Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2009

July 17, 2009

Tattered Outlaws: On the RTE 6 o clock news

A friend of mine was tickled by the sight of Dan and me side by side at the start of this piece. The physical differences between us are matched by differences of approach and temperament, however Tattered Outlaws has been about connecting the different and acknowledging the common DNA of buildings/people/experiences that don’t look so similar on the outside.

I’m always surprised when I’m asked my why I collaborate with people who are so different from me. It seems that I need the stretch and challenge so that there is something for me to learn in the process. Working with people who are too similar may be comforting but it reinforces where I’m at already rather than move me to a new understanding. Dan’s way of looking at a project is more technical and hard-edged than my intuitive, person-centred approach. But when I saw his photos at the Screens in the City conference in 2006, I could see in his work a sensibility that we shared, a cherishing of texture and perhaps, a romantic celebration of the fertility of decay, life in death and death in life.

Photographs from Fascism in Ruins series by Dan Dubowitz and Fearghus Ó Conchúir

July 17, 2009

Tattered Outlaws: We opened

Owners came, friends came (having painted walls in the tower while rain seeped down them), a mayor spoke. Dan and his son, Zach, wore linen suits.

We gave Caroline flowers to thank her for joining us on the journey. We had a big marquee and Irish music. There were queues of people to make it to the viewing platform. I had to breath deeply when I couldn’t turn on the power and Dan couldn’t turn on the power. But Zach saved the day with the rhetorical question: ‘Shouldn’t that be plugged in?’

And here’s how it all began and ended up. Footage from our very first visit to Skerries and from the day of the opening.

Tattered Outlaws of History / Public Arts Project from Fingal Arts on Vimeo.

July 14, 2009

Tattered Outlaws: Braving the elements, indoors

Even though I am used to the vagaries of Irish weather, when you organise an indoor event for the middle of July, you don’t expect that torrential rain will be a problem. I arrived in Skerries today to start the preparations for the opening of Tattered Outlaws of History on Thursday. When we opened the door in to the tower it was clear that the drips and dampness we’d had to contend with in the past had escalated to extensive leaks that didn’t bode well for our system of electrical wiring and fancy plasma screen set up. More heavy showers are forecast for the next few days.

Fortunately, the water damage was mostly on the perimeter of the first floor, leaving the place where the screens will go relatively dry. We installed the TVs and covered them for the night with plastic shrouds. I know the electricity works so if they survive tonight, Dan and I will test them more fully tomorrow.

They keep you on your toes, these buildings. But returning to them, I feel very happy that they are part of my physical memory now. I’ve been rain-soaked, sunburned and wind-buffeted on them; I’ve rubbed my skin on their stone, slid on the tussocks of grass that have survived in their cracks. I know what the towers feel like and how they dance.

July 07, 2009

What does freedom mean?

Xiao Ke and I have been exchanging emails asking each other questions like: “What did you feel about your body at 5, at 15, at 25?”, In what ways are you typically Chinese/Irish, in what ways atypical?

Then Xiao Ke asked me what I mean by independent, particularly when I describe her and myself as an independent artists. She’s asking in the context on violence in XinJiang province where, like the Tibetans, the Uighur population want more freedom, if not outright independence.

I haven’t answered yet but I came across this article which describes how different cultures define freedom differently, some prioritising individual freedom and others prioritising the good of the group. Of course the main example of the latter which the article eludes to is China. So far so unremarkable. It gets more interesting when the article acknowledges that ‘we all process information in terms of both independence and interdependence: The issue is that some cultures prioritize one over the other.’

The question remains to be answered how individuals can be independent in the Chinese culture and if when Xiao Ke calls herself independent she is talking about the same thing that I mean.


..does the notion of “freedom” really mean the same thing in Baghdad as it does in Boston? Newly published research suggests the answer is probably no. It’s a question of whether one is more oriented toward independence or interdependence — an attitude that is largely conditioned by one’s cultural background.

This distinction isn’t easy to grasp for Westerners, who grew up in an environment that stresses individualism and personal liberty, but it’s a very real and important distinction to understand in an increasingly interconnected world, according to a research paper just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The research team, led by psychologist Eva Jonas of the University of Salzburg, Austria, built upon a series of past studies suggesting certain cultures are organized around the idea of personal choice, while others emphasize group harmony. The clearest example of this, according to a 2002 analysis, is Chinese society, which is less individualistic and more collectivist compared to American norms.

Jonas and her colleagues wanted to determine whether this difference could be measured in terms of “reactance,” which they define as “a motivational state directed toward the re-establishment of the threatened or eliminated freedoms.” This state is manifested in “an increased desire to engage in the relevant behavior.” (Alcohol is prohibited in this park? Well, that makes me more determined than ever to sneak in a bottle.)

They conducted a series of psychological tests, using participants from a variety of cultural backgrounds. In one, 105 college students — 54 from Britain and 51 from other nations, including 26 from China and eight from Malaysia — were presented with one of two scenarios, both of which involved the use of a company automobile. In the first scenario, representing individual threat, their personal access to the car was placed at risk. In the second, which involved a fleet of cars, the comfort and convenience of their fellow employees was also threatened.

Participants were asked a series of questions gauging their reaction to the scenario, including how much pressure and irritation they felt when considering its implications. The results were tabulated to create a composite reactance score.
“Following the individual threat, East Asian participants reported significantly less reactance than Western Europeans,” the study notes. “However, with the collective threat, the difference between Western Europeans versus East Asians disappeared.
“Further analysis reveals that East Asians tended to experience more reactance when their collective compared to their individual freedom was threatened, whereas Western Europeans experienced more reactance when their individual instead of their collective freedom was threatened.”

This pattern held in the follow-up studies, which found some interesting variations on this theme. One study was restricted to German students, half of which were asked to describe the ways in which they are similar to their family and friends, while the other half were asked to describe how they are different from their family and friends. Those primed to think in terms of independence reacted more strongly to threats to their individual freedom, while those primed to think in terms of interdependence reacted more strongly when their group’s freedom was endangered.

So we all process information in terms of both independence and interdependence: The issue is that some cultures prioritize one over the other. The aforementioned 2002 analysis by the University of Michigan’s Daphna Oyserman warned against overgeneralization, but it concluded that “European Americans were found to be more individualistic — valuing personal independence more — and less collectivistic — feeling duties to in-groups less — than others.”

As Jonas’ new paper sums it up: “Culture influences people’s attitude and values and therefore contributes to their understanding of self and identity — and this determines how and when they experience threats to their freedom.”
This framework may help Westerners better understand the conflict in Iran, a society that is, by all accounts, deeply split. Could it be that the basic divide between supporters of the hard-line government and an opposition that demands more personal liberty reflects a difference in views regarding what constitutes freedom?

Polls suggest virtually all Iranians want their nation to be free and independent, which is why they chafe at demands their nuclear program be dismantled. But for some, that collective freedom is all that matters, while for others, it needs to be balanced with personal liberty.

This divide can even be found within the U.S. Civil libertarians argue Americans have the right to be free from government spying such as warrantless wiretaps. But national security hard-liners counter that such intrusions protect us from outside enemies, thus helping to preserve the nation’s freedom.

Jonas and her colleagues refer to these two impulses as individualist and collectivist, and there is no question they are often at odds. But it is worth remembering – especially this weekend – that both are expressions of a desire for freedom.

July 02, 2009

Woolworth’s in Leytonstone: A room of one’s own

I’ve been discussing with Waltham Forest Council the possibility of using the empty Woolworths in Leytonstone for an evening of Waltham Forest choreography. I’d been calling the evening Pick’n’Mix but Leytonstone Arts Trail has used the Woolworths first and adopted my title too. They’ve put part of their annual visual art exhibition into the Woolworths and the opening party last Friday was packed with people of all ages. They’ve really generated a buzz and media interest, reminding people what artists can do with limited resources. The co-operation of the council has been a great help too and will be very important in ensuring the success of Pick’n’Mix: a dance selection later on in the year.

In the meantime, the organising committee of the Arts Trail has generously allowed me to use one of the spaces in the Woolworths that they can’t open to the public because it is not equally accessible. It’s really exciting to have access to a space relatively close to home that I can use for free to doodle physical ideas. It’s not a sprung floor but it’s wooden with tiles – not an ideal space but tall and big enough for me to move around in. I don’t cover quite as much ground these days.

The floor was really dirty today but given that I’ve rolled around in bird droppings, it’s not bad. I started the cleaning process, knowing it will take a few more attempts but because I want to get rid of the surface stickiness that makes sliding around uncomfortable and difficult.

The space used to be the locker room of the employees and has lots of notice reminding them that they are being watched even in this ‘backstage’ area.

I wonder what new dance will emerge for this left behind space.

June 27, 2009

Cosán Dearg – some years on

Cosán Dearg is a piece I made in 2005 with director Jason Byrne(whose Phaedra’s Love won best production last year in the Irish Times Theatre awards), composer Julie Feeney (whose critically acclaimed new album Pages is just released) and fellow performer Bernadette Iglich . It grew out of a collaboration that started when we were participants in a workshop organised by the Dublin Fringe Festival held at the Annaghmakerrig artists’ retreat.

While we were in the last stages of making the piece, a film company called Scannán Dobharchú made a documentary about us. It wasn’t an easy process, as I was anxious that the filming wouldn’t interfere with the delicate last stages of our rehearsals. There were tensions in our collaboration that I was afraid the documentary might sensationalise. However, I think Scannán Dobharchú did a great job and it’s a pleasure after all this time to see something of our work.

The documentary was completed in 2005 but never screened by TG4, the programme commissioners. Then, out of the blue, it appeared last year unannounced. Maybe there was a slot to fill? Maybe they lost it? But at least I’ve been able to get a copy now and here’s an excerpt from the end of the programme.

It contains some tenebrously tasteful nudity

June 25, 2009

Anna Minton Secured by Design

Anna Minton has just published a book called Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City. In it she describes the increasing privatisation of public space and claims that it is responsible for a climate and fear and mistrust that blights people’s experience of the city.

More property is being built in Britain than at any time since WW2 – from high security gated apartment developments, gleaming business districts and plazas, to homogeneous city centres. However, Anna Minton argues that this ‘regeneration’ actually has a negative impact on our lives, because it is the result of private companies wresting control away from local government, creating spaces designed for profit and watched over by CCTV.
From Liverpool to Manchester, London to Newcastle, more and more streets owned by private companies with the sole aim of making money and homes are left to deliberately fall into dereliction so the land can be bought cheaply, imposing skyscrapers and fortress-like developments which not only provide physical barriers but engineer fear and mistrust.

There’s an interesting video presentation which she gave to a group of designers and artists asking what the privatisation of public space means to the artists and designers who are asked to work in the public realm.

Minton’s argument applies in the UK where developments like Stratford City and Kings Cross have created spaces that look like they’re public since the public – actually consumers or shoppers – is encouraged to travel through it but that doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to busk there, film there or dance there. The same observation applies in Ireland where the Docklands is largely privatised or where the big shopping centres create spaces for people to gather in consumption but not much other sanctioned activity. Maybe when we have less money for buying stuff, these cathedrals of cash might need to be used for something else.

June 11, 2009

Roberta Lima

I spent this morning working with Roberta Lima, another of the Red Gate residents, whose work focuses on her own body, and in the past has included live and video-mediated performances that involve piercing, costume and feminist iconography. She is moving away from that kind of extreme engagement with her body (suspended by hooks in her knees, pierced by needles in her hips) but was still curious to see what might come from a brief collaboration between us. Roberta is Brazilian but is currently resident in Dublin where she is Associate Researcher at GradCam. The serendipity of finding our Irish connection made the idea of collaboration all the more necessary.

Roberta came to the performance of Dialogue in Beijing and was struck by the power of Xiao Ke on stage and by the abandon with which she could allow herself to be carried by me. I sensed that I might be able to give Roberta a taste of that experience in our working together. I could do something for her, with her, in the aesthetic frame she has established here in Beijing.

Her frame is to use a spy camera attached to her breast bone that sends images to an old analog TV that is then filmed by a digital camera. The layering of recording creates patterns of interference that are further enhanced by the very low fi reflections on the TV screen that the digital camera captures. The result is a physical experience observed at a distance, mediated in shadows, reflections, and the energy of a camera moving. Knowing about her experiments with suspension and her interest in how Xiao Ke and I worked together, I decided that I wanted to allow Roberta to experience her studio space from the different perspective of one being carried. Her initial rigidity gave way to an indulgence in the process and the resulting video material is intriguing and connects with her other work on many levels.

We then taped the camera to my chest and, while Roberta read an article she’d written on her work, I allowed the energy and content of her speech to suggest movement to me.

In fact the movement was restricted by the camera cables attached to my body – umbilical chord and fetters.

But I’m intrigued by some of the photos that came from the experiment and the relationship that exists between the woman who sits reading from a laptop on the stairs and the man wrapped in wire that writhes in below her. The camera quickly detached itself from my chest so I ended up holding it there in a gesture that had a strong emotional colour I found difficult to circumvent. What stands out in the photos are the inadvertent resonances between Roberta’s gestures and mine, so that some unchoreographed physical communication passes between us, even as her words dominate the space.

Of course, Roberta trained as an architect and later became and artist, so her sense of space and its meanings is acute. Serendipity! -which reminds me that Stefan Lewandowski is doing some research on serendipity or happenstance for his Clore Leadership Fellowship. His notes from an interview with Charles Hunter were stimulating, particularly the observation that

Openness to serendipity enables serendipity

June 11, 2009

Beijing Parkour – making sense of Beijing

The Goethe institute in China has published a pamphlet called Beijing Parkour, assembling a series of maps and elevations of various districts in Beijing that together creatively revisioning space in the way that Parkour encourages.

The pamphlet contains an interview with Michael Kahn-Ackermann. He was an exchange student in Beijing in the seventies and returned there as director of the Goethe Institute in China in 2006.

In the interview, conducted by Shi Jian and Cui Qiao, the institute’s Commissioner for Cultural Programs, Kahn-Ackermann discusses his own cross-cultural experiences:

Cui Qiao: What do you think Beijing is lacking?
MKA: Beijing lacks – I’m not sure what it’s called in Chinese, but it’s the urban atmosphere of a major metropolis. Beijing has it all except for that particular atmosphere of its own. Shanghai can’t compare to Beijing in many respects, and from a cultural perspective Shanghai is a desert, but it has that atmosphere, which you can sense if you’re walking around. Beijing’s problem is not one of size but one of space. It’s empty, regardless of the area you’re talking about.
SJ: Not the notion of emptiness in traditional Chinese culture, but geniune emptiness.
MKA: Pure emptiness.
SJ: There’s no urbanity.
MKA: Right, no urbanity. I feel that the fundamental issue is that old Beijingers have a sense of mission. In the 70s, Beijingers could still feel that it was “my Beijing” – they “administered” the city; sure, they way they administered it was not by demonstrating, not like the citizens of metropolises in the west, where if you want to put up a tall building, a crowd will form immediately in opposition. Not that type, but it still was absolutely an identification with the city. No matter how large the city grew, you could have that sense of mission: this is my city, this is the city I want, this is where I was born, where I grew up, and I will die in this city. Today, because of Beijing’s changes, that sense of mission is gone: these changes have nothing to do with me, I’m someone whose life has been transformed, entirely involuntarily. I feel that this is not a problem unique to Beijing, it’s shared by all of China’s major cities.

What interests me here is the sense that the physical transformation of the city has deprived its residents of the means to identify with their environment. Kahn-Ackermann doesn’t quite explain the difference between earlier change (‘No matter how large the city grew, you could have that sense of mission.’) and this more recent phase of development that has rendered the city empty, even as it is full of gargantuan building projects. Is it the scale of this latter development, that bears no relation to human proportions, that is so alienating?

I’m still flummoxed by the huge towers in the Central Business District. I can rarely find the entrance. Intending to join a friend for drinks in the China Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt in Guomao, I spent a half hour trying to locate the building when I was just across the road from it and another ten minutes pacing the perimeter of the building trying to find the entrance which, in case you need, is on the inside of the building complex. I just don’t know how to read these constructions.

June 09, 2009

4th June Tiananmen

20 years ago the Chinese army began its violent crackdown on the Tiananmen demonstrations. Since last month, the internet censors in China have been curtailing access to websites such as Youtube and blogger (which is why it’s been difficult to update this blog) and Flickr, Twitter and more recently BBC news reports that refer to Tiananmen. The period is being referred to as Chinese Internet Maintenance Day, since many websites are closed ‘for routine maintenance’.
Of the many articles I’ve read about the situation, I was struck by this one in the The Nation which features the famous image of a lone man confronting the tanks on Changan Jie (there’s video footage of the same event on the Guardian website.

In April and May of 1989, people around the world were inspired by the protests in Tiananmen Square, then horrified when the June 4 massacre turned Beijing streets into urban killing fields. China has changed enormously in the twenty years since then, but the Communist Party’s attitude toward 1989 has remained constant. It insists there were no peaceful protests and no “massacre,” just “counterrevolutionary riots” that were pacified by soldiers who showed great restraint. It refuses to acknowledge the losses to relatives of the hundreds of victims, tries to keep young Chinese ignorant of what happened and encourages specialists in the West to stop dwelling on 1989.
This approach is part of a larger effort to change the image of the party, so that mention of its name does not bring to mind visions of the Red Guard of the 1960s, anti-Confucian rallies of the ’70s or the iconic picture of the lone man confronting a line of tanks. Instead, party leaders would like it to be associated with skyscrapers, sleek department stores and refurbished Confucian temples. These pictures fit in better with the party’s view of itself as a pragmatic organization that has moved China forward while honoring traditions, transformed cities into showplaces of modernity and raised the nation’s international status and living standards. The 2008 Olympics, seen in this light, was the most expensive rebranding campaign in world history.

What resonates with me is the connection the article makes between the image of the lone figure and the image of ‘skyscrapers, sleek department stores and refurbished Confucian temples’. I’m not brave like that man in front of the tanks, and because I’m not brave, I can only stand or dance in front of the battalions of buildings which are somehow connected to the same totalitarian energy that drives a tank. When we performed in Beijing for the Dadao Live Art Festival in 2007, I didn’t perform on Tiananmen, but by sneaking on to the Olympic building site and dancing in front of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, I wanted to pay my cowardly homage to the lone individual who can stand in front of tanks.