by EL Putnam
Performance art can disrupt. Using the artist’s body as a starting point, expectations are shifted. The artist may occupy a familiar terrain, such as a main street, but they maneuver the space in an unfamiliar manner, rendering the mundane strange. Performances presented outside the gallery context, including the work of six artists that were part of the “What if?” performance festival in Cavan, have a way of drawing attention to the gestures and interactions taken for granted in the daily dwelling of public space. Sally O’Dowd decorated her figure in an excess of pink Lycra and reflective materials, becoming the manifestation of sparkling superabundance. Carrying an umbrella and golden, ribbon wand, O’Dowd strolled along Cavan’s main street, slipping in and out of shops, putting on the airs of a woman performing her Saturday shopping routine, though making such a ritual of materialist acquisition obsolete by not acquiring anything. Ever once and a while she struts and poses, breaking her acts of observation to draw attention to herself. As people browse the shiny packaging of store aisles, O’Dowd captures their line of sight like an eighties cartoon super hero whose power is evoking aesthetic experience.
It can be challenging to witness performances in this context. Part of the strength of this type of work is the ability to sneak up on unexpected spectators who become caught in the confusion of the spectacle in front of them. As someone aware of the context of presentation, I wanted to follow the performance, but inevitability a herd of us would gather around the artist, disrupting the seamless illusion of the artist maneuvering the environment. Attempts were made to remain discrete to allow the work’s dynamic foster, such as standing back at a distance or taking photographs unobtrusively. This negotiation implicates the witnesses in a different performance — that of our behaviour— as we avoid the construction of an unintentional fourth wall that introduces the gallery dynamic into the street.
What struck me about the performers taking part that day was the ranging strategies and tactics used for engaging with the audience and the many variables of performing outside the gallery. While O’Dowd avoided conversation with her audience, Christoff Gillen invited passersby to engage with him. Carrying a sign that read “Last night I dreamt I could change the world,” he wore a sandwich board with a mirrored surface while asking people to come and look at themselves. At a glance, he had the appearance of a street advertiser; someone trying to promote a local business and draw bodies into a shop. However, the utopian statement and reflective surface of the sandwich board invited human engagement. Nothing is being sold except a moment of interaction, a human-to-human exchange and the possibility of considering a better future. In the mirror, the viewer’s image was momentarily impressed onto the body of the artist, collapsed onto a single visual plane that emphasizes our interconnectedness.
Áine Phillips also partook in verbal exchange with her audience, though the way she deployed this tactic was to draw attention to what people try to avoid: the presence of homelessness in the streets of Ireland. Dressed in a red plastic poncho and white sunglasses, Phillips pushed a Tesco shopping car overloaded with black plastic bags, maneouvering the narrow Cavan footpaths that at times forced her to move her load into the street. The bags fluttered in the breeze, filling the surrounding the space and making their presence unavoidable; drawing attention to the sight of homeless people that are commonly met with an aversion of the eyes. Instead of slipping in the periphery, Phillips brings homelessness into the line of vision, treating her encounters with passersby as opportunities for dialogue about the issue.
Sinead and Hugh O’Donnell maintained a more muted presence in their performances. Hugh O’Donnell walked along the streets of Cavan, carrying a chair on his shoulder and pieces of paper with rhetorical questions on them, all starting with “What if” such as “WHAT IF THERE WAS NO DEPRESSION?” and “WHAT IF, WHEN YOU DIE THERE IS NOTHING?” His presence is not pronounced — sometimes he stopped and put down the chair, sat upon it and undertook a series of simple gestures, such as holding the signs up. Other times he handed paper to passersby, unloading his burden of unrealized possibility. Overall, his presence blended with the occupants of the town, except for these minor gestures that subtly disturbed the flow of the street. Sinead O’Donnell inhabited a front lawn around the corner from Townhall Arts Space. Laying in the grass, it was easy to walk by her without a notice. Over the course of two hours, she uprooted clumps of grass, covering her body in an unsuccessful attempt to become one with the land. As the process progressed, an impression evocative of a snow angel appeared in the earth, capturing the traces of her actions. As I moved closer to her body, I heard distinctive noises of electronic static, creating a captivating interplay of sonic distortions with the organic messiness of her presence. For Sinead and Hugh O’Donnell, their subtlety was their strength, rounding out the possibilities of engagement that complemented the other artists.
Laura O’Connor occupied a different type of public space — the virtual realm of the Internet. In the gallery of the Townhall Arts Space, O’Connor set up a large scale green silhouette of Ireland, which she stood in front on slowly and methodically applying green paint. The room was brightly lit with studio lights, making present the apparatus of image creation that are typically found behind the scenes. Facing O’Connor was a projected image — a live stream of the scene, where the green silhouette of Ireland became a green screen, overlaid with video of ocean waves. As O’Connor applied to green paint to her body, her form melded into the oceanic scene, leaving only a pixelated silhouette. The process of application was uneven; at times the mix of green paint and waves became a dynamic camouflage pattern. As I watched the waves slowly consume her body, breaking the corporeal boundary, I received an uncanny sensation — an affect affiliated with surrealist plays with perception. The set-up of the performance dispelled the illusion of image-making while dispersing O’Connor’s presence and decentralizing perceptions of her body; a loaded statement regarding female bodily autonomy in Ireland.
German theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte describes how performance is transformative, altering both performers and spectators. As an event, performance can highlight routine aspects of our lives that slip beyond our scope of perception. The interventions of these performance artists invited an experiential detour; a welcome disruption to a Saturday afternoon in Cavan.
The “What if?” Performance Art Weekend was organised by the Townhall Art Space in Cavan and took place 19 – 20 May 2017. Photographs are by the author.