‘Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed / Into different bodies. Tales from Ovid, Ted Hughes.
‘A being – a face, a gesture, an event – is special when, without resembling any other, it resembles all the others.’ Special Being, from Profanations, Giorgio Agamben.
I was invited to attend Livestock 2014, curated by Francis Fay and Eleanor Lawler, as a writer who is new to the world of live performance art. I have no knowledge of the discipline and have avoided reading about it before writing this piece. This is my experience, unmediated by art theory. I have divided my response into three categories, interconnected like a series of rooms leading into each other. The first I call Cerebral Space which is an intellectual response to the performances, an attempt to understand and connect using my knowledge and experience. The second piece is Sensual Space in which I try to re-capture some of my sensual experiences of the event; this involves a tense battle with the constraints inherent in language and representation. The third is Dream Space, a fictional representation of the event through the eyes of a character who inhabits a novel I am writing.
This triptych is an attempt to carve out a new kind of space, an uncertain space that falls between criticism, writing about performance art, and fiction. The result may be awkward and uncomfortable. It involves taking a risk, trying to forge something new, a hybrid response. ‘We are too secure in our worlds. There is a space missing. We need a space of danger, uncertainty, newness. Something to take us out of our comfort zone,’ explained performance artist and one of the curators of Livestock, Francis Fay. That appeals to me: a discomfort zone. A jolt to the senses and jaded perceptions. An appeal to each of us to step out of our habits which we wear like armour. Give attention to each performer’s story, journey, song, vision. Observe and respect their transformations, their metamorphoses; the risks they take for us.
- Cerebral Space
There is a space missing in this life we live, or many missing spaces. We are corralled through our streets in proscribed ways, barricaded in at festivals and events. The society of the spectacle forces us to be observers, passive and obedient. Even our protests are guided along a given path, approved of in advance with the powers-that-be.
In every system of power, there are breaches. Leaks, deviations, holes in the barbed-wire fences that surround us. Transformations or gestures that seek to express that which is not to be expressed beg to be given space. The ultimate taboo in any system of power is to express discomfort, unease at its operations, or to laugh at it. The history of Carnival is one of rebellion through an array of gestures and transformations: turning a coat inside out; cross-dressing; mumming; public dancing and pleasure-seeking; turning the king or the bishop into a figure of fun for a day. An allowed transgression and perhaps only symbolic, the long European tradition of Carnival has all but disappeared only to be replaced with the Festival as Spectacle.
Think of our St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin and compare it to the old-fashioned parade in a small town. The small town parade often still has some form of bawdy humour, some satire of a political figure. An element of chaos and disorganised fun. An unpredictable space compared to the measured, culturally sterile procession of the Dublin city parade. Apolitical, tidy, organised and run like a commercial event. No space to dance to the music, no opportunity to join in, we are asked to turn up and clap, then turn around and go home; disperse and spend money. An empty exchange.
Where are the experiences that demand something from us? That force us to participate and feel something, anything. Some confirmation of the fact that we are human beings with conflicts, problems, joys, pleasures, fears and desires that fall outside of those (mis)-represented in mainstream culture and media.
Watching the ten artists performing at Livestock 2014 in MART, as part of the Dublin Live art Festival, I felt connected to an event that captured the spirit of Carnival. A transformation of space. A non-commercial event populated by shape-changers and tricksters using performance, song, stories and humour to communicate aspects of us, that strange array of human conflict and pain within us.
As a novice approaching this event, I was nervous. The fear of misunderstanding the work, of not liking it, loomed large. Or worse still of being asked to do something in a public space, to participate in some way. An Irish person’s nightmare – the fear of being ‘made a show of’, humiliated in front of others. The deep psychic wound of the colonised. And also just the everyday fear of the unknown.
The crowd milled around before the start of the show, the mood relaxed and jubilant. This was not a sterile, sacred space of Art. This was a space about to be desecrated, taken apart, played with and put back together in profane ways. True profanity, says Agamben, is to return something to common use that has been made sacred by the apparatuses of power. Art and expression, the freedom to explore, is to be returned to us, free of mediation and theory. I, you, don’t need to be experts to feel, to experience.
And then it was time to shut off the cerebral, put the ego, the critic outside on the street. Time to engage and delve in with all of the senses, suspend judgement and meet the performer and the performance with a willing heart. The introspection of the viewer and the performer will meet in a public space, turning everything inside out and upside down. The public made private, and the private made public. A true act of profanity, the spirit of carnival restored for an evening.
2. Sensual Space
The old fire station with its whitewashed walls, bare floors and bare floorboards, the hum of people talking. Laughter, the swell and ease of conversation. Twilight in the room at the back. The crowd in the small space hushed and I watch as the first performer, Katherine Nolan, transforms into a body wracked by breath, gasping for air, finding it and losing it again.
Her body hinging over, balancing precariously. A loud sigh. An inhalation. Her hands twitch. An exhalation. Her eyes closed. Gasping and sighing, soughing, playing with breath. A retching of air.
And then something happens. I understand that I don’t need to grasp for understanding. I just need to give this transformation my attention, see what happens to her, to me.
She sways on her heels, losing and catching her balance. Arms swinging, breath like a pendulum. Arms high, breath fuelling this upsweep.
Eyes open now.
Sighing and exhaling.
Squatting and jumping.
The body elastic and ecstatic. And out of breath.
Breathe now; gasping for air.
Slowly returning. Eyes shut again.
And I am hooked. The journey begins. There is nothing to fear. Fathers of Western Thought lead us out of the back room with music, singing about his failed Dorian Grey project – ‘except both of us are ugly.’
Smilin’ Kanker (Ciaran O’Keefe), all doleful beauty with his white face and blackened eyes, in his sombre black relieved with a pink boa, announces that he will regale us with a hundred light bulb jokes. Our response as audience and chorus is to be ‘Just the one.’ And so begins a beautifully simple, emotionally and politically complex list-poem of losers and fascists who will be theoretically required to screw in a light bulb. A list of reversals. Stutterers, politicians, abusers, victims, live artists and bankers. We have to be encouraged to shout out the chorus because of our shyness, that painful self-consciousness that is our legacy. I am writing as I listen and watch so I am at a remove, caught between the experience and the representation of the event. A nicely odd place to be, disassociated but alert. An in-between space that is full of possibilities.
In David J. Magee’s performance PAIN, I will literally encounter a discomfort zone. A work that will resonate with me, that I will populate with my own thoughts and ideas and interpretations. A dizzying combination of cerebral and emotional reactions. I will think of pain, collusion and be conflicted about participating. I want to put a fictional character I am writing into this scene in my place, to keep me safe, give me distance (see Dream Space below).
The inherent sadness and disappointment of birthday celebrations and gifts is sweetly dredged up by Aine O’Hara. She ties balloons around the wrists of willing participants, talks to them privately and then tells us a story about her father. He didn’t know what a birthday party was until he was twelve; he still can’t manage to buy his children birthday presents. A private story made public that must stir up every person’s private memories of their own neglected or failed birthdays. An elemental childhood wound.
Then the Trickster arrives to make us laugh at him, at ourselves, at everything. Terry Erraught’s performance sees him conceal himself in a costume, play with electricity and water accompanied by a manic laughter soundtrack. A short sharp shock. A reminder not to take anything too seriously. And of the seriousness of humour.
Catherine Barraghy sits on the floor before a pane of glass. Polishes it with her skirt. Rests her nose on an edge and moves her mouth across the glass. A contortion of body and mouth as she kisses her way along the glass. Mouth sensual and profane, a human part trapped in an aquarium, full of need.
She bites the edge, her body twisting, arm lowering to the ground, elbow leaning on the floor now. Chin, mouth, nose, breath on glass. This barrier between her and us. Face distorted, like the Elephant Man. She raises the glass and looks at us. Breathing now. And again face pressed painfully against the glass. She coughs and retches. I think of the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Elephant Man. All painful breath and industrial noise, pain translated into aural dissonance. Then she lets us relax, and breathe. Draws on the glass and changes the energy in the room, allows us to forget the pain. Gets us up, almost dancing, as we hop in and out of circles, imagining spheres of energy. Our own bubbles of space and how they might interconnect. Our private aquariums of silent pain and need. Conor O’Grady leads us out of one space and into another with music, the ultimate seduction, and then with a shock we actually encounter the Carnival and one of Ovid’s wood nymphs.
Patricia Melo tells us how she transformed into a tree goddess at a carnival despite her fear of the noise and confusion of the festivities. Her carnival phobia, our modern phobia of true celebration that is not commercial (music festivals) or sanctioned (parades). True carnival is about the loss of time and self-consciousness, about wild communal dancing, the loss of the self within the crowd and with the crowd. Her playful public storytelling unravels the meekness in us, the fear we have of losing ourselves, of being seen, truly seen in public.
Livestock 2014 ends with Terry Erraught, the Trickster, who has undergone another costume change, a metamorphosis into a laughing lampshade. The soundtrack an even more disconcerting distortion of screaming and laughter. He’s hiding from us, impenetrable, a shape-changer. Extreme laughter is close to tears, and pain. The extremes of our passions transform us for better or worse.
3. Dream Space
[Inspired by the performance piece, PAIN by David J. Magee].
The light on the water took on a cruel clarity. The scars on her legs livid and ugly. Her hands showed her age, thin skin that was slow to spring back to the bone. Her only love, her childhood sweetheart was married, and possibly afraid of her. She was tired of people being afraid of her. She wanted to be normal, full of small talk and lightness. But if she became that, she was terrified that she would disappear.
The familiar circling, the darkness spreading. The darkness, the doubt and the pain that she tried to transform in her practice. Her practice. As awkward for her to say as my boyfriend had been, as if she were not worthy of it. An imposter as a loved one, or as an artist. Almost twenty years after she turned down art college in favour of a permanent civil service job, she found her way back to art. The child returned to take up its original desires and hesitations.
Her struggle as a part-time mature student amongst confident teenagers. Always a voracious reader, she was at ease with the texts, the ideas, the philosophy. Loved the tussle with knowledge and read late into the night after she put her son to bed. What she lacked was the seeming grasp the younger students had on the world compared to her tenuous hold on it. A year into the course she realised what many of them had in common. An unease and discomfort with the world. A desire to uncover things. Of course there was ambition and crassness and insincerity but that was easy to avoid. And then, like falling in love for the first time, she found a form of expression that offered her a way into the murkiness of her soul.
At first it repelled her, she thought she hated it the way some lovers hate each other at first sight. She skirted around the theory of performance art, live art. The practical country girl in her wanted to avoid it, deride it. She watched performances that made her feel uncomfortable but she was always drawn back. Slowly it crept up on her, a dawning of understanding.
The discomfort of it was the beauty of it. The body contorted or pushed or displayed out of context, according to some secret inner logic of the performer. Inner wounds, rages, hurts, sad jokes, weirdness, illogical combinations. She thought of Ovid’s shape-changers, the nymphs, satyrs, goddesses and gods, tricksters and lovers. Bodies metamorphosed by passion and pain, by manic laughter, at the joke that is human life.
She took a year out exhausted by the stress of working, studying and minding her son. Really she was stuck and terrified. Her practice undefined and scattered, she flirted with all the forms while avoiding the one she really wanted to immerse herself in. Neglected the urge within her. Hid her drawings and photographs behind the wardrobe in her bedroom. One weekend when Dylan was with his father and she was bored and lonely she saw there was a performance event on in town. The thirsty part of her drew her to it, insisted on entering the small space, the darkened room.
The audience stand around, expectant. A young man in a white boiler suit. His image also projected onto a screen, Christ-like. He has controls in his hand, wires attached like electrodes to his back. Val feels it immediately, the fear and anxiety. He hands the controls to a woman in the audience. When the control is turned or pushed, he staggers and shakes, clothes falling off him. Pain eased or heightened. The control gets closer and closer to Val and she feels nauseous. No one in the audience has refused him yet. Val sinks back towards the wall. One man laughs as he uses the control. Someone spills a drink on the floor. The performer takes back the control and scans the audience. Val tries not to catch his gaze but he sees her and approaches. Her throat dry and constricted. This is too close. She wants to scream – I can’t do it. Don’t make me. Her body rigid, pain in her back. All too familiar. This dance of pain and collusion. He looks at her and reaches out his hand. She stares at the control and tries to reach out for it. This is just a performance. It’s not real. Act the part and facilitate the artist. But logic has fled. She is back in another room, with another man, and a different audience. A room full of menace and fear and the impending threat of pain.
Val shakes her head. I’m sorry. I can’t, she says.
He nods and moves on.
Her body on alert, mind racing. She can’t calm it down. Yet a part of her is watching the performance closely, admiring, taking consolation and inspiration from it. The hungry, neglected part of her.
She left that night in a daze. Walked home along the dimly lit streets, agitated and moved. The bright lights inside the takeaways along Dorset Street. Clamped cars on the footpath. The mild stench of the canal. Brendan Behan trapped in bronze, body seated and twisted awkwardly. Facing away from the canal and the prison, forever doomed to contemplate the traffic on the bridge. Her body felt tight, as it had when she was pregnant with Dylan. Full of anticipation, a yearning forward. As if something huge were lurking nearby; or a forgotten word was about to land on the tip of her tongue.
- Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, Jeff Fort (Zone Books, 2007).
- Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky (Indiana University Press, 1984).
- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone Books, 1995).
- Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid, (Faber and Faber, 1997).