The Autonomy Project was the culmination of a year-long arts collaboration by over a hundred artists, youth groups and academics, produced by Limerick city and county arts office, all under the artistic leadership of Lisa McLoughlin. The visible outcrop of this massive artistic endeavour was a series of performances over several days in the Sailors Home and Dance Limerick, and a symposium in the Irish World Academy. I witnessed one evening of performances at the Sailors Home and Dance Limerick.
There were artists of all ages and backgrounds and creative hues involved. There were young dancers, jugglers, sound artists, theatre makers, film makers, political activists, prayer makers and musical performers over the course of the evening, and as a result The Autonomy Project seems like a genuinely egalitarian and authentic collective artistic response to the idea of autonomy. 'Autonomy' is a word which is being driven down a binary semantic path at the moment. At the time of writing, we have an upcoming referendum – easily the most divisive the country has seen in my lifetime – in which autonomy is being both celebrated and profoundly undercut. So it is timely, and forthright, that so many artists pause and say THIS is what we mean when we say autonomy. This is very close to what I would say is the ultimate job of the artist. It is great to see so much thoughtful and engaged work curated over one evening, defiantly inclusive at a time when it is probably more easy to have an argument than a discussion.
The first section of the evening's work is a promenade through the rooms of The Sailors Home, a beautiful building in the final stages of magnificent restoration. Each stop touches a sense or an organ - the first is given to us through sound and light. There's a skeletal dance performance. There are several which reference breathing. There is a heartfelt prayer, and finally, an angry political meditation. The second act is in Dance Limerick. It opens with the excellent Goblom, and then rides madly off in all directions with an engaging rip through genres and styles. It's an interesting technique, and a lot of the performers in this half are quite young, but they are presented for us with the same sincerity and value as any of the other performers. They are certainly worth the wait.
This giant evening of work must have been an absolute nightmare to pull together. That it was staged and performed so flawlessly is a tribute to the curator, the individual performers and the unseen but hugely competent technical staff.
So, here's some thoughts on each of the pieces....
Part 1: The Sailors Home
Everyone sitting on the bench in this first piece, Spatial Composition 1: I Breathe Therefore... has a speaker behind them with a light on it. The breath, a static noise, is sent from speaker to speaker, each lighting, giving each person in that dark room moments of inclusion and identification. Siobhan Kavanagh accompanies this sequencing, mediating and escalating the mechanical ping-pong between the speakers. The spatial play of the sound is fun. Eventually each person in the audience seems like the generator of a response to the singer between us.
The Body Autonomous unfolds down the staircase of the venue and into the corridor where the audience waits. A good entrance, which Oberländer did not overplay, she has a gentle, half confident, half shy presence at first. But she grows into her space, with detailed exploration of the line along which she moves. Her performance feels like a series of soundings, attempts and essays, like a child learning about its environment. We are very close to the performer in this narrow space. There are tiny details where a large sweeping gesture is subverted by a tiny movement of Oberländer's hand. It's as if the exploration has now become less about the space and more about the body itself, in public, the presentation of an image never quite disguising the complexity at work underneath, the effort which goes into its construction. Oberländer's costume lends further complexity, a soft exoskeleton which has its own life, suggested but not controlled by her movement. The simple building blocks of this piece aggregate into a pleasingly layered whole.
Fergus Byrne is always a compelling performer. He thoughtfully processes complex concepts into simple, bare-bones body language from where they resonate outwards and become complex again. The movement in AutoPneuma starts within the body, a highly controlled hyperventilation which took charge of the entire space. Hyperventilation is an obvious symptom of the desperation many of us have felt in moments where we lack control or autonomy, and I find Byrne's deliberate self-control a defiant and highly optimistic gesture. From the first position, crouched in a denim jacket on a dusty floor, he rises and moves forward towards his audience, connected to the wall behind him by a mechanism of strings which will eventually divest him of his jacket. When this is taken off, he leaves it to rest in mid air, suspended by the mechanism and a precarious length of timber. As he moves, the room seems to reveal itself as if his gaze illuminates it bit by bit past where we normally look. His performance ends with another static moment, balanced mid-way up a casement window. An unsentimental performance, and yet highly charged in its resonances and its optimism.
Deirdre Murphy's Thoughts And Prayers is a timely attempt to make something meaningful out of that phrase so hideously used in the wake of recent tragedies. These words angered people so much not only because they replaced any concrete action, but because they also circumvent the need for any thinking or praying at all. So Murphy brought us into her space, warmed by the three singers beside her, and gave us her ACTUAL thoughts and prayers, genuine and good-hearted. Her movement was a spatial weaving, a gathering up of her audience. Her words were a gentle litany and reminder not to forget all the human needs and wants which are the first things to be forgotten during difficult times. A small gesture, but rock-hard in its commitment to decency in response to difficult times.
Seamus Nolan's 10thPresident project intelligently extends the central theme of this evening's work. Its subject is a little boy named William Delaney who was savagely beaten by a priest and subsequently died, and who certainly never had anything resembling authority over his own life. Nolan's idea is neat and undeniable. He wants to have William Delaney included on the ballot for the imminent election of our next president. What better way to represent the unrepresented and forgotten, to plead for their autonomy? The piece consists of a large hustings poster, colourful and brash, with the forlorn and spare face of William huge and unavoidable. A narrator presents this one tragedy, standing for all such tragedies, and the case for William Delaney's nomination. That's it. It's a powerful and moving gesture, and there's really no point in restating the case much further. You can look up www.10thpresident.org and see for yourself. It is a furious plea to embrace the outrageous and terrifying aspects of our past. It is an idea whose time has come.
...much needed sandwich-and-half-of-ale break in the very welcoming Horse And Hound Bar, and a chance to chat about the work before strolling down to part two...
Part 2: Dance Limerick
For me the performative highlight of both of this evening's shows is Ella Clarke and Catríona Ní Mhurchú's Goblom. The text, performed by Ní Mhurchú, is in a particularly ancient strain of Irish. This textual impenetrability is an intelligent match for the shifting specifics of a contemporary dance performance. The performers grow and orbit around each other, as if Clarke is a piece of animated set for a moment, then an echo of Ní Mhurchú's hurt and angry Badhb. And as Clarke grows and articulates her movement, a great rhythmic inhalation which reaches upward and outward, suddenly and subtly she is the heart of the performance, the hurt and anger around her beaten back for a while by her radiant optimism. Suddenly they are aspects of one character, a surface and a core. And then like a sinewave, Clarke slowly shrinks, everything shifts. Ní Mhurchú is the centre again, crawling and ranging the stage, and Clarke's revealed core is again hidden under a wash of confusion and anger. It's a great essay in dynamic and relational shifts. I look forward to seeing the finished piece soon.
Music Generation Limerick contributed two performances, both young bands. I have not seen a teenage band in many years, probably since I was in such a band myself, and it was fun to watch these performers through the foggy lens of old age. The first was a slightly shy group who warmed up into something melodic and enjoyable. They were brave and they did well, in front of a crowd they didn't know, and without much of a soundcheck. The process of testing your creativity in front of an impartial audience is an important one, there are so many variables out of one's control, and they deserve a lot of credit for throwing themselves into this unknown. The second band had a few amusing hitches during their set-up, but these were entirely forgiven when the black metal screamo vocals of the singer kicked in. Proper order.
As a longtime endurer of misphonia, I was a little apprehensive reading the title of Limerick Youth Theatre's Chewing. I shouldn't have worried. It's a likeable and hilarious movie about what it's like when for whatever reason - real or imagined – we are pushed beyond our control. I liked literally every one of the performers, but the central actor was just brilliant. Her diffident but hopeful manner was familiar and convincing, and the entirely unexpected twist in the tale was carried so well because of the work she did along the way. Well scripted, genuinely funny, and uniquely told entirely through the eyes of a bunch of teenagers. More of this kind of thing!
Dance Limerick's show Hello I'm, was hugely enjoyable as well. Basically, it was four kids introducing themselves, speaking about themselves and each other, and dancing. The choreography was co-created by Rachel Shiels, and the performers themselves. They each had a solo and a duet, and a very satisfying quartet. They all looked as if they were enjoying themselves, there was a real sense that the four of them were genuinely proud of their work, that they really saw this show as an opportunity to show what they could do and to enjoy themselves. They deserve this moment, they are all extremely capable and physically articulate. The best part of watching all of tonight's younger performers perform was seeing the joyous, defiant nervous energy which Skye, Zoe, Ben and Jenny had in spades. The structure and performances of Hello I'm are an excellent example of autonomy in action.
Maleta Company's La Mesa (the table) is an athletic and precisely performed circus show about two friends counfounding, arguing and eventually helping each other. A performer is tasked with arranging a bunch of juggling balls on a table. But his friend wants to help... cue chaos! Silent but energetic, this is the show which really caught the children in the audience. The two characters are opposites of each other, one goofy and the other cool, a little brother and a big brother perhaps. This is a competitive relationship, where one has a job to do, and the other will not be ignored, but there is a genuine gentleness at the heart of the relationship which is very satisfying to watch. Always brilliant to hear a bunch of small children absolutely cracking up too.
GOSHH's Growing Pains is a film about gender autonomy. This is perhaps the most literal portrait of autonomy on show this evening, a scrapbook splatter collage of portraits and thoughts of a bunch of teenagers from various parts of the gender range. It shifts between modes and moods lightly and quickly, and bursts with images and ideas - everyone gets a chance to say who they are. The diverse performers all negotiate and cooperate with each other entirely in parity, so that everyone's moment gets spotlighted. It's hard not to be optimistic watching these negotiations and cooperations, everyone is working hard to make Growing Pains succeed. It does work. A worthy project showcasing the lived experience of a bunch of good human beings.
Bryan for DRAFF
The Autonomy Project was a large-scale multi-disciplinary project that was presented in April 2018 in venues across Limerick City.