Bridging Contexts

***Image caption: Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell, You Can Be A Diamond, 2010. Photographer: Jordan Hutchings***


Bridging Contexts

Crossings / Traversée Ottawa to Belfast, 2010.

review by Julie Fiala


Described as a “Performance Art Exchange,” [1] Crossings / Traversées unfolded in two instalments: the first, in Ottawa, hosted by Galerie SAW Gallery from 17 – 20 June 2010; the second, in Belfast, hosted by the artist collective Bbeyond from 28 – 30 October 2010. Bbeyond supports performance art in Northern Ireland and creates opportunities for international projects such as this one. [2]

Curated by Christine Conley, Crossings covered a program of performance art and discussion, which included a workshop component in Ottawa. The program sought to bring artists from Belfast together with First Nations artists. The core artists were Bbeyond members Alastair MacLennan, Sandra Johnston and Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell, representing three generations of artists based in Belfast, and Aboriginal artists Jackson 2bears (Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk)), Maria Hupfield (Anishnaabe (Ojibway)) and Skeena Reece (Tsimshian/Gitksan and Cree). In Belfast, the program was expanded to include Bbeyond artists Chrissie Cadman, Elvira Santamaria, and the duo of Paul Stapleton and Caroline Pugh. Both installments included contributions by Aboriginal sociologist of art, Guy Sioui Durand.

As conveyed by Conley in the project booklet, the program’s curatorial premise was to provide a framework to explore issues relating to “the legacies of colonialism” and “political conflict.” A peripatetic Canadian now living in Belfast, I was fortunate to participate in the two-day workshop and to have attended the parallel program in both countries.

In Canada, the last major violent crisis between Aboriginal peoples and the State could arguably be Oka, just over 20 years ago, which saw a summer of armed conflict between the Mohawks and Québec and Canadian police forces. In Northern Ireland, the period known as the Troubles (1968-1998) has had lingering effects and continued impact on the country’s socio-political landscape. The tension and violence are very real and continue to pose an immediate threat to everyday peace and the coexistence of identities drawn (although imperfectly) along Unionist (Protestant) / Nationalist (Catholic) lines. It manifestly affects lives on the streets today in the form of bombs like those defused on the Antrim Road in North Belfast in late January 2010.

This immediate sense of violence is most poignantly felt in Bbeyond’s Sandra Johnston’s second performance, which took place within the basement vault in Arts Court, Ottawa. Johnston held a fist full of wooden drumsticks in either hand, and the work culminated when she repeatedly struck her thighs with brutal and intensifying force. As the blows intensified, Johnston could no longer hold onto the sticks, which gradually fell from her grasp, bringing the performance to a close. As Johnston explained during the closing round-table discussion, held in Belfast, she inflicted the pain onto her body as a punishment for not being at home when the results of the Saville Report were delivered on 15 June 2010. It unequivocally blamed the British army for the Bloody Sunday massacre. Although this is an extreme example, Johnston’s performance is indicative of the physicality of presence in many of Bbeyond’s performances. In my mind, this is not as evident in the performances by the featured Aboriginal artists, whose temporal relationship to conflict is different.

In both Club Saw in Ottawa and Catalyst Arts in Belfast, Jackson 2bears successfully used scratch video performance to remix and deconstruct media and film stereotyping “the Indian” as a means of reclaiming the representations. Archival footage of cowboys and Indians is interrupted by current examples of Native self-representation (including clips of the hip-hop group War Party and of anti-Olympic protest). On an expanse of grass in front of the War Museum in Ottawa and at the Cornmarket in Belfast’s city centre, Maria Hupfield emerged from a pod in a silver spacesuit as lady moonrider, which, as she explained in the Belfast round-table, defies ideas of native woman as desired Indian princess or desexualised squaw. Skeena Reece’s Prayer for Arrival incorporated song, séance, prayer and native ritual. The work began in Ottawa at an Irish Pub, D’Arcy McGee’s, and migrated to a room at the Château Laurier, to finish in October at the Belfast Harbour Office, near the docklands where the Titanic was built. As part of the performance, Reece explained that she is retracing (although in reverse) the voyage of Charles Melville Hays, who died on the Titanic en route to Ottawa for the opening of the Château Laurier, which he had commissioned. As the President of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, Hays had a keen interest in developing a railroad from Prince Rupert, the home of Reece’s people.

These Aboriginal artists addressed the psychic violence caused by historical amnesia, positing alternative narratives and deconstructing historical myths that propagate discrimination. Could this contrast to Bbeyond’s physicality of presence relate to a temporal and generational distancing from experiences of immediate conflict? 2bears, Hupfield and Reece, who were born in the mid-1970s and are now in their 30s, likely re-member (and “piece together”) the deep historical violence through their parents, grandparents or elders, who, for example, were the last generations to be subjected to the atrocities of the residential school system. Johnston (who, now in her 40s, has spent most of her life in Northern Ireland) and MacLennan (who moved to Belfast in 1975 in his 30s to teach at Ulster Polytechnic) would have witnessed, as adults, the intense violence of the Troubles.

Jean-Luc Nancy’s rethinking of the workings of community as “inoperative,” highlights how the concept of community itself is illusionary insofar as it presupposes a coherence that is essentialist. [3] As a conceptual framework, even though Crossings could be deemed to invoke such a coherence — as a community conceptualized along colonial/conflict lines — what I find interesting is how the actual performances could be considered to expose the limits of community, because we are confronted with as many disjunctions as we are with points of similitude.

However, I would argue that the two-day workshop led by Alastair MacLennan was a critical part of Crossings because it presented opportunities for being together, a “crossing into others” beyond the conceptual limits of community. The workshop encouraged the participants, 13 local performance artists (which unfortunately did not include 2bears, Hupfield, Reece or Bbeyond’s Johnston and Bhreathnach-Cashell), to mind the discrepancy between the conceptual and the actual. As important (and necessary) as the careful crafting of our performances might be, MacLennan suggests that what is crucial is our ability to adapt to the actual performance situation with all its contingencies. (The responsiveness to context can be witnessed throughout Bbeyond’s work.) This is also a call to be fully present: an invitation for us as performers to recognise our selves in continual transition — from the subtle movements of our bodies to the wanderings of our minds. In recognising this transitioning, we gain a self-awareness that brings us closer to being fully human, fully actualized. As MacLennan has explained, “It’s a question of how integrated the individual seems to be with the action and the activity, so that you lose a sense of whether the person is doing the action or whether the action is doing the person.” [4] On the final day, the group actualized these principles through a performance at Confederation Park in Ottawa. Blindfolded, we moved together as a single organism, connected by bamboo sticks that required us to communicate through subtle shifts of pressure. This was a poetic, shared experience of actualizing community.


Crossings was meant to create a bridge for cross-cultural and -contextual exchange. It succeeded in enabling a shared platform and some parallels between the artists’ relationship to conflict and colonialism across distinct geo-temporal-political contexts. In many ways, the workshop (like the round-table discussions and social gatherings outside the main program) may have provided opportunities for a type of collaborative exchange that did not happen in the main body of the program. For example, what would it have meant for the performers to work responsively with one another in an attempt to share more than a thematic framework?


Julie Fiala is an artist and PhD candidate in Art History at Queen’s University, Canada. She is currently a visiting student at Trinity College Dublin in Belfast.



[1] Exhibition booklet. Christine Conley, Crossings / Traversées (Ottawa: Gallerie SAW Gallery, 2010).

[2] For more on Bbeyond see the catalogue PANI: Performance Art Northern Ireland (Belfast: Bbeyond, 2010).

[3] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, ed. by Peter Connor, trans. by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

[4] Alastair MacLennan interviewed by Robert Ayers, Nothing Is – listening to Alastair MacLennan, Live Art Letters 5, Feb 2000, p. 4


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>