Breath (taking)

by Sara Muthi

BREATHING OUT BREATING IN consisted of a stream of seamlessly curated image-making moments by six artists in one space, utilising the gallery as one canvas. Although loosely choreographed with a path and pit stops, the actions of the artists carried a genuine intensity to each image-making-process that, quite literally, took my breath away. While suffering from a persistent cough I had been conscious that I did not want my lung’s noises to take away from any moment of the performance. Ironically the subject of breathing was the backdrop to this event in the form of Nigel Rolfe’s Breath exhibition. The images exhibited were a result of Rolfe’s blowing of pigment on paper, an effect that had given an ease of lightness to them, literally that of breath. Two thin pins held up each work, giving the impression that a gush of wind could peal them off the wall at any moment.


The performing body is a complex construct and its use and manipulation of materials is integral to the analysis of every performance. However, one common factor constitutes all performance; a constant becoming without arrival. The pinned images have no sense of finality, only pause and this is reflected by each performance.

Playing a muted accordion Rolfe quietly interrupted the stillness of the room through the audible breath and slight whistle of the damaged instrument, mimetic of the subject matter at hand. Rustling deep into a white paper bag as if scrabbling to find something, a white powdered rope emerges and begins to wrap itself around Rolfe’s waist, contrasting white powder over his iconic black suit.

Nigel Rolfe

Paula Fitzsimons interrupts the space as she rips open the garbage bag she held, at which point a pile of stuffed animals are dropped centre-stage. Two bodies dressed in business formal attire engaging in acts seemingly not suitable for their visual status or age range— playing with dirty rope, caressing and gutting stuffed animals — creates a juxtaposition between action and expectations of self-representation. As Rolfe flings the rope anti-clockwise around himself it becomes undone. A third character enters the moment, Jade Blackstock, dressed equally as well, carrying a plate and setting it down alongside a generic bottle of milk. Finally free from the rope, Rolfe smoothly takes off his jacket and intentionally places it at the rope’s end. His spatially considerate and material based actions came to a halt yet did not disappear. Traces embodying images did not act as finalities to the action, only an intermission to give way to the next sequence of images to come.

Blackstock carries a white sack between her legs as it leaks a blood red juice, walking with difficultly and determination. A loud scream comes from her, a scream of something somehow unseen by us, yet her composure is neat, her posture is perfect, undeniably poised. An incompressible action occurs as Blackstock pours out the bottle of milk atop the shallow saucer, surely realising the flow of milk does not match the depth of her bowl and very quickly overflows. Blackstock lies down at the height of intrigue to make way for Alice Jacobs.

Alice Jacobs (Left), Jade Blackstock (Right)

Dressed in a black dress with a plunging décolletage Jacobs’ head is leaned back, raspberries seem to over-fill her mouth. Her posture is in check yet her demeaner seemed drunk; another juxtaposing action against the sense of her dress. In her hand a disco ball rocks back and forth on a string, dropping suddenly only to be shattered and picked up piece by piece. Held in the crook of her arm, she stares past the audience into a void. Suddenly she’s gone leaving no trace but the bobbles of fruit which fell around her feet. While no image was left by Jacobs, her intensity of stare left an impression that carried through the atmosphere as Blackstock simultaneously stands.

Blackstock did something interesting with her performance of becoming carried through into a moment in which it attempted still life. Maintaining a sumo stance she allows herself to be weighed down by the bleeding sack she clutched to her chest; a pose that made my own thighs weak just witnessing. Breathed out of this performance was a compelling contrast of liquid materials, an image  highlighting leakage and overflow.

Paula Fitzsimons (left), Jade Blackstock (right)
Jade Blackstoch’s Traces

Fitzsimons continues to gut, stack and cares the corpses of the lifeless toy animals. Eunjung Kim slowly and methodically steps into her material that she had been pouring out in the backdrop of the gallery. Not looking at her feet she begins to pace circularly atop the black sand and rice, introducing their unstable properties and lack of structure into each other. Matt Mahony Page struts into the space with a rushed attitude of unease. Following a puzzling sequence of actions he wraps a rope around a beam, pulling on the rope as if to secure its strength in supporting his weight, mission-impossible-style. He lies on his back and desperately pulls himself up against the coarse concreate floor. The exertion of action illustrates a fruitless, frivolous effort. An intervening gesture interrupts Page’s inverted climbing. As the artist pulls himself up against horizontal gravity a bristly brush scrapes on the highest points of his face, the nose, protruding tongue and chin.


Matt Mahony Page (on floor), Eunjung Kim (leaned over)


While the image created by this performance did not take form of a trace of material in the gallery, perhaps more interestingly it  took the form of impression upon the face of the artist, a scar easily read to be that of a rough brush. This impression will leave the gallery as opposed to being confined to the gallery space. Kim’s gesture becomes quicker as she got closer to the ground bending over with her arms out. Her gaze becomes low and she acts as the catalyst between the changing structure of these two highly intentional, specific materials in a potentially infinite action, leaving a galaxy-like image behind.

Eunjung Kim’s traces

The curation of the performances that made up the event as a whole allowed for enough attention to be given to each performance, while none taking away from the other. A task not easy to achieve, BREATHING OUT BREATHING IN consisted of actions that don’t merely disappear but have real-world complex manifestations both in the gallery and out. The intensity felt throughout the course of this performance had kept my cough at bay as my attention was locked on the subtle and intentional gestures of each performance. It wasn’t until the performance concluded that my breath had remembered it needed to sporadically pulse out of my chest again.


BREATHING OUT  BREATHING IN was part of Nigel Rolfe’s 8th solo show at the Green on Red Gallery, BREATH, curated by Jerome O’Driscoll. The performance was realised by six UK based artistsJade Blackstock, Paula Fitzsimons, Alice Jacobs, Eunjung Kim, Matt Mahony Page and Nigel Rolfe on Thursday, October 12th, 2017; curated by Nigel Rolfe and Paula Fitzsimons. Images by Sara Muthi.


Sandra Johnston, “Waiting Out”

by Fergus Byrne

Within moments she had commanded our attention.  The simple act of opening up the doors brought a change to the room. She sat waiting in the flood of light and put on a pair of sports shoes, football or track, hard to tell at a distance. Audience flocked closer when she went outside to shovel the rubble. Clay and bricks were thrown across the floor and poured on top of a pine table. On the floor lay a saw, a hammer and a champagne glass. In the middle of the room was a huge stage cleverly suspended on the four pillars of the room.

How to write of Sandra Johnson’s work at Catalyst and acknowledge the poetic relations she creates between objects and her body whilst conveying the extent to which my nerves tense with the fear that these images might tip over into accident? As I watched this performance, memories of others recurred to me. Johnson’s personal iconography is distinctive and I have begun to note the syntactical relation of objects and actions; how she has developed a very consistent language with domestic and found objects.  Seldom are they not integrated with physical action.

Cologne, Tues 30th Sept 2014; …grinds down thick white chalk in circles on the table, leaning into it and holding it onto her hips. Her own legs replace the side of the table as its connection to floor. Already a pushing of the materiality. Drops the table down to floor nicely aware of how it has fused with her waist, bends the knees to allow it to descend.[1]

Natural actions are extended beyond themselves to strike up images that reify the improbable. Only after the Catalyst performance did I remember that specific action from Cologne and realised its continuum in the treatment of the larger pine table.

Johnson works in both durational formats of several hours and shorter times, of under an hour. These shorter actions which an audience will view from start to finish generate great tension through the urgency of her action. It is as if the potential for evolution in a longer timeframe is compressed and by so doing we are compelled to watch every moment. Nothing is superfluous.

The unusually prominent stage presented a challenge to any performer. It worked well the night before at the FIX festival to carry sound vibrations through our bodies as we sat on it during Robert Curgenven’s work. But how to deal with it, when to ignore it and use the floor would not remove it from the audience’s perception? In the event Johnson began on the floor, introduced several objects, traversed the stage and reduced it to being one amongst the varied entities within the room.

There is great imagination at play in Johnson’s work. In Cologne the squeezing of an orange over a candle threatened its flame with the most delicate quenching. Then I was confronted by the harder image where the spray was above her eyes. And I sensed the sting of citrus. Or here at Catalyst the pragmatic sawing of the toe caps: an allusion to a fragile part of the body and conjured associations of discarded mittens. The training shoes had been found outside her home some time before. After some days they remained so she took them as an object for a future performance in keeping with a habit of always using a found or gifted object amongst her paraphernalia.[2]

The more subtle activity with objects occurs later in the work after the initial moments when the space is claimed – the chalkstick skimmed across the floor at The Mac, alerting the burbling audience that the performance has begun.[3] Or the tossing away of shoes in the Orangerie of Cologne, another vigorous gesture to lay the ground for the more considered unfolding of the work.

Cologne Tues 30th Sept 2014: The balancing of the candle on the knee does not work, so instead it is put between the toes. Takes off her belt and around her ankle buckles. Raises her foot and slides down the chair. Pulling the foot with her belt I see her attempting to dribble wax toward her eyes.


Candles which I saw used in Cologne again featured at Catalyst.  Held between her toes she lifted her leg onto the table using her belt as a hoist. The leg became strangely disembodied; a candleholder attached to her torso.  Consequently she climbed upon the table following her leg. My perception of time slowed as she rose. The image formed of a woman balanced on one leg floating the other through space, a flickering candle gripped between toes.  The investment in the action brings vitality to the moment. Poise and balance becomes a persistent feature.

The table is inclined at 45°, leaning onto the stage. Having cut the toes off the shoes for better grip she stands upon it bouncing lightly on its surface. She drops to catch the top edge and holds herself in a press-up along its incline. One foot pressed onto the surface with the other crossed over it. I’ve seen this shape before, at The Mac; balanced atop three glasses, the body as an outstretched tripod of two hands and foot.

In the transitions between passages of activity there is no easing up of focus.  I watch her climb down from the table. Despite her foot being only inches from the ground she resists dropping down. No sudden junctures in motion from one point to another. A foothold within reach, the crossbar of the table, is found. By so doing there is no moment where her activity is relieved by a casual movement.  There is a tensegrity to the performance.[4] Although the scale is not architectural, the balancing of objects with the body engenders a mutual relation between performer and object. On top of this an atmosphere of acute observation by the audience brings us into an emotional tension with the physical action.


All objects that were set out at the start were gradually brought into the equation.[5]  The passage through a space is a strong performance device that allows actions to evolve as a consequence of travel. By the end Johnson had crossed the room and engaged the entire space. The table was cartwheeled across the stage before being slid of onto the floor. At the far end of the room from where I now stood Johnson balanced on the table’s upturned end in movements that became quite gymnastic as she focussed her weight in relation to the apparatus. The actions had a quality of childlike inquiry pushed to a point where her body was just another element in the game. The movement was a puzzling out of how to get around this object without perhaps touching the feet to the floor.  Her immersion in this focussed state is compelling to watch. And nerve wracking because from outside we wonder how long the focus can be sustained. This is the measure against which she works, the creation of images that constantly draw upon complete engagement.  To lose focus has a double risk that of rupturing the performance and that of injuring the self.

On this occasion tension was rising as she hung from the cross brace of the table and kicked at its underside taunting it with the imprecation to move. The physics of an unfortunate table flip might only take a split second. With the conclusion of this I exhaled as she walked away having achieved a response from the table. It yielded by rotating on the floor.  To conclude she surveyed the space, picked up the toe cap of one shoe, walked over to the stage and set it down beside the other.  A reordering of all objects of the performance.

[1] This and other italicized text is taken from notes written soon after the Cologne performance.

[2] From a conversation with the artist.

[3] This action was from a performance at The Mac, Belfast on 11th Jan 2014

[4] Tensegritytensional integrity or floating compression is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension, in such a way that the compressed members (usually bars or struts) do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or tendons) delineate the system spatially.

The term was coined by Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s as a portmanteau of “tensional integrity” (Wikipedia).

I use the phrase here in a metaphorical way considering the emotional tension as a material entity.

[5] Thanks to Ciara McKeon for this observation made of the work as we discussed it afterwards.

Sandra Johnston performed Waiting Out as part of the 2017 FIX Festival at the Catalyst Art Gallery, Belfast, on Sunday 8 October. Images by Jordan Hutchings.

Interntional University “Global Theatre Experience,” the Ostrenko Brothers, and Embodied Statues of the Psyche

by Jack Beglin


ArtUniverse is an international arts agency created in 2006 in Great Britain with the mission:

To develop transnational cultural collaboration and exchange between arts and culture workers, to strengthen international cultural links through artistic expression and to assist artists in the development of projects of a high professional level and significant artistic and sociocultural value.[1]

In order to facilitate and realise its vision, Arts Universe are spearheading, IUGTE – the International University “Global Theatre Experience.” IUGTE was founded in 2000 with the purpose of exploring the bridge between world theatre traditions and contemporary performance. I had the opportunity to participate in IUGTE’s Movement: Directing and Teaching Lab with Sergei and Gennady Ostrenko at The Retzhof Educational Institute, Lebnitz, Austria, August 22 – 28th, 2017.

Sergei Ostrenko, is a Russian director, choreographer, teacher and the head of IUGTE’s Russian Theatre Department. His professional career started in 1976, after graduating from the Academy of Arts as a stage designer. He then continued his education as an actor and then later as a director. Sergei’s biography reads like an alchemist’s cookbook for the performer’s craft. Conducting international, interdisciplinary and cross cultural research since 1988, Sergei has traversed a kaleidoscope of embodied practice to arrive at the formation of his unique approach – the Ostrenko Method, which “guides the performers through the development of a physical culture, a form of self exploration that provides a fully alive, fresh presence on stage and originates a spontaneous blossom in each artist.”[2]

Gennady Ostrenko, is a choreographer, set designer, theatre artist, costume designer, educator and painter, from Ukraine. Like his brother’s biography, Gennady’s resume reads like an encyclopaedia for the performing and scenic arts. Practicing Tai Chi Quan since 1990, Gennady’s approach to performer training combines meditative and transcendental techniques with modern methods of embodiment such as Butoh dance and contact improvisation. For Gennady, he sees the future of performing arts practice as rooted in contact improvisation:

One touch with a partner can give you the whole history of your partner’s life and his world, it is so full of emotional content…working with a partner, feeling him and communicating with him, even without words… Words could not pass the information about you, your life and your emotions as it does a dance.[3]

Assisting the Ostrenko Brother’s is Veronika Zhuk, a Master of Arts Student in Responsible Management of ICRM at Steinbeis University, Berlin. She is administrator and translator to the Ostrenko Brothers.

My first encounter with Sergei and Gennady takes place in Seminar Room three of The Retzhof Educational Institute; a fifteenth century refurbished castle where the melodic sound of statue chiseling and the humid heat of the Austrian summer envelope a central courtyard of fountains overlooked by open eyed balconies.

As Sergie’s Russian sentences braid themselves amongst Veronika’s English translations, I look around the circle at a cast of multi cultural actors and dancers. India, North America, Germany, Poland, England, Iceland, Italy and Ireland all represented. A United Nations of artists united trough the kinaesthetic sense and the embodiment of the ever present moment. I am in a country where words dissolve and the imagination speaks through the body.


The research at the movement lab consisted of three phases scheduled between Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. A typical working day was scheduled accordingly;

7 – 8: 00: Warm up in nature
8 – 9:00: Breakfast
10 – 12: 00: Practical Training
12 – 13:00: Lunch
13 – 14: 00: Break
14 – 18:00: Practical Training
18 – 19: 00: Dinner
19 – 19: 30: Break
19: 30 – 21: 00: Creative Diary

Scheduling the program in this way struck a healthy balance between intensive movement exploration, eating, reflecting and socialising. The work consisted of three passes:

  1. Warm up in Nature: an introduction to Meyerhold’s biomechanics, a pre – expressive training to prepare the body-mind for performance. Flowing through the pendulum-like swinging movements and the iconic etudes, such as shooting from the bow and throwing a stone, I felt as if I was in a Soviet Mural. I mimed the ergonomic movements of hammering a train spike into the railroad and taking cover from falling derby on the factory floor.
  2. Practical Training: ensemble building through contact improvisation techniques. With a partner, eyes closed and then open, we led and followed one another in space through the kinsathetic sense. Eventually the difference between the leader and the follower dissolved as the duos dialogues became articulate in their corporal conversations. Sergei and Gennady would then encourage us to build simple group choreographies based on pictures of classical Renaissance art. These moving tableaux were enriched by embodying them through the imagination and presented to audience members accompanied by epic music from Segie’s boom box, transforming them into moving statues of the psyche, tapping into a collective world of archetypes that told the hopes and fears of man in moving pictures. Practical training also involved approaches to composition, physical scores and text.
  3. Creative Diary: an introduction to devising and compositional work. Segie would set us simple creative tasks for us to devise in groups. This was an opportunity for us to incorporate the devising structures that we learned during the practical training into the making of a short sketch. Here we learned how to structure a sequence of actions to tell a story. We learned that the more limited the creative choices the more freedom there was to explore their possibilities. We also came to the conclusion that it is always better to devise material and place it in real time and space first rather than talking about an abstract ‘concept’ or ‘vision’ . Any performer devising a performance will be familiar with the torturous loop of never-ending conversation that ensues when an ensemble come together to create a performance. Sergie’s method bypasses the rational mind in favour for a pragmatic and embodied approach to devising. In this way, performers produce material first and reflect upon their experience afterwards.




Gennady’s sentiments, “words could not pass the information about you, your life and your emotions as it does a dance,”[4] ring true as I finish our last creative session and make my way back to my hotel room 205. I insert my key into the key hole as I look up at a picture of Sigmund Freud, as the Retzhof Castle Hotel is lined with portraits of famous artists, activist and academics. I open the door and walk into my room. I ask myself what would Carl Jung say about this experience? The answer was on the tip of my tough and hovered somewhere between a sound and a gesture. I recall a moment in the practical training when we were creating ensemble choreographies through classical pictures of Renaissance art. I am working with a talented Indian actress, Kiran, and Gennady. Transitioning from one image to the other, as I move from a depiction of Jesus in Mary’s arms, to the depiction of Pan chasing a naked woman, I clock eyes with Kiran. Our eye contact is intense. The epic music culminates as we exercise our imagination through the given circumstances. A single tear drops from her eye. We transition into the next image; Jesus is giving Judgment over a Roman soldier and a Priest. Gennady as the Roman soldier holds in his hand an upside-down baby while as a Priest, I look up with clasped hands at Kiran, playing Jesus. She is sitting on a thrown wearing an orange garb holding her fingers in a Mudra. Tears are now streaming down her face.

Later in conversation with Kiran, she said that this devising work struck a chord in her heart that she could not understand. The pictures, the physicality, the music and the imagination taped into a part of her that that she was otherwise unaware of. I’m sure Jung would be able to comment on this experience.



For me, this was the important moment in the program. These moving tableaux became embodied statues of the psyche that connected us to a collective unconscious. A world of archetypes animated by theatrical performance.

ArtUniverse, IUGTE and the Ostrenko brothers are doing a brave thing. In a world of increasing materialism they are investing in the technologies of the imagination and the human heart. They are connecting international dancers, actors and live performers through the universal language of the moving body. Through their work “originates a spontaneous blossom in each artist.”[5]



[1], accessed Sept 09, 2017

[2], accessed Sept 09, 2017

[3], accessed Sept 09, 2017

[4], accessed Sept 09, 2017

[5], accessed Sept 09, 2017



by Léann Herlihy


Towering over the open mouth of sodden soil, a man frees his shovel from the Earth’s grasp with a single jerk. Sinking it back into the ground,  the  spade cleaves through the sepulcrum’s oesophagus: down goes the fine edge of steel; up comes a trowel full of fertile land. With each strike hit, the man pierces down deeper than the one struck before; penetrating through layers of soil; penetrating through layers of the past. Submerging downwards, retreating upwards  and finally tossing backwards, a steady tempo is set: steel against soil, pause, soil against soil, pause. A closed circuit; a monotonous ritual, until finally a shrill clink.

A  R I T U A L

What roles might the concept of ritual play in the study of contemporary society and culture? As one of the founding concepts of our discipline, ritual has long been a cornerstone of anthropological thought, arguably a universal feature of human social existence: just as one cannot envision a society without language or exchange, one would be equally hard-pressed to imagine a society without ritual. And while the word “ritual” commonly brings to mind exoticised images of primitive others diligently engaged in mystical activities, one can find rituals, both sacred and secular, throughout “modern” society: collective experiences, from the Olympics to the commemoration of national tragedies; cyclical gatherings, from weekly congregations at the local town hall to the annual turkey carving on Christmas Day to the intoxication of Mardi Gras; and personal life-patterns, from morning grooming routines to the ways in which we greet and interact with one another.

It was then neither pure coincidence nor primitivist exoticisation that placed ritual at the centre of the development of anthropological thought: it was instead ritual’s rich potential insights as an object of sociocultural analysis. So, what, in fact, is ritual? Where does ritual originate? What forms does ritual take, and how do these various forms constitute “ritual”? What are ritual’s effects, and how are they achieved? How does ritual frame our social experiences, and how does actors’ input in turn re-frame ritual? What are the relationships between ritual symbols across social fields (religious, political, sexual)? Who exercises control in rituals; or do rituals exercise control upon their actors? How does the study of ritual processes contribute to an understanding of contemporary sociocultural processes? And how, in the end, many times does this act need to be performed before it turns into a ritual?

T H E  R I T U A L

A white washed steeple, housed on the grounds of a seven-hundred-year-old palace in Piotrowice Nyskie, Southern Poland, became a site of ritual overnight. An intimate awakening, designed for one individual at a time, this shamanistic pathway begins with the reassurance that it can be ended at any moment, followed by the recommendation to expose as much skin as one feels comfortable with. Thus, stripping down to just undergarments, a voice softly asks the permission of placing a cloth over both eyes; suddenly blinded, a vulnerability shrieks throughout the body.

Momentarily standing in solitude, a hand slips into each of your empty palms, a gentle touch is felt on the lower back, navigating you to move forward. Passing under draped fabrics, a sporadic movements of hands come to the touch of your bare skin; un-intrusively yet, unexpectedly. This gentle touch gains momentum – it becomes a force: pushing the upper torso backwards while pulling the lower torso forwards: you’re in the air — a resurrection. Being placed on a soft mat, your body is dragged up an aisle, an action reminiscent on the statement Pliny the Elder once wrote: “It is in the due order of nature that man should enter the world with the head first, and be carried to the tomb in a contrary fashion.”


SENSORIUM  (2017) cameraperson Billy Craigan 1

SENSORIUM  (2017) cameraperson Billy Craigan 2

SENSORIUM  (2017) cameraperson Billy Craigan 3

SENSORIUM  (2017) cameraperson Billy Craigan 4

Being brought to a halt, the participant is erected; their feet dangling. Slowly, water surrounds them, and the religious gesture begins: the washing of the feet. From here, a paraphernalia of objects are employed in a bid to revive  any dormant senses. Feathers, fur, familiar smells; breath, barks, keening shrieks; gentle tongues lick and whisper languages of different origins.

Constant contact, both physically and mentally — the body is brought to its apex of sensitivity. It is at this peak, that all touch is ceased; all interaction is halted. The mind is vacant, the blindfold is removed, yet the eyes remain closed, involuntarily. Undoubtedly, it is achieved with great difficulty that the mind is brought to to such a vacancy, that it is at a loss to know its  whereabouts. However, it is often in such states, that one recollects past events and localities, remembering the substances of former memories, and the fact that we have visualised a similar subject before.

Eyes slowly open, absorbing the image before them; a window with no pane framing a wild garden of overgrown flowers – a serenity towards the present moment.

SENSORIUM  (2017) cameraperson Billy Craigan 5

SENSORIUM  (2017) cameraperson Billy Craigan 6

SENSORIUM  (2017) cameraperson Billy Craigan 7

T H A T  R I T U A L

While admitting the sensory elements reflect each person’s own interpretations, this is not to undermine the solid concept of personal enlightenment, rather it allows us to get into a much more personal rendition of oneself.

The fact that a ritual can be materialised within a few days, shows that it is an inevitable component of culture, extending from the largest-scale social and political processes to the most intimate aspects of our self-experience. Yet within this universality, the inherent multiplicity of ritual practices, both between and within cultures, also reflects the full diversity of the human experience.

SENSORIUM was realised during the Palace Art’s Residency, by six international artists — Anne Cutter (GR), Moa Johansson (SW), Sophie Merrison (GR/GB), Eddie Sellers (GB), Joseph Summers (GB) and Joseph Vaughan (GB). Images by Billy Craigan.


There’s art that challenges you, and art that’s simply not for you

By Sara Muthi

There’s those who see art as an externalisation of the human experience, people who see art as something beautiful or impressive. Some see it as pompous, pretentious and nothing more than an attempt to extract a reaction from the public. Alternatively, there’s those who see art as a branch of academics, who attempt to make connections externally from themselves about the world, politics, art of previous generations and consider it as legitimate a study as history or physics. The “visual academics” is a term I often use.

Personally, I don’t care for art’s aesthetic or emotion. I tend to only share or take seriously educated opinions. That’s just me. Before I respond to any work by an artist, I comb through as much research as I can get my hands on. If possible, interview the artists or curators, plan and re-plan every article and essay, beginning middle and end. Every time. I most importantly refrain from using the word “I”, which makes writing this all the more strange to me. This is a method I developed through my BA, and gives me peace of mind that I am representing every work as objectively  as I can, removing the margin of error known I’ve come to know as ignorance. However, I was recently confronted with a performance by Martin O’Brien at the Dublin Live Art Festival that shattered my conventional working methods.


Ample warning was given to the audience prior to entering this performance. Blood, flesh and self harm were the three terms of caution used by the organisers that had instantly tied a knot in my stomach. Nonetheless, as a writer I figured I ought to put my personal reservations aside and attempt to see the work objectively. I was struck by the scent of sanitiser as I reasoned with myself to go up the stairs of the Complex, however I could not force myself into a place of emotional distress for long.

O’Brien slowly makes his way down the stairs into the room, a plastic bag covers his face as he attempts to breath heavily into his stomach. Inhaling deeply and desperately; his ribs become increasingly evident. A tray of surgical equipment occupied the direction the suffocating O’Brien was going. The overwhelming instinct of flight flooded my body, the anticipation of witnessing self harm had already become too much to bare. I quickly and discretely left the room and gasped for air, ironically mimicking the actions of O’Brien.


Part of what makes the work of Martin O’Brien so remarkable is how his work relates to his terminal illness, Cystic Fibrosis. The strain and levels of endurance O’Brien subjects on his body for his durational performances is uniquely tied to the stress his body is constantly in living with C.F. Bob Flanagn is a highly influential performer who also suffered from the same illness and used the endurance of pain within his work as a way of prolonging his life and was subsequently the longest survivor of Cystic Fibrosis, dying at 44. There are no doubt ties between these two practices, however unique in their execution and use of the sick body. O’Brien’s work is highly relevant and influential to today’s performance art landscape and should not be clouded by my own inability to stomach the work.

I cannot express why my body reacted to the way it did to the anticipation surrounding this performance. Guttural is the only word that comes to mind. No doubt there are answers to what prevented me from witnessing an almost fully nude, Cystic Fibrosis suffer from cutting himself. However, I’m not about to go down that road.


At fifteen my art teacher nominated me to shadow a third year sculpture student at the National College of Art and Design. Never had I felt more at home than among artists and academics, all talking about one thing, contemporary art. I hadn’t thought of anything ever since. Nothing could pull my curiosity away from studying the works of Sol LeWitt, Amanda Coogan, Michaël Borremans or the writing of Roland Barthes, Lucy Lippard, Susan Sontag and my person favourite, Peggy Phelan. Now in my MA I am more enthusiast than ever to respond and envelop myself into the contemporary art world, particularly that of the study of performance art. As seriously as I take my work, for most of us, art is not life or death. If you feel challenged by the work of an artist, make it your mission to learn more, be uncomfortable and you will gain so much from it. However, if you simply can’t stomach a work, maybe it’s not for you. At the end of the day, art is just art. There’s art that challenges you and art that’s simply not for you.

Martin O’Brien performed It’s Good to Breath In (This Dublin Air) at the The Complex on 19 August 2017 as part of the Dublin Live Art Festival, curated by Niamh Murphy and Francis Fay. Photographs by Francis Fay.

Fleeting Breath

By Dr. Kate Antosik-Parsons

Martin O’Brien’s two-hour intensely embodied live art work, It’s Good to Breath In (This Dublin Air), was performed at The Complex for the Dublin Live Art Festival (August 2017). Two large metal doors opened to reveal the artist seated atop metal stairs. Wearing a white jockstrap and a black PVC fetish mask with an expandable latex face piece, he took deep, controlled breaths, the translucent latex inflating when he exhaled. Alarmingly, the suction of breath inwards formed a seal over his mouth, his face temporarily arresting in a wordless scream. The recycling of oxygen in the mask and its tightness around his neck left his upper body flushed from the exertion. He descended the stairs and moved through the crowd, at times crawling. As he moved towards a small metal table that held various surgical implements and medical supplies, I wondered, with a mix of fascination and slight horror, how the performance would unfold.

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O’Brien has Cystic Fibrosis, a chronic and fatal genetic disease of the mucus glands that affects the respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems and sweat glands.[1] It’s Good to Breath In (This Dublin Air) was based on series of actions that recalled the specifics of Cystic Fibrosis; coughing, shortness of breath, the expulsion of phlegm, stimulation of thirst and need to protect the body from infection. These engaged with his personal familial history, with its origins in Dublin, and his queer identity. The use of different latex masks and the performative self-mutilation body practices evoked pain, and, at times pleasure, associated with Cystic Fibrosis and the erotic, interpersonal role playing BDSM practices. O’Brien’s performance drew parallels with American performance artist Bob Flanagan (1952-1996) whose personal motto ‘fight sickness with sickness’ located his work in the intersections of Cystic Fibrosis and BDSM.[2]

The intensity and intimacy maintained throughout the performance was demanding for the viewer. After urinating into a metal bowl, O’Brien vigorously whisked warm piss with traces of bubble liquid from a small plastic bubble wand. Moving slowly and deliberately, he had a series of fascinating interactions with the crowd gathered as he blew piss bubbles at individual viewers. Each person encountered gauged their level of discomfort and indeed, engagement with this action. I stood opposite the artist and we shared an intense connection. His gaze challenged me, was he asking for my consent? By remaining still had I given it? He seemed aware of my uncertainty and smiled mischievously. As he pursed his lips to blow, I had but seconds to decide, would I allow his excretions to land on my face? The bubble released from the wand and gently floated towards me. Genuine laughter broke out as I cleverly avoided it using my own breath to blow it back towards him, the force of which caused it to pop in mid-air. As it burst it was symbolic of the fleetingness of breath.

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The presence of the respiratory system, specifically the lungs, loomed throughout the performance, not only in the guise of the inhalation and expulsion of breath, but there were numerous allusions to their anatomical shape in the artist’s different actions. Cutting his skin with a scalpel, O’Brien traced the outline the organ onto the exterior of his body. Later, when he stood in a black trough cleansing himself and gargling with water mixed with urine, his body was lit from two spotlights that cast a double shadow behind him. Remarkably, it appeared to be a spectre of the lungs. Seated on the cold, concrete floor, he stuck white cotton balls to his chest in the outline of the lungs and trachea with white, tacky glue, it’s dripping, sticky qualities referenced both phlegm and male ejaculation. In the final part of the performance, and not coincidentally, one of its most compelling moments, O’Brien fit a flat, square makeshift device with a hole in the centre, reminiscent of a cock ring, around his scrotum and penis. Using needles, he splayed and pinned different parts of his flesh to its black background, manipulating his anatomy into the shape of the lungs. The frame around his genitalia provoked consideration of the ways in which sick bodies, like queer bodies, can be stigmatized and objectified. These disconcerting actions were both provocative and defiant as O’Brien sought to push his body, and the audience, to the limit, in turn highlighting the fragility of life and his struggle for survival.

Martin O’Brien performed It’s Good to Breath In (This Dublin Air) at the The Complex on 19 August 2017 as part of the Dublin Live Art Festival, curated by Niamh Murphy and Francis Fay. Photographs by Fiona Killeen (


[1] Ireland has the highest incidences of Cystic Fibrosis with approximately 1 in 19 Irish people carrying one copy of the altered gene.

[2] Dominic Johnson, The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, p.115. Interestingly, O’Brien collaborated with Sheree Rose, Flanagan’s partner, on several performances between 2012 – 2016.

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.


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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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 (