In July 2018 Aine Phillips undertook a residency at LADA as part of Future States a Live Art project looking at the relationship between Ireland and the UK, especially in the context of a post-Brexit future. This is the third of a series of blogs charting the project's development.
WHAT HAPPENED AT BORDER PATROLLERS?
Border Patrollers took over LADA’s home at The Garrett Centre on the evening of 19 July 2018 and many people turned up to hear and see some inspiring ideas and strategies on the problem of the Irish border and how we might address it through Live Art practices.
There was a good mix of Londoners, London Irish, Ireland based Irish and those who identified as global citizens from many places around the world. All were interested in the topic of exchanges between UK and Ireland in the context of Brexit. Not least because it represents a microcosm of other political divisions and crises that are going on in the world currently.
Border Patrollers was additionally looking at the Northern Ireland border which has become a fulcrum or turning point in Brexit negotiations and developments. A lot turns on this border: local jobs, economics and politics – the European relationships of UK and Ireland – free movement of people between our two islands – the exchange of culture, ideas and art – Live Art practices that have been created across and about that border for more than 40 years…
We had so many things to think and talk about!
John Byrne began proceedings by showing his Border Interpretive Centre project from 2000 and we watched footage recorded by the Irish national television station RTE which broadcast a special feature on John’s project at the time. The video was darkly humorous as it wryly noted the irony of the Interpretive Centre intending to ‘celebrate’ the border which has caused such division and violence in Ireland since its creation in 1921. John spoke about how the Centre (housed in a tiny vernacular shed) paradoxically could actually unite Ireland in a shared understanding of the border. Unfortunately it had to close within a week due to ‘legal and logistical’ problems.
Other works which addressed the issue of the border along with UK/ Irish relations were The Border Worrier from 1989 and Roman from the same era in which John dressed in traditional Roman soldier garb and occupied Roman Road in London for a time. He spoke about wanting to explore the anxieties around being a ‘Roman’ Catholic and the sectarianism he experienced growing up in the North of Ireland during the Troubles (the civil and military conflict there up to 1996).
John showed how he used humour with a strong dash of irony to address these issues. As I watched his presentation I thought about how he must have found this to be a useful survival strategy growing up in such a divided society and as creative expression it would have been accessible and acceptable to his milieu.
Nigel Rolfe presented his work under headings such as Nomad, Body as Site and Dividing Line to examine ways in which his practice and the practices of other artists have interrogated the idea of border in eclectic ways. He spoke about how a nomadic approach to making work parallels the liminal and marginal sites of borders as the nomadic state is one of verge and periphery.
He showed the work of Joseph Beuys, Sonia Knox, Stuart Brisley and Charles Simonds who had all come to Dublin to work with Nigel when he programmed performance at the Project Arts Centre during the 1970’s. Each artist made live work that explored different conceptual and artistic approaches to the UK/ Ireland political context.
Beuys wanted to set up a Free International University, a perfect example of a public live artwork that exists beyond borders. It was never realised but the idea persists and has become manifest in different places such as FIU Amsterdam and Freie Kunstschule Hamburg.
Charles Simmons performed live with miniature city sculptures assembled on his body, becoming a site-body, embodying the city, its built and unbuilt spaces, its borderlands. Sonia Knox who was based in Belfast performed enmeshed in rolls of barbed wire, she repeatedly tried to free her dress from the entanglements of the spiked coils intended for use in warfare. Stuart Brisley created works which explored the limits and edges of abjection and the abused body, linking to the assault, torture and death of bodies during the Troubles.
The vitality of liveness was discussed by Nigel and how presence is core to his practice.
He discussed a recent series of works made in and on death sites in Ireland, places where deaths have occurred, especially on the border. He uses his live presence to speak about death eloquently and poignantly. Other recent work explores his physical manipulation of a burning sheet of paper, the live action full of the risk of harm or immolation, his body facing into the possibility of death and exploring that ultimate border between life and end of life.
Helena Walsh was the final speaker and she presented a paper that explored in detail the links in her work between gender issues, feminism, colonialism and migration from her point of view as an Irish woman living in England. Helena has explored these topics in many live performances and published texts. She always finds expressive ways to juxtapose explorations of the limits of gender (often explicitly using her own female body) with acts and live images that mimic colonialist or imperialist methods of oppression and control. For example she showed images from a work in 2011 made for the National Famine Museum in Ireland where she spoiled vats of cooked potatoes with menstrual blood, soil, milk and communion wafers. She manipulated the resulting inedible subsistence like a child would play with putty. I thought of how British colonialism in Ireland at the time of the famine produced quantities of food for export, meanwhile over half the population of the country died of starvation.
A major project Helena presented was Speaking of IMELDA (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion) a collaborative group she founded. The group has made numerous public interventions and live actions in London and Ireland over the last few years addressing the inadequacy of reproductive rights in Ireland. The IMELDA’s have performed actions such as hijacking a political banquet in London to place a pair of emblazoned knickers on the plate of Ireland’s Prime Minister at the time, Enda Kenny.
Speaking of IMELDA have been instrumental in helping bring about a victory for reproductive choice campaigners in a recent Irish referendum to repeal a section of the constitution which equated the mother’s life to that of her foetus. This constitutional edict effectively made abortion unavailable in Ireland resulting in hundred of thousands of Irish women traveling to avail of the service in the UK over the years. A multitude of physical and corporeal relationships between our two states have played out through the bodies of all these women. I would suggest that these relationships mean something into the future. Especially for women in need who experienced the benefit of UK’s healthcare system in the absence of their own country’s care or consideration.
As a finale and expanding on Helena’s presentation, we showed a short video work made by Irish film maker Mia Mullarkey of the Repeal! Procession I co-ordinated in collaboration with the Artists Campaign for EVA International Biennale in Limerick just before the referendum.
I had been working with the Artists Campaign for the last few years, collaborating with a core group with the aim of finding ways to make activist art on the topic of reproductive rights for women in Ireland. Who knows how much the work we made was instrumental in bringing about the landslide victory for the Yes side (to repeal, to change our repressive law and legislate for abortion services in Ireland) but we did help the campaign and our work was socially engaged, collaborative, performative and innovative.
Our Repeal Procession attracted national and international media coverage.
We used art as a gavel to enact the reform of laws, a scissors to cut a hated section out our constitution, as an antidote to and transformation of the female sufferings of the past.
WHAT HAPPENED THEN?
A Q&A session at the end of the evening began with short statements from the speakers responding to my question: What are the important key issues for each of you regarding the relationship between Ireland and UK?
(anything in brackets: I have added my own words to the transcribed recordings for clarity)
John Byrne: Speaking english… bad joke!
From all our points of view there is unfinished business in terms of women’s liberation and the liberation of all of Ireland, this is an ongoing task. Brexit is a great unknown. I find it very sad.
As human beings, I have a notion we are progressing, but we have also wrecked the earth. I am mindful of the challenges and mindful of our own capacity to be destructive in lots of ways, Brexit is an example of that.
Helena Walsh: If we think about the Irish State visit in 2014 or the Queen’s visit to Ireland – we never thought we would see happen, these things happen. Brexit is a backward shift and I worry about living here, will I have to get some kind of strange citizenship, or passport thing? I don’t have one now, I can be Irish in Britain and I really like that I don’t have to adopt a new identity because we are all European.
The idea of the EU has lots of problems associated with it that need to be critiqued. But the idea of groups of countries living side by side, retaining their own cultures while allowing people to share and move between them is now seen as a threat here.
Because of the proximity of Ireland to England, people have always passed over and back, settling here. Most people have family in both countries. It will be a tragedy if a wall or division is erected, if a barrier put up between us.
Nigel Rolfe: The real difficulty of Brexit is that you can’t evaporate geography. Britain is in Europe so the notion of nationalism claiming localism is an ignorance, and ignorance will out. It has done with Trump.
The idea of thoughtfulness, and therefore meaningfulness is on the ropes. The problem is you cannot evaporate the geographical inclusiveness of Europe. The far bigger questions are about the human condition, human relations will always succeed, political relations will never succeed. I think the sense of that is problematised.
The monarchy is immensely sophisticated, last month (Prince) Charles was in Cork, we just had (Prince) Harry in Dublin. It’s all jolly fun but I am a marxist republican and I find it offensive that very quickly the monarchy are put in to appease Irish freedom. At the same time the Pope is inbound into Ireland really quickly after the 8th Amendment referendum. Very sophisticated powerful forces are at work that can enact powerful international relations. It is very complex and I think we are in a tough time.
Now (regarding Irish UK relations) there isn’t essentially a border (between the two counties) and theres isn’t essentially a difference. After nearly 50 years being a Brit, living and working out of Dublin, what makes it precious then and now is human relations. If we struggle for good connection, love will seal this. That might sound quite ‘hippy’ but we have got to keep that going or else we become ‘them’.
John Byrne: Maybe this was all inevitable? Maybe this was an illness on the way to everything getting better and Brexit is the pus before the cure. I would like to be optimistic and say we have just got to out this pus of Brexit and of Trump, to remain optimistic that there is enough good people and that our path is still a righteous one.
(An audience member questioned the role of humour in strategies taking on these bigger forces in society and politics.)
John: I grew up in a society where the partition of the border was something to get very angry about. Violence was an option for my generation. Young men and women used violence (to approach the problems of our society). I chose not to do that, I had powerful feelings of being caught up in a movement but I decided to use humour, it is something I feel I am good at.
Helena: Humour was useful for us in Speaking of IMELDA. You had all these statesmen speaking very formally and ignoring the plight and voices of women. Humour was a very good strategy for disarming them, turning the shame back on them. Women have been shamed for decades and decades. When you start interrupting dinner parties and landing knickers on the dinner plates of Prime Ministers suddenly they sit up and start to listen because they are bing ridiculed in public!
Women in Ireland mobilised in a very positive, cheeky, playful and subversive way in response to repealing the 8th Amendment and I think these strategies can be successful. There are suitable times to show anger too.
There was an opening of a fascist gallery in Dalston. We went along to a protest to shut it down. It was called LD50, Lethal Dose 50, as in wipe out 50% of the population. They were holding talks about well known hard right fascist leaders and I was happy to see Black Bloc there and people throwing bricks through the window. That’s the aesthetics we need right now. There is a time and a place for each strategy to be used.
Nigel: You can’t become creative knowing you are right, you can only become creative when you learn how you’re not right and that is taking risk. We should get everyone on the earth in a more mindful, a more risk taking, more induced freedom and that is what this discussion is all about.
The conversation then moved to the local pub where some ideas for future performance and Live Art activities were explored. Alessandra Cianetti and Xavier de Sousa of Performing Borders were especially interested in getting involved with future manifestations of this project.
Aaron Wright of Fierce Festival Birmingham will work with Nigel Rolfe and Sandra Johnston to commission new work in the context of Future States: Live Art exchanges between UK and Ireland.
This blog will be updated with news of future developments!
Banner image credit:Border Patrollers
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