Contested Site: a live art performance
by Kate Barry
Contested Site was situated in one of the old barns (circa 1700), on the lands of Milford House in Tipperary, Ireland. The first time I entered the barn, I knew I would perform there. I was struck by a series of etchings and some graffiti dug into the old, lime plaster. The hand-drawn etchings were daisy-wheels, or carpenter’s marks, and are known today as “witches marks”. These ancient symbols of protection ward off evil spirits. They’re found in the dark places of a home, or barn, such as a remote corner, under a sink, or in this case carved into the very back wall. Among the daisy-wheel etchings there was some barely legible, handwritten graffiti that read, On Ash Wednesday 1940 James McCormack and Peter Barnes lost their gallant Lives for Ireland. Gone but not forgotten. Whist lives the IRA.-P. F According to Brendan Anderson’s book, “Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA”, 2002, James McCormack and Peter Barnes were members of the Irish Republican Army who were executed at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham on 7 February 1940 for participation in the 1939 Coventry bombing which killed five people. The men admitted to constructing the bomb but claimed not to be involved in planting it. The graffiti memorialized their lives and deaths. The etchings and graffiti were a strange juxtaposition between time and space, violence and peace, protection, and vulnerability. It was difficult to get my head around but, thankfully Live Art Ireland residency director and artist Deej Fabyc, and artist and director MJ Newell were there to walk me through it. They contextualized the etchings and graffiti by tactfully navigating my overtly romantic ideas of the site. They directed me to historical facts while addressing the overall taboo subjectivity of the place.
In Contested Site, my cis-female, queer body is explored as a site of contention in relation to the barn. As a relational, site-specific performance piece, I utilized cypress branches salvaged from the land after a Code Red winter storm and some dead bramblebush weed. I employed my body to make lip-prints, and I painted with a handmade brush made from copper piping and synthetic hair. The element of relational practice extended to the other artists on site, Day Magee, Deej Fabyc, MJ Newell and the dog, Ziggy. I performed for the spirits of the barns, and the surrounding natural life. The performance was mediated by two cameras, one camera was directed toward on the canvas, and the second camera framed the overall installation of the piece.
During the Contested Site performance I created a performance-painting in black & white with acrylic and household paint on un-stretched canvas. I started and ended the performance by holding a pitchfork and ringing a bell three times. Contested Site centered on four actions: sweeping the painting surface with branches from the cypress tree, creating lip-prints by kissing the canvas on the ground, painting circles with my homemade paintbrush, and whipping the canvas with bramble weeds. Each action was performed twenty-five times and the four performative actions totaled one hundred to mark the Republic’s centennial.
The performance took place on a chilly evening on December 14, 2021, and was broadcast over Zoom to an audience of about fifty people for the Virtually Live and Streaming exhibition that featured the work of ten local and international artists. It was produced through an artist residency with Live Art Ireland onsite at Milford House in rural Borrisbane, Tipperary.