Right Here, Right Now an overview by Cliodhna Shaffery
Performance: Brian Patterson, Photo: Margaret Byrne
In Dublin last November (2010) an unusual event took place in Kilmainham Gaol, where twenty performance artists from around Ireland came together to perform in a live durational performance lasting four hours – from 6pm – 10pm. The artists occupied the ground floor of the former prison – a site so closely associated with the founding of the nation state and ideas of identity, that its resonant histories could only become part of the spirit of the event and a necessary part of the experience of the performance. The Gaol’s interior is an oval void of concrete and steel, with three-stories of prison cells circulating off catwalks and an imposing iron staircase running up its central spine. The architecture projecting an uncanny aura into the site where the heroes of the 1916 Rising were executed. Architecture and memory intertwine perfectly in the prison’s transformation in the 1980’s into a museum of empty spaces, enabling visitors an imaginary contact with the raw material of the many tragic events that have happened here. Over the years Kilmainham Gaol has been used from time to time as a striking context for exhibiting and siting art, and, its choice for Right Here Right Now would again prove powerful.[i]
On arrival at the Gaol, a crowd had gathered and was already moving amongst the performers, who seemed at first like remnants from hidden histories trapped here. Physically present, yet as if out of another time. Their movements slowed down in constant repetitive action, or silently still. Lost in their presentness and in activity with its own momentum. Unlike theatre or other live performance events there was no entrance or exit by the performers and we came into a scenario already live. Some of the artists were confined within cells, others located at fixed points within the ground floor, while a few moved restlessly throughout the space. Each performance was a unique thing – a work in itself, ephemeral and most likely never to be repeated. And yet, the co-existence of twenty live performances, in this charged panoptical site, created something unexpected - a sort of bizarre spectacle on one level, and on the other, a group installation of living sculptures, choreographing a rhythm between each other and between the audience whose direct encounter and physical closeness to the presence of the artists, in real time, enabled a very different type of viewing experience to unfold.
We who came were audience, spectators, voyeurs and witnesses, but also, part and parcel of the collective event, our presence binding the idiosyncratic performances into a discordant ensemble. If performance art claims to have a special relationship with the viewer – the audiences’ live immediate responses considered essential to the completion of the work - Right Here, Right Now, can live up to such claims. As the evening moved on, the place was filled with more and more people. Our movements curtailed and frustrated by the success of the event, so we were forced to negotiate our way spatially, psychologically and emotionally to view different works. We had long queues to witness specific performances in the cells - where only one or few people were allowed in at a time, so the experience became at times uncomfortably intimate. We could come and go if we pleased, but many stayed the full duration and over these four hours, the intensity heightened and the artists who at first appeared almost spectral, became increasingly real, as we became physically and consciously alert to the actuality we were in. It was John Cage who aspired to the idea that people might realise that they themselves are doing their experience and that it’s not being done to them.[ii] Over time, as Amanda Coogan writes of live durational art, clarity becomes more apparent and the work starts to soar’.[iii]
Staged in a very different way to the conventional performance art festival where one performance will follow another, the smörgåsbord form of multiple simultaneous performances had the power of something whole - a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) - comprising action, noise, the softer sounds of sweeping, skipping, shuffling feet - objects, props, colour, smell, live tableaux, and the body in space; and sited in Kilmainham Gaol at a time of deep political and economic crisis in Ireland, it carried a critical edge. The sustained tension that became increasingly palpable throughout the evening began to unhinge any sense of harmonious conciliation, of feelings of immersion or being embedded within a scenario or film scene where the Gaol’s chilling histories might perform as a mere backdrop to the event. The vulnerabilities made present; the strange and visceral images conjured; the futile repetitions; the cold crowded space, didn’t always leave scope for identification and togetherness, but conversely enabled disrupted feelings of friction, awkwardness, exclusion and discomfort. Where at any one moment some thing or body might fall or break or crack under the pressure of continual durational strain - the potential for rupture hanging in the air. The juxtaposing of spatially constructed performances aside those more rigorously controlled continually altered the very structure of seeing so that moments of intense concentration were punctured and broken, and lighter, wittier energies released. It was precisely in these contradictions between something that could seem so perfectly complete and contained and then have the suggestion of something totally precarious or unsafe that gave Right Here, Right Now an urgent immediacy, or, the kind of conflicting energy that Chantal Mouffe describes as an antagonistic dimension always present in social space.[iv] While conceived primarily as a showcase of distinct and individual Irish artists’ practices - where performance is a central element - it was possible to read the event as an expression of the continuing fragility of human life in the frame of world politics.
Right Here, Right Now had all the feeling of a landmark event – ‘an occasion’, as one commentator put it ‘which the public had been waiting for’. Political, aesthetic, absurd and with an artistic autonomy that did not try to collapse art into life, but rather opened up possibilities to think critically through art about the world we are in. Conceived as a site-specific event, by its curators - Amanda Coogan, Dominic Thorpe and Niamh Murphy - that would bring live durational performance art out of its marginalised zone and to celebrate its meaning and growing significance within the mainstream contemporary art in Ireland, this event also seized the moment to hold a mirror to ourselves and to direct the gaze of the performance inwards. The choice of Kilmainham Gaol as its venue – which had gone through its own transformation from a place crystallizing ideologies of nationhood and nationality to one that presented a new sense of place, embracing the spirit of questioning, uncertainty and exploration”[v] – offered that critical moment to converge context with art. That it would be through the promotion of live durational art practices, critically associated with freedom of expression and with its emphasis on immediacy and spontaneity, happening in the here (Kilmainham Gaol, with all the signifying referents as former prison – internship, control, discipline, punishment, containment, authoritarian, institution) and the now (politically unstable and economically broken Ireland) gave the experience a vital, more tangible edge. And this tangible edge must absolutely be aligned to the presence in time and space of the artist, and, the special relationship that exists between artist and audience, that seeks, to unite in someway the audience with the artist into a group, collectively experiencing the event’s destablising effects.[vi]
This is not to suggest that Right Here Right Now presented some sort of audience-artist coherence and easy identification with the works. Many people who came were experiencing live performance art for the first time and even perhaps, for those more experienced arts audience, this event came ‘out of blue’, completely unexpected in its presentation of co-existent performances. How to behave, how to react were all part of the interaction, all part of the challenges of this event? It did not create a space of conviviality à la Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, but rather created a sort of hybrid composed of the possibility for hushed concentrated contemplation where the potential for distraction was everywhere present and where the sensations of discomfort jostling with absurdity sustained the tension. The creative strategy for staging Right Here, Right Now supported the condition for multiple viewing experiences. You could experience some of the works from many perspectives and then walk away when finished viewing, and perhaps come back again to note something had changed or shifted in your absence.
Think, for example, of the extraordinary installation that Sinéad McCann had created at the entrance to the large hall where a necklace of lemons placed on the floor defined her space. Inside this space she had placed a table (whose glass top came from a social welfare office), a stepladder, neon lighting and an electric counting machine, such as you see in social welfare, passport and immigration offices and in banks, controlling your progress from queue to counter. McCann, who was dressed in black and wearing a large white wig of tea bags, sat at the table, drank tea and climbed the ladder, ate the lemons. Her strange performance creating a fictionalised scenario that seemed more like a dream sequence or as James Merrigan insightfully suggests, draws on surreal filmic images such as those of David Lynch or Stanley Kubric to create its effect. The tragic-comic performance, with its narrative undertow and collection of signifying props might read as an unveiling of authority as a construct, where in times of recession the systems’ power increases over vulnerable individuals’ lives. In other performances we were only given a restricted view. To see Alex Conway’s cowboy we had to look through a tiny spy hole in the prison door where watching him felt like looking through the lens of a camera, or down the barrel of a gun. Inside the cell Conway, dressed in blue jeans with red T-shirt, cowboy boots and hat, paced and whistled like a wild animal (to a banking track of a Johnny Cash song) and every so often, he’d stop to stare straight at you, his glass eye coolly piercing the on-looker’s gaze. Conway’s performance cleverly orchestrated to double as an iconic image from the American West, might also, in its light-hearted, tongue in cheek resonance, have brought attention to the current debates within contemporary performance and its problematic relationship to documentation as work of art[vii] The surreal beauty of Alastair MacLennan’s live tableau as still life also suggested the idea of an image. Rather than the filmic, however MacLennan, who sat immobile for the full four hours, balancing on his head a plate of fish and potatoes, was more human sculpture or 3D painting, skillfully paired down to its visceral essence to capture the melancholic presence of a lonely man looking into the abyss or, perhaps, this ‘portrait’ was more the embodiment of the serene dignity of a still and silent being who remains undisturbed by a world in flux. This ability to take on the human condition to represent the Other has been at the center of performance practices, from the 1960’s and 70’s onwards, which have brought audiences into direct contact with the body, often through durational performances which are painful or difficult to endure. These works raise questions about established norms – sexual and social - and increasingly today draw attention to the processes of identification as a social construct. In Sandra Johnston’s performance, where only a few people were permitted into her cell at a time, she circled the room, slowly, leaning sometimes for support against the prison wall, breathing in and out of an empty water glass and dragging a chair and a pair of old boots loosely caught around her ankle. Her frail and delicate presence embodied the notion of captivity, demonstrating Johnston’s incredible ability to thread the precarious ground to represent the Other (prisoner). While we, being brought so close to witness her, became complicit in the construction of this identity. And so it was with each of the twenty performances, a thing in itself, giving scope for different interpretations and meanings to issue forth, while all around the energies and sounds that filled the space appeared to take their cue from Fergus Byrne’s relentless skipping, like a lone drum beat in a looped ritual, there to keep time.
Such divergent set ups focused attention on the primacy of personal perception, the structures of seeing and the sensations in experiencing. And with a mix of established and acclaimed artists such as, Alastair MacLennan, Amanda Coogan, Sandra Johnston, Pauline Cummins, Brian Connolly performing alongside a whole generation of younger emerging practitioners, the event demonstrated the exceptional range evident in performance art in Ireland today. But Right Here Right Now, was more than a showcase – the focus on individual practice through a collective ethos had the feeling of a major site-specific temporary artwork composed of multiple and fragmented parts where the context resonated through the artists’ works and the architecture provided its spatial bearings and an aura of a haunting and the first-hand encounter with the artist’s body demonstrated the potency of live art to create illusion as much as to present an embodiment of reality.
In this way Right Here Right Now - with its urgent title – was full of surprises, obscure references, symbolic metaphors, oblique signifiers and visual magic. It neither fell into the didactic territories of some politically motivated art (though all the work had a critical edge) and nor was the art overwhelmed by its potent site (though the site resonated absolutely in the work). The focus was on the here and now – the present moment where the suspension of time was concentrated by slowed down movements, repetitive actions, ritualistic looping and stillness creating a space for Time. The ‘performance’s only life is the present’ writes Peggy Phelan[viii], and when there is substantial time, as in live durational art, the ‘extension’ of the present has a transformative power over the work and our perception of it, as viewers. Richard Wilson, the theatre director, whose long duration performances can last up to seven hours, speaks of the ‘battery of energy’, ’the complexity in things’ that are revealed through very slowed movements, concentrated actions and complete stillness.[ix] Live durational performance provides a means of breaking with the familiar and habitual to bring greater awareness through the body to our experiences of being in the world. What became apparent over the four hours, and, what proved so memorable about Right Here Right Now, was that this inward view to looking outwards to understand the world and being in the world, could co-exist with performances such as Brian Connolly’s or Sinead McCann’s or Michelle Browne’s or Ann Marie Healy’s or Dominic Thorpe’s whose the performances might read as staged metaphors that draw on a range of sources from film, literature, politics and everyday life to critique and analyse structures of society, contest dominant hegemonies and to comment on injustices that prevail. In the introductory text to the event, Alistair MacLennan, the renowned and leading practitioner, expresses this so well in his remarks about the artists he most admires ‘ who overcome the most, within and without themselves, 'take on' the human condition, and who (in effective art) comment on political and social corruption.” [x]
Today performance art is receiving greater focus than ever within the mainstream curatorial programmes of galleries, museums and biennials. Amanda Coogan, celebrates what she terms ‘ the second wave of performance art’ suggesting that performance art is ‘coming in from the cold’ and is being increasingly acknowledged as offering possibilities for a unique engagement of audience that is exciting for the viewing public.[xi] She lists New York’s MOMA’s appointment of their first Curator in Chief for Performance as one amongst a number of significant indicators of this trend. We might also note how performance has become an element in the work of many leading contemporary artists such as - Mathew Barney, Francis Alÿs, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe, Maurizio Cattelan, Sophie Calle, Patty Chang or, in the performative lectures of Walid Raad/The Atlas Group, who uses fictionalised documentation to explore the realities of violence in the Lebanon. In relational aesthetics or participatory practices, with their emphasis on immediacy of face-to-face encounters, and interactions, performance has also become a central strategy in much of the work. Here though, borders between art-life dichotomies sometimes merge to create a space of conviviality or literal engagement, suggesting perhaps, a different emphasis to the consciousness raising or contemplative sought in live performance. The Polish artist Wladyslaw Kazmierczak suggests that performance art ‘doesn’t follow after art, it has a more open terrain, and he speaks of the freedom performance gives ‘to do what he wants to do in the context of art, or beyond art…where he can use everything in his art and present it by himself.[xii] Performance art is constantly evolving as a practice, where definitions vary greatly on what it is, where new forms embrace the use of technology, permit pre-recorded material and the internet as a legitimate form of experience[xiii] and where artists are constantly challenging and critiquing the practice from within. What Right Here Right Now demonstrated, as a major event introducing the public to live durational art, was the vitality of performance art in Ireland today. How central it is to a growing number of artists’ practice and how, as a medium, its capacity to incorporate the political within the aesthetic makes it a critical form of art making, which embraces shock, discomfort, absurdity, eccentricity, humour and real pleasure prompting audiences to observe the meaning making processes that govern our lives[xiv]. In today’s world of globalised technologies and isolating communication systems, real live contact with people becomes more and more important. Performance art, which is live and demands the audiences’ physical, emotional and intellectual attention, becomes increasingly relevant.
[i] Kilmainham Gaol has become a site for unprogrammed artistic happenings ranging from a staging of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Handel’s opera Tancred, to acting as venue for the annual Sculpture in Context show (1998) and Beckett’s play Catastrophe (1999); in 1998 the artist Brian Hand undertook a residency in the Gaol and the exhibitions In a State, (1991) was followed by an exhibition commemorating the bi-centenary of Robert Emmet’s death (2003). See also in Pat Cooke, Kilmainham Gaol, Interpreting Irish nationalism and Republicanism, Open Museum Journal, Volume 2
[ii] RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Live Art since the 60’s, Chapter 2, Theatre, Music, Opera, pp 63. Thames and Hudson, 2004
[iii] Amanda Coogan, Acumulator http://www.amandacoogan.com/accumulator-essay.html
[iv] Chantal Mouffe, Artistic Activism and Agnostic Spaces. In Art and Research, a journal of ideas, contexts and methods. Vol 1. No 2, Summer 2007
[v] Pat Cooke, Kilmainham Gaol: Interpreting Irish nationalism and Republicanism, Open Museum Journal, Volume 2
[vi] Jean Francois Lyotard writes on eventhood and the sublime and the destablising of boundaries of meaning resulting from experiencing the event, in the Post Modern Condition: A report on knowledge, University of Minneapolis Press, 1984.
[vii] The problematic relationship between performance art and its documentation are under review as Douglas Davis questions in his article Performance Photography, is the picture of an art event also art? Such debates push defined parameters beyond interpretations that might emphasise the authenticity of our first hand encounter with the artists’ body. See also Peter Richards article The Current State of Performance Art in Northern Ireland, published in CIRCA, special issue Performance, 2005
[viii] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked the politics of performance, London / New York: Routledge, 1993, p 146
[ix] Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly’s, Film Essay - The Art of Time, (In association with Harvest Films). 95”, 2009. In the film Daly and Waugh’s interview with Richard Wilson, focuses on his 1976 work Einstein on the Beach, which was created in collaboration with the composer Philip Glass,
[x] Right Here, Right Now, Press Release, 29th October 2010.
[xi] Amanda Coogan, Ibid
[xii] Wladyslaw Kazmierczak in conversation with Brian Connolly, PANI, pp66 and 68, published by Bbeyond, 2010
[xiii] An example is Motiroroti – a London based international arts organisation, whose multi-layered projects include performance and new media and led by participation and collaboboration. See http://www.motiroti.com/
[xiv] Claire Bishop cites– shock, discomfort, absurdity, eccentricity and sheer pleasure as elements critical to discussing and analyzing the work of art in her essay The Social Turn and its discontents, Artforum, 2006.