Dynamic Instability. An Interview with Amanda Coogan
Irish performance artist Amanda Coogan is recognized for creating durational works that explore the intersection of action, materiality and time while testing the limits of her body. Incorporating a range of inspirations and sources, Coogan creates multisensory, aesthetic experiences that are provocative, engaging, disturbing and, at times, hilarious. In the following interview, Coogan provides insight into her creative practice, re-performance and the “dynamic instability”-the risks and rewards-of making live art.
By EL Putnam
EL Putnam - Throughout your works, you tend to base your performances on simple looped actions, which are made extraordinary through repetition over an extended period of time. In The Passing (2011), you take the simple act of walking up and down the stairs, but transform it through repetition over a 24-hour duration. What motivates your distillation of gestures, and how does time inform the unfolding of a performance?
Amanda Coogan - My live performances are ever shifting, malleable artworks with four significant elements: site, time, audience and performer(s). The situation is so complex that I think to let it ‘breathe’ the performer needs to do less. This kind of limitation-a ‘less is more’ belief and dogged concentration-guided me towards distilling works down to a minimum before I present them publicly. They certainly don’t start like that. In the studio or through the process of making a new performance I always have too much going on, and a lot of my process is refining and elimination (I help my anxiety there by telling myself I’m putting some beautiful gestures, images or objects aside for the next piece and then I can, guilt free, throw stuff away).
If I have too much ‘stuff’ going on in a performance I can’t concentrate on the present enough; smell the air, see the site, communicate with the audience. I’m too busy deciding what to do with the different objects or when I’m going to use that gorgeous action I found in the studio. I really endorse Peggy Phelan’s description of live performance as a ‘maniacally charged’ experience. We’re all in the same place at the same time experiencing this, so if I’m too busy in a piece my concentration becomes linear and focused on the performance and not focused enough on the 360 degrees of the event. I have to be alert and reactive to the controlled instability inherent in any live performance.
The Passing, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a really interesting example. It was a 24-hour performance that was due to end at 7 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2011. The museum itself closed at 7 p.m. and played the normal messages of countdown to its closure over the public address system. The public surrounding my performance refused to leave. Firstly, no one person saw the full 24-hour performance, so they had bought into the piece as a conceptual artwork; they whispered about it, believed in the exhaustion that was communicating from my body and wanted to witness the end of this 24-hour loop of walking up and down the stairs. But here’s the interesting thing: I wanted to keep the idea of this never-ending repetition held in their mind’s eye. I wanted to present it in a method that contained the experience of the live performance in a particular way; the beginning and ending of the performance was cut from public presentation. I wanted it to hold the potential or concept of it being an endless action. The set-apartness of the performance was framed so that my entrance into and exit from the performance frame was not made public. I had begun the performance before the Museum doors opened the day before and planned to finish as the last audience member had left and the museum was closed. But the audience refused to leave. I consequently made a textual documentation of the piece, 24 Hours in the Museum, through speaking to some invested audience members and they told me this:
Marilyn: The group of people who stood at the end to see that last descent on the stairs [...] were being shuffled out of the museum, but they didn’t let themselves be pushed out before you finished. They really resisted that exiting that they do in the museum. There was a woman [a museum guard] down at the door who almost grabbed Risa [saying], ‘You have to go now.’ [and Risa said] ‘no we don’t.’
Tyler: It was so interesting watching that, [wondering] are those people going to leave? Once I realized, after they made the announcement [that the Museum was closed] and no one moved and the guards…
Marilyn: She gave up, that woman [guard] at the door gave up trying to change the energy…
Tyler: And that’s when I knew that you were going to have to end it.
Marilyn: Just seeing how everyone dealt with that ending was really interesting, including you, because it was being negotiated between the entire group, up above you [the top of the stairs], and down below [the bottom of the stairs], and the guards.
In the event I made a number of ascents and descents of the staircase after the public address system had announced the museum’s closure. A sizeable group of audience members continued to gather and surrounded the stairs. I felt the atmosphere was tense. I decided to walk out of the gallery, release the air from the situation and end the performance. By staging what you could call a performative intervention the surrounding audience to these final few minutes of the performance refused to accept my proposition of infinite loop. In doing so, they declined the normative behaviors expected in an exemplar institute of middle-class respectability; to leave when asked to do so. They also cogently and yet subtly changed the dynamic of the performance. The audience as a group, in demanding visible closure to this performance, made an example of the agency of the audience and the interrelationship between performer and audience in live performance.
EL.P. - The use of color is prominent in many of your pieces, particularly the use of bold, primary colors, like yellow and blue. In Bubble Up in Blue (2012), you dribble blue spittle from your mouth over the course of eight hours, creating a three-dimensional abstract watercolor over the chain of white coats you drag through the gallery. In 13 Women (2013), you and 13 female performers emerge from a piece of blue cloth that is stretched from floor to ceiling. In The Fall (2009), you jump over and over again onto a yellow crash pad for hours. The colors add a striking visual quality to your performances, but I am wondering how you give thought to color in the staging of your actions?
A.C. - Color is very important in the works, but I’m not sure I give too much thought to it. I go through phases of different color; the yellow series, the blue phase, some red works (that I haven’t consciously grouped together). I think my approach to color is quiet conservative. The individual works don’t mix colors. It is always a block of color very decidedly distributed through the sculpture, costume and objects of a particular piece. I trained initially as a painter in a very traditional school, so it is part of my art DNA, and I draw works throughout the process of making, and often that’s where color considerations come in, literally from the brush strokes of watercolor in my ‘thoughts’ drawings. When I’m coming to a finality with a work I’ll ‘paint’ it; decide on a color and dye or paint objects and fabric. Works are rarely led by color, though I might pick something from a site, be it an architectural feature, an object of furniture, and take that as a guide to my color choices.
EL.P. - Your practice incorporates a range of materials, from sculptural costumes to consumable items like chocolate and Guinness, to soapy bubbles, bodily excretions and cigarette smoke. Can you explain more about how you perceive the role of the material and its relationship to action through your performances?
A.C. - The activities of the body are core to my live performances and the body of the artist, my body, is ground zero. That body, it is important to note, is female, is able-bodied and, in literal-visual terms, has white skin, blond hair and blue eyes. My work is an embodied practice, both in form and concept. Using cigarette smoke was, for me, about a substance going into the body and coming out of it. That is, I grant you, completely simplifying the Smoking in Bolero performance (it is also about excess, destruction, carnival, sex, disobedience) but what I could do to manifest something of the inside of the body outside was an important key for the conception of the work.
Sometimes I’m a little old school and DIY when dreaming up performances. I try it out on myself or see if I can produce something in, on or with my body first before inviting other performers to join me. Victor Turner said performance art is about ‘making not faking.” This is perhaps a little outdated as a generalization of contemporary performance practice, but I like that school of thought so I explore what my body can do.
It is still a potent statement to make women’s bodies visible on our own terms and by our own hand. I made a very simple but excruciatingly difficult performance some years ago called The Fountain. I had to urinate, copiously, for the performance and I cursed myself when I dreamt it up, knowing that I would have to actually do it with my own bodily fluid. It sprung from an exploration of the capabilities of the female body, and so I had to make it, not fake it. I had to cross so many personal and social taboos and break myself down to be able to make the piece that I think the process contributed to making the piece completely magnetic.
EL.P. - In 2014, you presented You Told Me to Wash and Clean My Ears in collaboration with the Dublin Theatre of the Deaf. Some aspects of the work bear distinguishing characteristics of your performances-you are presented on stage prior to audience entrance on top of a mountain of blue fabric that towers over the stage. Your measured and concentrated gestures are looped. When I witnessed this work, I recall being immediately struck by your facial expressions as you slowly widen your eyes, open your mouth and extend your blackened tongue to the audience. However, the work is also informed by the contributions of the theatre group, whose procession evokes the 1972 protest of the deaf community against the shooting of deaf-mute Eamonn McDevitt. As such, the work exists in the slippage between performance art and theatre. Can you describe what it’s like to work in this liminal space?
A.C. - This work was a true collaboration (that word is so slippery these days). What I mean by it is that it was a meeting of my solo practice with the Dublin Theatre of the Deaf’s practice and ambitions for the work. They wanted to perform in a theatre and ‘speak’ to hearing people, and so our two practices met. We did some fresh research on this story of the first act of civil disobedience by the deaf community in Ireland; A protest march through the streets of Dublin against the killing of a community member, Eamon McDevitt, during a rally in Northern Ireland at the beginning of The Troubles. The action of marching and of ‘speaking’ in Irish Sign Language directly to the audience brought the piece into the current campaign to have Irish Sign Language legally recognized in Ireland. We were stepping into deaf history to step forward for human rights. It was personal for us all: My dad was one of the marchers in 1972, and I am of the community; my parents are deaf sign language users, and my first language is ISL. The work, right from initial conception, through workshops and presentation, had an effervescent potency for us all. It hit a deep nerve. Our hearts whirred a little faster. We were white with anger, and that is a tricky but powerful place from which to make a new work.
Coming from this shared interest and potent excitement I treated this like any other performance I would make. The heart of my practice is liveness. So the live moment is front and center before any disciplinary allegiance. Performance practice has to be allowed to shape shift and cross disciplines. I treated the black box of the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, where we performed you told me to wash and clean my ears, as I would any other site. I looked to the specifics of that black box, the resources it offered and developed the work from there. It was glorious to play with light, have a stunning sound system and be able to work with 42 performers. I insist that my work be able to shift from smaller-scale solo works to larger-scale group performances, from outdoor locations to white cubes to black boxes. It’s still the same practice, just a difference in scale and resources.
The DTD wanted to tell specific stories; they also wanted it to be a contemporary performance work. Many of them had worked with me before and knew my aesthetic and working method. We slowed down, stripped back and looped the stories in sign language, and I went up the mountain as a kind of witness or reflection of the embodied communication of the piece. We wanted the audience to be immersed from the moment they walked into the theatre and so used this tableaux vivant structure that I often use in my solo work. When I was up the mountain, my strategy of less is more was sharply in focus. There were so many things going on in the piece already and because half of my body was cut from view, every movement of the muscles in the face were considered from the blink of the eye to the opening of the mouth and the sticking out of the tongue. Sticking out your tongue is a very rich gesture, so simple too. It’s very base, showing an interior part of the body. I also make direct reference to Sheela-na-Gig statues, mythic stone carvings of women sticking out their tongue and holding open their vulva, when I make the gesture of sticking out my tongue. But then, to misquote Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; sometimes sticking out your tongue is just being cheeky.
EL.P. - Your recent exhibition at the Dublin Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), “I’ll sing you a song from around the town,” involves re-performances of works, including Yellow (2008), Spit Spit Scrub Scrub (2011) and The Passing, by yourself and other performers. This is not the first time that some of these pieces have been re-performed. Diana Taylor comments as to how performance creates a repertoire of embodied memory, which builds over time as a corporeal complement to the archive. Can you describe how re-performance informs the repertoire of your actions?
A.C. - Re-performance emerged over the last 10 years, in the first instance, as a method of historicizing and recollecting past performance artworks. What excites me though about re-performance is that it holds so much more potential than that. It extracts the work from the body of the artist, confronts the personality cult resident in the reception of performance art and, if treated as an appropriation project, invites new and fresh explorations of the piece.
Re-performance offers a methodology of remembering live performances outside objecthood, one that allows for body-to-body transmission. A substantial question in any re-performance project is the question of the original. Where and what is the original performance. I find the notion of an original reference point in live performance to be chimerical. Because re-performance is such a new phenomenon, I think there are two ways to approach it: re-performance as static referents to ‘original’ performances and re-performance that employs re-interpretation, allowing for the development of the works, new works if you will. Static re-performance can close down the agency of the bodies used as material in re-performance practices. For me, the magnetism of live performance is this idea of controlled instability, that exploration of creating and communicating in the live moment with an audience a site and an action. This is not wholly dependent on the body of the embodied artist but a performers openness to following the moment-to-momentness of live presentation and that needs to be overtly handed over to the re-performers.
I made Yellow-Reperformed in 2010, where I deconstructed my embodied, unstable live performance Yellow and offered routes of engagement with it to other practitioners, Yellow-Reperformed became an appropriation project. I actively invited and assisted the performers to engage their practice on the structure of Yellow I offered them. In this way, I proposed expanding and shifting the process-based evolution of the work. Through this, I found dynamic instability was not dependant on the artist as maker but dependent on the agency afforded to the performer. Re-performance that invites the agency of the performer becomes a method of new creative possibilities.
EL.P. - When you incorporate other performers or when a piece is re-performed, how do these artists’ repertoire of gestures inform the work?
The work is constructed initially on a very faint scaffold of unknowns. These only become when the performers step in with all their experience, their bodies and their creativity. Then the piece opens up, it forms and sometimes blossoms. It’s possibly more like a feedback loop; I have a half-baked idea that I ask performers to explore it with me, I feedback from their performances, and that is refolded into the work.
EL.P. - I can’t help but look at some of your pieces and witness a celebration of humor and the absurd. In Molly Blooms, Live (2005), you present a live version of an infamous symbol of British occupation from Dublin Castle, though your primary action is to fart at people as they go by you. The playful nature of your gestures and embracing of the abject brings to mind Mikhael Bakhtin’s definition of the carnivalesque, its inversion of social hierarchies that offers a ‘special type of communication impossible in everyday life.’1 How do you consider the absurd and humor as playing a role in your practice?
A.C. - The absurd is so important, and sometimes it’s just being bold. In Ireland, we have a unique understanding of the word ‘bold’-it means naughty with a dash of bravery, symptomatic you might say of our postcolonial culture. Often the absurdity I use is ‘boldness’ in both the Irish and general meaning of the word. Farting at the audience is bold. Girls don’t fart, right? In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom surreptitiously lets rip on the street as a tram is passing. It’s a pretty base riposte, I grant you. I have a terrible admission though: I simply couldn’t produce the farts from my body on queue as people went in and out of the gallery. I’m just not that skilled. I was faking it not making it in this instance! The costume for this performance was made to ape a skirt that has been accidentally tucked in your knickers at the back. I was thinking of the schadenfreude moment, when you come out of the bathroom and realized you tucked your skirt in your knickers (drunken nights, or maybe that’s just me!)
EL.P. - I am aware that you have studied and worked with Marina Abramović. Also, How to explain the sea to an uneaten potatoe explicitly references Joseph Beuys through its title, for example, and the application of gold leaf to your face. Can you identify other artists who you consider influential on your practice?
A.C. - My practice jumps in and out of both high- and low-art references; Bruce Nauman, and Duchamp in The Fountain, Gilbert and George in The Black Madonna are some examples. Sometimes I see these references as nods to the history of art or the history of performance, and sometimes I reap the proprieties from them. I made a piece called After Manzoni where I signed my own naked body, which was more like a manifesto for my emerging practice at the time. I came across the work of Joan Jonas, Pippilotti Rist, Janine Antoni as a young artists and was completely excited by their installations and body-focused practice. In general, I’m a magpie, like in my reference points. Anything that glitters in my imagination is fair game.
EL.P. - In addition to presenting live works, you have also created a number of pieces specifically for camera, such as We Shall Glorify. In this work, you are directly engaged with the camera, dressed in a suit and tie while lip-synching to Handel’s Messiah. Hands emerge from outside the video frame, dropping a white powder over your head-which I believe is flour-as you emotionally ‘belt out’ this oratory. Can you describe how you differentiate between performance-to-camera and performance documentation?
A.C. - Performing to camera is very different to the live event for me. Firstly, your energy and focus is linear, like looking down the barrel of a gun, you’re aware of communicating the gestures in the rectangular frame of the camera. Secondly, the audience is at a remove from the instant of making. The engagement with the audience is delayed and removed from among the making of the work. With moving image work you present a finished piece, in some ways you show a code. It is not as malleable as a live performance. Performing to camera can be a more individual, private activity.
We Shall was a simple gesture, entombing the figure in white powder substance (it was flour but with the possibility of being plaster powder or narcotics). It also has the chaos of an action occurring at a certain time, in a certain place, under certain circumstances-that is a terribly complicated way of saying that we re-shot and re-shot the piece but never quite got the wind whipping the powder around in swirls or the impression of horns that appear on the figure’s head or the tear that plopped down the cheek. It was a capture of an action unique to the circumstances it occurred in.
My question with moving-image work is how to replicate or re-present the controlled instability and maniacal charge of the live experience. There is a school of thought that advocates the division of the live experience and its documentation, and I think that needs to be probed and questioned. Firstly, because there is a camera in everyone’s pocket, but also because most people who attend live performance events are ‘oppositional’ (a nice generalization you might say but not far wrong I advocate). Laying down rules that ban documentation to any contemporary event I think creates an atmosphere that is dictatorial and unhelpful to the event I try to create live. My approach has been to invite the audience to document, if they wish, and ask them to share their documentation. Of course, there are guidelines to this: no flash and a respectful distance between the performers and the other audience members. My thinking is that if you allow the audience to reach into their pocket and snap then there is a lessening of the anxiety to record and experience the performance through the shield of a viewfinder or rectangular pixilated medium.
Gina Pane’s practice is an interesting reference point for me here. The live audience viewed many of Pane’s performances from behind the cameraman and his equipment. I had been working very closely with the filmmaker Paddy Cahill for a number of years on the question of how to make moving image work from live performances. We both believe strongly that something dynamic and unrepeatable happens in long durational, publicly presented work that is unique. We have approached this question in a number of ways. In 2010, we made Yellow, the film together, a moving image work that shot each re-performance of Yellow in their full four-hour length and presented the six live performances alongside each other in one frame. Paddy moved dynamically around the site and the performers, never breaking the recording of the work. His resulting footage dynamically shows the shifts and changes in the full duration of each performance’s evolution. In fact, for the live experience, Paddy became a seventh performer, making framing and capture decisions in the moment of the live encounter.
In 2013 we took a different approach to my 12-hour live performance 13 WOMEN. Still holding to the notion of re-presenting the duration of the work, Paddy made a time-lapse recording of the performance, taking a still every 13 seconds and each hour changing the position of the camera; 12 viewpoints. With both of these works, I see them as resultant or appropriated works from the core live performances.
EL.P. - As an American living in Dublin for the past few years, I am fascinated by your references to Irish culture in your work. Sometimes these are obvious, such as the dress of potatoes in How to explain the sea to an uneaten potatoe (2008) and the oversized Aran sweater designed to fit eight people in the video The Yellow Mountain (2008). Other references are more subtle: in Yellow, as I watch you wash the voluminous dress you wear over and over again for hours in a lapful of bubbles-gestures of determined futility-the notorious Magdalene laundries creep into my mind. While you are very active in the transnational performance art scene, are there some ways you consider your practice to bear Irish distinctions?
A.C. - I think today you can really live and make work anywhere in the world and travel for exhibitions and performances. I have lived in many different countries, but the work still made references to Irish visual culture and society, no matter how dislocated I was from it. But the idea of nationhood is a dangerous one. I live here in Belfast in the aftermath of The Troubles, so national identity is a difficult and complex idea and one that must be vigorously questioned.
But in saying that, you can take the woman out of the mountain but you can’t take the mountain out of the woman. For my practice, it is super important to begin from a place of knowing and explore from there. How to explain the sea to an uneaten potatoe, The Yellow Mountain and Yellow all began in a very domestic space. I was at home with a new baby in 2008. I was making new works from this small window on the world. You could posit that preparing food, knitting, washing are predominantly female chores. I was simply extrapolating from that, absurdly making a knitted jumper for nine people, making a dress of potatoes and endlessly and purposely washing a dress. Sometimes the inception of a new work can be pretty simple, but for the piece to develop it has to take on more influences-emotional, conceptual and formal. I build these into a state where the piece is ready for liveness and the controlled instability that that will bring. The birthing of nine teenagers out of the “old lady” Aran jumper; my own body weight in potatoes holding down the body that looks out to sea, her head painted gold, dreaming; endless rhythmic washing inducing trance.
1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, p. 10.
EL Putnam is a part-time lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology in the School of Art, Design and Printing in Dublin. Her writing and research focuses on continental aesthetic philosophy, performance studies, digital studies, feminist theory and examining the influence of neoliberalism on artistic production. She is also a visual artist affiliated with the Mobius Artists Group in Boston.