Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2013

April 17, 2013

E-motional Bodies and Cities: Walking the city

Photo Alex Chelba

From our experience of doing the final E-motional Mapping in Limassol with a big group of people following us, we knew that such a crowd of specific spectators had a big impact on how we experienced our process and on how we manifested that experience. Having a large gathering of people on the streets has the practical impact of changing the dynamic and energy of the environment. It occasionally obscures the geometry of the quintet and so challenges our ability to compose with the shape of our relationship in the city. Moreover, even though we are clear that this work is not a performance, the crowd of designated spectators which has gathered specifically to follow us (as distinct from the casual spectators who encounter us on the route) creates a frame that we are drawn to fill. And so with the spectators in Limassol we expanded our physicality and accepted being visible in a more performative way.

Photo Leanne Hammacott

Aware that more than 40 people had booked to join us for our final walk in Bucharest, we considered carefully how we should organise their experience and ours. The sensitivity in the area about the destruction of Matache meant that it was necessary for the E-motional Bodies and Cities organisers, Cosmin and Stefania, to get a permit for our route. The problem wasn’t so much our exploration of the neighbourhood, which we conducted daily without official sanction, but the large group that followed us that might be construed as a demonstration. We initially asked for permission to follow a route through the Matache market and through some less sensitive local streets. Only the route through the streets away from Matache was permitted.

So that we wouldn’t have a group of 40 following us however and so that the powerful experience of visiting Matache wasn’t completely lost to our process sharing, we decided to split the group in two. One would find us on the sanctioned route, doing what for the purposed of official legibility was called a ‘dance parade’. The other group would be divided into smaller units of 5 (reflecting our geometry) and sent to the market with tasks that would help those participating experience for themselves the process we engage in and also bring back to the bigger group a sense of the market. Given that the ‘dance parade’ would take place in the permitted streets and that others were simply visiting a market, we didn’t anticipate any problems and printed instructions accordingly (thanks to Luke’s combination of artistic and practical design skills).

Photo Alex Chelba

However on the morning of our presentation, Cosmin and Stefania received a call from the police requiring them to confirm that no one would be visiting the market and rather than put them into any legal jeopardy we had to abandon our plan to send 20 people to the market, knowing that the police’s alertness to our activity would make such a group too visible. We didn’t lose the market completely however but chose a smaller number of people to experience the market individually and therefore less conspicuously (although some who took photos were spotted and warned from doing so again). This solution wasn’t ideal but the whole situation did remind us that our work of placing the body in relation to the city has an unavoidably political dimension. Aptly, the theme for our research in Bucharest was the politics of the body and though we hadn’t chosen to deviate from the process we developed in Dublin and Limassol to specifically address that theme, the process found its way to foreground it nonetheless.

Photo Alex Chelba

Having a large group follow us changed our walk in Bucharest as it had in Limassol: so did the presence of plain clothes and uniformed police officers who followed us throughout. The plain-clothes officer filmed everyone at the start of the walk probably to have a record of the participants in case of any trouble. The police officers were not unfriendly, although their guns were disconcerting. I had found a small plastic gun (with Made in China stamped on it) earlier in the week and secreted it under a bench in the dog park on our route, along with a broken mirror and a piece of honey-comb. I hadn’t really known why I was keeping the little gun that I would visit on our walks each day. I understood the broken mirror as a simple metaphor for our fractured reflections of the city in our walking practice and the empty honey-comb connected to our group activity and to the many holes that distinguished our route in the city. Having the policemen and their guns finally gave a post-facto purpose to my impulse. Early in the walk, the policemen found me covering Luke with crumbled plaster.

Photo Alex Chelba

I had found him lying on the side of the street and, reminded of our interaction in the Carob Factory in Limassol where I buried him in carob seeds, I found what I could to ‘bury’ him again. The police asked if everything was ok and if this was part of our dance. I said yes. But Luke’s lying on the ground prompted anger in some local onlookers who berated the police for allowing this to happen. A local elderly lady however came to help Luke to his feet, not distressed, not angry but careful.
The police passed me a little later as I held a position waiting for our quintet to advance. I asked them if everything was ok. The one who spoke English said ‘yes’ but that he didn’t understand what we were doing. I explained that we had been experiencing this route for the past week, its details, atmospheres, architecture, history and that we were communicating what we perceived in our bodies. He said he understood. As we progressed, I felt these policemen become guardians as much as surveillance.

Photo Alex Chelba

As aspect of my nascent studies in human geography that connects directly and helpfully to my work has been the understanding of space not just as a set of physical parameters but as a nexus of contested histories, and imagined futures experienced through the body as an emotional, psychological and social entity. Our mapping of these particular streets in Bucharest is not scientific. We change the experience of those streets for one another just as much as a crowd of spectators does. We bring our shared history, our memories of other cities as well as our impressions of other parts of Bucharest and ‘find’ those memories again in these particular streets.

Photo Alex Chelba

Photo Alex Chelba

As we walked on Saturday I noticed Arianna start to dance to the music that was being played from a car radio on the street. The memory of our group boogey outside the ice-cream shop/café in Limassol where the owner would wait for us to pass so he could turn up the music for us. Without saying it, we all recognised this moment and found our Limassol boogey on the streets of Bucharest.

Photo Alex Chelba

It pleased me very much that Romanians recognised their city in our group walk, feeling its tensions, textures and possibilities through us. It pleased me that Madalina was proud that we had achieved this manifestation in her city. It pleased me also that others identified the challenge to a capitalist expediency and efficiency that our slow and careful noticing of the environment might represent. Our walk is not a ready commodity. It doesn’t come packaged in a performance-friendly arc of narrative or rhythmical development. It is not homogenous. Olga, Luke, Madalina, Arianna and I engage in the process in our distinct ways and and the group practice is an amalgam of that diversity rather than a uniformity imposed on each individual. A hurling, rugby or soccer team is not made only of backs or forwards.

April 07, 2013

E-motional Bodies and Cities: Wounded Cities

image by Luke Pell

When we were asked to introduce ourselves yesterday at the first gathering of the whole E-motional Bodies and Cities Research group in the Zona D studios in Bucharest, we were encouraged to say something that had an emotional impact on us. What I mentioned was the feeling of pleasure I’ve experienced at finding elements of this E-motional experience connecting to each other in different ways and more importantly connecting beyond E-motional to other parts of my life: last week I was in Cyprus working with Olga as an extension of our E-motional research, we saw Arianna there but the circumstances of financial crisis and uncertainty meant that it was relevant to bring my preparation for Cure into the research. The previous week, as Curator of the Artistic Programme at Firkin Crane, I had welcomed Madalina to Cork for her performance (with Mihaela Dancs) of (anti)aging and invited Luke there to lead a post-show discussion. And we got to connect with Gemma, Mircea and Laura from the other research group in Cork too as they presented their Internal Facade performance.

However another unexpected and rewarding connection has been between this E-motional research and my very new PhD research in Geography. I’ve written before about the Art and Geography conference I attended earlier this year in Lyon where I realised the value and relevance of our e-motional mapping process. At the conference I heard Dr Karen Till present a paper on some of her research on Wounded Cities, focusing in particular on the clearance of the El Cartucho slum area in Bogota and the resultant displacement of the existing inhabitants to make way for a new park of The Third Millennium. Karen is in the Geography department in Maynooth where I am doing my PhD and along with Prof Gerry Kearns, my supervisor, has been building exciting links between academic geographers and a range of artists in Ireland and abroad. In Bogota Karen’s focus has been not only on the wounding of the city caused by this displacement of a long-existing community, but on the reparative work of care carried out through artistic interventions by the Mapa Teatro theatre group.

Karen’s work has been in my mind through out our E-motional research since the displacement of docklands communities in Dublin to make way for a new Docklands driven by financial services and international investment, as well as the displacement of Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in the wake of the 1974 invasion there has meant the themes of her work were apposite to our enquiry. Coming to Bucharest has given the notion of wounded city an even stronger relevance. As a preamble to our first walk, we watched Off the Map (2006), a film by Ioana Marinescu and Robert Fearns. The film details the erasure at Ceaușescu‘s instigation in 1984 of an estimated 40,000 home in 3 days to make way for the gargantuan Palace of the People (the world’s biggest civilian building) and the Victory of Socialism Boulevard that leads to it. To this day, the number of displaced people is a secret and though Ceausescu was overthrown, the building project was completed and is now home to the country’s parliament, a symbol of national pride, and has become an important tourist destination in the city. Interviewing former residents of the area in 2000 as well as people on streets around the Palace, the films asks: ‘Is private remembering alienated by organised forgetting?’

The fact that the other research group is based at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) which is situated in the Palace of the People makes this history difficult to ignore. However that organised forgetting and the troubled history it represses has re-emerged, not unsurprisingly Freud would have said, in the illegal destruction by the Municipality of the Hala Matache, a protected heritage site and working market in the area just behind the Zona D studios where our research group is based. The area has a big Roma population but the market has been popular because its prices are cheap in comparison to other places in a city where big shopping malls are proliferating and giant advertising billboards blight the city’s buildings.

Hala Matache was demolished just this month under cover of night and despite legal opposition, negotiation and a campaign of protest by NGOs. The plan is to build a motor-way through the city to connect The Palace of the People to the Government building. It will be a motorway that allows cars to travel quickly but obstructs pedestrians and destroys a neighbourhood. In echoes of the clearances that preceded the building of the Palace of the People, parts of the Hala’s structure were removed so that, according to the architect Celia Ghyka who took us on a tour of the area, the building would fall of its own accord. In the Off the Map film, former residents tell of how buildings weren’t completely destroyed in the first round of demolition but sufficiently ravaged so that they were uninhabitable and also vulnerable to the predations of scavangers and of the elements. There seems a particular cruelty in not administering a fatal blow.
When Hala Matache was eventually demolished concrete blocks were erected around the site to conceal the activity.

Seeing them reminded me of what Ceausescu’s designers had done erecting high rise buildings along the Victory of Socialism Boulevard that concealed the destruction behind. ‘Curtains of concrete’ is the phrase that the film uses to describe them.
Covered in white fabric, the concrete around Hala Matache is all the more literally curtain.

What impact will this have on the people who live in the area? I also wonder what impact it will have on people who don’t live in the area but whose city is nonetheless wounded?

Karen Till’s work on Wounded cities, as detailed in her article in Political Geography, draws on Mindy Fullilove’s concept of root shock (Fullilove, M. T. (2004). Root shock: How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it. New York: One World/Ballatine Press.)

Root shock is ‘the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem’ (p. 11). Fullilove draws a parallel of root shock to the physiological shock experienced by a person who loses massive amounts of fluid as a result of injury, a shock that threatens the whole body’s ability to function.

Karen Till

Noting the connection of root-shock to a corporal experience, I also recognise the provenance of the term in the systemic shock experienced by plants that have been uprooted. Seeing the open soil of La Matache, I remember the bog we visited on our first E-motional Bodies and Cities research in Ireland. I see the grave in the holes there, but also the soil turned over for planting. Can we plant flowers there? Can we plant something that’s not a motorway? As we walked through the area, Roma children were playing fearlessly on the soil. Can their play move forward beyond the shock?

image by Luke Pell

Citing geographers such as Doreen Massey, planners such as Jane Jacobs, and social psychologists such as Kai Erikson, Fullilove describes place as having a central function in an individual’s emotional and social ecosystem (compare Tuan, 1977). For Fullilove, place is a kind of exoskeleton (personal conversation with author, 2009). As such, we can understand place as always becoming, as within and beyond us, and as functioning as a kind of social protective shell, an understanding that has resonance with some Native American philosophies of humane environment relations.

When we move through and navigate our environments according to unlimited possible pathways, our patterns of movement are a kind of ‘mazeway’ that also provides us with security: ‘Just as the body has a system to maintain its internal balance, so too, the individual has a way to maintain the external balance between himself and the world’ (Fullilove, 2004, p. 11). Similarly, according to medical anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman, bodily memory is often limited to discrete analyses of the brain, body, mind, or person only (Kleinman & Kleinman, 1994). They introduce the concept of ‘enacted assemblages’ to account for the ‘interconnected cognitive, affective, and transpersonal processes’ of body-social memory (p. 719). Drawing upon Chinese conceptions of everyday life and social relations, the Kleinmans argue that the local interpersonal world is the primary means through which sociosomatic processes shape the body and bodily processes shape social space.
… when individuals are forced to leave their neighborhoods and their protective mazeways are destroyed and/or cannot be made, root shock, according to Fullilove, may stay with a person for a lifetime. Fullilove argues, moreover, that the physical fabric of the neighborhood one grows up in also provides the cues and opportunities for the intergenerational transmission of stories, and as such root shock may affect multiple generations. Thus root shock can be inherited through social, bodily, and place memory.

Karen Till

image by Luke Pell

As we walked around La Matache we passed a gutted building whose interior was filled with rubbish bags (colourful as Olga has noted, like the vibrant colours of the Romanian flag). An old man in a dark overcoat made his way slowly and a little unsteadily through the rubbish. I have no idea what he was doing – going to the toilet? – but the image of him wading through rubbish was arresting and moving and also familiarly so. It was if he was in a performance. I already recognised him as a striking image (from Beckett perhaps with a plastic update) and there is much that we’ve encountered in Bucharest that already has the familiarity of a performance for me (the drunk man in the middle of the street, slowly, slowly rolling down through his spine like a dancer at the beginning of class, to pick up something from the street, as cars swerved to avoid him. Him repeating the action, to underline his choreographic sensibility.) This already existing plenitude of performance challenges the need for us to bring our performance-research to these streets, though maybe it invites us. More importantly, my recognition of these images makes me wonder memories of other wounds I am seeing here:

Places, even when materially demolished, remained haunted by what Casey (2000) describes as the ‘unresolved remainders of memory’. For Casey, memory traces are ‘re-discov- ered’ with evolving circumstances through time (belatedness). These unresolved remainders ‘do not consist of depositions laid down as is assumed in theories preoccupied with leaving marks and traces in an unchanging material base but in pathways that branch off every more diversely into a multiple futurity’ (p. 277). At some moments in time and in some places, we might encounter those residuals and move through pasts to possible futures and return differently to presents. Places are thus both personal and social, made of human and non-human lives. Through making and maintaining places, individuals sustain the mazeways and enacted assemblages created through personal, bodily, social, and material worlds.

Karen Till

So what do we do about it?

‘Trauma does not occur from an event or occurrence that caused pain or suffering per se, but from an individual’s inability to give the past some sort of story. ‘ Karen Till, ‘Reply: Trauma, citizenship and ethnographic responsibility’,

I’ve written enough in this blog post already but the work of this time in Bucharest is oriented in relation to that question of what do we do? (Who are we?, Should we do anything? To whom is our responsibility?). What is most striking about Karen’s work on Wounded Cities is her sensitive reading of various artistic interventions, particularly in relation to place memory and to the development of what she calls an place-based ethics of care. (Karen is not alone but is still unusual among academics in that she has developed her theoretical work in response to practice rather than looking for examples of practice that can be made to bolster an existing hypothesis.) Care has been a strong theme in our research from the outset, a care that we test, evolve and model within our group (a collaboration of strangers who have become colleagues and now a small and temporary community of friends) and that we share in the places we work. It is a concept that has emerged in my work on Cure too.

What care can we exercise in Bucharest?

March 31, 2013

Cure/E-motional Bodies and Cities – Resurrection in Limassol

‘The capitalist narrative is a growth narrative – more money, more GDP, more cars, a bigger pension fund but human existence is equally about loss: we loose our health, we loose our loved ones, we loose our lives. The market doesn’t really have a narrative for loss’

Mohsin Hamid on Start the Week, BBC4 Mon 25th March

Resurrection –

It’s Easter Sunday as I leave Cyprus (at least Easter for Roman Catholics since the Orthodox Church here will celebrate Easter in a month’s time – but our hotel is next to the Catholic Church where the city’s Filipina maids and carers congregate after Mass for socialising, shopping and beauty treatments on their day off in a way that reminds me of Hong Kong) and of course the narrative of suffering, sacrifice, death, mourning and resurrection has been on my mind this past week in Cyprus.

I arrived here last Sunday (24th) while Cyprus was negotiating the terms of a bailout with the Troika (EU, EMF, IMF). Monday was a scheduled bank holiday (actually Greek Independence Day celebrated by the Greek Cypriots) but the banks didn’t open again until Thursday after an unprecedented 10 days of closure. I was back in Limassol at the invitation of Dance House Lemesos. I had been here as part of the E-motional Bodies and Cities research project in November and was given the opportunity for some additional research time by the Dance House director Natasa Georgiu with a view to presenting a work in progress as part of their events concluding the E-motional Bodies and Cities project in Cyprus. Having had a creative and energising experience in Limassol last November I was keen to come back, even though my schedule meant I could spend no more than a week. I wanted to use the opportunity to work again with fellow E-motional Bodies and Cities artist, Olga Zitluhina, from Latvia since we’d often discussed my making a solo for her.

But things aren’t now as they were before. Unlike the relaxed and open Cyprus we encountered in November, we found a a country and people in a state of shock and anxiety. The bailout negotiations and the appalling terms proposed for it created a heightened concern but the economic decline has been steady since our last visit and many shops even in the centre of the city lie empty.

One abandoned house which became part of our E-motional map of Limassol last November represented the change to me clearly.

Last November it was derelict and at night-time a little forbidding but we could enter it and find something to inspire creativity. Now we found it boarded up with the graffiti Fuck Life on it.

And our experience of many of the people we met is that they were a bit ‘boarded-up’ too – not unfriendly but closed, without the energy for friendliness as they retreated behind their boards to absorb what was happening in the country. This process of retreat and closing down made me think about Cure, which is not surprising since my body is full of that material now. This is also a change since November and before I came I realised that thinking of collapse and recovery made sense at this time in Cyprus. I decided that I would use the research time here to interrogate the material I’ve been given for Cure, to stay connected to it but also to test it, or elements of it, in this charged environment. I also wanted to use the opportunity to show it to Olga without explaining too much its genesis, asking her to be an audience for it, but also to translate what she was seeing into her own movement. I didn’t have the appetite to design movement for her and besides she is a wonderful improviser. Instead, I wanted to provoke or inspire movement in her – a choreography by influence rather than by edict.

Olga noticed in my performance of the Cure material a seriousness whose necessity she gently queried. She has the skill to bring lightness and unpredictability to her performances and I asked myself if I could do the same. I know I’ve often said, to the dancers in Tabernacle for example, not to let material get stuck in a predetermined emotional state. Can I do the same for Cure? Can I be playful with collapse and recovery? I am serious, of course, and there are legitimate reasons for being so. But when I am with people who understand the need to be serious, then I am relieved of the responsibility to be so and can become lighter. Olga gave me this gift during our time together, since her playfulness is born of serious understanding. By the time we presented our work-in-progress on Friday, I could find a lightness in the material we presented.

While working on testing Cure and absorbing Cyprus with Olga, I also had the opportunity to revisit Match for a performance in the local soccer pitch on Saturday. It was a kind of pleasure to discover that Matthew and I could still physically fulfil the movement and that the choreography had an integrity and coherence that still survived. The last time we performed Match was at the Expo in Shanghai in 2010 where I finally injured my knee. I was reminded of that experience not only because of Match but because the work with Olga, wise and playful improviser, reminded me of conversations with Xiao Ke and her questions about the structured discipline of how I approach my work (warming up, sweating, scheduling, planning). As I celebrated being able to dance again, I wondered what I’d learned since that stressful, emotionally-freighted experience at the Expo. Am I cured?

I was a little under the weather this week, suffering from a cold, probably brought on by a 6:30am flight from Cork last Saturday, by the shock of being attacked on the street in Cork the previous night and by another early flight from London to Larnaca. I am busy at the moment and when I realise how much I am responsible for, it does make me wonder if I’ve learned.

Nonetheless, there was great pleasure for me in performing with Olga in the Dance House and again with Matthew in the Fitidio pitch. I was particularly pleased because the piece looked vivid under the stark halogen lighting on the luminous green astroturf and also because immigrant workers who were playing soccer on the adjoining pitch and young children who had been playing nearby joined the regular dance audience to watch us perform. It is important for me that people who might never come to a theatre to see dance should get to encounter it in a way that they might connect with. Matthew noticed after we had rehearsed on the pitch earlier that two guys on the pitch next to us were trying out one of our lifts and a couple of children joined us in our pitch throwing themselves on the very comfortable astroturf in their own version of our movement.

Children have no difficulty falling and getting up again. I’ve noticed when I’ve presented work to audiences that aren’t familiar with contemporary dance that they remark on the fact that I am like a child in that I am comfortable moving around on the ground. I guess it’s not a thing that adults do so much or give themselves much permission to do. And it’s a skill we lose if we don’t practise it. Dancers practise falling and recovering quickly and I’ve noticed in Cyprus that it is the dancers who are already thinking of what next while I sense others are still in the stasis of shock. In this case, the dancers will test the way ahead, getting things moving when crisis has caused things to stop.

Already the movement is evident in our boarded up house. When I went back to it again this week, I found that the Fuck Life graffiti had been transformed to Fuck U Troika and next door in another derelict house, someone has made a small pyramid sculpture of plastic cups.

“But what in God’s name do you imagine? That the earth will awake in the spring?”
– Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame

March 18, 2013

Cure: Formation – work with Elena Giannotti

Photographer Dorota Konczewska

Tabernacle was the first time I worked with Elena but our paths has crossed before: we both performed in the 2007 Dadao Live Arts Festival in China and had an opportunity to visit temples together in Hangzhou and Xiamen. I remember sharing a welcome western-style breakfast with her in the upmarket hotel in which she was staying when, at the end of the long tour, my reserves of openness to new experience had run too low to face Chinese breakfast in my hotel. Elena performed a solo for Michael Klein in that festival and I found it entrancing to watch her bring that dance to being each time I saw it on the tour. It was a mystery then how she made it happen: I could intuit that it was a rigorous combination of concentration, memory, association, presence, sensitivity and articulate physicality that made it so; but knowing the ingredients is not the same as knowing how to make a nourishing meal.

By the time I worked with Elena as a performer in Tabernacle, I knew that though we had different ways of making work, that the kind of investigation her work undertakes brought audiences and performers to the kind of place I wanted them to reach, albeit by different means. Rehearsing with her as a choreographer in Cure has confirmed that realisation.

Dorota Konczewska'

Elena was the last of the choreographers for me to start work on for Cure (I am almost finished creation processes with Matthew and with Bernadette). One of the first things she asked me to do was to learn to make an origami crane. (You can follow the tutorial here if you want to have a go). The process requires care and concentration and we discussed the relevance of care in the work of recovery. As a doctor of Chinese medicine, she has a deep understanding of the careful, caring commitment to a process of recovery that is required by both patient and doctor. She told me the story of Sadako Sasaki who developed leukemia after the atomic bombing at Hiroshima. A friend told her of the 千羽鶴 Senbazuru legend and that if she made a thousand paper cranes that she would be granted a wish. The crane is a creature of good luck, good health and long life in Japan. However Sadako didn’t complete all the cranes before she died and her friends completed them for her instead. There is a statue to her now at Hiroshima and children come to make cranes there each year in commemoration. As part of the choreography, Elena has asked me to make a thousand cranes before the premiere. I’ve worked out that I have to make 14 cranes each day to meet my quota.

Dorota Konczewska

Of course the task is not just about superstition. The process of careful folding is a choreography of my body and a daily training that shapes my body-brain architecture. For that reason the pedagogue Froebel encouraged the teaching of origami to children. There were three kinds of folds in his method: folds of beauty, folds of knowledge and folds of life. These categories have helped inform the movement material I’ve generated in Elena’s work. Her choreography has also been informed by the use of folding as a design process in architecture, as described in the book Folding Architecture by Sophia Vyzoviti.
The book’s prologue (below) describes the process in a way that I think could apply equally accurately to the strengths of Elena’s work for me and of the way of performing she asks of me:
‘Each step is laden with potential’. ‘The limitation that the technique of folding brings with it sharpens the mind and stimulates creativity.’ ‘These different possibilities can be differently interpreted, accentuated and combined by each individual; that is to say a great difference between equally valid designs is noticeable, because everyone is different.’

The first week of rehearsals I was also teaching morning professional class at Dancehouse. I teach Cunningham technique in those situations and though the energy of that kind of work was not the same as what Elena needed from me, still something of the folding architecture of Cunningham’s work felt relevant.

It was interesting then at the end of the two weeks to have Cheryl Thierren and Ashley Chen (two gifted ex-Cunningham dancers) in the studio among others from John’s Scott’s cast for the White Room who came to see a run-through of Elena’s piece. We had earlier in the day showed it to friends from the Macushla Dance Club and that process of sharing the work in its early stages is very valuable to me as a performer but also as a way of really learning how the work is communicating. I was pleased that people who know me could see how I moved differently thanks to Elena’s work and especially pleased that some could see her in how I moved. Working on E-motional Bodies and Cities, I’ve been aware of carrying the movement imprint of Matthew, Bernadette, Elena, Stéphane and Mikel in my body already and it is refreshing to have the opportunity to give expression and form to the influence I carry.

John Scott, with his inimitable erudition, told us that Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps has a crane-inspired dance in it. In this much-celebrated centenary year of the ballet’s making, it is good to know that in this work we have a quiet homage to our choreographic heritage.

March 18, 2013

Cure: Davin O’Dwyer on Austerity, Homeopathy and Bad Medicine

Davin O’Dwyer

Let’s be honest. Who among us didn’t take a moment at some point during the week to marvel smugly at the predicament the Italians have got themselves into, voting in their droves for a clown and a comedian, Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo.

Don’t the Italians realise that they must vote for serious parties and politicians who will impose the reforms required to get their basket case of an economy back on track? The guy who introduced the phrase bunga-bunga to the lexicon doesn’t fit the bill.

If we’ve learned anything from our own situation, it’s that these elections are supposed to be an act of national self-flagellation – and look how well we’re doing now, right?

The reaction from serious commentators across Europe has been scathing, with Die Welt in Germany summarising the mood: “More than half of Italians voted for some form of populist. This amounts to an almost childlike refusal to acknowledge reality.”

The reality they’re rejecting, of course, is austerity: everyone expected the Italians to continue imbibing the harsh medicine, just like us.

The phrase “harsh medicine” is telling. In this paper last weekend Donald Clarke dismissed another sort of medicine: homeopathy. Predictably enough, it prompted a heated response from believers in alternative medicine, for whom the scientific process is unpersuasive.

That particular controversy confirmed a truth that many of us prefer to ignore a lot of the time: lots of people don’t have or even value evidence-based world views.

On an individual basis it could be argued that not having an evidence-based view of the world causes little harm, but on a collective basis it is hugely corrosive – most obviously, witness the way the baseless scepticism about climate change is retarding efforts to combat the problem.

That realisation is discomfiting, but I’d suggest an understanding of many people’s factproof tendencies makes the Italian debacle a bit easier to comprehend. In this case, I’m not sure it’s the electorate who are behaving entirely irrationally.

Supposed cure-all

When seen as a rejection of austerity, the Italian vote actually makes some sense. As a supposed cure-all for everything that ails us, austerity is sorely lacking in evidence to support its efficacy. Notwithstanding the promising indicators we’ve seen here in the past week, there isn’t much sign the patient is improving.

In fact, even if you ignore the neer-do-wells at the periphery, the patient isn’t doing well at all, what with the UK being downgraded and Germany’s economy stuttering.

While it’s a stretch to say that austerity is the economic equivalent of homeopathy, it certainly isn’t doing the job it was supposed to.

None of this is to suggest that there isn’t widespread need for reform and fiscal balance, of course, but as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times put it during the week: “I wonder whether the euro zone will survive its cure”, suggesting it is not so much sham medicine as the wrong medicine.

Increasingly, the evidence is clear that austerity has been counterproductive, but instead of being dismissed by policy-makers, it is still being stubbornly prescribed by them. In this case, the corrosive effects of evidence-proof thinking is coming from the top down.

No shortage of experts are willing to testify to the harmful effects of austerity, from the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz to, awkwardly enough, IMF’s chief economist, Olivier Blanchard. Most prominent of all is Paul Krugman, who regularly compares austerity policies with another debunked treatment: bleeding the patient with leeches, more punishment than cure.

And just like homeopathy, austerity even has its own sort of placebo effect: the mythical “confidence fairy”, the chimerical wisdom of the market that must be placated at all costs.

Faced with research from Blanchard critical of austerity’s impact on Europe, Krugman reports that Olli Rehn, European Commission’s vice-president, wrote “a letter to finance ministers and the IMF declaring that such studies were threatening to erode confidence”. The placebo effect wears off if you discover it’s just a sugar pill, you see.

Our doctors don’t prescribe homeopathy or placebos, and our departments of health tend not to rely on complementary medicine as a cornerstone of public-health policy. Unfortunately, in capitals and central banks all over Europe and North America, the promotion of fiscal policies that run contrary to the evidence are the only policies that are being entertained right now.

So perhaps we should consider Italy’s choice: what sort of quacks and chancers might we be compelled to turn to if our doctors and hospitals insisted on prescribing unproven remedies that only exacerbated our worst ailments?

It’s a question that is going to be asked again and again in the near future, and we might not like some of the answers.

Irish Times
Monday, March 4, 2013

March 11, 2013

Cure: Illness, individuality and the group

‘The Human Genome Project is rapidly proving that genes play little part in causing mental illness: the huge differences in prevalence between different countries strongly suggests politico-economic and cultural factors are vital.

There is now also overwhelming evidence that our electro-chemical thermostatic settings result from care during the first six years of our lives and from prenatal factors, putting us at more or less risk. This vulnerability is exacerbated in later life by high economic inequality, excessive materialism and excessive stress on individuality at the expense of collectivism. We need a total rethink of what our society is for – is it the profits of a tiny few or the wellbeing of the majority? The status quo is not only ecologically unsustainable, but emotionally too’ Oliver James

In a discussion in the Guardian, prompted by news that the Houses of Parliament are to have an in-house psychiatrist, psychologist Oliver James points out that mental health is not just an individual problem nor can it be addressed by individuals alone. Through the Cure creation process I have been confronting some of my own attachment to individuality and to my self-conceptualisation as an individual that has needed protecting from collectivism. Collectives haven’t felt particularly welcoming of the difference I represented and so I am wary of any appeals to the needs of the group over the individual.

However, when groups are capable of integrating and benefiting from difference and diversity then I am very happy to integrate myself in them. Through Cure, I have been able to experience and build on the support of a particular network that has sustained me (artistically at the very least) in the past and continues to do so in this work. However, in accepting that good mental health depends on a sense of belonging, I don’t accept that groups are sui generis beneficent since it is precisely the intolerance of some collectives that excludes individuals and puts them in psychologically, emotionally and socially vulnerable situations.

It was precisely this kind of exclusion that came to light in the MacAleese report on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. As Taoiseach Enda Kenny admitted in his apology to the Magdalene women:

‘We lived with the damaging idea that what was desirable and acceptable in the eyes of the Church and the State was the same and interchangeable.

Is it this mindset then, this moral subservience that gave us the social mores the required and exclusive ‘values’ of the time that welcomed the compliant, obedient and lucky ‘US’ and banished the more problematic, spirited or unlucky ‘THEM’?

And to our nation’s shame it must be said that if these women had managed to scale the high walls of the laundries they’d have had their work cut out for them to negotiate the height and the depth of the barricades around society’s ‘proper’ heart. For we saw difference as something to be feared and hidden rather than embraced and celebrated.’

Fintan O’Toole’s article on Kenny’s apology questions if those values have so readily been left behind. The full text of the article is below as the Irish Times ultimately puts its archive behind a paywall:

Repression shaped our passive society


A temptation newspaper columnists should avoid is the urge to make links between different stories simply because they happen to be in the air at the same time. But here goes anyway.

Is there not some kind of connection between two big aspects of contemporary Ireland: the extraordinary apparatus of repression whose existence we are finally acknowledging; and the sense of powerlessness with which most Irish people have faced the current crisis?

Listening last week to Enda Kenny’s courageous and superbly crafted speech of apology to the Magdalene women, one phrase struck me especially hard. The Taoiseach spoke of the “‘values’ of the time that welcomed the compliant, obedient and lucky ‘us’ and banished the more problematic, spirited or unlucky ‘them’.” It raised an obvious question: when, if ever, did those values change?

Habit of mind

Are these just values “of the time” or do they form a habit of mind that is still hard to shake off? At what point did Irish society lose its tendency to value compliance and obedience over awkwardness and difference? The obvious answer is surely “never”.

If there is more continuity than we like to admit between the culture of compliance in a “cruel, pitiless” Ireland of the past and the strange passivity of the present day, this would not be all that surprising.

The sheer scale of the Irish system of institutional incarceration is breathtaking. Eoin O’Sullivan and Ian O’Donnell, in their recent book, Coercive Confinement in Ireland, show that the State locked up one in every 100 of its citizens in Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, mental hospitals or “mother and baby” homes.

At any given time between 1926 and 1951, there were about 31,000 people in these institutions – only a small fraction of whom had committed any crime. The 1 per cent figure also applied to children – one child in every hundred was enslaved in an industrial school.

This was our Great Purge, our way of establishing religious, social and moral “purity” by locking up and “correcting” potential deviants. This level of “coercive confinement” is extreme for any democratic society. In 1931, the Soviet gulag held about 200,000 prisoners – from a population of 165 million.

The Irish system held 31,000 people – from a population of three million.

I am not, I should stress, comparing the two systems directly or suggesting that Ireland was a totalitarian dictatorship – merely trying to give some sense of the relative scale of the operation.

Mass emigration

Mass emigration “banished” most of the “misfits” who would otherwise have been locked up. And many priests, nuns and brothers were themselves institutionalised in a way that was at best semi-voluntary. (Teaching orders, for example, used their own schools to recruit impressionable children.)

The effects of something as large as this don’t just disappear in a generation or two.

This is especially so because the reach of the system went far beyond those who were actually locked up.

It was less violent than its equivalents in totalitarian states, but it had two exquisitely insidious refinements. One is that it was entirely obvious – there was no distant Siberia.

The institutions of confinement were not only not hidden, they were the most prominent buildings in many Irish towns.

This meant both that they served as a general warning to the entire population but also that they invited collusion – Irish people came to accept this brutal system, not as the hated imposition of a tyrant or invader, but as our Irish “normality”.

The other refinement was even more psychically destructive. The system managed to make families in many cases the agents of harm to their own members. It is truly terrible when the secret police come and take you away to lock you up for some unknown crime. It is far, far worse, when your own mother and father play the role of the secret police.

Many parents and siblings struggled heroically to protect their loved ones. But too many fathers left daughters at the doors of institutions and told them never again to darken the doors of home; too many mothers got rid of their “flighty” daughters for fear they might bring shame on the family; too many siblings were happy to see an awkward brother or sister locked away in a mental hospital.

This surely is where the worst damage was done to the culture as a whole.

The system taught a whole society very deep habits of collusion, of evasion and, perhaps most insidiously of all, of adaptation.

Have we really unlearned those terrible lessons so thoroughly that we can say with confidence that we no longer adapt ourselves to grotesque realities?

Irish Times
First published:
Tue, Feb 26, 2013, 00:00


February 24, 2013

Employment-based Postgraduate Programme: I’m doing a PhD

Minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, announced the recipients of a new Employment-based Postgraduate Fellowship that supports MA and PhD researchers to work with Irish businesses and organisations. I applied to the programme before Christmas but couldn’t announce the result until now.

I had been looking for an opportunity to learn, to be challenged, to be supported and while making Cure addresses that quest in an artistic process, returning to academia feels like another structure that could support the enquiry. I wasn’t sure that the programme, which appeared to be aimed at researchers who wanted to work with bio-tech companies, would extend to research based in the arts; but a strong partnership between Project Arts Centre, with whom I will be working in this research, and NUI Maynooth where my supervisor Prof. Gerry Kearns is based, proved successful. So I’m doing a PhD for the next four years. Watch this space.

February 20, 2013

E-motional Bodies and Cities: Art and Geography Conference in Lyon

Irish artists had a strong presence at the Art and Geography Conference I attended last week in Lyon. Ríonach Ní Néill and Joe Lee, Christine Mackey, Michelle Browne, Olwen Fouéré and Andrew Duggan all made strong presentations of work and reflections on practice in a way that has encouraged me as I embark on bringing my own work into this academic arena. The conference was an opportunity for me to recognise connections between many strands of my own practice and that of my peers in artistic and academic disciplines. Ríonach presented a new film, Area, that she’s made with Joe Lee. It’s a beautiful film filled with stories, arresting images, eloquent dancing from many different kinds of bodies and no small amount of love. I recognised in it many of the Macushla dancers with whom, through Ríonach, I have had an opportunity of working but I also recognised the Docklands’ streets where much of the film is set and where my own bodies and buildings research started when I was Artist in Residence for Dublin City Council. I saw kinship between Robert Jackson’s clambering across the top of a wall and Matthew’s delicate burbling dance on the top of a wall in Three+1 for now. In Ríonach’s work, however, there is an extended history in her engagement with the city and with the dancers in her film whose ages range from under 10 to over 60. Nonetheless I was particularly struck by the moments of solo poetry that punctuate the social group scenes: a simple shot of Ríonach balancing on some chairs or Robert Jackson performing a dynamic unfolding solo that travels through the city. These moments are particularly effective because of the context of unlikely celebratory community in which they are places.

Ríonach and Joe’s film resonated with me as I was presenting for the conference the Bodies and Buildings films I’ve assembled from the research since 2007. I offered the loop of films to the conference and also agreed to speak about them among the other artistic and academic presentations in the programme. The films were supposed to be played between sessions, inserted appropriately in the niches of the schedule but technical challenges prevented that happening, which reminds me that existing in the niche is a precarious position from which it is easy to be displaced. The films did have a home in the Musée des Moulages where I found myself dancing on the Bird’s Nest building site in Beijing on a tv screen surrounded by plaster models of classical statues.
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The odd backdrop reminded me that the material I was dancing in the film had come from the Cosán Dearg solo and that I had noted the classical sculptures in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum when I was making the piece. The connection with outmoded warriors relates also to the inspiration of Iarla’s music for version of the material I did in Idir: “Oisín! Is fada do shuan” “Oisín, you’ve slept a long time”. Iarla was inspired by the notion of the Celtic hero Oisín waking from his long slumber to find the era of heroes had passed. He woke to loss. He had survived but belonged to another age. It was curious to be reminded of all these resonances in the work, as I watched it in this new setting in Lyon.

The experience of the conference wasn’t just about memories of old work. It also helped me engage with current projects, in particular the E-motional Bodies and Cities experience. The cartographic concerns of geographers and artists connected strongly with the e-motional mapping of space, place and relationships. A Swedish academic and landscape architect, Carola Wingren, made a presentation about how she was trying to communicate the threat of rising sea levels in Sweden in a way that would be easier for people to engage with. She spoke of the shortcoming of maps that suggested the line between land and sea was fixed and had experimented with different kinds of map-making that would better represent the dynamic nature of the shifting shoreline. Her drawings recalled Nicolas Santos’ drawings of our E-motional mapping in Limassol.

I was frustrated at one presentation where a geographer suggested that artists had not contributed anything new to cartography. Of course if one already defines what map-making looks like (pictorial representation often linear on paper/screen, terrain viewed from above) and only recognises artistic engagements that follow that mode then one sees nothing new. But if one were prepared to recognise that maps are affective and not just technical, that (as Karen Till pointed out in her presentation) spaces are filled with memory, actuality and fantasised futures (and multiple versions within each of those categories), then it becomes necessary to recognise that maps might exist in and between bodies in the way that we have begun to articulate in the E-motional Bodies and Cities work. Of course this kind of multivalent map is not neat. It is exists synchronically and diachronically. It is contested. But that is why the mobile response of e-motional mapping is makes sense. Such mapping also acknowledges the impact of the mapper on the mapping, since our E-motional journeys not only record the environment but intervene in it.

In contrast to this academically limited view of artists, Karen Till’s presentation of her engagement with the work of Colombian theatre group Mapa Teatro was inspiring and reassuring to me as an artist who is going to be entering this academic terrain. It’s largely thanks to Karen and the Mapping Spectral Traces research group she co-convenes that Ireland has such a strong artistic presence at the conference. She spoke of the benefit for academics in paying sensitive attention to the work of artists in the field, not looking for examples to prove pre-existing theory but allowing theory to grow out of that sensitive attention. For Karen, the academic becomes an important conduit for knowledge developed from experience and embodiment to influence the policy makers who pay attention to the academic’s insights.

From my point of view, it is precisely this potential to influence that makes it attractive for me as an artist to engage with academia. I am soon to start a PhD and have been anxious about what impact that would have on my work as a choreographer. However the conference has also provided me with opportunities to talk about trusting my practice as a research method and so I can look forward to the academic adventure ahead as a way of deepening the practice and communicating its value.

“After all one’s art is not the chief end of life but an accident in one’s search for reality or rather perhaps one’s method of search” W.B. Yeats

February 09, 2013

Cure: Rehearsals with Sarah in Limerick

I’ve just finished the two-week process of working with Sarah Browne on her contribution to Cure. Neither of us were sure how she as a visual artist, without a particular focus on performance or image in her practice, would ‘choreograph’. I wasn’t worried as I know from experience the value of her quiet rigour and trusted that Cure would benefit from that. Choreography can take many forms.

We rehearsed and stayed in the Daghdha space in Limerick, a space that has been largely fallow since Daghdha Dance Company ceased its operation in 2011 following a loss of public funding. A new manager is soon to be appointed to run the space but in the meantime the caretakers are taking care not just of the security but of the legacy of dance in those buildings. In fact, they are a kind of legacy themselves with their attentiveness to the integrity of the polished dance floor, the heat of the studios and the right atmosphere for artists to work in. It is a testimony to Daghdha’s history that it has left these caretakers in Limerick. Hopefully others will build on that legacy.

In addition to rehearsing with Sarah, I taught a workshop to the students on the MA in Dance Performance Programme at UL. I decided that I wanted them to think about making solos for themselves through and with others, a process that I felt related to how and why Cure has emerged as the next step in my work. I know that already I am shifting my self-perception as an independent choreographer (with the attendant solitariness and potential loneliness that implies) and recognising that even as an individual I already exist in a network of professional and personal support. The creative process in Cure recognises and builds on those networks that have already sustained my choreographic practice for many years.

In addition to leading the workshop, I taught Cunningham class, something I’ve been reluctant to do in recent years, particularly since Merce Cunningham died and I felt the technique has become historical as a result. I’ve continued to use the technique as a way of preparing myself for rehearsals but wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to share with others. However, the particular strength that comes from regular dancing is gradually returning to my body and so sharing the technique through my own body has become more possible and actually more enjoyable again. Of course, I continue to practice Tai Chi and Qi Gong as a counterbalance to the muscularity of Cunningham but for the moment there is a pleasure in reconnecting to a physical power I’d thought I could no longer access.

Like most of the Cure choreographers, Sarah spoke of being provoked by cure as a theme. She sent me as background reading Susan Sontag’s seminal essay Illness as Metaphor and her later work, Aids and its Metaphors. The former essay was written after Sontag’s own experience of breast cancer and details the many metaphors by which we understand illness (for example, thinking of cancer as a war, an invasion of the body’s defences that has to be combatted by aggressive medical intervention). Sontag writes:
“Of course, one cannot think without metaphors. But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.” “We are not being invaded. The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy.”

And again:”The purpose of my book was to calm the imagination, not to incite it. Not to confer meaning… but to deprive something of meaning. My purpose was above all, practical.” For Sontag, this scrutiny and unravelling of the metaphors by which illness is understood is practical because the stigma created by these metaphors prevent people from seeking or receiving medical help: “The metaphors and myths, I was convinced, kill.”
“AIDS, in which people are understood as ill before they are ill…brings to many a social death that precedes the physical one.”

One of Sarah’s skills that I’ve found most valuable is her ability to distill into objects a set of challenging questions derived from the object’s material qualities and context. For Cure, Sarah proposed latex as a resonant material and created a latex fabric for me to work with. The material carries its prophylactic associations (I’ve never had sex with a man without a condom) but I was surprised by its sensuousness. It was intriguing to consider the latex fabric as a kind of skin that invited intimacy as well as a barrier that prevented intimacy. What was most exciting for me was to realise that in finding the right material, that Sarah had found how to choreograph for me. The material released in me associations from which we could build images as well as providing information (touch, stretch, resistance) that informed the movement material I generated. We talked a great deal but once the material arrived in the studio, the choreography seemed to arrive with it with relative ease.

It’s no accident that Sarah has encouraged me to think about metaphor. Cure is itself a powerful metaphor that I’ve deliberately allowed to hold in close proximity to one another questions ranging from individual physical recovery to social and economic recovery on a national scale (All hail the dissolution of Anglo Irish!) but I think I’ll need more time to articulate the concern that draws me to do so.

In the meantime and in conclusion, I thought I’d share Prof Gerry Kearns’ Ignite video, Public Geographies: Spatial Metaphor as Epidemiological Strategy” on the power of spatial metaphors in relation to AIDS and on how artists and activists have helped to conceive alternative, less punitive and less divisive metaphors:
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January 25, 2013

Cure: Rehearsals with Stéphane in Melbourne

Rehearsals with Stéphane in Melbourne started the day after Pete left for London. I mention this because it’s unusual in our relationship that I am the one who stays behind. I’m usually the one who heads off to the airport, leaving him at home and that means I’m protected from feeling his absence, as I go to places which don’t have his imprint. But we came to Melbourne together, for Christmas and New Year and so I felt Pete’s absence as I started work. I knew that feeling as I said good-bye to Pete at the airport and I recognised its impact when the opportunity emerged for me to stay at the Drill Hall, the Snuffpuppets’ space where I am rehearsing with Stéphane. I am used to being on my own in these kind of work/live residency spaces but this time, I was reluctant to be lonely. I knew I was perfectly capable of managing on my own (practically but also emotionally) but I wondered did I need to be on my own? Might I prefer to not be alone? The only doubt about forgoing solitude was in the recognition that much of my creativity, or at least the spark of my own particular creation, comes from the time I spend alone (the time I spent alone in the fields and woods and streams around our childhood home in Ring, the time I’ve spent in studios, abandoned warehouses, empty wasteground, alone). But with Cure, I’ve set in motion a process that ensures that I am not on my own and opened the possibility of a creative source that isn’t fueled by solitariness.

Being in the Snuffpuppets space in Melbourne is an antidote to loneliness, not only because I am accompanied by Stéphane there but because the Drill Hall which is Snuffpuppets’ home is a space full of an energy that comes from people working together. Andy Freer, Snuffpuppets’ Artistic Director, is clearly the guiding spirit but the company grows out of a collective and involves teams of people working together to imagine, build and animate the anarchic giant puppets that also place themselves in performance in the middle of large crowds of people. Stéphane and Andy just returned from a community project in the slums of India and brought with them more of that energy of crowds and chaos. It’s not my native energy but it does me good to be warmed by its frictive heat.

So I work with Stéphane in the Drill Hall that is filled with ideas, industry, imagination and our labour is literally watched by a single giant eye from the company’s last show Everybody. The Dionysian energy of fun and transgression that is a hallmark of Snuffpuppets is an energy that Stéphane has often brought to my work. His ‘fox’ material for Niche came from his connecting with the feral energy of those wild animals in urban spaces. This time he has drawn some of that energy out of me. And though I practice the calmness of Tai Chi, I know that the wildness of effort energises me too. In my middle age, I am not ready to yield entirely to withdrawn contemplation.

When I think about Cure, it’s important to recognise the place of strong energy, of roughness, of effort in a process of recovery. It’s not all about breathing deeply and fading away into meditation. Something about that turbulent Dionysian energy makes me feel alive even if I am not one to live too long in chaos. Perhaps what I enjoy is surviving the chaos, making it through to calmness and for that reason I need the disturbance so that I can experience the pleasure of rediscovering equilibrium. If I were always in equilibrium, I’d get bored – and worse: I’d wonder if I were alive. So recovery for me is about recognising my appetite for and investment in the challenge. Without challenge, I don’t know that I’ve survived.