Trust and the taste of flesh: the ethics of Martin O’Brien’s zombie performance
The first three articles from the Trust Me, I’m an Artist project (funded by Creative Europe) have just been published online, which gives me an excuse to reflect back on the subject of all three texts – Martin O’Brien’s Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, which Arts Catalyst commissioned earlier this year, curated by Jareh Das.
The series Trust Me I’m an Artist seeks to address the isolation of artistic activities from the regulatory frameworks that both contain science, medicine and biotechnology but also provide guidance and clarity for activities in those fields. The conventions and understanding that scientists bring to their work concerning safe or ethical practices are formed during their training and research within institutional settings over years. Artists who engage with the methods, materials and technologies of science are generally unlikely to share these norms and rules because of their different training, knowledge and culture.
A pilot series of Trust Me I’m an Artist events, which included Neal White’s The Void at Arts Catalyst, placed artists in front of an ‘ethics committees’ to present their proposals and allow the committee to discuss them, which could then approve or reject the proposal, or – in the case of White’s The Void – decide that their remit did not enable them to reach a decision. In the Creative Europe funded series, the format is more flexible, enabling broader questions to be raised around issues of risk and audience consent, the interplay of fiction and factual accuracy in relation to science, the responsibility of the curator (to artist and audience), and the different institutional frameworks and cultures of art and science, as discussed in an introductory text to the project by artist Anna Dumitriu, biomedical ethicist Professor Bobbie Farsides and curator Annick Bureaud.
Martin O’Brien’s performance emerged, as does much of his work, from his experience of living with cystic fibrosis, the impact of the medical interventions he receives and the reactions from others towards his illness and symptoms. In this new durational live art work, he turned his attention to the fear of contamination associated with the sick body, playing with depictions of the zombie in popular culture and highlighting recent public anxiety around the risk of infection, which O’Brien discusses beautifully in his text Flesh-Eaters: Notes Towards a Zombie Methodology
The three-hour durational performance took place at the White Building, London. The staging was reminiscent of an emergency medical tent or quarantine centre. Clear plastic was stretched over a wooden frame creating a room within a room. As people arrived, they were briefed on the nature of the performances, and invited to put on protective wear for their clothes. Upon entering the performance area, one met small groups of people huddled in the corners of the space. All watched intently as the artist, wearing a straitjacket and mask, chained to a pole in the centre of the space, struggled on his hands and knees to dip his head in a bowl of green paint and then arduously paint a spiral around the enclosure. As the length of chain increased, the spiral enlarged moving the artist further from the centre and closer to the audience and eventually forcing them to move away to avoid being painted. Over the course of the next four hours, Martin undertook a series of actions which explored interaction and changing power relationships between performer and audience, focusing on the idea of contagion, all the time chained to the pole and semi-naked, often circling the room, making people move around to avoid him and the moving chain. These actions included coughing up mucus and blowing bubbles from the mucus in people’s faces, piercing his lips with a needle drawing blood, and biting members of the audience (with their complicity, as it was easy to move away) and inviting the audience to bite him in return. Over the course of the performance, the audience’s reactions moved from discomfort, disgust, pain, concern and awkwardness to laughter, participation and relaxation, and back again.
The Arts Catalyst team conducted exit interviews with audience members. Many of the responses centred on the act of watching and participating in the performance, and commented on the shift of mood during the performance, from seriousness and unease to laughter, empathy and connection, even a sense of camaraderie. Several spoke of their feeling of the artist’s generosity in sharing and enduring pain or hardship.
The performance was following by a discussion event, which featured a specially convened ethics committee of Professor Karen Lowton, Dr Gianna Bouchard, and Lois Keidan, director of the Live Art Development Agency, chaired by Professor Bobbie Farsides. Issues discussed included audience consent, particularly around the biting, the power of the performer in this situation and how this related to the participation of the audience.
As a commissioner of the work, as well as obvious health and safety issues that had to be addressed before the performance – from paint fumes in an enclosed space to a whirling chain, to the risks of the artist letting blood and potentially being in contact with audience members (1) – there were many other issues of concern for me in terms of both the artist and the audience’s safety and well-being. While I felt a lot of trust in the artist as a highly experienced performer, he was placing himself in a position of both vulnerability and power during the performance. Given the actions, in particular the act of biting, I was concerned about the impact on and reaction from audience members. In her text, the curator of the work Jareh Das reflects on the ethics of extreme live art, addressing the limits of ‘watchability’, ‘bearability’ and what ‘informed consent’ means in terms of audience members and how much information can and should be given to them in advance.
In the past, I have shied away from commissioning live art performances in which the artist hurts or causes injury to themselves (piercing, etc), not from any sense of disapproval or lack of interest in the artform, but because of the ethical dilemma – for me – of commissioning (i.e. paying) someone to commit these acts on themselves. I have also learned that, in the act of performance, the frameworks and restrictions that you have put in place may not work, or may sometimes be transgressed, and then the question of whether or not to intervene.
With the long tradition of live art, these are not new ethical considerations and dilemmas and they have been extensively discussed in that arena. However, it is useful to situate what are often represented as ‘new’ ethical dilemmas of emerging art practices (i.e. those engaging with science and medicine) within art historical contexts that have long addressed complex ethical and social issues and learn from them.
Trust Me I’m an Artist is an ongoing series of projects aimed at investigating the new ethical issues arising from art and science collaboration and consider the roles and responsibilities of the artists, scientists and institutions. involved. Institutional partners are: Waag Society Amsterdam, Arts Catalyst London, Capsula Helsinki, Ciant Prague, Kapelica Gallery Ljubliana, Leonardo Olats Paris and Medical Museion Copenhagen.
- We were careful to alert people to this aspect of the performance, so that those with compromised immune systems or who had cystic fibrosis did not come into the performance, however there remained an element of risk.