Alessandra Cianetti: Helena, you have been working as a live artist for almost fifteen years now and your practice focuses on the relationship between power structures and the female body. The emarginated body, the subjected body but also the militant one seems to me the centre of your work. How this line of practice started, were do you think it is going?
Helena Walsh: My practice has always been informed by feminist concerns. Through my performances I attempt to positively violate the systems, borders and rules that construct gender. Through the use of the body in my performances, at once subjected and also militant, I explore the tensions between empowerment and oppression. In doing so, I attempt to make visible and provoke a questioning of the power structures that contain female sexuality, while simultaneously working towards activating forms of resistance that contribute to the development of feminist discourses. Given its lineage as a practice concerned with questioning institutional boundaries, I see live art as a particularly viable platform for such explorations. My focus on the relationship between power structures and the female body within my practice emerged from my embodied experiences. This led me towards interrogating the regimenting of female bodies in accordance to societal expectations and gendered norms. For example, my very early performances, such as Food for Thought, Body Mist and Tight Lipped Labia were concerned with examining the construction of femininity and the pressures placed upon women to maintain patriarchal ideals of beauty. Later, on becoming a mother I began to examine the policing of the maternal body and the lack of adequate discourse around the actualities of maternal experience (from the joys, the monotony and the labour). These explorations also involve a consideration of the overt essentialising of motherhood in my native Ireland and the territorial control of the female body through the severe restrictions placed on access to safe and legal abortion services across the island of Ireland. This sparked a more in-depth examination of the relations between gender, national identity and cultural history in an Irish context within my practice.
Currently, I am focused on exploring the legacies of feminist activism and tracing the footsteps of feminist activists, both in an Irish context and within the London-Irish feminist community. For example, I am exploring the histories of those who were involved in the Irish suffrage movement, alongside feminist activists who fought in the 1916 Rising against British Rule. The Rising, which was followed by the War of Independence and Civil War, led to the formation of the Irish Free State (later becoming a Republic) and the partitioning of Ireland, with the six counties of Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom. Of course, this is a timely exploration given that the centenary of the 1916 Rising is this year. Many of women active in the Rising held socialist and feminist principles and believed an independent Ireland would lead to the political enfranchisement of women. Notably, their involvement in the Rising was trivialized and negated within dominant nationalist narratives.
AC: Duration is a key element of your work and in our previous conversations you see it as a fundamental characteristic of Irish performative works in general. Why do you think the relation between time and resistance is so important in both yours and Irish live artists’ practices?
HW: Live art in an Irish context is a very diverse and exciting area of practice. While there are a number of different approaches and processes deployed by live artists, duration has been a significant feature of performative works on the island of Ireland since the 1970s. In particular, within an Irish context artists have used durational performance to create spaces where trauma and the difficulty surrounding its representation can be approached and thought. For example, in some of his early durational performances, Alastair McLennan, explored the traumatic impact and human cost of the conflict in Northern Ireland, commonly called ‘The Troubles.’ This conflict began in the late 1960s when tensions escalated between the nationalist-Catholic and unionist-Protestant communities following Civil Rights marches, which challenged the social inequalities experienced by the Catholic minority. The inflammation of longstanding disagreements over the political status of Northern Ireland, stemming from the partition of Ireland, led to a prolonged period of violence involving Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups, alongside British military and security forces. The violence of the Troubles was quelled with the gradual development of the Northern Irish Peace Process during the 1990s, which saw the establishment of a power-sharing system of governance representing both unionists and nationalists. The Peace Process coincided with a period of unprecedented economic growth in the Irish Republic, referred to as the ‘Celtic Tiger.’ This followed Ireland’s joining of the European Union in 1973 and its attracting of foreign, largely American, technology and pharmaceutical companies to base their European operations in The Republic through implementing low-tax policies. The prosperity enabled during the Celtic Tiger era, however, was short-lived given the Republic of Ireland’s economic collapse in 2010, which, of course, was related to the global economic crash in 2008.
Following the turn of the millennium there has been an increased use of duration by individual live art practitioners and within collective durational exhibitions across the island of Ireland. On one hand, the processes of repetition and duration allow an examination of a sense of sameness or repetition that pervades Irish cultural history, the continuation of oppression, violence and economic hardship. Of course, the long-standing ceasefire and the development of the Power Sharing executive in Northern Ireland has quelled the extremity of the violence experienced during the Troubles and dramatically changed the political landscape. However, the Peace Process has been far from smooth and remains very much in process. The temporalities of durational performance, perhaps, allow space to engage with the development of this process across time and to approach the traumas of the past that continually haunt the present. The increased deployment of repetition and duration in contemporary live art is also significant to the recovery of a broader past that came following the progression of the Northern Irish Peace Process. As detailed in the Live Art Development Agency Study Guide, Brutal Silences: Live Art and Irish Culture co-authored by Ann Maria Healy and myself, a number of live artists have deployed the processes of repetition and duration to respond to the silencing of wide-scale institutional abuse. The occurrence of abuse within state-sanctioned Catholic institutions in the post-colonial Irish state entered into public discourse in the 1990s. The abuse of children by Catholic clergy within Industrial and Reformatory Schools, alongside the enslavement of women in Catholic-run Magdalen Laundries, which remained in operation until 1996 in the Republic, was suppressed for decades. The Irish state was complicit in the longevity of these abuses through sustaining these institutions and failing to intervene. Yet the implementing of a ‘gagging’ clause as a condition of state redress for those who suffered abuse demonstrates further attempts to silence and suppress. Human rights abuses also occurred in institutions in Northern Ireland, where Magdalen Laundries were also in operation and abuse in children’s homes and residential institutions between 1922 and 1995 is being investigated as part of the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse in Northern Ireland. Crucially, durational performance has been used very effectively to operate against the silencing of trauma within political discourses focused on narrating the past towards neat ends or a tidy conclusion. Live artists have used the processes of repetition and duration to bring those bodies lacking resolution into view and encourage a questioning of how the traumas embedded in our collective histories continually trouble the present.
Within my practice I am interested in how durational performance can be deployed to draw connections across time so as to allow the historical conventions that continually police female sexuality to come into view and, in turn, be challenged. Through such explorations I hope to retrieve feminist acts of resistance negated or erased from dominant discourses that may resonate with contemporary feminist struggles. For instance, I am interested in how the retrieval of the voices of the women active in the 1916 Rising, largely undertaken by feminist historians, might be utilized in performance to invigorate current feminist campaigns in Ireland and challenge continued inequalities.
AC: Your investigations have been addressing notions of class struggle, migration, labour, and postcolonial discourses as we can see for example in the work ‘Containing Crisis’ that you performed at The National Famine Museum in Strokestown, Ireland. What is your approach to the relations among Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the city you live in, London? How have these reflections on geography and power struggles have shaped your practice?
HW: The exploration of class struggles, labour and migration within post-colonial contexts have been central to many of my projects in recent years. For example, in 2011, I was invited to make a performance at the National Famine Museum of Ireland, which is housed in the stables of Strokestown Park House, a former colonial estate in Co. Roscommon. Strokestown Park House is a Palladian-style mansion that was built by Thomas Mahon MP (1701-1782). The estate was built on lands given to Mahon’s grandfather, Nicholas, in the 17th century for his support of the British colonial campaign. Estates such as Strokestown Park House are commonly referred to as the ‘big house’. My performance, Containing Crisis, was durational, taking place over two days in the servants kitchen of the ‘big house’, which is the only remaining galleried kitchen in Ireland. With my excessive cooking and spoiling of potatoes during the performance I considered the relationship between shortage and surplus, evoked by the ‘big house’ and its controversial role during the Great Irish Famine (1845-51). The sense of excessiveness and abjectness within my actions responded to the enormity of the crisis provoked by the Great Irish Famine, which resulted in mass emigration from Ireland and the death of one million people from starvation and disease. The themes of surplus and shortage were also used to consider the sense of triumph inherent in the nationalist commemoration of the Famine during the Celtic Tiger era. The 150th anniversary of the Famine coincided with Ireland’s economic growth during the 1990s and the commemorative events at this time greatly surpassed previous commemorative events. Relevant to this, the National Famine Museum opened in 1994.
In particular, the performance examined the relationship between the Famine and the Republic of Ireland’s economic collapse in 2010. A soundtrack that played in the performance referenced the emigration of the staving Irish peasants to North America on the notorious ‘Famine ships,’ administrated from Strokestown Park House. These journeys often proved fatal, as already malnourished emigrants were packed into small cramped cabins and disease was rife. The soundtrack collaged the sounds of the sea, creaking ships and sea bells. These sounds were interrupted, at times, with the crackling of radio waves interspersed with distorted male and female voices saying the word ‘contagion.’ This soundtrack referenced the disease ridden famine ships that carried peasants from Ireland’s shores and the discrimination experienced by emigrants on arrival in foreign contexts. However, it also bought into relief the emigration from contemporary Ireland and the terming of the country as ‘economic contagion’ to the Eurozone preceding its acceptance of European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailouts. Of course, while emigration within an Irish context is often a necessity rather than a desired option, the ease of movement and greater opportunities open to contemporary Irish emigrants are markedly different to the hardships experienced by those who emigrated during the Famine. The performance, however, was pointing to the repetition of patterns of mass emigration as part of Irish history. In doing so, in the wake of Ireland’s economic collapse it was highlighting the failure of Irish state to provide for its citizens following its adoption of neo-liberal values. This was heightened through my adoption of the role of ‘Mother Ireland’ dressed in a tricolour-themed costume reminiscent of a 1950’s housewife. This played with the representation of the Famine through the figure of female body within nationalist narratives and also questioned the efforts to contain female sexuality in a post-colonial Irish context, following the implementation of a number of repressive laws post-independence that sought to restrict women to the duties of motherhood and the home. The resignation of women to the duties of the home is inscribed in Article 41.2 of the 1937 Irish constitution, which states that ‘In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ As I witnessed in the rural working-class environment where I grew up, women were often placed in a role of perpetual mothering and caring, rendered responsible for ‘containing’ the multiple ‘crises’ that occur within the homestead. My constant cooking activities in the performance appropriated and twisted the limiting of women to maternal and nurturing roles in a post-colonial Irish context to critique the Irish state’s failure to regulate and manage the country’s finances, which plunged the country into economic crisis.
Another project I was involved with called, LABOUR, focused on issues of gender and labour across three sites of geo-political relevance, London, Derry/Londonderry and Dublin. LABOUR featured eleven female live artists who are resident within, or native to, Northern and Southern Ireland. It was co-curated by Amanda Coogan, Chrissie Cadman and myself and was produced by Benjamin Sebastian of ]performace s p a c e[, London. LABOUR comprised of three durational live exhibitions, which occurred in sites related to work. The first exhibition took place in ]performance s p a c e[, London, a disused plumbing factory located on an industrial estate in East London, an area synonymous with migrant labour and of particular relevance to working–class Irish women, as evidenced by the strike led by women who worked in the Bryant and May match-making factory in 1888, many of whom were from the Irish community. It then toured to Void Gallery, Derry/ Londonderry, a former shirt factory that predominantly employed women. The final exhibition took place in The Lab, Dublin, located in the heart of ‘The Monto, Dublin’s historic prostitution district and in close proximity to one of Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries. In each durational exhibition the participating artists performed simultaneously for 8 consecutive hours. What was really interesting about this exhibition was how the artists began to respond to the histories of each site and this opened up discussion about gendered discrimination and exploitation across borders. From the curtailing of women’s working rights, the confinement of women in the home, and enslavement of women in the Magdalen Laundries to the women who worked in the shirt-factories that were the main breadwinners in their families and the struggles experienced by migrant labourers. The exploring of these pasts sparked a consideration of continued gender-based exploitation related to labour and, in turn, the countering of such.
AC: Your are one of the founding members of the collective Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A., an intergenerational group of artists and activists that lobby for the right of Irish women to be allowed to have abortions; at the moment illegal practices in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Would you mind to talk a bit about the group’s work and how do you interpret the relation between activism and political live art practices?
HW: Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. is a London-based direct action feminist performance group. The group is focused on challenging the severe restrictions placed on abortion services in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and campaigns for access to safe, legal and free abortion services globally. Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. is a non-hierarchal, intergenerational collective comprised largely, though not exclusively, of women originating from The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, including those who were active in the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (1980-2000). We use I.M.E.L.D.A. as an acronym to mean – Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion. The name Imelda was originally used as a code-name by the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group, a group of activists based in London who provided support to women traveling from Ireland to England for abortions between 1980 and 2000. The code-name was especially necessary between 1986 and 1995 when the Information Cases in the Republic of Ireland made it a criminal offence to travel abroad for an abortion and to provide information and referrals for abortion services. In reclaiming the name I.M.E.L.D.A. we wish to act in solidarity with women’s groups who have sought to counteract the inhumanity of state legislation in both Northern and Southern Ireland, while operating against the silencing and shaming of women who have abortions. Up to 12 people travel everyday from the island of Ireland to England in order to access safe and legal abortion services. In the Republic of Ireland the 1983 8th Amendment to the Constitution, which legislates that the fetus or embryo has an equal right to life as the mother, restricts access to abortion. Whereas, Northern Ireland remains exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act that is in effect in England, Scotland and Wales. Instead, the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act is still in place in Northern Ireland. Apart from the considerable expense and stress of having to travel abroad for a medical procedure, those who can travel are denied follow-up after-care. The restrictions on abortion in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, concern issues of class, freedom of movement and highlight inequalities related to citizenship. For example, in 2013, the Irish Republic implemented a 14-year prison sentence for women who have abortions in Ireland illegally. This has consequences for those who take pro-abortive medication because they cannot afford to travel or are not permitted to leave the country. In April 2016, a young woman in Northern Ireland was given a suspended three-month jail sentence for taking the abortion pill. She took the abortion pill because she could not afford to travel to England and pay privately for a safe and legal abortion. Hence, we have a situation where some UK citizens are criminalized and risk imprisonment because they cannot to afford to travel and pay for a medical procedure that is freely and legally available to other UK citizens on the NHS.
We are currently campaigning to have the charges against this woman dropped and to have the 1967 Abortion Act extended to Northern Ireland. We are also supporting the campaign in the Republic of Ireland to repeal the 8th Amendment. Over the last two years we have undertaken a number of direct-action interventions. Through our use of performance we seek to challenge patriarchal conventions and playfully subvert gendered cultural norms in an Irish context related to the restrictions on abortions, while operating against the silencing and shaming of those who have abortions. Similar to live artists we seek to raise questions around issues associated with identity and challenge the restrictions imposed by dominant norms by highlighting often overlooked or silenced realities. Relevant to the emergence of performance art from the 1960s as that which sought to break free of institutional confines and merge art with life, in taking to the streets and intervening in a variety of contexts we also seek to bring the very real issues impacting on women in Ireland, which are often silenced, into the public domain and to challenge institutional confines that maintain these restrictions.
Personally, I am interested in exploring the slippages that exist between the approaches, concepts and aesthetics used within feminist Live Art and feminist direct actions reliant on the central deployment of the body. Both feminist practices often involve an element of risk, the development of embodied gestures, alongside playful and innovative subversions of femininity. Equally, there is often an inventive appropriation or repurposing of the symbols, materials and objects associated with patriarchal constructions of femininity. Notably, the extent to which feminist acts of resistance and the political involvement of women in historical struggles are all too readily negated from history is prevalent and in my current practice I am interested in uncovering less well-known histories of feminist resistance. Relevant to this, the threatened closure of the Feminist Library in London, which houses an extensive archive of feminist activism, would be a great loss to both present and future generations.
AC: Among your activities with Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. and your work as a live artist you have been building an international network of solidarity for women. Could you tell me a bit more about this network? I was also wondering, with the current situation in Europe and the refugees’ crisis for example, what do you think should be the role of political live art interventions? What artists can do? What in your opinion are artists among your networks doing at the moment to respond to this?
HW: Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A., as a collective, has actively been establishing links and collaborating with pro-choice activists across the island of Ireland, within Britain and further a field. For example, we have worked with the activist collective My Belly is Mine, which successfully challenged proposed restrictions to abortion in Spain and we have worked with the Central American Women’s Network (CAWN) as part of the Festival of Choice in London. Equally, through my involvement in projects such as LABOUR I am interested in the development of relationships across borders. The development of feminist solidarity across borders is particularly significant to me, given that historically national tensions and conflict have limited the development of such relationships and, in turn, the strengthening of feminist movements. I am interested in maintaining forms of solidarity and resistance that rise above national divisions and break down borders. This is, of course, also relevant to the current situation in Europe with the refugee crisis, which is shocking, and all the more so due to the lack of an adequate response or compassion at a political level, particularly given that this is not the first time that we have witnessed people seeking refuge on mass due to conflict and oppression. The parallels between the desperation faced by the Irish in the past who endured harrowing journeys aboard the famine ships, which I just discussed, and the precarious journeys being made by contemporary refugees on unsafe and over-crowded boats, resonates with me. The enormity and excessiveness of the current refugee crisis in Europe mirrors that of past crisis such as the Irish Famine, and similar to in the past, political responses to this current crisis are inadequate. The derogatory language used by the British Prime Minister David Cameron to describe people in the Calais camp as ‘a bunch of migrants’ is particularly disturbing, alongside his concern with containing the crisis elsewhere and preventing it from breaching the UK’s borders. This attitude is at complete odds with the views of many of the artists and activists within my networks. Many activists and artists, including myself, have been helping in more practical ways where possible, for example, volunteering in projects aimed at collecting needed supplies for Calais or Greece. Two of the activists within Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. have supported the No Borders Kitchen on the island of Lesbos, Greece. I have heard from them about the volatile situation on the ground there. Due to the urgency of the situation most people I know are prioritizing the provision of practical solidarity. That is not to say that live artists should not respond by making political interventions that challenge the inadequate stance of governments in response to the refugee crisis, alongside resisting the moves to shut down borders and the negative characterising of refugees within political discourses. I certainly think that there needs to be much more dialogue around the current refugee crisis and what is happening on the ground across mainland Europe, particularly in contexts such as the UK and Ireland, where due to geographical distance, politicians attempt to frame the crisis as happening somewhere else so as to evade responsibility to take meaningful action.
AC: Along your practice as an artist, you are also a researcher whose work focuses on Irish feminists and activists from the Sixties onwards: what have changed since then in your opinion on the ways activists are advocating for women rights? Are there practices that could be shared site-specifically in different country and still be effective?
HW: Firstly, I would say that while there are certain differences and shifts in the ways activists advocate for women’s rights, I particularly value working within an inter-generational network such as Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A where older and younger feminist activists can share knowledge and learn from one another. Certainly, I think that contemporary activism around women’s rights is greatly informed by the actions and experiences of our feminist predecessors and, particularly, within Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. our work is strengthened through intergenerational input. It is equally strengthened through the development of international solidarities and discussions with activists fighting for reproductive rights in different global contexts. One of the biggest changes in how activists are advocating for women’s rights is perhaps through the use of social media. Feminist activists have been actively harnessing social media to build networks, share information, discuss issues, plan events and actions and also share documentation of interventions across sites and borders. In many ways social media makes it easier to organise and disseminate information quickly. However, I feel, at the same time, it is important to deploy direct actions and interventions in order to actively confront and unsettle oppressive power structures. There is a power in collective action and collective presence. Within Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A., alongside directly challenging politicians, we have raised the issue of abortion at events associated with Irishness, for example St. Patrick’s Day, The Rose of Tralee and the Irish State visit to Britain. In persistently intervening and inserting the issue of abortion into these events we operate against the hypocritical attempts of the Irish government to turn a blind eye to the exporting its duty of care towards its citizens to England and the fallacies in its claims that Ireland is ‘abortion free.’ Collective intervention has been effective in numerous campaigns for social justice and, in my view, remains so today.
AC: To conclude, what are your plans for 2016?
HW: I am continually involved with Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. I am also currently devising a new site-responsive live art work that considers the activism of the women imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin following the 1916 Rising in relation to contemporary tensions between nationalism and feminism. This will feature in ‘Future Histories’ at Kilmainham Gaol in 2016.
Helena Walsh is an Irish live artist who has been based in London since 2003. Helena has performed widely in galleries, museums, theatres and non-traditional art spaces, including public sites. In 2009 she received a Doctorate Award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to undertake a practice-based PhD in the Department of Drama, Queen Mary University of London, which she completed in 2013. Over the course of her doctoral research, she used live art as a methodology to investigate the relations between gender, national identity and cultural history in an Irish context. Helena is currently devising a new site-responsive live art work that considers the activism of the women during the 1916 Rising, that will feature in ‘Future Histories’ at Kilmainham Gaol in 2016. helenawalsh.com
Feature image credits: Helena Walsh, Invisible Stains at Right Here, Right Now (2010), Kilmainham Gaol Dublin (Photographer: Joseph Carr)