Guest of Honour Friction International Performance Art Festival 2012
Interview by Rebecka Wigh Abrahamsson, Project Manager, Friction

You were born in Belfast in Northern Ireland in 1958 and started your artistic practise as a painter in the 1970s, to what extent did the political climate affect you in the decision to engage in performance art? Can you describe the performance scene in Belfast at that time?

I was working on the canvas with industrial paint, burning plastic, burning wood.  These materials had a relationship with what was going on in my community.  Public buildings, shops and houses were being bombed out, there were fires everywhere, and people were being shot. It was the height of civil unrest in Northern Ireland and growing up at that point, especially as a teenager, you were traumatised by it. I was physically trying to get these emotions out and also trying to find a way to get it out even further than merely the art context.

I had gone through both figuration and abstraction and ended up there in Belfast Art College with this raw emotional abstraction as a process of negation – ‘I started using my body in a kind of transformative gestural ‘akshun’ industrial paint was mixed with body fluids, blood, piss, shit etc., and worked upon huge stretchers made of industrial black plastic that would end up extruded, burnt, corrupted, slashed, and stuttered with my body indentations and flailing’s.

Several street performances throughout 1977-78 culminated in burning my paintings outside the art school in Belfast City centre. For me the burning of my work marked the departure from painting towards creating socially or politically engaged performance art.

There wasn’t any recognisable performance scene at that time. I felt very much out on my own and just reacting to my life situation in the brutal and traumatic conflict that was unfolding.

Throughout your artistic career you have embraced an interdisciplinary artistic expression as being Professor of Performance and Interdisciplinary Art at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff and also as the founder of TRACE Installaction Artspace. Why is it so important for you to have this multi faced expression as an artist?

Life=Art. Art=Life. Life cannot be fixed. Therefore Art cannot be fixed. It is always about transition. Interdisciplinary art and life (no separation). This for me means freedom and transition. Mind contains all possibilities. It is important to keep ‘mind’ open. The work of art is the work of attention. You use whatever means are appropriate to present issues and concerns.

All my practice is viewed as a continuous evaluation of intervention in the present moment. This moment has a context – that context derives as much from a sense of a collective history, place, and memory as from a personal subjective reality. As such there is a direct correlation between the private and public. This is clarified by the means of production/process – the identification of all art [and life] being focused on process.  This process is based on the experience of a means of articulation through performance [all art making as a form of performance] every action is a performance of consciousness.  The exploration of social space [an example being TRACE] is integral to this practice. The artistic means of production/intervention are explored and utilised as appropriate to the issues and concerns embodied in the social context.

When it comes to TRACE gallery the exploration between the performative action and the frozen installation or exhibition seems to be the objective. How has the project evolved since the start in 2000? Have you come to any conclusions? 

No, the ‘frozen installation’ or ‘exhibition’ was not the objective. These were intersections of a certain physical reality, bringing together of circumstance, and part of an on-going process. The traces are everywhere. They continue. No conclusions.  It’s a kind of constant chaos that I find comforting on a cosmological level.

Born in Belfast and situated in Cardiff after a period in London and exhibited internationally, what does the dialects of the local and global mean to you? I am thinking of your love for creating own expressions like Akshun and “Installaction”?

Well, the personal is the political, and the local is the global. My formative life experience based as it was, on growing up in Belfast during civil conflict, sharpened my observation as to what was happening in other territories. What I had learned through making experimental art in Belfast had introduced me to a discipline of observation and interrogation that was applied to other environments. Such as living and working in other cities, countries etc. This discipline then became a layer, or imprint, on the environment through making performance art. I began to use performance art as a device for drawing attention to issues of repression, marginalisation and dispossession.

This has been achieved on a daily basis by collapsing the separation between art and life. These things became whole through consciously choosing to make art life and life art. The initial change through the nineteen-eighties was progressive and became more tactical. Interesting for me that methods employed in a warzone like Northern Ireland became a tactical expression of art making.

Wherever I go those issues are transposed, they are dominate issues, not just specific to Belfast, and that is the important point, they are concerns regarding general human conditions. As a result of learning constant discipline and vigilance I have defined a practice for myself that enables me to imprint my experience, or bring my experience to most situations and relate it to that.  Whether it be South East Asia, Eastern Europe, North or South America those issues are still pertinent; the abuse of human rights, the human condition, the search for understanding, love and compassion. These are all inherent in who we are and what we do. However, capitalist & acquisitive interests can often subvert these very clear life affirming and responsible human concepts.  As a result of earth wide information networks that have emerged through the new technologies, we are more able to realise these conditions and how they affect us all. The immediate awareness and globalisation of these issues is entirely contemporary. The lessons I learned in Northern Ireland are still relevant, maybe even more so. The primary concern of the west and, indeed any empire, is to prevent independence regardless of ideology. Dominant capitalist empires must seek to maintain a climate that is conducive to investment, and to insure for adequate repatriation of profits. I feel it is the work of artists to be a conscience with regards to these issues. The personal is the political. As artists we can draw attention to conditions such as these – for as I have said; art is the work of attention.  In my own work I try to continually search out those small elusive moments & images that actually represent and implicate us in a larger global narrative.

It is a great honour for Friction International Performance Art Festival to have you as a guest. From your long experience can you see any tendencies in performance art? What are the challenges of today?

Performance art, and in general, all art is in transition, sometimes good, sometimes not so good..right now, perhaps not such a good state. In particular you ask me about ‘tendencies in performance art’; this is a recurring question I think; along with ‘State of ..’, ’future of..’ etc.  Sometimes performance art is popular.. sometimes not.. who knows why…lots of factors; it seems cyclical. It often feels like things being driven by chaotic forces; market forces, fashion, media attention and low common denominator. Artists are also guilty of this. I have come to a point in my life where I seem to have seen it all and seen it repeated endlessly. Only occasionally do I observe, witness, and feel moved by performance art. It’s being active that counts. Paying attention to performance art is one and the same as paying attention to anything/everything. It requires energy and commitment. Thankfully, this I still have, and this also means that when I am participating of those rare times, and moments of slippage in performance art, something wonderful enters my being, quickens the heart. It is here that I feel performance art. Where the only thing for certain is uncertainty. The challenge is to remain alert, true, honest, and to be ever watchful of ego and self-deception.


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