by EL Putnam
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.