What REMAINS After the Performance? An Interview with Tif Robinette

Liping Ting, Airplay for Utopia – Poetry of Action, (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Photo: Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

By Daniella LaGaccia

Editors Note: This interview occurred in early June 2017, before the July 6th opening of REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey.

The show REMAINS opened July 6th at the Chelsea gallery Fergus McCaffrey, and featuring the live performances of Liping Ting, Hee Ran Lee, and Máiréad Delaney. A preview of the show, which was on June 3rd, featured a welcoming reception and a casual performance by Clifford Owens. Artists who will also be featured in the show include Daniel Neumann and Nigel Rolfe.

There’s a certain amount of surprise and satisfaction in being able to write that because there is a rarity in seeing this type of event programed, especially in commercial art spaces where live performance is typically kept at arms-length. With all of their experience combined, these artists have performed countlessly in the United States and abroad in various venues, spaces and festivals, large and small, that dedicate themselves to showcasing performance, but for some, if not all, this show will be the first time their work is put on display and for sale in a major Chelsea gallery.

The programing, which will run until August 11th, features a diverse group of artists, diverse in nationality, ethnicity, sex, age, practices, and even stages in their career. The show will feature multiple live performances from each of these artists throughout the month, and the gallery will continue to evolve, showcasing, as the name implies, the remains of the performances.

In an interview with Tif Robinette, exhibitions coordinator at Fergus McCaffrey and curator of REMAINS, we talk about the decisions that went into curating this significant show, programing a show in a Chelsea gallery space that is featuring live performance for the first time, as well as the relationship between the commercial art world and performance.

Begin talking about your experience curating performance. Have you ever curated a performance show at a major commercial art gallery or institution before?

I’ve always worked in the underground; I’ve always worked in small galleries and small intuitions, but never at a commercial gallery at this scale. Although, I am drawing from my experience from working with Máiréad [Delaney], Liping [Ting], Hee Ran [Lee], those three artists I have worked with before in past curatorial projects. So, I definitely am drawing from my experience from the past, and also my current curatorial projects that are also going on at the same time as this.

So, I’m drawing on that community, and I’m bringing some new people in that give more of a breadth, and a little of more well-known institutional names into the programing as well. Because I’m able to do this at a venue with a bit of a budget, I can bring people that I’ve never had access to before. Also, I’m able to support more financially the projects of artists that I have really enjoyed working with in the past.

Nigel Rolfe, Dust in Face (2008). Performance view from Dust in Face in Dublin, Ireland, (1980) Giclée print on archival paper, 19 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches (50 x 50 cm)
© The Artist, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

How long have you been involved in performance? How long have you been curating performance in smaller venues?

Ten years. Maybe a bit more, but I would say seriously since my late teens I’ve been putting on straight shows, and then in college I put on and helped produce a lot of events that included dance, performance, instillation, visual art, as well as literary readings, that kind of thing. I would say in the last couple of years in New York, I’ve really taken off with being serious about curational projects that focus of community, because I think performance art lends itself to that of its breakdown between the spectator and the spectacle.

With that in mind, this venue is a really interesting place to produce that kind of work, very experimental in a way because Chelsea galleries tend to not show straight up performance art shows.

Why is this gallery specifically interesting? What features does it offer for showcasing performance?

Well, I think the space architecturally is very interesting. The artists have all responded well to both the challenges of the space being that it’s a more commercial space, and also, exciting opportunities that architectural features can give to their work. So, the work is very site specific for all of the artists. They’re specifically working and interested in certain spaces within the space and responding to those spaces with their conceptual work. That’s really exciting for the artists because once you’ve performed in a certain space or a certain venue a number of times, it gets a little dull and what you find appealing about the space or the architectural aspect you want to work with. Basically, walls, floors, ceilings, staircase, windows, pillars, all of those sites will be activated.

You’ve been planning this show for a while now. Were there any concerns from the gallery about presenting performance in this space?

I’ve kind of been given carte blanche, but because I’ve been working with performance artists for a long time and also, I am myself a performance artist, I know what kind of problems in terms of materials in a space can bring. Also, because all of these artists have been working for quite a while in performance, they are very serious, there’s an element of trust that goes back and forth between us that if there is something specific that they want to do, I’m going to do my best as the exhibitions coordinator. This is what I do regularly at the gallery, I’m in charge of all of the physical aspects of putting on a show: sourcing materials for artists and that kind of thing, as well as installation problems or production problems, or ways of hanging, ways of displaying work. I know the space quite well, from how much weight can go here and there, what the walls can support and other issues. So, I have been working with each artist trying to figure out the best way to display their work.

Are there any specific restrictions in the use of materials in the performances? I know— for example—that fire and liquids are frequently discouraged from being used in venues and spaces.

No, not really by the gallery, but since I know the space very well there are things where I’m like, ‘Okay, were not going to get paint on the floor, because then I will have to clean it up.’ *laughs*

But, there are going to be liquids there are going to be sparks. There’s always a certain risk when you have a live body in the space and an audience in the space; there’s an unpredictability about that. I think that’s been part of the reason why institutions and galleries that if they do represent any type of performance art, it’s very safe in the form of documentation or ephemera, or institutions tend to lean towards showing choreographed work. One thing about all of the work being made in this is that there is an element of a negation of rehearsal. Even if the artists have worked with specific materials in very similar veins of work, there’s always the possibility for innovation in the moment.  That can be very scary, because as curator, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with each piece, but there’s a contract of trust in between you and the audience.

Hee Ran Lee, 50 Bulbs (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

Has Fergus McCaffrey ever programed live performance before?

It seems from the outside a new direction from the gallery, although the gallery has represented Gutai and Hi-Red Center artists from Japan for a very long time. But no, there have never been specific performances within the gallery.

What do feel are some of the goals of this exhibition? It’s quite unusual to have performance art programed in a Chelsea gallery, a commercial art space. What does that mean for performance where there’s perceived to be little monetary value in ephemeral art?

Yes and no. For instance, the Gutai artists we represent, for instance, [Kazuo] Shiraga, made performative work, the objects that were made in the process of his performances, the ephemera, are selling for millions of dollars now. And other performance artists in the past like Joseph Beuys whose performance based ephemera and editions and photographs, prints, and everything related to that, do have monetary value after the fact. There are performance artists who have done okay with related to their performance work being a sellable commodifiable thing.  And there’s other artists who have been selling plans to their work to institutions, so they can be re-performed at some point.

There are these tricky ways that performance artists, or galleries and institutions are trying to enter into the conversation of commodity in regarding a very anti-commodity discipline. It brings up some very interesting questions, but there are some very strong opinions in the performance art community that the type of work that we’re making should not be commodifable, that we’re making it directly against and in contrast to the problems of the art world, and the problems of commodity, and the problems of Capitalism. This is a view that some artists take who would not want to be in this environment making work.

Or whose work does not fit…

Yeah, does not fit, so one of those curatorial problems I think were part of my choice of which artists to put into the show. First of all, there were a bunch of artists who were on my master list who simply don’t make work that is completely ephemeral, there’s artists who are very anti-commodifaction of their practice in any way, and there is a short list of artists who I really respect their work who also make things within their practice that could be commodifiable in some way, whether it be prints, or works on paper, or artifacts, or other ephemera, more sculptural elements. I was interested in bringing those artists together and putting on a show where there could be works for sale within the show that being a part of the entire exhibition.

Clifford Owens, Photographs With an Audience (Miami) Topsy/Turvy (2011) Digital C-Print, Edition of 5, 30 x 40 inches (76.2 x 101.6 cm)
© The Artist, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

You just touched on this, but you told me privately a little bit ago that you wanted to curate artists who contrasted with each other’s’ work. Máiréad Delany and Hee Ran Lee for example make very different work. Explain from a curatorial position, why you felt contrast was the decision to go for this show.

Well, there’s contrast in all of the artists’ conceptual underpinnings in their work, but all of the artists have things in common in relation to aesthetics. There’s threads of aesthetics that tie each persons’ work together in interesting ways, whether it be human and machine, from human and natural elements, human and unnatural elements, so from the outside it looks like a diverse group of people, but there are connections…

It literally is a diverse group of people!

It literally is a diverse group of people both in age, nationality, ethnicity… I didn’t want to make a show that looks samey. Like, oh, of course all of these people will be showed together because all of their aesthetics are exactly the same. I wanted to create a vibrancy of conversation that work in a very similar vein, but have conceptual underpinnings that tie them together, which I think the title REMAINS leads into, both what remains after a performance action is finished, what remains in the memory, and the physical remains of the body. Since all of them are very body based, all of them are bringing in their specific identities in to the show.

So, you didn’t dictate a specific theme for the show.

No, I gave the artists the parameters of the space; we’ve been talking about materiality and the body quite a bit. While these artists may look different from the outside, to me they hold together as a firm group. There’s no wild outsiders, aesthetically, like, oh someone is painting rainbows on the wall.

This brings up a good point; these are people who you know will produce good work.

Right, solid work, and people who will respond well to other work that is going on in the space: People with a lot of aesthetic intelligence and conceptual intelligence, enough to be able to pick up on little threads running through it. But, since none of this work has been made yet, I can talk all I want on how it’s going to be, but that’s part of the exciting thing, that I don’t know exactly what’s it’s going to be.

Máiréad Delaney, Breach (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

What I find most interesting is that you curated very different people in terms of where they are in their career. An artist like Máiréad is still very much young in her career, while you also have Clifford Owens and Nigel Rolf, both of whom have a tremendous amount of experience and have very much established themselves as artists.

That’s something I thought about to in the curation, in having a range of ages, gender, nationality, ethnicities, so that my hope is that the younger artists like Hee Ran and Máiréad who make very strong work, show their work beside people who are career performance artists who have been doing this forever. And have been supported institutionally and books, things like that; I hope to have it sort of two ways: the younger artists being shown on par with older artists will give their work a…. respect for what they are doing…

They’re being talked about in the same conversation.

That’s a good way of putting it. And the older artists, artists like Nigel who have been working for a very long time, and who doesn’t often get shown in New York, really highlighting his career and practice as being extremely relevant, very fresh, very experimental, constantly pushing, and even though there are younger artists and older artists, all of them have this strive to keep pushing through their practice.

You were talking about this as we were walking through the gallery, but the show is called REMAINS, will there be remains from the performances that will stay within the gallery? And do you expect the artists to incorporate those remains within their performances as the show evolves?

So far that hasn’t been something that people have been necessarily interested in because of the diversity of materials and practices that people are really into. There really doesn’t seem to be a lot of collaboration or crossover, but I can’t say that it won’t happen because I don’t know that. But there hasn’t been a curatorial moving into that; I haven’t pushed that in any way.

Daniel Neumann, One Cycle Ahead (2015) Fridman Gallery, New York.
© The Artist; Photo: Juan Betancurth, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

When people think of performance art, names like Marina Abramović, or institutions like Performa usually come to mind to the average person. How do you think this show will help broaden how people see or talk about contemporary performance art?

For me, this is also a way of taking the performance artists who have been working primarily out of independent project spaces, sometimes institutionally, but institutions don’t really like us because we can’t give them video of exactly what we’re going to do…

There’s an interesting moment right now with the possibility of institutions and galleries presenting more dangerous work, work that’s harder to pin down as far as the many genres in performance art, and also I’ve been frustrated personally with the lack of what I view as important performance practice within Manhattan, period. When I go to events that are labeled performance art, most of the time with rare exceptions in the city, I end up going to avant-garde theater productions or contemporary performance dance which are very different disciplines than performance art that comes out of Fluxus, for instance. There are artists whose work comes out of the avant-garde, especially more Western Europe influences, and of-course, Japanese avant-garde influences, still making work practicing. We run all over the world going to performance art festivals, which is one of the few spaces where we can make work together that aligns with our practices. But, within Manhattan, not so much. I don’t see that experimentation happening here. I don’t see that dangerous element of innovation happening in the moment…

From a commercial standpoint… or institution…

Majorly from institutions as well. Performa sort of is a case in point for that. I really enjoy Performa events, but it doesn’t have the innovative dangerous underground flavor that I see in Brooklyn and beyond all over the world. I’m trying to bring a little bit of that excitement. People sometimes think that performance art is boring and dull, and stupid, and emperor’s new clothesy, but that’s how the way safe work is.

Advertisements

Essential Departures

rosekill-farm-essential-departures-2016

Rosekill Farm (2016). Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York.
Courtesy of Essential Departures.

By Máiréad Delaney

We gathered at Rosekill to examine our relationship to nature, to the land. As women we are subjected to discourses around property and bodies, whether those bodies be our own flesh, soil bodies, bodies of water. In a sense, “reclaiming” a relationship to nature is part of a decolonizing process.

Yet nationalism is often an essential turn in a decolonizing process. In nationalist discourse, the colonizer’s damage to the land—to a paradise lost—is linked to the damaging and ravaging of bodies, particularly fecund, female bodies. The colonizer rapes the mother country. Nationalism, which is ethnocentric, xenophobic, tribal and homogenizing, is a post-colonial reaction. The ensuing narrative of returning to the land becomes problematic. We must examine the impulse to reclaim a relationship between women and nature in this context.

Restored “fertile grounds” become the exclusive property of newly “autonomous” men and their state, to serve their explicit purposes. No longer to be corrupted or tampered with, men now have the power to ensure their land remains pristine, their women pure. Controlling women’s bodies in place of the colonizer becomes national defense. The land and the very air, but also the bodies of women and what they produce—all reinforce new notions of the independent identity, must be guaranteed to male progeny as inviolable state property, and the harvest reaped from them is an essential component in the molding of a nation’s future. In this context, any use to which the state puts its reclaimed women will never be considered violation.

essential-deptures-2016

Rosekill Farm (2016). Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York.
Courtesy of Essential Departures.

If we are to further the decolonizing process, resisting retaliatory and amalgamating nationalism, we must acknowledge that we are contested ground, and that no matter where we stand, how we traverse it, where we come to rest, we will find ourselves on contested ground.

To Michele Foucault, we are permeated by a network of convergent powers, and there is no sacred space over which it does not hold sway. Where the apparatus exists outside us, it is created and multiplied through the multifarious powers of institutions, rather than erected by their restrictive, material enforcements. These powers are religious, judicial, legislative, political, medical, familial, societal and psychological. The architecture is physical, consisting of a network of interconnected institutions, legislation, and procedure. But it is also abstract, internalized. Our actions, far from reinventing a story, are considered micro-practices of the same mechanisms. We are conditioned to re-produce their workings within ourselves, to recreate their cosmology in our most immediate and intimate surroundings. We are all complicit, neither forever victim nor flat perpetrator, and we must examine ourselves in our relations to narratives surrounding bodies and nature. We have a responsibility to author our own narratives. And to Foucault:

“there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case…inflaming certain points of the body, certain moments in life, certain types of behavior… producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting re-groupings, furrowing across individuals themselves…remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them. “

At Rosekill, during Essential Departures, we are perhaps in a position to buck binaries and explore the cracks that appear on this contested ground, and are revealed in the marks on our skin. We might problematize and examine dichotomies of subject and object, presence and absence, labor and action, intervention and assimilation, transcendence and objectification, nature and artifice.

valerie-sharpe-essential-departures-2016

Valerie Sharp (2016). Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York.
Courtesy of Essential Depatures

Exploring these cracks may allow us to consider our own complicity in oppressive colonial and neoliberal discourses. In boundary spaces and on liminal grounds, in spaces of exile, in-between-ness and borders, identities may be negotiated, modified, and sometimes transformed. Performance claims liminality as its operating space, but it is up to us to act radically in this place.

We considered mythologies in our time at Rosekill. Often myths are read by the conqueror and by the “recovering native” to be a manifestation of backwardness, superstition and savagery. Myths supposedly emanating from uncouth people in need of tutelage or reform. Alternatively, they are romanticized. They portray the fierce, the fey, the ethereal and whimsical, even the gothic. It is essentializing and part of colonial discourse to reduce long histories of resistance through oral tradition as nostalgic pre-occupation and breathless emotion.

fire-ritual-essential-deprtures-2015

Group performance, Fire Ritual (2015). Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York.
Courtesy of Essential Departures

In Ireland, for example, there are myths of resistance surrounding the deeds done to women, their origins and consequences. Outside the parables and tropes of the Catholic Church, there are many instances in Celtic myth where a young woman is seduced by the Good People, by the Faerie, the Sidhe. There are stories of supernatural liaisons and trysts. A woman will give birth to a changeling child. Or a “good mother’s” human child will be stolen and replaced by a changeling, a faery child—always sickly, insatiable, even devious or demonic. This child is one to be rid of, often through violent means—by fire, for example. I see these stories as the reframing of very real violations of social taboo. They mask instances of rape and incest, they make magical the delivery of illegitimate children and justify infanticide, all outside the realm of the church’s punitive social apparatus. A supernatural cause suits and vindicates pain when its real cause is dangerous to name. Victimhood becomes slippery. Perpetrating or incriminating figures—men and the illegitimate children, respectively—actually become liminal. The events discursively, mystically bridge between two realms. Myths fill in the gaps, give surreal context while speaking to real events, real disruptions. The power of myth against colonizer lies in ambiguity, but not salvation.

In Ireland the land feels and is described as though it is sodden with myth, age, trauma, remembrance, even violence. It is crossed by old British property lines, standing stone walls.  They raise visible scars of the occupied past. Mass graves settle into hollows behind convents where “fallen women” washed laundry without pay and without finite sentence, purifying their souls with symbolic labor and religious penance. These hauntings reside in the landscape, stemming from the damages of an oppressor or a punitive, reactionary nationalist state. Yet hauntings extend to living bodies as well. The untraceable scars left on the psyche, as well as the visible scars on bodies are present and cannot be relegated to historical time, vacuum place of defunct institution, nor a mythical alternate reality. I came from Ireland and the consideration of herniated land both a dissonant and analogous companion to the colonized body.

photo-jul-26-8-29-48-am

Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York (2016).
Courtesy of Essential Departures

As we came to this land, to Rosekill, with our bodies, what surfaces? What can be thrust upon our psyches? What churns in our bodies as we stand in physical space, grappling with fissures in time, with distress and quietude? Content at odds with environment encroaches, sometimes forces itself upon the mind. If it makes itself felt, it shouts about absence. What humans have done to each other, what we do to ourselves, seeps into and out of space, into and out of comprehension. And this perhaps makes us feel at odds with our skin and the now psychically crawling surfaces around us.

This fracture of worlds overlaid in one state, this hernia of the psyche, holds the cognitive dissonance between external reality and felt experience; between normalizing discourse and embodied knowledge. And this ringing paralysis may be seen as a prison, if trauma and only trauma—what is held below language and out of discourse—seizes the mind. Yet resonant spaces, broken places, and cracks vibrate as such because they hold alternate versions of history. Their continuous existence perhaps speaks to the “inability of the institutional regime to defeat the individual imagination,” wrote James M. Smith. In them, if we act with due insight, perhaps we have the power to rebuff an intrusive state and intrusive and internalized misogynistic discourses.

Poppy Jackson - Site - Rosekill

Poppy Jackson, Hay Barn (2015). Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York.
Photo: Maria Forque, Courtesy of Poppy Jackson

Poppy Jackson made her performance of Hay Barn at Essential Departures in 2015. The piece was performed as Site (2015) for London’s SPILL Festival of Performance later that year.

Jackson straddled the peak of Rosekill’s red barn. Her legs ran with the rooflines, her torso rose atop the old structure, our communal meeting place. Jackson’s pose referenced a figure from Irish mythology. With the wide eyes of a child, the bald head of seeming androgyny, Sheela na Gig is a woman’s masturbating form. She holds open the lips of her vulva in play, welcome or warning, she is carved in stone. She still exists, left untouched over the entrances of Christian churches in Ireland. Her pagan menace is perhaps what saved her, or what served acceptably as baleful reminder to sinner and heathen—She squats as both guardian of and open hole to the underworld.

Was Jackson delivering the building or was she impaled on it? Was she on high to be worshipped or targeted? Seen from a distance, from the fields below, Jackson’s action was quiet. She might have loomed formidable on her aerie, and indeed she seemed to merge with the architecture of classic Americana, but one thought of her flesh on the metal roof, the skin of inner leg at first touching daunting heat and then perhaps transferring body warmth to cooling metal as the sun set. Vulnerable sentry turned to silhouette.

mairead-delaney-essential-departures-2015

Máiréad Delaney (2016). Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York.
Courtesy of Essential Departures

Launching bales of hay, I kept baling twine slung around my hips. A bundle of sleigh-bells hung between my legs, concealed by my dress. The bells were audible but visible only as pendulous mystery—swinging horse-phallus, half-delivered calf. ‘Good For’ was labor, struggle, and failure against but inescapably alongside grace, purity, and authenticity. I baulked and embodied my own foundering as rural woman made beautiful by endurance, whose must sweat fall cleanly, becoming the salt of the earth. My body was demanded as sleek animal, broodmare, to bend and sway, thrust and curve under the unremitting, inexorable test of work as the only measure of virtue. I strove under sun for one grim nod of ‘good enough. “For now.”

When we returned to Rosekill the following summer, Agrofemme stood akimbo in high sun, filling a rut in the ground with the stream of a hose. Two mud flap decals, curvaceous woman-forms, knees cocked, stuck to her flanks—her lower back, above her ass. The bodies of the stickers sparkled with the confederate flag. When the rut was brimming, Agrofemme rounded its edge, stood still. Then she let her body drop, dead-weight, headlong into the water, cracking her nose and eye socket on impact.

agrofemme-essential-departures-2016

Agrofemme, mudflaps (2016). Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York.
Courtesy of Essential Departures

mudflaps was durational, it set in: her prone form, her naked, baking, goose-pimpled flesh, the flashing stickers, the abandoned hose, the bright grass, the draining water, the passing, saturated day. The forensic interest of passerby. Her body was site of violence done and left for dead, her body was the body of wounded white woman to be avenged, her body was cause, justification and face for the flag of racism.

I was naked at the border of a field. There were invisible arms rising above me, protecting, hovering, threatening to descend in rushing judgement, threatening to drop with an exhalation like last breath. They were the arms of hard men, broken men. Broken men covered in hardness, broken places iced over, suited to the starkness of tall ash trees. Indistinguishable from the iron sky, they flattened unthinkingly the mud lying too-warm, fallow. I marked with a cinderblock a furrow in the ground: push-pull. I lifted the block to my chest, looped its loops over my wrists, thrust my arms through to the biceps. I reached for the tree branch above my head, on tip-toes, the block in between. I jumped. The block followed me back down, hitting my crown as my feet hit the ground. Yet I jumped. I hurled the hay and my hair blew gold in the wind. We are compliant. We love our tyrants. What happens within a bruise? When impact is lifted, color expands, blooms.

img_8731

Máiréad Delaney (2016). Essential Departures, Rosekill Farm, New York.
Courtesy of Essential Departures

Through performance we have the power to act in these in-between places, activating their kind of embodied understanding. Performance is immersive in sense and environment, and herein lies its power. Yet insight through this embodied knowledge does not require traumatization as penance for understanding. We must be discerning about this power. Felt knowledge in the body is explicitly sentient, aware: it recognizes. Perhaps gestures in live art perform Foucault’s resistance, “inflaming certain points of the body, certain moments in life, certain types of behavior.” They may accompany the critical eye in its often discouraging work of astute deconstruction regarding false narratives and complicity. Through resistance we salvage fragments of ourselves, creating new bodies. New narratives can arise from the rifts and breaches created by imposing a dominant discourse over resisting bodies, they emanate from the bodies themselves, from their felt experience.

We have a responsibility towards decolonization. In this space, we have the opportunity to become aware of our position and proximity to this process, and we have a choice– to keep that position or to change it.

Hold Harmless

mairead-delaney-hold-harmless-5

Máiréad Delaney, Hold Harmless (2016). Outside the Dublin Four Courts, home to the Supreme Court and the High Court. Photo: Ciara McKeon. Courtesy of Máiréad Delaney

Editor’s Note: this essay originally appeared in the Spring print edition of INCIDENT Magazine, and in:Action Ireland.

By Máiréad Delaney

It is January 29th, 2015. Today marks the opening in the High Court of the case of a woman who endured a symphysiotomy. Symphysiotomy, an experimental and brutal surgical intervention practiced on Irish women, severed the joint of the pelvis, supposedly to ease the delivery of a child. It is snowing in Dublin. The court’s first session commences at 11am. This is when I begin as well, on Holles Street. I came to the National Maternity Hospital to act in solidarity with a group of women who have been denied justice by their state, and whose bodies were altered for pro-life, nationalist purposes. They have since been denied access to restitution. The redress scheme presented to these women by the Department of Health requires them to indemnify and ‘hold harmless’ all bodies and people in respect to the carrying out of symphysiotomy, in direct contradiction to the recommendations for independent inquiry and prosecution of perpetrators laid out by the UN Human Rights Committee.

I hold an object that alters my body’s movements in a way that echoes the harm done to survivors but does not replicate it. This harm is held, suspended, endured, witnessed.

mairead-delaney-hold-harmless-4

Máiréad Delaney, Hold Harmless (2016).
Photo: Ciara McKeon. Courtesy of Máiréad Delaney

My gait is wide, rolling around the crown of thorns stuck between my legs. The thorns have found purchase in my skin, each is snug and I feel more than anything else the cold– my body quakes with it. Tremors run along my arms and through my chest. There is a rushing wind and the noise of traffic is swallowed or magnified in that rush. My skin is a bluish white, my garments old cream silk. As undergarments they hold no appeal but modesty and fine fabric. The snow is grey. Layers of small socks have widened my feet, they sidle with every step. The little sacs of warming chemicals I placed under my arches have burst. Swollen cloth. With every step I see my distended feet, and the wet snowy cobbles, and the detritus of the street. I stop and crouch. Squatting, I hold tighter the tunnel between my legs, all it seems to be when I look down. A tunnel of thorns, a dangerous and jarring passage. I feel only heat and the lack of heat. My shivering stops after an hour. I look down at the cobbles and up at the sun, for the sun. My legs go numb, most numb around the thorns they grip. I cannot tell if I will drop them and so bear down, holding tighter. This will make them harder to extract. I grip the iron bars of the hospital’s railings. One bar, a few steps, the next, another step, I pull myself along.

mairead-delaney-hold-harmless-2016-1

Máiréad Delaney’s performance, Hold Harmless (2016) thorns detail.
Photo: Joseph Carr. Courtesy of Máiréad Delaney

On February 27th, the second case is running in the High Court. This time my presence mirrors the second session of the court’s day, I begin at 2pm. I hang a large, industrial sink from on neck from heavy wire, like a yoke. I wear the same clothes. The sink is broken, the wire is wrapped around each tap. The two halves of the sink are unevenly sized, one much smaller than the other. They pull me off-balance. I have to pull the wire on the left down intermittently, to bring the smaller half back in line with my hips. It travels up. The porcelain is written with the testimony of the survivor whose case is running now, who will lose her case on May 1st. The larger half of the sink reads, “I thought both sides of my body were on the floor.” The smaller simply states “They broke the bone.” The inked words run down the broken bowl, on either side. With this object, too, I walk back and forth in front of the hospital. It is warmer today, the cobbles are dry, cool and dirty. The wire is cutting heavy on the nape of my neck. Part-way down the street I start to bend, I ever-so-slowly lower the sink to the ground and let the wire rise an inch from my neck, for a moment. The split porcelain basin makes a hollow, not-bell noise on the stones. Then I bear it up again and rise. I walk under its weight, I bend and lay it down, I duck underneath it and carry it again. I walk. Dusk falls, the air turns blue.

mairead-delaney-hold-harmless-2016-2

Máiréad Delaney, Hold Harmless (2016).
Photo: Joseph Carr. Courtesy of Máiréad Delaney

Many survivors were forced to walk immediately after their symphysiotomies, and sent home without post-operative care, including antibiotics and pain management. The damage inflicted by these surgeries was catastrophic and lifelong, as might be expected at the destruction of the seat of the spine, the cradle of the digestive and reproductive organs; one of the most integral structural components of the body. The emotional, psychic and social toll is less measurable yet no less devastating.

The first survivor of symphysiotomy I met in Dublin was a tiny woman in her late eighties, she still had red hair. She put lipstick on for her portrait. She made scissoring motions with her hands down her body, describing how they had to cut her clothes from her body as she hemorrhaged uncontrollably from the procedure. She had picked the hospital because it was Catholic. She pushed back her sleeves to show me the series of dark marks up and down the insides of her forearms, scars from the many transfusions she’d required. This woman was in a coma for three weeks. She remembers coming in and out of consciousness. The first time she was on a table, with a crowd of students and a doctor at the end of the bed. Another doctor stood at her shoulder, teaching. The second time she remembers waking again in what she thought was a black tent. She asked the nurse if she had caught something contagious and was being quarantined. Finally she remembers waking up on a black slab. She later found out she had been put in a body bag and taken to the morgue. It seems her botched operation needed to be hidden from sight. She remembered asking “Have I any stitches?”and being informed she had twenty eight. Eighteen inside, ten outside.

She described her year afterwards, how every night she’d have flashbacks, nightmares. “During the night I’d scream and go mad.” She returned home to her parents house. The only thing that would alleviate her nightmares was sleeping in her parent’s bed, with pillows packed around her, partly to soothe her terror and partly to relieve the pain in her pelvis and spine. She spoke quietly, with downcast eyes, softly twisting her hands in her lap. “That was my first birth,” she said. “Caesarean wasn’t accepted by these bloody men.”

mairead-delaney-hold-harmless-6

Máiréad Delaney, Hold Harmless (2016). Outside the National Maternity Hospital, Dublin, Ireland.
Photo: Joseph Carr. Courtesy of Máiréad Delaney

Symphysiotomy was a pro-life operation. C-section was standard in Western medical care at the time; symphysiotomy was practiced through the 1990’s. Cesareans were seen by prominent Irish physicians as unnatural, and akin to ‘amoral’ birth control, as they possibly limited the number of future births. Symphysiotomy was viewed as natural because it remained vaginal. And as it ‘widened’ the pelvis to prepare a woman for future prolific childbearing, it also ensured a laboring mother experienced the pains of childbirth, in accordance with her Catholic duty. I have witnessed survivors describe the agony of delivering a child through broken bones. The pelvis was not merely widened. It was unhinged.

The on-paper history of this surgery remains unwritten. Medical records claimed by the state are now in danger of being destroyed. By refusing to admit to widespread medical negligence in the most recent ruling, the Irish state refused to acknowledge the memory and testimony of survivors. Erasing them as subjects, the state persists in dehumanizing these women decades after the initial intervention. When individual voices are silenced in this way, we are left with lived violence. This violence resonates on a collective level. The nature of my ‘Hold Harmless’ works are affective, visceral.

I relay the story of a survivor as I witnessed it. (The woman I describe speaking has since passed away.) I write from a sensory perspective because it is the position I held. Both stories engage with strain, burden, resilience and pain. We cannot conflate two, but we cannot overlook the place of compassion and connectivity and hence responsibility in witnessing. Why do you need to know that I was cold? That the sink was heavy? Because some transmission needs to happen around these experiences. They have been marginalized. Some knowledge of embodiment needs to reach beyond the definition of victim and the dead-end-to-life it portrays. We need to see how power inscribes bodies and creates burdens, and how these new bodies feel, endure and articulate agency. The survivor I describe was a young woman, small of frame, having her first child in nation-state that considered her ripe to embark on her reproductive career. Her story is connected to others, to the stories of the other women whom I met and spoke with, and to the unique stories of over two hundred other living survivors.

Steps are taken. Altered steps, perhaps. The sun comes out, it vanishes. The wind rises. Traffic passes, people pass, taking notice, expressing concern. The Gardai come and leave again. The environment around me changes, I move while hampered. I make adjustments. I rest and begin again. Time passes, the state does its best to erase, and the burden does not ease. I hope these works will help people realize their connection to these women.

mairead-delaney-hold-harmless-3

Máiréad Delaney, Hold Harmless (2016) broken sink detail.
Photo: Joseph Carr. Courtesy of Máiréad Delaney

PULSAR’S Trouble Performing Podcast Episode 2

pulsar-trouble-performing

Photo: Courtesy of PULSAR

By David LaGaccia

We’re back with episode two of PULSAR‘s Trouble Performing podcast, a salon talk series focused on discussing issues is performance and live art, hosted by INCIDENT Magazine.

Recorded on Sunday April 17th, in this episode we have a larger group gathered in performance art supporter and patron extraordinaire Ming Lui’s loft to talk about recent performances by Madison Young at Grace Exhibition Space, entertainment and performance, nudity and its uses in performance, Máiréad Delaney and Rae Goodwin’s collaborative durational performance at Panoply Performance Laboratory, the idea of spectacle in performance and more! We battle passing trains and blaring sirens, but still our voices will be heard!

This episode features an all-star list of local and visiting artists from a variety of performance backgrounds including André Éric Létourneau (from Montreal), Hannes Paldrok and Danny Gonzalez (of Non Grata), Máiréad Delaney (from Vermont), Esther Neff and Kaia Gilje (of Panoply Performance Laboratory) Jill McDermid and Erik Hokanson (of Grace Exhibition Space), Ernest Goodmaw, Hilary Sand, Rae Goodwin, Ming Lui, Olivia Coffey, Mitchell Murdock, Ian Deleón and Tif Robinette (of PULSAR), Amy Mathis and Mike Berlant (of Wild Torus), Huisi He and yours truly.

For previous episodes, refer to here at INCIDENT, or visit our SoundCloud page where every episode is free to stream, download and take on the go.

Also, be sure to catch PULSAR’s next event, NO TIME FOR NOSTALGIA, April 22nd, at 987 Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.

Without further ado, PULSAR’s Trouble Performing podcast episode two.

Intro music: Jimmy Eat World – Sweetens from Bleed American (2001)