A murmuration is a flock of starlings — individual birds that temporarily coalesce as they migrate in formation.
On a cool day in October, Jed Speare performed with Strange Attractor on the balcony of the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Ireland. This was the last time I saw him perform live. Live in this context does not just relate to the act of presenting art in real time, but concerns shared sentient existence.
The performance is four hours; a flexible coherence where artists occasionally slip out for a cup of tea to counter the chill in the air.
The sounds merge with the those emitting from the harbour: a crinkle of paper; the strum of a guitar; the rumbling bass of a boat horn; the crackle of cassette tape; an electronic pulse; the subsonic drones of a passing cargo ship.
A familiar rhythm gathers through improvisation as experiences collide, forming a temporary conglomerate where for a moment everything comes together.
Hands of the makers, crafting sounds; an ephemeral soundscape that slips into the environment.
The occasional babble of a baby unknowingly wandering through the scene.
Whispers of an organic unity with forms colliding; a sound close to my soul.
Postscript — in memorium of Jed Speare (1954 – 2016)
Jed taught us a lot about being an artist through his words and actions, lessons that I hold dearly and remind myself of regularly in order to counter the difficulties of this precarious path. He taught us that art brings people together, navigating a creative terrain that opens up worlds. He taught us the importance of kindness, generosity, honesty, and sincerity. He taught us the importance of taking practice seriously and thoughtfully through all stages of experimental play in order to allow a work to reach it’s full potential. He taught us the significance of art’s radical nature. He taught us to pay attention to details and to speak up when something is not right. He taught us to be careful with language. He taught us to historicize practice, to know predecessors and influences, to embrace and to learn from them. He still teaches us to keep going, no matter what. I feel honored and grateful to have had the opportunity to know and work with Jed Speare.
With just 10 days to go to the event Future Histories, Niamh Murphy and I, the curators, are full of anticipation as to how all the elements involved in this show will work together. The entire group of 16 performance/live artists including one media artist and a historical archeologist will be creating performances and presentations (some 12 hours long, some shorter and episodic) responding to the 1916 Rising and the building of Kilmainham Gaol as a monument to the Rising. The artists will haunt the edifice like spectres from the past embodied in the present. It has been said that a ghost is unfinished business and I think the 1916 Rising promised a republic that was never fully realised; it initiated social, cultural and economic business that is still left incomplete. Future Histories will look at these issues, complicating and troubling them through works that use the real to represent the real.
Communicating with languages of the body, space and materials, the artists will transform action, gesture and objects into metaphors revealing new ideas and meanings, confronting the narratives of national identity and heroism associated with the Rising. The general public who are booked to visit the museum and the Gaol will witness the performances by default alongside special audiences that will come just to see the event. The intersection of all these elements—past and present, general public and art audience, diverse artists doing their individual things—collectively will make for a multi-layered experience for everyone.
The staging of a large public performance event with many artists simultaneously creating live work is ubiquitous in performance art worlds. The format generates a collective space of interweaving action and presence, crossovers of representation and symbolism that are unpredictable but often strangely revelatory. The beautiful can be juxtaposed with the mournful, the reflective with the comedic. The viewer always seeks to make connection between disparate things. It is our human tendency to make relationships between things, so we generate new parallels and analogies in a creative, symbiotic engagement with the art works we are viewing. Our hope is that this interconnective exchange of meaning and experience will happen at Future Histories.
In a previous Kilmainham Gaol event in 2011, 20 artists performed together for 4 hours (Right Here Right Now, also curated by Murphy along with Dominic Thorpe and Amanda Coogan) in a similar format. There is something intense, sensual and gripping about watching or participating in such group happenings. In general, people love watching each other and in performance art this formalised encounter with another is real, not fictionalised. It is mutual: the artist and viewer are very aware of each other and the artist offers themselves as an object to be gazed at, an image to be watched and interpreted. This presents a new type of relationship for us to engage with possibilities for connection and communication outside of convention.
We humans also have a desire for collective witness, ceremony and ritual. Performance art gives us new rituals to observe along with contemporary, secular ceremony to reflect our culture and society. When Murphy and I initially proposed Future Histories at Kilmainham Gaol for the Arts Council Open Call 2016, we thought about how the 1916 Rising has been acknowledged as an act of performance. The insurgents knew how hopeless their actions were at the time. Historians believe it was a symbolic revolt and was intended to generate an aftermath of political and social change in its wake. Historian Peter Hart, (quoted in Fearghal McGarry, The Rising, Ireland: Easter 1916, 2010) describes the insurrection as “performance art.” McGarry argues that as an attempt to seize power it was woefully unsuccessful but as a symbol – a resurrection of the idea of a Republic fighting an historical oppressor – it was, and remains, stunningly successful. In Future Histories we as artists now present performance as a form of ‘Rising’ with the aim of to creating new symbols and metaphors with which we can view our past, process it and imagine new futures which can be creative and transformational.
The Triumph of Failure, that astonishing idea associated with the Rising (it was the title of Patrick Pearse’s biography by Ruth Dudley Edwards, 1979) also manifests in the idea that performance art tempts failure. It is the potential and enchantment of failure always existent in performance that often holds artists and audiences alike with such a grip. Emotionally, intellectually, imaginatively we are mesmerised by the cliff-edge of actions that are unstructured and extemporaneous. In theatre there is some assurance that a show will ‘succeed’. In performance and live art an expectation that the work will resolve in a predictable or even comfortable way is groundless. That is its beauty and fascination, I believe. Maybe that is also why the 1916 Rising holds us still with a sense of strange beauty and enchantment. Enticing failure is fearful but offers the possibility of transcendence. We hope Future Histories will engage these notions and cede such experiences to all who take part — artists and audiences — in the 12 hour event on the 21st May.
Artists: Michelle Browne, Fergus Byrne, Brian Connolly, Pauline Cummins, Francis Fay, Debbie Guinnane, Sandra Johnston, Dr. Laura McAtackney, Danny McCarthy, Ciara McKeon, Alastair McLennan, Níamh Murphy, Katherine Nolan, Sinéad O’Donnell, Méabh Redmond, Dominic Thorpe and Helena Walsh.
Future Histories is curated by Níamh Murphy and Áine Phillips (Performance Art Live Foundation)