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Guest post: EL Putnam | interview by Áine Phillips

14th October 2018

Border Patrollers was a residency and public talk at LADA in July 2018 that engaged Irish and the UK live artists who are addressing the relationship between our two countries, especially looking at the Northern Ireland border as a potential locus of social and political problems post-Brexit. Led by Áine Phillips and funded by Culture Ireland, Border Patrollers plans to develop into a live performance event in 2019 taking place on the actual NI border at Rassan, County Louth. Áine will work with artist and philosopher EL Putnam to curate and organise the event. In preparation for developing the project, EL discusses some of her recent border performance works with Áine. 

Artists who are interested in getting involved with Border Patrollers, please contact Áine or EL through their website links above.

Áine Phillips: Can you describe some of the performance works you have made that address the issue of the Northern Irish border?

EL Putnam: I have created two performance works that address the border. When we first moved to Rassan in Co. Louth in 2017, I was looking out the window of my studio and I realised that I was looking at the border. I went outside and took panoramic photographs of the landscape, where the foreground was in the south and the background was in the north. I manipulated these images with glitches and then printed them on semi-transparent fabric. Later I brought this fabric with me to a Bbeyond Performance Monthly (which is a group performance by members and guests of Beyond that takes place in a public place at least once a month) without any sure intention on how I could use them. We were performing in a pedestrian shopping area in Belfast and at some point I pulled out the fabric. The wind picked up and it unfurled in my hands. At that point I realised I had made a flag. I was struck by the poignancy of this gesture, as flags have significant meaning in Northern Ireland as they identify someone as Loyalist (British flag) or Republican (Irish flag). For the performance Blood and Soil (2017), I created two flags that contained different versions of the same panoramic landscape image and spent 6 hours in Smithfield Square in Dublin waving them. People regularly stopped to ask me what I was waving, as there was no recognisable element identifying these as images from the Irish border. One common theme is how people were struck that a landscape image can carry political significance, even if it does not appear to do so immediately. These points stuck with me and inspired the next performance I have made regarding the border, Quickening. 

Quickening (2018), which I created while in residence at Digital Arts Studios (DAS) Belfast, consists of over 200 photographs and audio taken around the border that are digitally manipulated in real time using a motion sensor. That is, images would cycle on a screen and when a motion sensor was triggered, the image and sound would glitch as a person moved closer to the screen until it turns into noise. When I originally performed this work, I walked slowly backwards towards it using a mirror in order to disorient my movements. I played with the thresholds of movement in relation to the sensor, using minor gestures to trigger subtle glitched differences in the visual and sonic composition being created over the course of twenty minutes. The term quickening refers to the movements of foetus in early pregnancy. These sensations can only be experienced in the physical state of pregnancy: they are internal, haptic, and also phenomenological, making the pregnant woman the communicator of experience. The notion functions as an apt metaphor for the border, which encompasses a phenomenological quality that is experienced affectively and cannot be simply reduced to a line on a map. I want to add that I was pregnant with my second child when creating this work and visibly pregnant when I first performed it.


Bbeyond Performance Monthly, image by EL Putnam

Áine: Why have you engaged with this theme?

EL: I tend to make art in relation to where I am in my life, so my interest in the border came from moving there with my family. I am also drawn to this theme as a non-Irish person, which makes me removed to a degree from the history of the region and the Troubles (the military and civil war that raged in the region between 1968 – 1998). I maintain an awareness of my status as an “outsider” when creating this work, but I am also implicated in it since this is where we live and Brexit will have immediate impacts on our daily life. I want to create work that has political resonance, but also opens a space for nuance when considering the implications of Brexit, since this is what gets lost in many debates. 

Áine: You live on the border, what is it like living there now in anticipation of Brexit and what is  your hope for resolution of the border problem post-Brexit?

EL: In many ways, daily life continues as it is, since the formalities of Brexit are so uncertain. It’s challenging to prepare for something when it is unclear what is actually going to happen. However, the history of the border is in living memory and heightening any physical indications of the border is going to have an impact. Therefore, I hope that the border can maintain its minimal presence. Our daily lives integrate both sides of the border, as we perform many errands in the north and the south. The local economies are dependent on traffic from both sides, which means that introducing any hard division will cut access. In his book, The Rule of the Land, Garrett Carr describes the border as not being a liminal space between two nations, but functions as its own third state, “the borderland”. I find this to be an apt description, although it is not something that is factoring into Brexit negotiations. I am anxious about what this will mean for our lives here since the Brexit negotiations, along with much of the press coverage around Brexit and the border, are so disconnected from the immanent reality of this region.

Áine: Thank you EL and I really look forward to working with you on future Border Patrollers projects in the future, whatever happens with Brexit and its aftermath!


Blood Soil, image by EL Putnam

EL Putnam is a visual artist and scholar working predominately in performance art, video, sound, and interactive media. Her work draws from multiple themes and sources, including explorations of the interplay of digital and corporeal gestures, which she investigates through personal and cultural lenses. EL actively presents artworks and performances in the United States and Europe, is a committee member of Bbeyond Belfast, and has been a member of the Boston-based Mobius Artists Group since 2009. She is currently a resident artist at Digital Arts Studios, Belfast. Recent works of note include: Digital Bu(i)t, commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts at Boston City Hall in Boston, MA, USA, and Stakes in the Muck, presented at the 2017 Research Pavilion, Venice Biennale (organized by GradCAM). Originally from the United States, she currently resides in Co. Louth.

Áine Phillips is one of Ireland’s established performance artists and the editor of ‘Performance Art in Ireland: A History’, published by the Live Art Development Agency and Intellect Books UK in 2015. She has presented multi-media performance works internationally since the late 80’s and has created work for diverse contexts; public art commissions and communities, the street, club events and gallery/museum exhibitions. Her work has been shown across five continents, in places such as Tokyo, Ljubljana, New York, Uganda, Brisbane, giving talks on her work at Tate Britain and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. She has worked extensively as a curator of performance events in Ireland and the UK. Phillips is Head of Sculpture at Burren College of Art and lectures at the O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

Featured image credits: EL Putnam

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