My practice begins in response. My life experience, as it happens to me, acts as the dynamo, and the ensuing emotional interiority is the well from which I draw. Given that my work is confessional, and confrontational, I am asking the audience to believe me. My life is a question, and my work is its answer.
Much of my work has concerned the developmental role of shame-based trauma in the relationships of the queer sick body. The shame at hand arose from one’s queer subjectivity as navigated through a fundamentalist evangelical Christian upbringing, including the response to conversion therapy at a young age, as administered following same-sex sexual assault; sickness as manifesting in chronic pain, speculatively having developed as a trauma response; the body being the site of experience as well as the instrument of articulating that experience in a creative manner.
I will be analysing these in my drawing and in my performance practices, specifically my series of performative drawings of sandpaper made during the COVID-19 quarantine, and the performance piece Keening Garden Door, performed as part of Galway Tulca Festival 2019. I will also be referring to the work of UK-based, fellow queer sick artist Martin O’Brien, and twentieth century queer theory regarding futurity, psychoanalysis, and performance, to contextualise my critical review.
First, I will define the function of each discipline and their constituent operations, as well as their interdependence in the holistic mechanism of my overall practice. My performances generally take the form of performance-centred if not performance-initiated multimedia installations, functioning as stylised rituals. These hinge upon the process of transubstantiation, in which I interact with personally significant totemic media (props, imagery) in space in ritualistic format, charged by the witness of the audience.
Beginning with Keening Garden Door, ‘Keening’ is understood as a formalised Gaelic expression of intense grief in the wake of a death (Mc Laughlin, 2019: 1). Often unacquainted with the bereaved, the assigned Keener acted as a proxy for mourners to express their grief vicariously. Historically, the role of the keener was assigned to female, matriarchal figures, lacking the retrospective representation and engagement of complex male grief, but having also been stamped out as a Pagan practice following the cultural introduction of Christianity and it patriarchal values. In Keening Garden Door, I sought to deconstruct and reinterpret the Keening through a contemporary lens of gender - though one identifies as genderqueer, one considers themselves immune to neither male privilege nor the complications of internalising co-ercive gendering as someone who does not identify with that social category. The aim was to express my grief, in direct violation of patriarchal suppression of emotion under male socialisation from birth, a la “boys don’t cry”, compounded with navigating that patriarchy as a person queer in both their gender, sexuality, and their respective interactions.
Over the course of the first year following my Father’s death, the principle patriarchal figure in my life, I keened four times in different contexts: live; to camera; alone and in public. The iterations came to represent the first four stages of grief: denial; anger; bargaining, and depression, culminating with Keening Garden Door, reflecting the final stage of acceptance. I performed these keening upon quartz crystals, known in various cultures of magical thinking for their capacity to conduct psychic energies. The concept was that they may incrementally gather the sonic properties of grief and its progression. To harness these, I then set them into a freestanding, black, wooden threshold like teeth. The door’s base was positioned beneath layers of soil both fresh and collected from locations significant to my Father, including that of his grave, mixed together in an intermingling.
This sculptural aspect of the piece was engaged in a live performance, in which I approached the door donned in a black, funereal suit. Over the course of approximately twenty minutes, I approached the Keening Garden Door, performing a final keening, sounding atonally, arhythmically at first before gradually moving towards a more structured, melodic refrain that engaged my more masculine, baritone vocal register. As the keening rose in volume and spiralled upward in dynamic rhythm, I approached the threshold, embodying an invisible, repulsive impasse preventing me from crossing it, circling the sculpture intermittently, interacting with the soil. I gathered the soil in my hands, scrubbing what little of my skin was exposed, including my face, eventually pushing it into my mouth and down my throat, all the while attempting to keen through it to the point of choking. As the keening reached its crescendo, I stepped through the door and transitioned into screaming. Eventually, I came to a momentary stop, staring blankly and silently, before speaking aloud and through the dirt that clogged my mouth: “there is a garden, and in the garden there is a door; through the door, with the force of breath onto air, passes my father”. The cumulative act of stepping into acceptance, spoken into existence, its mechanics reflecting the creative power of the breath and the speech of the God my Father I worshipped, my Father who, in spite of our structural grievances, I in turn worshipped, and from whose death sprang my own creative act, the piece having culminated a life of its own for over twelve months. Performed three times over the festival’s duration, each sequence was followed by audience members approaching me, often in tears, offering up their own experiences of grief, including one woman whose own father had recently died, and whom she had not yet cried for until then. The keening was successful, the portal was crossed.
Portals and their crossings over are a reoccurring motif in my work across mediums. In the performance piece “Osculum Infame”, referring to the misogynist legends of young witches’ induction into their identity by kissing the anus of the devil (Russel, 1972: 286) (itself a sapphic, anti-patriarchal image, the meeting of two orifices), I penetrated my rectum with a crystal attached to a wand-like rod, the crystal having been spoken to, transferring its energy through the anus, an otherwise excretory gland. The anus as an apparatus for queer sex magic, which is heavily referred to in my drawing work. Bernhard Siegert refers to bodily orifices as “operators of symbolic, epistemic and social processes... the difference between inside and outside, generate spheres of law, secrecy, and privacy” (Siegert, 2012: 9). Referring to the self-annihilating motivations present in the risky sexual praxes of gay men, Joao Florencio writes “that threshold... a disruptor of the clear demarcation and enforcement of boundaries between self and other, that [sex] operates its experiments with the body and subjectivity through a monstrous embrace of bodily fluids” (Florencio, 2020: page). This transportive, sublimating dynamic, of crossing from one state into another, lends itself to the cathartic nature of my work. Florencio, extrapolating the work of Elisabeth Grosz, posits “it was not so much the formlessness of male bodily fluids or even their circulation that threatened ideas of masculinity but rather, the direction of their flow... The high likelihood that the male body could function as a receptacle that threatened the ideological foundations of the male body” (Florencio, 2020: page 91) - Grosz herself notes in Volatile Bodies that “Part of the process of phallicising the male body, of subordinating the rest of the body to the valorised functioning of the penis... involves the constitution of the sealed-up, impermeable body” (Florencio, 2020: page 91).
It is precisely this masculinity as thrust upon me as an otherwise feminine, queer person, that has congealed into an emotional obstruction, where art may serve to destabilise this coalescing wall, where my tears (and other bodily fluids) may roam freely, where gendered operations of “flow” are inverted, as Grosz continues “the idea that flow moves or can move in two-way or indeterminable directions that elicit horror, the possibility of being not only an active agent in the transmission of flow but also a passive receptacle... [a] body that is permeable, that transmits in a circuit, that opens itself up rather than seals itself off... a quite radical rethinking of male sexual morphology” (Florencio, 2020: page 92).
It is this responsive restructuring of masculinity that is reflexive in the queer AMAB body, and reflected in the process of making my work as well as the subject of the work itself, and indeed the live wire or the live moment in performance. In direct parallel to the jouissance of risky sex, one enters “performance mode”, wherein the artist can carry out actions they would otherwise be unable to do as well as otherwise socially sanctioned in doing outside of performance, and in retaining the (sometimes toxic) physical matter and artefacts of unprotected sex, my body, as the creative instrument but also continuing to function neurologically and experientially, gathers mental and physical artefacts of the performance’s temporal subjectivity, as well as cyclically embodying, if not self-fulfilling, subsequent parallels of one’s subjectivity to one’s sexual praxes that lead to the piece’s making in the first place. The cycle and its autopsychoanalysis retrospectively function to open up my self-awareness further.
Freudian psychoanalysis, and psychosexuality was split into stages (Freud, date: page) , each representative of the developing libido’s location in the body, spreading like a virus, frustrations and pleasures forming around it like crystals in its wake. The anus was posited to somatically represent the beginning of privatisation in obscuring the defecatory act and relegating it to private spaces, this border inferring the distinction between one’s self, the world, and socially mediating the two - Jeffrey Weeks wrote in his preface to Guy Hocquenghem’s “Homosexual Desire” “in [patriarchy], only the phallus is a dispenser of identity, and any social use of the anus other than a sublimated one creates the risk of a loss of identity, whether[...] man or woman. Hocquenghem quotes Freud’s remark that ‘the anus becomes the symbol of all that must be dismissed from [the
individual’s] life.’ The functions of this organ are truly private; they are the site of the formation of the person” this principle becomes more sophisticated, transmitted across cultures values and systems - “the great act of capitalist decoding is accompanied by the constitution of the individual; money, which must be privately owned in order to circulate, is indeed connected with the anus, in so far as the anus is the most private part of the individual” (Hocquengham, 1993: 96-97).
The anus as a site of inquiry, as well as a conceptual site of (re)production, flies in the face of patriarchal values, in that, the individual’s constitution under capitalism is rendered not only permeable but fluid, it may be reappropriated, transformed, or even be implemented as a tool for these purposes in a new bodily technology. Sublimation is the changing of form whilst retaining the essence of the transformed subject, which itself is found in my practice: the balancing act of articulating the self and its experience in the face of constant evolution and adaptation to new experiences, new understandings of past experiences, and thus, new interiorities. Hocquenghem writes “the anus expresses privatisation itself... sublimation is exercised on the anus as on no other organ, in the sense that the anus is made to progress from the lowest to the highest point: anality is the very movement of sublimation itself” (Hocquenghem, 1993: 96). Hence, it is through my anus as a creative material that I represent my constructed identity. In essence, I am talking out of my ass, speaking myself into existence from its lips in rectal birth.
My drawing practice has functioned to explore my life experience more explicitly, depicting the ideological artefacts of queerness and faith and their interactions in surreal, nightmarish imagery. These refer to biblical tales, as well as imagery derived from contemporary queer theory surrounding gay male subjectivity with sexual praxes and risk evaluation - the queer death drive, and its parallel to the death worship at the centre of Christianity. The result of my drawing practice, whose medium allows me to pictorially render my thoughts and auto-psychoanalysis as images.
Two weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown, I exhibited symptoms of syphilis, leaving stigmata-like marks on my palms; a fever, and deep, painful fissures. I had knowingly contracted the disease sexually through my anus months prior in a bout of loneliness and apathy, from a man I had previously been in love with. The dynamics of sexual risk in queer subjectivity are a fixture of the queer experience - central to my drawing practice work is the depiction of my internalised homophobia, sewn under the Evangelical upbringing that culminated in conversion therapy at fourteen years old. This event came about as the consequence of same-sex sexual assault months before, on the same day I coincidentally became consciously aware of my sexuality. I was inspired, upon discovering my syphilitic symptoms, to reconcile two tiers of my practice, performance and drawing, whilst pushing the materiality of my work. The series of works I produced would eventually be called “The Invert’s Covenant”.
Internalised homophobia, and, given the complex simultaneities within sexual and gender identity, transmisogyny, are the logical conclusion of notions of queerness as an inversion of the heterocentric, "natural" order; of sin manifesting in physical and spiritual illness is then made manifest in a self-fulfilling prophecy: self-destruction played out as a queer sexual rite of passage. In creating this work, I performed to camera, “priming” the sandpaper using the ‘queer sick body’ to intermingle infected blood with the grain of the canvas. The first resultant work, “Panoramic Abject” is a visual Hellscape of my toxic associations with my own sexuality; queer abjections & biblical abominations depicted on the image’s abrasive surface. The series would go on to manifest in seven sandpaper works, bookended with two original compositions including the aforementioned and “The Investiture Of Abatton”, the latter of which, and the final instalment of the series, invoked futurity and abjection through imagery inspired by the Biblical Book of Revelations.
In between these were reimaginings of painter Caravaggio’s depictions of bible stories. The five depicted were: Sacrifice of Isaac; The Beheading of John the Baptist; David With the Head of Goliath; the Incredulity of St Thomas; and the Denial of St Peter, are based on inverted, or mirrored, compositions of Caravaggio’s paintings. Caravaggio’s own sexuality of course is a source of historical inquiry and contingency, but regardless, though informed by as much, his paintings are often understood as homoerotic. These four myths were ones of many repeated to me over and over again as a child, part of the rich and dark tapestry of a fundamentalist religious childhood that would lay the foundations from where I would later understand my queerness, a faith system that, incidentally, emphasised the forgiveness of one’s oppressors as not only a virtue, but a moral imperative to one’s own place in eternity.
I identified with this faith until halfway through my teenage years. At fourteen years old, the same day I became cognisant of my attraction to men, I was also sexually assaulted by a member of the same sex. As a young teenager, I internalised this to be a punishment from God for the abomination I now was. Upon being attended a Christian counselling service thereafter, I was convinced to partake in a session of conversion therapy, in which a charismatic pastor convinced me I was possessed by a demon, of which I had to rid myself by asking God for forgiveness, a penance for my transgressions. Again, we have this notion of expulsion, of catharsis - in this case literally exorcising one’s demons.
This body of experience of course, was t he demon that maligned my young queer mind, and impacted how I navigated my sexuality, often with the implicit bias and narrative, no matter how I tried to convince myself outwardly, that my pursuit of intimacy was self-destructive, doomed to fail, and that Hell was the price, often embodying a self-fulfilling prophecy in my personal life. I previously mentioned that I had become infected with syphilis, and I had sexually contracted that same infection months before knowingly in a bout of isolation, depression, and apathy for my own well-being. A dead copy of the syphilis virus exists in the grain of the first work of the series, “Panoramic Abject”. This principle of internalised homophobia and self-destruction is reflected in many queer people’s journey towards self-acceptance, imparted not only via religion, but the heteronormative paradigm across society that they must navigate towards self-actualisation. This self-destructive motivation is intimately manifested in the work, the act of eroding the self.
The unprotected dynamic of both the sex and the performative action of imbibing the work with the syphilis virus, aimed to invoke jouissance, understood in French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan’s terms and defined by Joao Florencio as “the violent pleasure derived from the drive to self-obliteration” (Florencio, 2020: page 28) - the death drive motivating living organisms’ reversion to inanimate state, often poetically aligned with orgasm, or in French, “la petit mort”, or, “the little death”. Incidentally, Performance’s inherent rendering of the artist’s body as vulnerable acts as a(n) (un)safe space where these toxicities may be intervened upon, a mutual intimacy between artist and audience that is perhaps especially parallel here in sexuality, given the piece’s origins in the exchange of bodily and viral matter via sex. Susanna Paasonen theorises ‘sexual play presents one means of testing out bodily capacities... emphasis on bodily potentialities... rubs against the logic of categorisation central to the politics of identity” (Florencio, 2020: page 43) - this hold true as well for performance. this is analysed in Florencio’s work as “a creative practice that opens the body to affective and martial becomings that can cause “ripples across identities”’. This transmission, this exchange, whether of conceptual or physical matter, is the result of one’s intentionality, directing the excreted products of the body.
Gay Hawkins in her book “The Ethics of Waste” posits that our relationship to our waste is in fact the foundation of our subjectivity: “waste doesn’t just threaten the self in the horror of abjection, it also constitutes the self in [...] habits and embodied practices... It is part of the way in which we cultivate sensibilities... and impose ethical and aesthetic order” (Hawkins, 2005: 4) - if my material is the consolidation of my psychic waste, my “baggage”, then art is a form of waste disposal, a dumping ground. The parallels, and here, the symbiotic interaction between my sexuality and my work, is “the reframing of their masculinity through an... unproductive economy of bodily fluids... pose a risk to hegemonic forms of masculine embodiment and to their perceived universality and stability” (Florencio, 2020: Page 92).
Here, both figuratively across performance as a medium as well as the specifics of this piece, my body becomes “a body that is permeable, that transmits in a circuit, that opens itself up rather than seals itself off, that is prepared to respond as well as to initiate” (Florencio, 2020: page 92). Florencio expands on this notion as embodied through “pigsex” - ‘“a transmutation of social humiliation into erotico-religious glorification”... one that re-empowers homosexuals and allows us to reappropriate the discourses that objected us... by inverting the system of values that sustained them - in short, to turn their shit into our gold”. In referring back to Hocquenghem, "...All the libidinal energy directed towards the anus is diverted so that the social field may be organised along lines of sublimation and the private person... your excrement is yours and yours alone: what you do with it is your own business. Among the organs, the anus plays the kind of role that narcissism plays in relation to the constitution of the individual: it is the source of energy giving rise to the social sexual system and the oppression which this system imposes upon desire.” (Hocquengham, 1993: 96-97)
The connotations of working with a virus as a material, one directly acquired by the subjectivity of unprotected queer sex as a result of loneliness, taps into a longstanding history of the intersections of health (including but not limited to disability) and queerness. Posed among contemporary queer theorists as a form of consanguinuity (Dean, 2008: 124), the deliberate exchange of HIV as a form of (fluid-)bonding between queer men, as well as a prostheses of the heteronormative structure of reproduction, is a subject of ongoing controversy.
Joao Florencio expands in his text “Thanks to a long process of co-evolution that involved the incorporation go viral genetic material into the germ cell lines of human hosts... the genes responsible got coding the synthesis of viral proteins became part of the human genome... through that, ancient retroviruses stopped having to infect new hosts. Instead, the survival of their genetic material was secured by human reproduction itself” (Florencio, 2020: page 108). This is figuratively inferred by the virality of narratives transmitted through the self-contained systems of artworks to audiences, further so by the presence of the artist’s body - a conceptual, even ideological virus is spread from body to body without immediate physical contact, spread optically. Syphilis itself was closely associated with queer sexuality, and a social precursor of sorts to HIV/AIDS in the early twentieth century. Dr. Touraine in the Revue du Practicien wrote “syphilis is not just a virus but an ideology too; it forms a phantasy whole, like the plague and its symptoms as Antonin Artaud analysed them. The basis of syphilis is the phantasy fear of contamination, of a secret parallel advance both by the virus and the libido’s unconscious forces; the homosexual transmits syphilis as he transmits homosexuality” (Touraine in Hocquenghem, 1993: 70), and incidentally, syphilis is archaically referred to as “the great pretender”).
The drawings are executed using charcoals and paints, but also of medications such as antibiotics prescribed for syphilis and opioids taken for my chronic pain disorder, each acting as chalks. The sandpaper is as much a tool as a canvas, utilised to erode surfaces as part of construction, reconstruction, or rejuvenation. The act of priming the sandpaper using the body’s various residue is an exfoliant process, which lends itself to the cathartic nature of the work - I externalise, or manually excrete, the physical contents of my body, namely saliva, skin, and blood, the body being the site where trauma occurred, not only physically, but mentally. The body is a vessel for experience to pass through transcorporally, where trauma is a congestion of memory, repressed and unreconciled where it may fester. The mental residue inscribed in the work take the form of these drawings, depicting a hellscape of Christianity’s worst associations with queerness that I learned growing up: that queerness is a form of mental illness or narcissism, the conflation of queerness with predation and abuse, often referred within certain right-wing Christian circles to as “homosexuals reproducing through abuse”. An interesting parallel is an idiom within queer leftist circles, which is that “hurt people hurt people”, implying that the abuses inflicted upon one will be replicated upon others, survivors of which can often go on to be unbelieved. This transference could be interpreted as an inversion of the heterosexual mode of reproduction. Christianity infers that queer sexual union creates death as opposed to heterosexual union creating life. The idea is that queerness and its futurity is socially reproduced and situated, not biologically, but also is a vector for spiritual death.
The Freudian term for a queer individual was an “invert”. Inversion was described by freud as “[the sexual object] is the opposite of a normal person’s... the male invert, like a woman, succumbs to the enchantment emanated by the male qualities of body and mind. He himself feels like a woman and seeks a man” (Freud, 2007: Page -). Freudian psychoanalysis, whilst going on to be rejected by later scientific conventions, would go on to be weaponised as part of secular, “scientific” prostheses implemented in the greater overarching schematic of heteronormative society (Dean: 2001: page 3). The implication in the queer’s development, is its structural opposition, if not confounding structure itself - by virtue of the queer as an inversion of nature, the old biblical adage “it is an abomination” (Leviticus, 18:22) was given the legitimacy of rational, post-enlightenment scientific inquiry. Hocquenghem wrote “the idea of homosexuality as a disease or sickness (“the medical model”)... deriving either from a tainted heredity or a corrupted environment. This represented... a secularisation of the old religious sanctions and an individualisation of the condition.” (Hocquenghem, 1993: 24) This proposed instability, compounded by a complex throng of society-wide oppression, is the sand many queers are forced to build on in the pursuit of intimacy: the spiritual sickness of homosexuality in Judeo-Christian dogma; the shame made manifest as the AIDS crisis, as much a social spectre haunting queer sexual praxes in its wake as the biological entity of HIV; the notion of queerness as mental illness itself, a mutant narcissism.
A shaken foundation often paves the way for the invert’s sexual actualisation, its motivations rooted in self-destruction. The invert’s self-actualisation is bonded with their sexuality, dogged by pathology at the hands of heteronormativity, its associations rooted in abjection, these artefacts embodying themselves sexually via internalised homophobia. This queer offshoot of the death drive often manifests literally as self-extinction. The symptoms can include but are not limited to: realised fetishisation of sexual risk, substance abuse, a lack of love, and a vacuum of self-worth. Hurt people hurt people, and these behaviours can be viral, enacted on one another with ambivalent consent, emerging communally out of necessity in the face of oppression.
The queer sick artist’s body of work, the repertoire of the body itself, is expressed most succinctly in the performance artist Martin O’Brien’s manifesto - “Performance is where I can be sick in the way I want... I am the most abject version of myself in performance... performance is a mode of survival” (Magill, 2018). O’Brien himself document’s his body’s history living with cystic fibrosis, an illness targeting the lungs resulting in a much shortened life expectancy. Though cystic fibrosis is not contagious, the impact of its experience lives beyond the biological confines of the condition – it is to say, interwoven with any physical thing is its social ghost, an idea that may hop vector-like from witness to witness. The live moment renders what is housed within the body safely from others (however unsafe to the individual), suddenly viral. The suspension of disbelief that is so closely associated with performative works, is the mechanism that exposes us to new experiential diseases, whether benign or otherwise.
The word abjection, meaning literally “the state of being cast off”, implies a vulnerability as much as it evokes the raw and the violently revolting. Rendering one’s self exposed in space through performance, unprotected from both the material and socio-psychic forces of the physical world and society, seems to queer the Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest. Vulnerability as a mode of survival is however not weaponised, offence is not defence - rather this revealing, this concaving of the phallic (literally) male presence entering and navigating space, renders a sapphic relationship between artist and spectator - for rather than being penetrated by the audience’s gaze, they too render themselves unsheathed, receptive, creating a tunnel through which the mutual and collective experience may pass safely. O’Brien once commented of cystic fibrosis “the cough is the voice of the disease” (Linsley, 2018: 18), lending a pre-lexical but all together communicative operation, indicating danger, alerting all who may hear it, not least of all O’Brien himself. The sick body, especially in a world where modern medicine conceptually realises ones’ condition to one’s self and others, becomes a constant reminder to itself. In a world where one may be diagnosed, where ones condition may be understood, symptoms become not indicators but mementos mori: physical, reflexive repetitions; mantras of the sick body, like a gay man automatically lowering his voice in a group of straight men, alerted of his own femininity.
Though social progression continues as culture entropically unfolds and evolves, struggle remains arguably definitive in queer history and queer subjectivity. Futurity, specifically reproductive futurism as proposed and discussed by Lee Edelman, is grounded in the heteronormative fetishisation of “the Child” as a biological symbol of continuity. In his seminal text No Future, Edelman writes “politics, however radical... remains, at its core, conservative... as it works to affirm a structure... which it then [transmits] to the future in the form of its inner Child” (Edelman, 2008: 3). The Child acts as an ideal, a moving target rendered for implementation as part of a political stratagem: the myth of the innocent child acts as rhetorical leverage in political discourse, and with procreation historically being associated with heterosexual union (as well as literal legal consummation), it is suited to heteronormative agendas. The status of queer futurity and how it is embodied is one thing, but sick futurity seems oxymoronic at first, let alone that of queer sick futurity and the specific mortality rate of cystic fibrosis. It is in performance however, where we get not only a glimpse at O’Brien’s past and present, but his future too.
“Performance Art” was officially diagnosed as an artistic medium in the 1960s, having germinated within the art world from the beginning of the twentieth century from the futurist and the bauhaus movements, among others. The human body in art had been divided by labour according to function, function according to perceived capacity and value, as the art subject (the human figure) and tool (the artist’s hands). Performance bridges these designs and functions, rendering the body as a site of production, and a stage, as well as a material in and of itself - as well, potentially, and perhaps most pertinently, as the process itself. The live moment, as however constructed to facilitate artist and audience in space, operates as a current, itself a moving target, a vector hopping flea-like just out of attention’s reach before becoming memory, at which point infection takes root, charged by the surveillant entity of the spectator.
Performance, as a legitimised medium also arose specifically as part of an anti-capitalist philosophy in the 1960s art underground, coinciding, sometimes overlapping, with the rise of civil rights activism and political protests win the form of marches and action - themselves arguably performative. The immaterial and temporal nature of bodies in space subverted the materialist value of the art object, for now the body was also literally the site and the art subject. Indeed, the monetary value of art and its associations with the patronage of a wealthy elite, whose privilege hinges on the intersecting oppressions of queer, sick bodies (among others). Suddenly, if there was not a reclamation of the body as artistic tool in the face of capitalism, it begged the question: can a body in space be bought? Which, of course it could, elsewhere through the strata, through employment and labour. However, just as with the reclamation of personal histories, performance allowed the artist to employ themselves and sell themselves in a self-reciprocating, self-generative economy.
This notion of reclamation, itself a site of production parallel to the body, is central to the queer sick performance practice. O’Brien writes "it is as though in this moment [sickness] is visible on my body. I am fighting for breath and breath becomes visible” (O’Brien, 2018: 51) - it is perhaps no coincidence that this notion of struggle as an indicator of reality, a proof of existence - the artist’s breath exists because it is forced to, in a manner that “normative” breathing does not, with visibility itself being a struggle. The visibly queer, the visibly sick, are relegated to their own class of oppression under the lens of greater heteronormativity. What distinguishes O’Brien’s visibility is that his visibility is constructed as a performative work, though paradoxically it communicates biological truths of his experiences that precede construction. This principle of choice, of choosing to represent one’s self as sick, in response to experiencing illness, and being medically declared sick, curiously parallels with queerness as a route of identity. Queer theorist Tim Dean, extrapolating the compared works of previous queer theorists Leo Bersani and Lee Edelmann, notes ‘tactically it may be necessary to accept the pain of embracing, at least provisionally, a homophobic representation... gay political struggle should consist in inhabiting this very representation. The painful “embrace” he advocates thus entails an internal struggle with [...] self-identification as a predicate of effective social struggle’ (Dean, 2008: page -). It is to say that struggle, or more specifically, the aesthetics and the ensuing optics of struggle, are what bring about healing in the generative pattern of progress. Though he may not be biologically cured, O’Brien instead treats a social disease, a vaccine of sorts, introducing a dead (though not inert) copy of his body’s trauma in the form of performance via the senses into the cluster of cells that make up an audience. The reality of one’s sickness is tempered upon being framed by performance, neutralised, so that it may be safely assimilated into the wider body. O’Brien writes “In the performance I am in control... I can [stop] at [...] any point and breathe again... I endure the struggle for breath simply to continue enduring it” (O’Brien, 2018: 50-51).
My own subjectivity encompasses the lived experience of chronic illness. Diagnosed with having fibromyalgia, chronic pain has been a fixture of my life and practice since 2014, emerging as nerve pain across my body, intense migraines and profound fatigue, among other symptoms that left me largely bedridden for much of two years, as well as a long-term opioid prescription that has carried its own symptomatic weight. Eventually, one begins to associate living with being in pain. With long-term pain management, I have learned how best to reappropriate the tool of the body deemed periodically unfit for work instead as a site where the work itself may take place or emerge from, bucking against the resistance of my own pathology.
Speaking on O’Brien’s practice, Johanna Linsley wrote ‘this theorising of resistance as an action is useful for approaching O’Brien’s work... in appropriating [...] treatment, he [...] performs the daily labour of resisting not-Being” (Linsley, 2018: 17). Linsley identifies his work as reflective of Giorgio Agamben’s work regarding potentiality, that which may yet be possible and its capacity to be realised. “Potentiality [...] is not defined only in relation to a future actuality. We can experience potential” she writes, “if potentiality is [...] understood as the subordinate of actuality... actuality is potentiality that has exhausted impotentiality” (Linsley, 2018: 17). The animal prickle down the spine as is anecdotally reported of O’Brien’s work presents us with the potentiality (not to mention a parallel inevitability) not only of his death, but our own. Invoking mortality yields fear, but to construct that invocation through performance may yet yield understanding, the antidote to fear, to what is both alien and familiar to us. To quote Julia Kristeva, and her seminal text Powers of Horror: Essays on Abjection “Abjection is above all ambiguity... it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it - on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger” (Kristeva, 1982: page 9), succinctly applicable to O’Brien’s formal, constructed presentation of his condition. Through his work, we bear witness not only to O’Brien, his life, death, cystic fibrosis or its social spectre - but to sickness and mortality themselves. This uncovering, this abjection, is at the heart of performance - not so much a revelation as it is a reminder of what we already know - “corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement... are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty” (Kristeva, 1982: page 3).
Amanda Lopez-Kurtz speaks of the normative, healthy world the sick are denied access to or from which they are forced to flee as “a framework of Enlightenment normatively within which the virtuosic disabled or diseased body exists only as a paradox” (Lopez-Kurtz, 2018: 11). The sick, or perhaps that is, the medi-diverse, exist radically and entropically within the larger fractal system, antagonising it by virtue of its existence. She quotes Deleuze and Guatarri, ‘“a body is not defined by the form that determines it nor as a determinate substance or subject nor by the organs it possesses or the functions it fulfils... Instead [they] speak of relations. Health is a state of perpetual production of relations” between objects and bodies” (Lopez-Kurtz, 2018: 3).
This notion of relations as a mode of reproduction being the marker of health further contextualises O’Brien’s work. Beyond the production of phlegm in his lungs, incrementally O’Brien produces, by the above definition, health. Beyond simple catharsis, or through raising awareness of cystic fibrosis if not chronic illness itself, through performance and the live moment O’Brien presents us with life, relations taking place in the moment between audience, surfaces, the air, everything happening and coming into being all at once: health itself. These processes, framed through the performance, are elevated to memory, dispersing through our bodies through our behaviour, replicating and riffing on themselves in the simultaneous rushes of existing.
The queer sick artist’s progeny, like many a queer, is a futurity carved out beyond the confines of one’s own biological confinements and into the grain of other bodies: it is an idea. It is a conceptual agent, unfettered by cures or immunities, unleashed upon the world. It is not yet an epitaph, but neither is it a heralding of one’s (or the collective’s) doom - rather, one’s place, caught in time and space, as will leap beyond performance to everyday life, from artist from spectator, to listener, to the written word and back. Doctors speak of capital-H Health as their own Child, the future towards which they might hope to guide the sick by the Hippocratic oath they swear by - the queer sick artist is their own Child, the body swearing its hand on their heart, here and now. Like a cell’s division so as to self-replicate, the queer sick artist’s futurity manifests automatically in lieu of the procreative sexual act, both within and without the body, and often via self-destruction, if not the reappropriation of the self. This transformation, or sublimation, inhabiting one form and then another, infers a crossing over, stepping onto holy ground.
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