Eyes on the Prize

by EL Putnam

It’s 2004 — the year of a presidential election. I am disillusioned from protesting a war that happened anyway. I just began a class on Interventions at the Museum School with Jamie McMurry. We are shown different ways of disruption through performance, which includes the actions of Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir in the Disney Store. First thing I remember thinking is “you can do that?!” then “I want to do that” and my spirit of protest was reborn.

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The scenario takes the form of a Christian revival, led by a charismatic preacher. However, the energetic ambiance of the experience is created by the choir, whose songs take inspiration from gospel and Civil Rights protest songs, appropriated for the twenty-first century context. The energy in the room is contagious — as the songs roll out, more and more people in the audience rise to their feet and sing along.  Instead of trying to draw followers of faith, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping attempts to use the strength and comfort of song to draw our attention of the many injustices that humans currently face, calling us to action. Without isolating specific issues of discrimination or oppression, the choir’s repertoire and Rev. Billy weave together different aspects of our consumer-led destruction that increasingly alienates our relations to each other. The messages are not accusatory, though at one point Rev. Billy refers to my toddler daughter, who watches Netflix on an iPhone, as a sinner. The comment is made in good humor, though I realise that it functions as an apt illustration of an increasingly screen-reliant society whose impact we have yet to fully experience and comprehend.

As I listen to the songs unfold in this theatre space in Dublin with the international choir, I am struck with its American characteristics, including the references to the rise of Trump’s America, recent events in Charlottesville, as well as the protests in Ferguson. As an American living in Ireland since 2013, many of these events occurred after I left, meaning that I experienced them, and their fall out, through glimpses of social media on foreign soil. I felt a strong emotional connection in these moments, particularly during Sister Dragonfly’s solos in their rendition of “Eyes on the Prize,” a quintessential Civil Rights anthem. Through the beauty and love of her voice, I felt the pain of recent tensions.

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The day before this event, I hosted a seminar about art in public space, with Reverend Billy, Savitri D (director of the Stop Shopping Choir), London-based artist and DLAF performer Rhinnon Armstrong, and Bbeyond Belfast member Brian Connolly. During the seminars, these artists shared their various experiences of working in public, revealing some vital strategies for venturing as performers outside the confines of the gallery. One key point that Savatri and Rev. Billy discussed is how the work the space of potential confrontation — how to diffuse interactions with authority figures and treat the relation with this other person as a site of performance. Savatri emphasized how this is a wide space, and thus unpredictable, but also a great site for growth and change. At the end of the seminar, Sister Dragonfly shared an experience from the protests in Ferguson when she found herself face-to-face with a police officer. She described how at this point, she wanted to launch into a tirade at the officer, but instead just asks him: “Why do you all hate us so much?” The officer said he did not, to which she responds, “I don’t want to hate you, I’d rather hug you.” A moment of human connection in the embittered fury of injustice, it provided a powerful instance of working in the space of interrelation, even with figures of authorities in charged situations. The act blurs the line of performance, protest, and raw humanity, which can be sensed in the performance of the Choir itself, though not to such an extreme degree. Dragonfly’s retelling of this experience sits in my mind as I listen to her sing from her depths of her soul, where her actions are not just about performance or activism, but she sings a song of survival.

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The performance ends with us leaving the gallery space, moving into the streets of Dublin. We are directed to touch the wall of the building, silently move our hands along the concrete of this structure. After we make it to the end of the façade, Rev. Billy draws our attention to a young tree that managed to grow through the cracks of the concrete edifice — pointing out how walls don’t work. Walls don’t stop the growth of nature; walls won’t stop the flow of people or ideas. Wendy Brown (2010) describes how walls are not just ineffective, but function futile symbols of nations whose strength is in decline; these “elaborate theatres of construction” are desperate, visual attempt to cling onto waning sovereignty. Despite the ineffectiveness, the desire for walls proliferate.

At this point in the performance, we turn to each other in the form of a circle and sing one more song. A local kid on his bike gets caught in our formation, looking with a front of cool detachment as we sing out our determination to keep working for a better future. He retains a poise of disinterest, but he stays in the centre of our circle until the end. Perhaps this is just a strange spectacle for him — a disruption to the flow of urban life, but the potency of our human connections cannot be denied.

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Sources

Brown, W., 2010. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Zone Books, New York.

 

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir performed as part of the 2017 Dublin Live Art Festival, curated by Niamh Murphy and Francis Fay. Photo from Ferguson by Charles Rex Arbogast for AP. Other photos by Fiona Killeen (www.blueprintphotography.ie)

 

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Reading Gesture

By Jack Beglin

Four women dressed in black stand in a circle. A fifth woman with blond hair and black glasses sits on the circumference of the circle on a high stool. The women are performing a series of choreographed hand gestures while a dramatic sound score plays from a large speaker in the corner of the room. Audience members file into the performance space, standing or sitting on chairs around the circle of women. These are ensemble members of The Dublin Theatre of The Deaf performing at the 2017 Dublin Live Art Festival at The Complex.

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A conversation of hand and facial gestures is taking place between the woman sitting on the stool and the women standing, who resemble a chorus. Their hands on their heads resemble crowns. United by performing the synchronised mudras, the gestural score becomes clearer with every repetition.

With a whipping action, the sitting woman points towards each of the standing women; she then presses her finger to her temple and points to the ceiling with shifting eyes.

The chorus move their hands from their heads as their arms lower towards the ground in a Tai Chi like motion. The ensemble raise their forearms at the elbow and in a wave-like motion alternate their palms from facing the ground to the ceiling.

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The woman on the stool observes this gesture with a slow rotation of her head.

The chorus make a gesture resembling that of picking tea leaves in the field. Next they look at one another knowingly,  hovering  their index and middle finger over their eyes. They pull their  fingers down in a slow, scratching gesture. They raise their hands and shake their fingers as the sound score builds to a climax.

The woman sitting on the stool looks on, worried.

The standing women smash a clenched fist on each palm, alternating from left to right in a powerful motion. A gesture resembling Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam is made before the ensemble adopts  postures resembling Greek statues that bow in reverence. The women then place their hands on their heads as if donning a crown.

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With a whip- like action, the sitting woman on the bar stool points to the chorus as their arms lower towards the ground in a Tai Chi like motion. This score is repeated over and over, complimented by the epic sound score.

The sound score is for the audience. It is an additional dramaturgical element that allows us to build associations with the gestures. The performers, however, are inhabiting a world of touch and kinaesthetic response devoid of sound.

This performance of ensemble gesture and music didn’t have an obvious dramaturgy for audience members to read. It illustrated the basic elements necessary for the making performance: a  precise and repeated structure of actions These abstract actions were structured into a pattern of repeated gestures for the audience to interpret in its own way.

My personal interpretation follows:

The throned monarch sits while the workers toil in factories and fields.

The tyrant surveys the surfs as they plough.

Conspiring eyes meet in vigilance and preparation.

Sisters take up arms and sisters revolt.

The touch of divine justice is realised and Greek statues bow in reverence.

New queens are crowned and savour a fleeting feeling of victory.

The tyrant cracks her whip and the crowns break.

The throned monarch sits while the workers toil in factories and fields.

Sisters take up arms and sisters revolt.

The touch of divine justice is realised and Greek statues bow in reverence

New queens are crowned and savour a fleeting feeling of victory.

The cycle continues and the wheel turns again and again.

Sisters toil, sisters conspire, sisters take up arms.

Devine justice reigns,  the gods bow and new queens are crowned.

The tyrant cracks the whips. Broken crowns.

The throned monarch sits while the workers toil in factories and fields.

 

The Dublin Theatre of the Deaf performed excerpts from Talk Real Fine, Just Like A Lady, created in collaboration with Amanda Coogan, as part of the 2017 Dublin Live Art Festival, curated by Niamh Murphy and Francis Fay. Photos by Jack Beglin and Fiona Killeen (www.blueprintphotography.ie).

“It’s nothing more than a situation”

by Sara Muthi

Performance art cannot escape it’s undoubtable dependence on space and spectators. The location, audience, cultural and political climate are just a few of the uncontrollable aspects that are intertwined in the reading and interpretation of every performance. It would be a difficult and labours effort to attempt to think about a performance as a self contained, automatous event absent of any influence prior to viewing. With this in mind, Livestock brings together a fresh, diverse group of the most forward thinking performance artists in Ireland, in an accessible yet thought provoking scenario. Livestock: Fresh Cuts kicked off what promised to be a thrilling Dublin Live Art Festival 2017.

A distorted, fallen creature is laying down, hopeless and un-helped in the centre of a large vacant space, as if lying in the middle of the street as crowds gather simulating actions of pedestrians being drawn to an accident. All are curious, but there is no help for this white fallen beast. The only saving grace seems to be a wandering lighthouse, upon the head of a man as he circles the space between spectators and the fallen antlered creature. This is the work of Celina Muldoon who announces the tone of the night with drama and intrigue.

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Celina Muldoon

The audience are not left to the creeping guilt of their curiosity as they stare at the seemingly wounded creature. In a series of intense moments the light draws itself onto the face of the creature and the face of the artist is revealed as it is helped up from its weakened condition. It faces the crowd in a majestic strut of victory with the light by her side. The Dublin Live Art Festival has officially begun.

An audience is seldom able to separate the lingering effect that one performance has from a sequence of works as Livestock curates. It would have to be a conscious effort on the part of the viewer to compartmentalise the experience of each performance from the previous. Livestock minimises this through intermissions between performances, a chance for the audience to chew on what they had experienced and anticipate what happens next. Nevertheless, this only minimises the carry-on effect on the part of the audience. While this is persistent in similarly structured events, this is not a negative effect and can add a multi-layered, thought provoking element to every performance. Even though I would usually refrain from calling performance art ‘enjoyable’ as it is not entertainment, but rather a branch of the visual academics we know as contemporary art, a light hearted spirt to performance will not be unwelcomed.

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Darren Yorke

Beginning with Muldoon’s intense performance, we are then brought into the work of Darren Yorke. As the spotlight shifts from the centre of the Complex to the right white wall of the space we hear a familiar melody ring through the space, beginning with Disney’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” and following with Snow White’s “Heigh Ho!”. A young singer with a guitar joins the audience in the space and steps into his spotlight. A warm, light-hearted development from the subtly eerie work of Muldoon. An other-worldly ambiance that filled the space initially shifts and the viewers are brought back to reality as Yorke develops his almost twenty minute acoustic song expressing the effects that the political climate has on the artist and subsequently each of us. A relatable work in the context of everyday suffering in contrast to Muldoon, the tone shifts yet again as Day Magee brings a mixture of expressive trauma and the subtly surreal. Before the audience there is the half nude figure of the artist, sporting a black caged mask, and a blood red saree slung around the artist’s waist and a yellow chain in hand as they perform to an echoing voice, speaking a narrative of past trauma.

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Day Magee

To wind down from an emotionally stirring and slightly disturbing narrative of trauma as presented by Magee we are given to the performance of Paul Francis Quinn. A light enjoyable interlude to the night, as the artist sings into a microphone as if on stage, his presence attempting to bridge the gap between performance art and the performing arts. Nonetheless, Quinn’s performance lifted the spirits of the crowd and lead into the final two performances of the night.

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Sara French

French is a frequent performer within Livestock, and in the trademark style of the artist she recites a compelling narrative alongside significant gestures and actions that make the performance intriguing with moments of comic relief. She tells a story of a woman suffering with the loss of her husband and a “contagious environmental illness” who bumps into a man who was running naked on a dare. This strange narrative is recited along side actions by French which can only be described as acrobatic. The artist disclaims “this is not a wall at all, it’s a situation”. This statement not only puts this story into perspective, it also puts the rest of performances into perspective for the audience. While what the audience at Livestock may have experienced a multi-layered string of performances, each performance is still nothing more than a situation that you are presented with, and you take what you may from it.

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Sara French

French’s actions were particularly significant as she divided, broke down and rebuilt walls with her body at the centre. The body was balanced upon broken walls, and rebuilt like a puzzle enclosing her body and built upon what she calls “a situation”. The significance of these simple yet impressive actions by the artist was enough to take away and ponder on long after the performance was finished.

Vicky Curtis brought down the night with a performance in which we were given the opportunity to particupate and connect with audience members that we’ve shared the night with. Holding hands in a circle while Curtis recites words of encouragement to the room, we are asked to pass around a candle and have a moment of silence. Each person had opportunity to have a moment with themselves and with the others in the room, showing patience and unity in the human experience as the night came to a close.

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Vicky Curtis

Performance cannot escape its context, however Livestock: Fresh Cuts happened to be the right context for every  one of these performances. These bite-sized performances created a meal of an event which was both satisfying and celebratory of diverse contemporary performance practice happening in Ireland today.

Livestock: Fresh Cuts, featuring Celina Muldoon, Darren Yorke, Day Magee, Paul Francis Quinn, Sara French and Vicky Curtis took place on August 17th, 2017. Curated by Eleanor Lawler and Francis Fay, this iteration of Livestock was part of the Dublin Live Art Festival at the Complex, curated by Niamh Murphy and Francis Fay. Photographs by Fiona Killeen (www.blueprintphotography.ie).

 

On the Brink

by EL Putnam

Sometimes the allusion to force is more potent that the explicit expression of power.

Gareth Cutter starts his performance by standing slightly off to the side of the room with a slack posture. Once the audience takes their places, he moves to a open space and wires himself with a microphone. The device is sensitive — I can hear the subtle sounds of him wetting his lips with his tongue; tensing and releasing the muscles of his jaw. He puts on a pair of rubber gloves, then shifting his body to an assertive stillness. Muscles quiver from stasis. He carefully manipulates the rubber of his gloves, so there is subtle note of the erotic, complimented by his gestures that evoke a sexual tension; a sensuality of bondage that provides the underscore his actions. When he speaks, his voice is distorted. It is digitized and deepened. He is domineering yet lonely. Such connotations contrast his clean-cut hair and street clothes.

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Gareth Cutter performing Load. Photo by Julieann O’Malley.

Throughout the performance he tells a story — a strange journey that slips into the explicit without going over the edge, just like his actions that evoke rich eroticism without falling into orgasmic pleasure. He pulls his audience to the brink, but never climaxes. It is within this tension of sensuality, that he draws into relations of authority where submission or dominance are never clearly articulated. Instead he carefully allows glimpses into his erotic mind, using light, sound, and carefully controlled gestures to provide minimally staged evocations of the potential of force. I am drawn into this flirtation, left wondering what is beyond the allusion. The mystery shroudinh this sensuality evokes a complex desire that is left unsated and not understood, but it is the power of potential that leaves me wanting more.

I am pondering the challenges of relating to this complex expression of eroticism when I enter Johanna Zwaig’s performance. She is dressed in black, carrying a simple office portfolio. She appears stoic, cleaved by  a black stripe that runs down the left side of her face. She sits on a chair under the spotlight and opens her portfolio, which is filled with folded white handkerchiefs. She beings to sing.

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Johanna Zwaig performing Sounds Through the Wall. Photo by Fiona Killeen www.blueprintphotography.ie

Her voice fills the room with an echo of strength — it is a voice fit for the Opera stage, though we sit around her in a semi-circle, in position of closeness and intimacy that would not occur in the more formal context. The Spanish words flow to us as her voice drips with melancholy. Her impression evokes images of David Lynch, though I am filled with her energy that can only be transferred through live exchange. She breaks from her singing and lifts a handkerchief from the pile on her lap. Raising her hand into the air, she discards the square of white fabric, like a half-hearted flag of surrender. The lighting brightens slightly when it hits the ground. She again begins to sing.

While her voice and face convey a forceful embodiment of power, Zwaig remains seated, recollecting her poise between songs to once again release a handkerchief. I am enraptured by the tension she cultivates in her action; the strength of her voice, the melancholic beauty of the song, and the carefully maintained poise of her body that resists from being fully captured in the force of her excursion. I am again brought to the brink, but never pulled over.

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Johanna Zwaig performing Sounds Through the Wall. Photo by Fiona Killeen www.blueprintphotography.ie

The tension that both Cutter and Zwaig craft emerges from the play of exuberant force and resistance — allowing the body to carry strength and power, but never fully releasing it. As such, tension builds in my body as a witness, and I am left to hold myself at the brink of an abyss.

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Photo by Francis Fay.

Gareth Cutter performed Load and Johanna Zwaig performed Sounds Through the Wall on Friday 18 August as part of the Dublin Live Art Fesitval, organised and curated by Niamh Murphy and Francis Fay.