Performance artists have to deal with the fact that the public in general don’t like unexpected commotion, especially when it makes them feel shame or embarrassment. When someone is being mugged, beaten, homeless, drunk, has Tourette’s, the public turn a blind eye, and quicken their step from the scene. It would be better if we were like alpha dogs, who react with a growl or nip to the throat when one of the pack start rolling and frolicking in the grass. It all comes down to the cringe factor, and when in your opinion, the performance crosses the line from emotive spectacle to self indulgent artifice.

So, why over the years have I been drawn to write on a host of Irish performance artists who include Michelle Browne, Dominic Thorpe, Alex Conway? In this instance of writing, it’s Alex Conway’s props and absolute absorption into his particular mode of performance that produces prose  – from an artist whose choice of mutism as an emotive tool uncovers a verbal skeptic at heart. However, at the launch of ‘SITEATION’, a temporary project space on James Joyce Street, made up of members Helena Tobin, Michael Holly, Debbie Guinnane, Sue Rainsford, Etaoin Holahan, and who refer to themselves as “an eclectic and multidisciplinary collective of art practitioners, curators, and writers,” Conway allowed his voice to enter his usually mute vocabulary, in a collaborative performance with Frank Whelan, that collapsed the inherent individualism of performance art into a conjoined-twin-band.

Both Conway and Whelan’s physiognomy contributed to the performance, whether they were aware of that fact or not. Conway, the ‘lead singer’, sat facing the crowd – gorilla dominant. Whelan sat directly in front of Conway, with his bare back to the audience, which was partly draped by long hair. Faceless, he looked like the atypical drummer, and was closest to the audience but submissively turned away. Holding drum sticks, Whelan played percussion pads that were strapped to Conway’s legs, while the latter yelped, screamed, postured, dressed in an array of props ranging from a purple hat, bells, coloured contact lenses, and red light inserted in his mouth.

The harsh, but rhythmic sounds emanating from the corner of a commercial unit that was decked out in customary derelict decor, has seeds in 1970s Industrial and ‘No Wave’ music (think ‘The Roosters’ who practiced in a nearby apartment in the 1979 banned film Driller Killer): a brand of underground music that also infiltrated brutalist performance art of the same decade. But it was Conway’s sophisticated and colourful use of props that offered the viewer something more than personal torture, usually envisaged through cement blocks and chains. This was postmodern performance not ’70s mimicry. Just like post- industrial metal bands of the late 1980s Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, Conway and Whelan allowed the audience in with their synergy of chaos, rhythm and accented dress. This was emotive theatre, not cringe worthy.

SITEATION will be hosting events at the same venue over the coming months. Where: neighbouring Oonagh Young Gallery and The Lab, at Unit 4, James Joyce Street, Dublin:

Alex Conway + Frank Whelan – (Hi Dó)

SITEATION, Unit 4, James Joyce St. Dublin 6th September, 2012
Photo: Michael Holly


Beating the Emotive Drum

Alex Conway + Frank Whelan – (Hi Dó)


Unit 4 James Joyce Street, Dublin

6th September, 2012.

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