by EL Putnam
The Bbeyond Performance Monthly tests boundaries: self and other, artist and audience, subject and object, process and outcome, private and public. Within this amalgamation of bodies, objects, gestures, and relations, I have been finding ways to build upon my practice as an artist while pushing me from the comfort zone, especially in presenting performance actions outside the gallery context. There is an ongoing process of growth that accompanies regularly attending the Performance Monthlies, as I learn to trust engagement with others, building relations through the regular fostering of aesthetic interaction.
I have been bringing my daughter to participate since she was two months old (or as was pointed out to me, in utero). I don’t bring her along to every Performance Monthly, as when I am with her, I find it impossible to completely melt into the aesthetic present. There is always some part of me that cannot turn off the hyper attention affiliated with being a parent. I am incapable of entering the immediate flow of a performance, as I always have my senses partially tuned elsewhere. Instead I try to discover a common ground between the performance and my engagement with Sonja, without giving either up completely. I want to bring Sonja into the performance, allowing her to engage with me as I am working, but not letting her completely guide our interaction. Instead, it is a constant to and fro of ongoing influence that is unpredictable — increasingly unpredictable as she gets older.
This method of working has taken different forms throughout the Monthlies. One of the varying factors is the context of the performance — when a Monthly takes place in an indoor space, like a gallery, I feel less alert than when we are performing in the rawness of a public area, such as Writer’s Square. When we performed near the Albert Clock, Sonja had recently begun walking. The area is bordered by busy roads, and I found myself in a heightened state of anxiety due to the potential hazards of the environment. The only way I could feel part of the performance was to let Sonja lead, but I wanted to maintain a sense of security. I attached the piece of black cloth I had draped around me to her hood and proceeded to follow her as she walked through the square. I shortened my stride and kept pace with her steps — a stop and go staccato of baby footwork. After a while, I noticed that someone began following us, moving their feet in the same rhythm. Later another person joined, forming a small parade that Sonja was unaware she was leading. Our imitation of her rhythm made the particularities of her movements more pronounced; an interaction that naturally extended from my engagement with Sonja — where my anxieties concerning her safety became the impetus for an aesthetic interaction. Blending within the energy of the group, these actions were an understated coalescence that observers may not have noticed.
Through this experience, I became fascinated by the visual indicators of my relationship with Sonja and wanted to build on it, making its form more tangible. In a later performance, I again physically connected us, though used a 10-foot teal ribbon I interwove between us like a cat’s cradle. Again, I let her lead our engagement, though this performance took place inside a deconsecrated church in East Belfast; an indoor space that meant there were less environmental variables to trigger my concern. The Performance Monthly was noisy that day, meaning that Sonja’s and my actions to emerge as part of an amorphous, chaotic scene of gestures and material interactions. For most of the performance, Sonja sat in my arms or nursed as we tucked away in a pew. Sometimes she would fondle the ribbon with her fingers, chew on it as she observed the others. As time progressed, Sonja felt comfortable enough to walk around and stopped acknowledging the ribbon. She found a piece of chalk and began to draw on a piece of paper, the floor and on my black clothing. I let myself attune to her actions, drawing my energy from her engagement with the scene.
However, our engagement is not unidirectional during a Performance Monthly. Sometimes Sonja tries to mimic my actions, taking control of my materials and perform the simple and occasionally absurd tasks I have delegated for myself, like dripping red water onto salt crystals one drop at a time, or playing a radio antenna as a Theremin. The influence is a mutual flow between us; an unspoken bond of mutual dependency. I notice that when I am performing with Sonja, I find it difficult to interact with anyone else, as she captures my whole attention. At times, it is Sonja who extends our engagement beyond the two of us, as her curiosity carries our interactions to include others. In other instances, like the Alfred Clock example noted above, the inclusion of others is subtle. Anything more feels forced.
As a whole, the Performance Monthly challenges the implied use of public space, and my interaction with Sonja within this context brings another variable into play — the slippage between the private and public that comes with parenting. What could be described as a mother playing with her daughter, our interactions during these times are framed by the performance context and experienced through aesthetic sensibilities. Even though they are just play for Sonja (at least to my knowledge), but this collapse of the roles of mother and artist have different implications for me — they become a way to explicitly interconnect these roles while also opening up my practice to unpredictability. I perform the intimacies of maternal labour in a public artistic context, emphasizing the plurality of motherhood. At the same time, I am performing a centuries old motif in art history — that of the mother and child.
Images by Jordan Hutchings.