There is a lot of talk about history going on in Ireland these days. Many commemorative events, programmes and publications are dealing with revisionism, reclamation of lost histories and the creation of new understandings of our past. 2016 is the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the failed rebellion against British colonial rule in Ireland that ultimately won the country its independence. We are now looking at the legacy of these events, the contemporary meaning of our Republic and our continuing relationship with Britain. Interesting times… especially for historians and artists. One examines the past, the other re-imagines it. Somehow I find I have become an artist historian, firstly imagining what has gone before and now seeking ways to examine it anew.
This started about three years ago when I took on the challenge posed by our community of performance artists to produce a book on the history of performance and live art in Ireland (Performance Art in Ireland: A History). No such publication existed and the absence of archive, narrative and critical writing was impeding the art form. We needed a repository of stories, images and ideas that could help us define the practice of performance art here and to understand the work that had happened on the island in the context of our social, political and economic history. We needed to chart who had made what work, when they had made it and why.
Looking back, I realise it was a reckless and daredevil act to take this on but it yielded such pleasures and celebratory moments alongside the dismay at accidental omissions, the necessity of redaction and the inevitable inaccuracies that are caused by being human and flawed. In Ireland we are often afraid of history as it has caused such devastating consequences - decades of The Troubles (the civil and military conflict) in Northern Ireland and the reverberations of post-colonialism. Even the word ‘History’ to me is resonant of a patriarchal authoritarian assurance that I would like to demolish! However, I faced down these anxieties because the end result was so important to so many and the process taught me how to address history and not be intimidated.
Maybe for this reason I was excited and motivated by the prospect of tackling a major centenary project. With Niamh Murphy I am co-curating Future Histories a performance art event taking place on May 21st in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, the greatest monument to the 1916 Rising and its aftermath. Future Histories is an Open Call National Project in ART: 2016 funded by The Arts Council as part of Ireland 2016 Centenary programme. For 12 hours on this day (close to the dates 100 years ago when the leaders of the Rising were executed in the Gaol) 16 artists will perform in the haunted and desolate spaces of the edifice, its bleak stone yards, cells and the great panopticon East Wing.
The artists are Danny McCarthy, Brian Connolly, Debbie Guinnane, Helena Walsh, Sandra Johnston, Fergus Byrne, Francis Fay, Katherine Nolan, Pauline Cummins, Ciara McKeon, Dominic Thorpe, Meabh Redmond, Laura McAtackney, Michelle Browne, Sinead O’Donnell and Alastair MacLennan. They will make performances that attempt to remember, reflect and re-imagine our past; its conflicts, crises and passions in the light of our future. Many of the performances will be of long duration, slowly developing over the 12 hour period (from 10am to 10pm) and creating residues of action, memory and affect that remember and mirror the durational struggles of the Rising.
All the performances and art works created will be questioning, exploratory investigations of the meanings of the 1916 Rising in the light of contemporary understandings. It is this intention to question and explore the past - without trying to produce definitive conclusions or resolutions - that mirrors the attempt I made in Performance Art in Ireland: A History. The publication is a venture towards documenting history. The event Future Histories will be an endeavour aiming to interpret history through this art form. How can history be secured, known and fully recorded being so mutable, subjective and profuse? Every person lives a unique version of their own history and the history of the world. In Future Histories we hope to create a collective event of diverse individual perspectives on history and its complex nuances. We aim to complicate and trouble history, to play with it, so we need not be anxious of it anymore.