Monday, September 27, 2010

Sandra Johnston Performs (with) INTENT

Sandra Johnston a visual artist living in Northern Ireland, has been making site-responsive actions and installations since 1994. Currently a Lecturer in Time-Based Art at the University of Ulster, Belfast, and previously (2002/2005) she held an Arts Humanities & Research Council Fellowship post, which involved researching the concept of “Trauma of Place”-exploring how artists can make creative interventions within spaces associated in public memory with violent events. This research was instigated in the post cease-fire political climate in Northern Ireland, and then extensively explored in many different international contexts. (Source: Bbeyond website)

Sandra Johnston - (with) INTENT - Johnston is currently developing a series of actions that reflect on questions of creative improvisation, paralleled with processes of judicial inquiry. In considering forms of evidence, a legal jury must consider “intent”- essentially an assessment of a person’s motives, or state of mind when committing to an action. During this performance a series of actions will be undertaken firstly as improvised and therefore unfamiliar acts, which are subsequently re-entered, the second time with a more developed sense of intent, or knowledge. (Source: Open Space website)

The innocence of improvisation, the responsibility of rehearsal.

Intent. Motive. The difference between first and second degree murder. The heat of the moment. The id. The ego. The libido. The superego. Conspiracy. Stalking. Road rage. Misogyny. Parole violation. Repeat Offender. Sectarian attack. Rape. First time. Juvenile offender.

The innocence of improvisation, the responsibility of a modus operandi.

Sandra Johnston's performance took place in an old Victorian courtroom in the Maritime museum. We were ushered into the room by the gallery director and instructed to sit anywhere in the room apart from the seats around the table of evidence. Most people opted to sit at the sides in the jury seating.

Did you plan the attack? Did you watch the victim? Did you make sketches, diaries? Did you share your goals and intentions? Were you looking for revenge? Did your anger and rage overflow? Were you out of control? Did you defend yourself? Did you fight for your life? Skin under fingernails.

Two tables were pushed together holding three heavy drinking glasses, a pile of folded grey shirts, a pen, and some sheets of paper. There were three glasses on the judge's desk. One held water and I couldn't see what was in the others although I was told later that one glass contained pig's blood.

Did you make sketches of the piece? Did you weigh the options? Did you make a mental map of your journey? Plan of attack.

The semiotics of the courtroom. The semiotics of performance creation.

The artist wore a black button down shirt and black jeans and bare feet. She stood by the table(s) of evidence and began to walk along the edges, wiping her finger along the surface. She collected dust on her fingers and then wiped them onto one of the sheets of paper, gathering the evidence. She cut her fingernails and collected the clippings on a sheet of paper.

Did anyone know what you were going to do? Did you intend to surprise your audience? Did you intend to surprise yourself? Have you done this performance before? Which images have you packed in your suitcase and brought from Northern Ireland? What is your performance DNA? What are your aesthetic prejudices?

The artist picked up two of the drinking glasses and slipped them onto her feet. She used her arms and upper body to move herself around the table and around the courtroom.

Gestures of supplication. Gestures of desperation. Lives in the balance.

The artist is silent. The gulls cry eerily overhead. The artist takes a drink of water from the judges table. She swallows some of the fingernail clippings. She put the fingernail clippings in her mouth and chewed on them. After reaching a point of exhaustion she slips her feet out of the glasses and walks over to the docket. She balances on the edge.

Swallowing the evidence. Biting her nails. She pushes her limits. She weighs her options. She is defining the performance in real time, but memories and intentions help to create its shape. Nature or nurture? Bad to the bone.

She unbuttons her black shirt and picked up one of the twelve grey shirts and buttons them all together one by one until she had a ring of shirts. She performs gestures with the shirts, looping them around on the end of the tables and dragging them to one side. She pulls the shirts off. She makes a ball of the shirts.

Twelve good (wo)men strong and true. Are you Catholic or Prozzie? Feminist or Mysogynist? Neutral or prejudicial? Forgiving or vengeful? Justice or Nemesis? Chemistry or Alchemy?

She takes several drinks of water. She fixes her gaze on the table of evidence. She weighs the evidence. She takes the glass of water and fixes the mouth of it to her chest, slipping it down her skin, through her bra down her belly through her panties down her leg over her foot and off. By now most of the water is leaked out but she drinks the rest. The bottoms of her feet are dusty. She pulls some of the fingernail clippings from her mouth and puts them in a glass of pig's blood.

She leaves the space.


Did we have a resolution? Do we need a resolution? A judgement. A decision. Did it all go according to plan? Will there be an appeal? Taxpayers money. Cut the arts. Cut the artist. Taxpayers money.

Conclusion: Everyone has the right to cross the street. Safely. Crossing guard, security guard, insecurity guard, Garda. Whose security is it anyway?

Was there a plan all along? Lack of divine intervention. Divine intentions. Human results.

Forgiveness. I forgive your humanity.

[These are my impressions of the performance and I apologize if I have misrepresented the piece in any way due to my memory and my version of how the events unfolded. LW]

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