performingborders (Alessandra Cianetti): The Irish Republic and the UK. Borders. Personal stories. History. Paula and Sam, your multi-layered practice and research at and across the geopolitical border between the Irish Republic and the UK is an incredible source of interpretations and artistic actions on a complex site, the border/s, that you approach using experimental site-specific performance and visual art. In the ongoing and ever-developing Eile Project – ‘a trans-disciplinary visual art and spatial research project that enacts an ecosophical spatial art practice to suggest alternative imaginaries and ontologies of the border’ – you look at the creation of alternative border imaginaries. Could you tell us a bit more about your reading, living and interpreting of the ‘border’ and what you call the building, through art, of a xeno-architecture of it?
Paula McCloskey: The Eile Project is located in lived experience of the border. My family is from the small border town of Ballyshannon, Co Donegal in the Irish Republic. Significantly, my dad is Catholic and my mum is Protestant. My parents met as teenagers and moved to Dublin to be married, where my eldest sister and I were born in the mid-70s. Like many Irish people, my parents emigrated to the UK when I was still a young child. We ended up in the midlands but spent many of our school holidays in Ballyshannon, always there over the summer holidays, staying with my Catholic grandmother. The trips ‘home’ were always by car. The army checkpoints and watch towers signs we were nearly at our destination.
Being an Irish child in the UK in the 1980s, at the height of the so-called Troubles, I was conscious of prejudice towards the Irish. It was easy enough to assimilate at school but I made special efforts to hide my heritage. In 1989, we moved back to the island of Ireland. This time to Northern Ireland, to Enniskillen, a town some 20 odd miles from the border. It was two years after the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing. We moved because I think my parents, my mum in particular, were homesick. Up until that point I had only known the Irish Republic. Northern Ireland felt very different. At 14 years old, moving from an inner-city school in Leicester to a small town and school in Northern Ireland was a huge shock. The first question from all the kids I met was ‘what religion are you?’, delivered in thick Northern Irish accents. They were clearly confused by the new girl with an English accent, born in the Republic to ‘mixed’ parents.
I guess this needs to be said, because although my family did not discuss religion, or politics of any kind with us, these embodied experiences marked me. The toing and froing across the border during the ‘Troubles’, between my Catholic and Protestant sides of the family, the years in England and in Northern Ireland – all did something. By the time of the Good Friday Agreement I was back in England, and just three years later would have had my first child. It was, again, the lived experience, this time of maternity, or what I think of as a maternal encounter, that made me want to understand something of my Irishness, and more specifically I wanted to ‘work-through’ some of the particular aspects of my experience (the border, religion, migration, femininity, maternal subjectivity etc.).
This ‘locating’ is important in understanding how the work is situated, from a particular standpoint. Although it is located here, the project transcends this lived experience, as it is born out of the work with Sam and our 4 children and then continues moving forward seeking out new connections and collectives.
Sam Vardy: I have a partially shared, yet very different relation to the border (and therefore the project) than Paula, but sometimes it is within this difference that we have found productive tensions and opportunities in the work. Being from the UK means that I start from a difficult position in relation to the UK/Irish border and its traumatic history, and from a radically different lived relation to it. I felt it essential from this position to find a practice that enabled me to not only understand differently my relation to this specific border condition but to work with Paula and our children to highlight the need for new border imaginaries.
As our children together arrived, our visits to and across the border became more regular and this aligned with the establishment of ;a place, of their own. As well as this, I had already had a longstanding theoretical and disciplinary interest in the notion of borders from my work on the political aspects of architecture and spatial practice, and this trans-disciplinarily became a defining aspect of our approach to borders, and to our practice.
In your question you mention the coincidence of ‘reading, living and interpreting the border’ and this resonates with our approach. We would also add act with the border, as we attempt to create a work that, through its performances, encounters, research and production, is not so much about the border, but enacts a kind of becoming-border (which recalls something of what the residents of the ZAD in Nantes evoke when they say “We don’t want to occupy the territory, we want to be the territory.” (see here)
By working between art practice and spatial practice and theory, and activist accounts of global border struggles, the Eile Project is leading towards enacting a performative (constituent) theory, practice and ‘xeno’-architecture of the border, which seeks to dislodge the border as only tied to sovereign nation state politics – fixed, oppressive and static, and to attend to it instead as multiple, contradictory, dynamic, and potentially autonomous (while acknowledging the border globally as site of struggle and resistance, violence and control). We also approach the border as, using Karen Barad’s work and term, a material-discursive phenomena, in which discursive and social practices are not detached or separable from the matter, bodies and materials that also constitute them. This leads us to see the border with an alternative spatiality – a complex dynamic (that Barad calls entanglement or intra-action) between space, matter and meaning.
Paula: In terms of the actual approach to the border, again, it starts from lived experience, then reaches out to use the experience above to transform this body (my body through the character of ‘Eile’) through performances with the border, at different border sites, which in turn transforms the border. At these sites, I perform ‘Eile’, a border creature (a gorgon, a transmuter, a shapeshifter), summoned to perform site-specific acts across different border sites with organic and inorganic matter. Eile is also a challenge to, in the way that Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry works, the colonization of Ireland and the subsequent emergence of patriarchal Irish myths. Eile is creating a new feminine-border-myth.
These embodied performances create new border-imaginaries, new border-myths which frame the central concept of the Eile Project of ‘border-fictioning’. This development of fictioning-as-border-method has been influenced by the research of Simon O’Sullivan (Burrows and O’Sullivan, 2019), who has been developing fiction-as-method for some time. For us, fictioning is a way to radically re-imagine the border, to manifest it differently.
Our research also owes much to the pioneering work of Gloria Anzaldúa. Her work in Borderlands/La Frontera (Anzaldua, 2012) validates the lived experience of the border as knowledge, while poetically re-imagining the borderlands of US/Mexico with her new cultural formation of the new mestiza to disrupt dominate nation-state ideologies.
Sam: We are exploring the relevance of reading this practice as what we provisionally call xeno-architecture. My other work has long explored the potential of diverse and alternative forms of spatial practice to prise open the domain and discipline of architecture that, like the border, also requires new imaginaries and ontologies to move beyond a professionalism tied to capital and infrastructures of control.
The Eile Project coincided with a curatorial project coordinated in Brussels by Lietje Bauwens, Wouter De Raeve and Alice Haddad (‘Perhaps it’s High Time for a Xeno-Architecture to Match’) which sought to explore the relation of the prefix xeno to the domain of architecture. We were aware of these discussions but not part of them, instead investigating the potential of xeno-architecture from the specific context of the Eile Project.
The xeno-architecture of the border is one which implies a reformulation of the notion of proposition, of speculation, here as border-fictioning, with interventions not distinct from the border but part of its continual becoming, and taking the form of in-situ performances, digital, manipulated films, texts, and other encounters. It is an architecture that fosters the unknown, is not predetermined, and that incorporates the designs of multiple bodies, matter and voices in a ‘formless’ architecture, of sound, relations and multiple sites and temporalities.
Credits: The Territories of Eile (Butterfly), 2017, by ; a place, of their own.
performingborders (Alessandra): Your collaborative practice, ; a place, of their own., imagines new cartographies of the borders seen as ‘open-ended becoming.’ You start from the position of the inseparability of the processes and practices of knowledge-making from the knowledge itself (Karen Barad) involving into the collaborations actors such as your own children, non-human actors, and science. How do you build and negotiate the human and non-human elements in both your transdisciplinary art practice and the deeply connected academic production?
Sam: The building and negotiating of human-non-human entanglements in the practice takes care, but is crucial to many aspects of our approach; to our various concerns, including responses to capitalism, climate change and the various struggles to claim the radical imagination and the production of subjectivity, in way that (following Elizabeth Grosz work, see (Grosz et al., 2017) resists bio-power (as regulating the body from the outside – regulatory norms, institutions, governance etc.) instead working with ‘geo-power’ – from the earth and from the body – “the powers that operate in and through living bodies, the powers of a body that can be harnessed for particular forms of action and passion.”(Grosz et al., 2017)
Paula: We had already started to engage with the non-human in our practice, as part of the work with our children. For example, with Becoming-animal we worked with our four children to work-through the many intra-actions with non-human animals. A performance was devised (with the children), as a way to resist and challenge some of the bombardment of non-human-and human animal relations children are subjected too (in nursery rhymes, books, toys, food etc), in which animals are subject to objectification, commodification and consumerization.
So we became, through projects like Becoming-animal more engaged with Haraway’s work on multi-speciesism, as well as with the proliferation of other work such as queer materialism, affect theory, post-humanisms and inhumanisms. This thinking informed much of how we started to think about the limitations of ‘family’ with all its human-ness, (where humaness is what Rosi Braidotti calls ‘huManness’ (Braidotti, 2013) and Haraway’s more general proposal of the Chthulucene for the practices of re-worlding (Haraway, 2016). Haraway talks of worldling as an attempt to ‘map universes, of knowledge, practice and power’ (Haraway, 1997, p. 11); it refers to the various material-semiotic ways of ‘world-making’. In these terms the border might be said to be a contested worlding practice, and the Eile Project as a re-worlding practice, a practice of sym-poiesis, making together. It was later that we really started to engage with the work of Karen Barad, and her agential realism, the concept of intra-action and material-discursive entanglements, which is closely aligned to Haraway’s research.
Sam: The Eile Project really starts, as discussed, from Paula’s lived experience, and in its development and unfolding, neither theory nor practice is prior, but are in continual exchange and dialogue. The process of working-through what we were doing on the border brought us to these thinkers, and then through writing about the practice in academic writing we were able to come up with new ideas for practice and develop this notion of border-fictioning.
Paula: So, for example, as we visit different border-sites (rivers, bogs, buildings, caves) we make new connections, starting with the lived experience of the border, but reaching out to find different border experiences, including those of rivers, bogs, butterflies, caves, the ghosts of abandoned RUC barracks, lobsters; and in doing so revealing forgotten or neglected ‘bodies’ and ‘voices’. These Eile encounters and rituals generate material-discursive intra-active exchanges across time and space.
Sam: In the first Territories of Eile audiovisual film triptych, Eile’s ritual at an abandoned RUC barracks involves Eile in a repetitive engagement with brightly coloured glitter, which she pours and places in various relationships with the steel, concrete and weeds of the highly charged site. Juxtaposed with Eile’s ritual is a film that superimposes the mating ritual of the White Cryptic butterfly (a cross-border creature, native to the island of Ireland) with concrete former RUC barracks and an irregular, growing structure of glitter. On the final screen, looping archive footage of young Irish guards at the border town the early 20th century folds in a layer of social practices, relations, fears and another kind of fragility.
The films also importantly incorporates a sonic dimension, as we attempt to listen to the border, to listen to other voices and materials, the earth, to pay attention to the political importance of listening (inspired by the work of the Ultra Red collective, and Lucia Farinati and Claudia Firth in their book The Force of Listening (Farinati and Firth, 2017). Thus, field recordings from the border are merged with manipulated sounds and archive samples, from, for example, the NASA probe that recorded electromagnetic waves from Saturn. This move allows the work to explore the intra-actions of different kinds of borders, territorialisations and fictions, referencing, for example, the current ideologies of planetary colonisation from capitalists such as Elon Musk, and the work of science fiction and afrofuturist writers such as Octavia Butler.
performingborders (Alessandra): The 29th of March 2019 is approaching and everyday we are looking at the news to understand what Brexit means and will mean (at the moment, 26th February 9:26am, it seems that the Labour Party is backing a second referendum, the EU would be open to delaying article 50, schisms of MPs on both sides are happening but we know that when I’ll send my interview later today things might be really different!). In your website you have, interestingly, a window called ‘Eile and Brexit.’ You also brought your project back to the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark working on creating new live and visual art pieces in the subterranean cross-border (UK/Eire) caves. I wonder how your practice, collaborations and theoretical production around the UK/Irish border have been affected (transformed?) by the 23rd June 2016 referendum. What does the future hold for you?
Paula: I think it’s important to say that we didn’t want to directly engage with Brexit; although the referendum result was a direct agitator. We started visiting the border as part of our research practice in 2011 (Experiment #1 on our website). The referendum was a shock and we were left reeling by what it had unleashed. The morning of the result one of my first thoughts was of the border, knowing it would change everything, but also completely baffled as to how the UK would actually make ‘Brexit’ happen with the Good Friday Agreement and so on? We live in Sheffield, England. During the whole campaign the border was hardly mentioned, it was as if many British people living in the UK weren’t aware of it and its significance in terms of leaving the EU. It is of course very different now.
After the referendum, the research felt urgent, it provided the impetus to do something. We started from the position that we didn’t want to address the current political situation per se, but rather use what art practice can do, to create something different, to call forth new connections with humans and non-humans that cared little for Brexit – we wanted to disrupt the real, the present, to create a fissure and see what happened. The urgency was to start, but certainly not to finish. This research is still in its infancy and we have many years, I would think, of working with the border.
Sam: Yes this is crucial to the aspect of distancing from the hegemonic notion of borders to open up new imaginaries and to alienate the border (geo-power/xeno-architecture), while being fully aware and alert to the implications of political decisions and developments (bio-power). The window pop-up on the website is a simple move to create this distance without ignoring the issue.
We are working in/with the caves within our art practice, as a specific material and spatial (and unique) cross-border space to open up alternative border ontologies, the chthonic or underworld is an important notion for us (relating again to Haraway and Anzaldúa) to locate Eile’s rituals within, as one of the various territories we explore. The Geopark in which the cave sits is managed through collaboration between local councils on either side of the border so is also interesting from that point of view. It will be an important part of our work to take the films and border-fictions back to the caves in the coming months, but also to other sites and constituencies across Ireland, in order to generate new dialogue and discussions about the themes of the project.
We are also currently developing two new films within the Eile Project; one, provisionally titled Becoming-Bog, which involved one of Eile’s performance rituals on Slieve Rusheen bog (see here) and another – Eile and the Lobster, which calls on Samuel Beckett’s Dante and the Lobster (Beckett, 2019) to explore new entanglements between Eile and this creature of the Irish Sea (see here). We are also developing ideas of the xeno-architecture of the border using radio transmissions across these complex territories, to create new spatialities and encounters with different voices and bodies using the airwaves to broadcast layered ecologies of field recordings, family conversations and archive audio samples.
Like the website page, we aim to produce small, independent, actions with the children around the key dates of brexit, and the Eile Project, as Paula says, will continue through and beyond this particular moment.
; a place, of their own. is the art+spatial research practice of Paula McCloskey and Sam Vardy. Through art and spatial practice, we interrogate and propose within entanglements of climate, capital, technology and politics. We operate as a collective, a couple, with our children, and through collaborations with others.
Paula is an artist/researcher/pedagogue currently Researcher, School of Arts, Digital & Material Artistic Research Cluster (DMARC), Derby University. Paula is interested in feminist, queer, postcolonial and multi-species interventions. Her work is situated at the intersection of contemporary art practice, performance and feminist philosophy. As part of her practice research with ;a place, of their own. she co-produces site-specific performance, video, installations, sound, and text. Paula has a PhD ‘Art, Maternal and Matrixial Encounters’ (University of Sheffield, 2013).
Sam is an architectural researcher/pedagogue and artist, currently Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Sheffield Hallam University. His practice and research with ;a place, of their own. explores xeno-architectures through critical engagement with social practices and experimental design. Through practice and writing he investigates politics of space and urban practice, with a focus on spatial self-organisation and autonomous politics and spaces as explored in his PhD from Sheffield University School of Architecture (2016). http://aplaceoftheirown.org
Anzaldua, G., 2012. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Fourth Edition, 4th ed. edition. ed. Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco.
Beckett, S., 2019. Dante and the Lobster: Faber Stories, Main edition. ed. Faber & Faber.
Braidotti, R., 2013. The Posthuman. John Wiley & Sons.
Burrows, D., O’Sullivan, S., 2019. Fictioning: The Myth-Functions of Contemporary Art and Philosophy. Edinburgh University Press.
Farinati, L., Firth, C., 2017. The Force of Listening. Errant Bodies, Berlin.
Grosz, E., Yusoff, K., Clark, N., 2017. An Interview with Elizabeth Grosz: Geopower, Inhumanism and the Biopolitical. Theory Cult. Soc. 34, 129–146. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276417689899
Haraway, D.J., 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press Books, Durham.
Haraway, D.J., 1997. [email protected]_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience, 1 edition. ed. Routledge, New York.
Featured image credits: The Territories of Eile (Slieve Rusheen Bog), Still from HD Film with audio, forthcoming 2019.