Bodies Politic Symposium, 25 February 2016

The symposium was over-subscribed and about one hundred people attended at Renehan Hall, Maynooth University, for a day of papers, performance and discussion about some of the arts projects addressing the commemoration of 1916. The event had very welcome support from Maynooth University as part of the work of the Commemorations Committee and of the Research Development Committee. The symposium was curated by Fearghus Ó Conchúir and co-organised with Gerry Kearns and Lian Bell as part of the Casement Project. The continuing programme of the Casement Project is reported on its Facebook page.

Bodies Politic photo by Ste Murray
Bodies Politic Symposium, photograph by Ste Murray (used with permission)

The five projects under review were ANU and Coisceim Dance Theatre’s These Rooms (an site-specific performance piece presented by Owen Boss and Emma O’Kane, in conversation with Karen Till, Maynooth University); In the Shadow of the State (a programme of meetings and installations curated and presented by Sarah Browne and Jesse Jones, in conversation with Lisa Godson, National College of Art and Design); Embodied (a set of dance performances curated by Liz Roche, and presented by Liz Roche, Jesse Keenan and Liv O’Donoghue, in conversation with Finola Cronin, University College Dublin); Future Histories (a live art and video installation curated by Áine Phillips and Niamh Murphy, and presented by Áine Phillips and Niamh Murphy, in conversation with EL Putnam, independent scholar); and The Casement Project (a dance event with associated academic and creative programme curated by Fearghus Ó Conchúir, in conversation with Gerry Kearns, Maynooth University).

The day was opened with poetic reflection upon the embodied character of art from Sheila Pratschke (chair of the Arts Council). It included several moments of bodily reconnection led by Fearghus Ó Conchúir. There was a conversation between Lian Bell, of #WakingtheFeminists and Roslaeen McDonagh, feminist, traveller and disability activist, about solidarities and disabled activism in the arts and society. There were also dance performances from Liv O’Donoghue and Jessie Keenan. The day was a way of taking stock of the challenges facing artists and other activists as they looked ahead to the year of the centenary. Fearghus Ó Conchúir has put some of his own reflections upon his own blog.

Liv O'Donoghue performing as part of Bodies Politic photo by Ste Murray
Liv O’Donoghue performing at the symposium. Photograph by Ste Murray (used with permission).

Our discussions returned to questions about bodies and inclusion. In the first place, abstractions like the nation implicate real bodies in asymmetric relations with each other. Thus the patriarchal assumptions of imagining the nation as something like a nuclear family reinforces all the sexist relations characteristic of the sorts of families that common-sense imagines to be the reference point for the nation as family. If we think differently about families we might think differently about nations. With In the Shadow of the State, Jesse Jones and Sarah Browne not only demonstrate the everyday sexism of common sense, but in their work with the academic Lisa Godson they have also highlighted the violence done unto women by the purportedly objective practices of medical science.

Throughout the day people were asking about the sorts of bodies that are made welcome within the national narrative. Clearly the queer body of Roger Casement has often not been made welcome, and yet the language of equality in our Proclamation of the Republic invites the greater generosity that would celebrate the integrity of his claim to a right of free sexual expression. It might also attend to the erotic and democratic energy of a desire that foreswore the racism of the time to see in men of the Congo or of the Putumayo the embodiment of a common manliness. The links between anti-colonialism and sexual liberation have yet to receive sustained attention but The Casement Project creates an opportunity for such a conversation.

Some of the speakers at Bodies Politic photo by Ste Murray
Some of the speakers at the Bodies Politic Symposium. Back row left to right. Liv O’Donoghue, Jessie Keenan, Karen Till, Fearghus Ó Conchúir, Finola Cronin, Gerry Kearns. Front row. Roseeen McDonagh, Jesse Jones, Sarah Browne, Owen Boss, Sheila Pratschke, Liz Roche. Photograph by Ste Murray (used with permission). 

These Rooms treats the violence of the 1916 Rising itself. It was an intimate violence that was forced into the domestic spaces of north Dublin as troops avoided the exposure of the street by tunneling their way through houses. As Karen Till remarked in her discussion of this piece, this intimate clawing into unknown spaces uses the hands to learn in a manner rather similar to the way Jacques Derrida describes the navigations of a blind person. This thoroughly embodied way of learning is difficult to appreciate without an empathy that comes from a work of imagination aided by the props of dimly-lit terraced rooms and the craft of a theatre company that provokes just this quality of reflection upon the forgotten bodies encountered in those spaces, the bodies of the female residents who had not fled in advance of the worm-like progress of the British troops.

The pieces that are curated as Embodied respond to a competition sponsored by An Post which challenged artists to find a manner to commemorate the Proclamation with performances in and around Dublin’s General Post Office, the place where the Proclamation was first proclaimed. With dance performances the artists have again explored the connection between texts and bodies. The power of the body to register and perhaps recover lost voices was evident in the works presented and in Finola Cronin’s anticipation of the fuller performances to come. The evanescence of performance might seem to contradict the seeming permanence of textual archives but in responding to Future Histories, EL Putnam drew upon the writings of Rebecca Schneider to suggest that in the repetition of bodily gestures or performances, there is a trace that remains as something rather like an archive. Repetition carries its own risks and freedoms and embodied reflections upon future archives may stimulate new ways of creatively reanimating those, such as the Proclamation, that may seem to have been made solid by their context.

Bodies Politic was only an interim report on the conversations between artists and academics about commemoration and performance. As these projects progress towards performances in the settings for which they were intended, the discussions will also continue to be gathered later as a set of essays both for the Casement Project website and then as an edited volume.

Bodies Politic was supported by  the Maynooth Research Development Fund and by the Maynooth Decade of Centenaries Events Fund.  It is part of The Casement Project, which is produced by Fearghus Ó Conchúir in association with Project Arts CentreThe Casement Project is an Open Call National Project in ART:2016, the Arts Council’s programme as part of the Ireland 2016Centenary Programme. It is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, and is supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Its creation is also made possible through the generosity of Dr R. Martin Chávez and supported by Dance IrelandThe Place Theatre, London, The British LibraryNational University of Ireland, MaynoothDublin City CouncilMicro-Rainbow InternationalThe National Archives, London. The presentation of The Casement Project in London is supported by Culture Ireland.

Gerry Kearns, Geography, Maynooth University