day. The next week, this space took on different meaning as it became of site of Mari Novotny-Jones performance inspired by the enigmatic figure of the Sheela Na Gig.
Jimena Bermejo utilized strategies that both incorporated conversational interaction and the inhabitation of public space. First she engaged in dialogues with various strangers, posing the question “What not to do in Belfast?” that were recorded as audio segments and textual observations written onto a white coverall worn by the artist. In the second phase of the work, these documents were incorporated into a movement and audio performance in collaboration with Chris Brokaw presented in a graffiti filled underpass under Anne St., where Bermejo used her body and a permanent marker to trace the movement and energy of the existent imagery, cultivating a palimpsest of her presence within the sonic and visual scape.
While most of the artists performing as part of Transactions took advantage of the nuances and subtleties that the chaos of urban life affords, Milan Kohout attempted to compete with the already existing spectacle as a means of countering its presence. At the intersection of Royal Avenue and High Street, Kohout offered passersby an opportunity to block the interference of marketing imagery and consumer culture from peripheral vision, an uninvited capitalist infiltration, through the use of visual blinders that consisted of two pieces of white board, about one meter in length each. Even though his performance was in the midst of others attempting to solicit attention from the masses moving through the busy intersection, including street preachers and tour operators, the awkwardness of the white blinders and the bizarre image of their use made his presence just distinctive enough from a typical street canvasser or political proclaimant to make it warrant attention, functioning as a commentary twisted unto itself.
Through the twisting of actions over the course of these performances, new means of engagement were introduced as the artists alter the presumptions and expectations of the various layers of urban flow. Such a mode of performance bears resemblance to other activities supported by Bbeyond, including the group actions of the Performance Monthly (which was included as part of the Transactions programme), but the experience of witnessing seven artists presenting solo (and in one case duo) performances within the context of a foreign city offer something different. Presented outside the gallery context, the works that comprised Transactions offered a multifaceted array of aesthetic experiences that highlight the continued significance of performance art in the spectacle-saturated culture of twenty-first century cosmopolitanism in stretching the anticipations of the present. New temporary modes of locality are introduced by being in space and claiming a place through the alchemical activities of performance.
The first phase of Transactions, an international artist exchange between the Mobius Artists Group and Bbeyond, took place May 3 to 12, 2018 in Belfast and included performances by Marilyn Arsem, Daniel DeLuca, Anna Wexler, Sandrine Schaefer, Mari Novotny-Jones, Milan Kohout, and Jimena Bermejo with her collaborator Chris Brokaw. In September, five artists from Bbeyond will be travelling to Boston in order to complete the exchange. Photographs by Jordan Hutchings.
Bbeyond is supported by The National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. In Boston this project is made possible by a Live Arts Boston grant from the Boston Foundation and by a grant from Culture Ireland. Mobius is also funded by The Oedipus Foundation, the Tanne Foundation, and generous private support.