VAN November/December 2012: Subject to Ongoing Change | Fergus Byrne on The Performance Collective Events


Performance by Frances Mezzetti, all images courtesy of Joseph Carr


‘Subject to Ongoing Change’ was an immense project held at Galway Arts Centre by The Performance Collective. Programmed as part of the Galway Arts Festival, Maeve Mulrennan made the bold step of dedicating two weeks of the gallery’s programme to performance art. The group: Dominic Thorpe, Pauline Cummins, Frances Mezzetti, Michelle Brown and Alex Conway, improvised ensembles for four hours without pause every day.(1)

The Collective formed four years ago to give mutual support to each other’s performance art practice. Having performed collectively only three times prior to Galway, a full two weeks was a challenging prospect.

Each time I visited, I wrote with the intention of capturing the live nature of the work. This engagement became very particular, giving me a clear role and way of experiencing the work. Ultimately, helpless, I would lay aside the pen and join in.

Things begin quietly each day and built over time. Through engaging with objects, activity develops in the space. A consistent feature is that of objects held in the mouth. It seems almost a replacement for the act of speech, which is not strictly banned but does not feature as part of these performers’ material. A sign on the door requests silence. Their interest is in the use of objects and the communication that emerges and dissolves over time through the manipulation of these objects. The objects are mundane and vary each day – kitchen ware, shirts, a manual sewing machine, a stepladder, pillows and surgical gloves are only some examples. By not speaking the inquiry intensifies as no activity is ever explained or reduced by words that can nullify surreal qualities.

Dominic sets himself up in sculptural arrangements with objects. A white shirt on a brush handle is wedged between the doorframe and himself, lodged in his mouth. He is a gatekeeper condemned to this position. People can walk beneath the stick but to strike it could endanger his mouth. Later in the week he holds a bamboo stick bent tense against a wall and lodged inside his inner cheek. Its tension releases, springing out of his mouth cutting his lip. While the mouth is often blocked in harsh images there are also some beautiful exchanges of whistling. The space is unusually divided, spread as it is across three rooms on the first floor of the building. Sound is frequently used to communicate those distances that lack sightlines.

Items emerge from the mouths of others, feathers spluffing forth, their dry texture immediately discomfiting, a paper bag chewed and regurgitated, or a tie entirely consumed within the mouth and then let fall out. All such activities challenge the breathing yet they are performed with a quiet purpose. In watching it is easy to forget the implications of the actions as they are made without drama or haste.

Performance by Alex Conway

Action occurs until it finds its meaning in dialectical relation to something else. A shallow tray becomes a water vessel. Michelle walked the length of the gallery dribbling water from a kettle on the floor until she found that tray and now her pouring seems quite appropriate. She carries the tray, slopping the meniscus, then stands below Dominic who dips his many ties in the water. He wrings one out over her head before showering her with the contents of the tray; and then, with fierce sentiment, he walks her paternally through the space to the front gallery. I recall that, previously, they had laughed about how he takes this caring attitude toward her in his practice.

These interrelations, originating in daily life, can strike a peculiar tone. A strong sentiment enters the work at such a point. It can turn things inwards and I wonder if resisting this might conclude a sequence in more ambiguous ways, rather than dissolving the tension.

Pauline observes others. It has become apparent over days. She will allow herself that time to view, however briefly, as activity passes by. The effect this has is to allow the audience to view others through Pauline. One regular visitor found herself projecting her reality onto the actions of the performers, “so that they were all representing me”. When this became emotionally overpowering, she would look at Pauline through whom she could observe things with more distance (2). Such repeated viewing of the work was not unusual. As each day was different and made manifest the patterns within the group, it was rewarding to return.

The performers immerse themselves in the emotion that arises through the action performed. The audience has to adjust to an unusually-charged atmosphere but, once done, the observation of how things evolve is compelling. Little is forced or demanded by one performer of another, so the reasons for everything occurring are of an evolutionary character. At the most intense periods, the audience witness events crafted entirely in real time, from moments that will never be repeated.

There is no spatial separation between performers and audience. Viewers must be creative in changing positions that can, both by design and chance, give great viewpoints on the overlapping actions of performers. The length of the gallery gives a natural upstage and downstage, to use theatre terms. But these co-ordinates are dependent on where the viewer stands. Pauline dances to Alex’s drum in the back room as I see Frances enter upstage left through the gallery door in a fine act of chance. She pulls herself, like a cross country skier, on two brush handles.

Over four hours, the pace is measured. It picks up and peaks only to drop again to something more sustainable. The work has a rhythm. Engagement with the architecture of the space is frequent. There is much taping of the room’s peripheries and lines being inscribed on the wall. It seems like a delimiting of the space yet it reiterates what the walls already do. The group all hail from sculpture origins and marking the wall seems somehow innate. This prompts reflection on how the extremities of the body’s kinesphere precede those of the room. The hands, our most immediate tool, reach the kinesphere’s edge. By making contact with the walls, the sense of space is reduced and the sense of touch emphasised. In contrast, softer materials produce subtle actions like the dance of hands between Michelle and Frances as they carry loose hairs about each other’s wrists. At a distance all I see are moving hands. Their weightlessness seems independent of any material.

The Performance Collective

A more significant architectural engagement is with the window. In contrast to the mouths that never speak, the windows issue onto the street various arrangements of objects. This organ of communication is crucial in facilitating an engagement with the public and extends the collective’s presence.

Alex often uses the window. On the afternoon following the ‘Dusk until Dawn’ event, he begins swishing a bamboo pole in close proximity to Michelle who lies beneath him, cleaning (3).  He is aware of her but each time gambles that she will remain low.

After some time, he joins many bamboos end to end to make a long rod from which he hangs a shoe out the window. It is suspended, as Damocles’ sword, over the road for many minutes. Perhaps people see this public sculpture, perhaps not. He tires and strains to hold that rod so the shoe doesn’t slip off to clatter a head. But he gets it in the window and then goes outside himself. I like this logic: to go to where he has just been focussed. Outside he stands beneath a drain getting very wet. Later inside he stands, soaked, beneath an umbrella.

Michelle’s action of boring with a lump of coal on reams of newsprint evokes the activity of a life drawing class – charcoal marking paper. She wears away pages and so too does a session of drawing. Only here the drawing instantly destroys the page, bypassing the production of endless exercise drawings.

Her progress is slow given the time spent. A ‘Let me help you with that’ might allow a sharing of the load. It would break the resolute singularity of her action: mortar and pestle. I watch her at this task. That Kafka story, Before the Law, comes to mind. It is her task that she has begun and, although I feel inclined to assist, it is her task to finish.

No one else could ever be admitted here since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it (4).

No. Ultimately I’m moved to help. It is largely to do with having attended so often, knowing that Michelle will not stop at this until spent. But still I try to find a way in that is respectful of her commitment. My engagement is through joining my hand with hers.

My interaction was unusual as this was not encouraged or desired of the audience at all. Over time though I feel the work, because it has no boundaries of any kind, invites some form of engagement beyond that of observer. At the point I entered, it seemed the most appropriate thing to do on that final weekend.

Fergus Byrne is an artist working in visual arts and performance. He works at the Visual Arts Centre, Dublin.


1. Additional shorter performances, of a more planned nature, were made by varying pairs from the group in the time surrounding the four hour sessions. Due to the space restrictions I have chosen, with some regret, not to comment on these shorter performances.
2. An observation made by Nicola Williams, who i interviewed after the two weeks.
3. Half way through the two week, on Sunday 22nd july, the group performed from 10pm – 5pm. The gallery remained open throughout.
4. Before the Law, a short story by Franz Kafka that also features as a parable within The Trial (1925).

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