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Rise Up: Live Performance by Dr Sandra Johnston + Panel Discussion, 5/11/17, Tyneside Cinema

It was an unusual and welcome surprise to see live performance art in the Tyneside Cinema. The work took place in the Gallery, a space used for screening artists’ cinema and video installations during the day and which is transformed into an intimate cinema screen at night. The event was part of the cinema’s Rise Up: Ending Racism, Poverty and War series of screenings and talks aligning with Newcastle’s ‘Freedom City’ celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King’s week-long visit to the city in 1967 to receive an honorary degree from the then-named University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Sandra Johnston’s practice tends to be site-reactive and rarely takes place in such institutionalized surroundings. In the small, muted cinema space, she decided to do something she hadn’t done for some 15 or so years: use her voice in the work.

Johnston often explores or channels the power of silence. She mentioned afterwards that she felt as if using her voice was a failure for that reason. I thought that the gaps, the pauses, the silences between story/memory fragments spoke volumes; what was not said emerged clearly because of, and perhaps even despite of, what was said. Using a headset allowed Johnston to remain softly-spoken while being amplified in a space lined with sound-absorbing blackout curtains. This along with the comfortable seats had the power to lull spectators into a false sense of security and perhaps made the described memories harder-hitting.

As per Johnston’s request, the work was not filmed, although a photographer snapped away throughout and at the audience during the Q&A without warning, permission, or an idea of what would be done with the images. What happened otherwise exists in memories, traces, artefacts, the materials, and scribbled accounts like this one.

Johnston’s actions and speech centred around images on 35mm slide mounts evoking memories of her time living in East Belfast in the early-to-mid-1990s. They were photographs she had taken when she was a voluntary community photographer working with youth groups. In the darkened space she lit a stick candle positioned on the corner of a centrally-placed table. One by one she slipped the slides out of their cover and stacked them on the table.

When she overcame their slipperiness and static to make a neat pile, she talked through fragments of memories: her difference in the community denoted by her rural accent and the locals’ ability to discern this and their choice to make her aware that they knew; the poverty and underemployment in the area; the feral, unloved, unnoticed children who befriended her; the neighbours who made sure she knew they noticed her every move; the paramilitaries in charge of everything; the areas the security forces would not enter.

One by one she took a slide from the top of the pile and held it over the candle to illuminate the photo. Light smoke was visible as they began to singe and melt in her fingertips. Rather than describing the images seen in this private mode of viewing taking place before us, Johnston spoke about the places and events they evoked for her. In this way, the performance pared the elements of cinema back to fundamentals: passing still film frames sequentially over light. Instead of projecting them, the screen was curtained-off and we were left to imagine the events and places Johnston described. I at least was transported to specific streets as they had been over twenty years ago. For me, her memories triggered imagined projections filled in with my own memories of the streets and areas she described.

Johnston’s practice is primarily visual, and has previously included mediated/mediatized images alongside or in tension with her live actions. She ceased doing this some time ago in a reaction against image appropriation and the fetishization of imaged/reduced trauma. This performance was perhaps an inversion of her past experiments in that the slides as objects rather than the photographs they contained were visible to the audience. Although much of Johnston’s memory-telling was in response to the photographs as she illuminated them for herself on the verge of destruction, much like celluloid stilled too long over a projector beam, it seemed that her recollections were more broadly about a time and a place tethered in her memory to the specific time and place of the youth activities she photographed in the community centre.

The discomfort, tension and potential violence in the recounted events made some of us witnessing feel odd in the comfortable seats (those of us there who know Sandra discussed such points afterwards). While incongruous to the nature and content of the event, that discomfiting comfort and act of listening were important, especially – I feel – in England where relatively few know about the Northern Ireland conflict and extreme social inequality in part of what they often fail to realize or recognize as part of their own sovereign state. Also, those from protestant/unionist/loyalist backgrounds are often treated as the colonizer, the antagonist, the enemy when many share the inequalities faced by their class equivalents on ‘the other side’.

Johnston remembered the girls at the community centre when she was photographing them for a dressing-up pageant. In playing with their identities they would undress in front of her, flaunting their bodies aggressively, which she found troubling. She felt they were expressing their desire to be seen, noticed.

Growing up around girls who displayed sexual aggression like this pushed me towards hanging out with boys. There was less pressure and I could be myself more. But this became impossible when I went to an all-girls high school. Being attractive enough to be noticed by boys who wanted to have sex on/at/to rather than with you was all that seemed to matter to many of the girls, perhaps before they even knew what sex really was.

There were many pregnancies. Even if abortion was accessible, the bump was a badge of honour rather than a marker of shame in East Belfast. Or so it seemed given the bravado of these pregnant children whose partners were often in their late teens or twenties. The bump showed they were sexually active (I have a vague recollection of a discussion around this redundant phrase in Juno but can’t find a clip to be sure), even though some of us quietly suspected one-time rape or doing it to say you’ve done it or that the unprotected sleeping around was in a bid to get pregnant to get housing to flee from abusive, neglectful parents and guardians.

While protestant girls tended not to face the fates of catholic girls disowned by their families and sent to the Magdalene laundries, the abuses they suffer are normalized in full view of everyone. Contrary to widespread assumptions that they’re all irresponsible trash, I’ve seen teenage girls making good mothers and becoming professional women with better job prospects and securer finances than a misfit like me with three degrees and an aversion to parenthood.

As Johnston reached saturation point, she sensed that so too had the audience, and stopped. From people’s faces and body language, the few of us there used to performance art could tell that our fellow viewers had not necessarily experienced anything like this before, or were not expecting what transpired. Even I was surprised at how personal Johnston’s performance was. I was surprised by the memories it invoked for me. When performing in silence, the image can be received in many ways. Spoken language makes it less ambiguous; it can confirm or lead the meaning, it gives it an accent, embodiment, makes it real and less avoidable.

There was a solemn, verging on awkward, silence as Johnston ended and stepped back. Her performances normally end when either the audience leaves the space, or she does, but neither could happen. Even when this isn’t the case and the end is announced, it tends to happen with a performance art audience who know what best to do. It felt inappropriate to clap for her in this setting as if she’d been an entertainer. She stood in the dark silence for a time. The regular viewers and makers of performance who were present felt content to let it settle, but we could sense others’ tension around us (at less solemn events, newbies’ encounters with the absurdity can be quite funny and a useful talking point with them). After a few moments, Johnston repeated, ‘That’s it, thank you’ and applause broke out, led by a member of Tyneside staff.

The Q&A was set up and began immediately, which was testing for Johnston after doing something so raw in front of strangers in an atypical space. While I share the powerful lure of home with Johnston, I too am all too quickly reminded of its potential for petty issues to erupt into extreme violence. She explained that she could be candid in the Tyneside/Newcastle because it’s a safe space; she cannot make these points publicly in Northern Ireland. She stressed the importance of recognizing the smaller, hidden narratives long obscured and negated by dominant, ‘official’ accounts.

She recalled the banality of the ceasefire announcements; the official peace that broke out between pop songs on commercial radio. She remembered how peace came by declaring everyone a victim, and absolving all perpetrators, which in no way levelled the playing field. Instead, a hierarchy of victimhood emerged, with the most vulnerable and silenced further pressed to the margins of society. It was widely felt that then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s Bloody Sunday apology represented all such loose ends lacking accountability, but it only led to outcries of ‘what about us?’ from many other survivors and victims' families.

The panel discussion was chaired by Dr Craig Jones, lecturer in Political Geography at Newcastle University. He and Johnston were joined by Nelly Stavropoulou, a filmmaker and PhD candidate at Durham working with refugees and asylum seekers on storytelling; indeed, Stavropoulou pointed out that the first thing demanded of displaced people on arrival is to tell a good story. It would have been great to see some of her excellent-sounding work and a more balanced discussion between the two practitioners, but time did not allow as the space needed to be cleared for a screening as soon as we vacated.

In speaking with Johnston afterwards, we noted that it was odd to have live performance and panels concerning what we can do about war, racism and poverty in an establishment like the Tyneside Cinema, wonderful though it is, that prices out those who would benefit most from inclusion in such discussions. I found it jarring to have to pay £6.75 to attend one event in a mostly ticketed/priced series aiming to confront these three concerns outlined by King in his graduation speech. To be honest, I find much of the wider efforts to commemorate King’s visit to lack depth. It feels more like a white middle class show of ‘we like black people and we’re not racists’ - i.e. about themselves - rather than a concerted effort to centralize those who are really suffering from these continuing problems.

There are larger issues at stake around working class access to education and culture more broadly, the lack of which contributes to poverty, racism and war. While Diane Reay’s recent study on class and education centres on England, her finding that ‘we are still educating different social classes for different functions in society’ rings true of the disadvantage I lived and witnessed. I’ve never stopped wondering about the effects on classmates who grew up understanding that adults in their lives saw them as trash about to ‘fall’ pregnant any minute. I had classmates with natural intellect, sharp wit, sports skills, technical savvy and business acumen. Some went on to use those skills and become great mums despite low expectations of them. Others haven't, and so what?

It shouldn't have to be a battle. We shouldn't have to overcome adversary to be our best selves. We need to work towards a world in which all kinds of underprivileged people become as unrestricted in their choices and opportunities as society’s most privileged. For a start, it would be just super if cultural venues didn't economically exclude those suffering from poverty, racism and war from events about poverty, racism and war.

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