A long skipping rope trimmed with blonde synthetic hair is one in an excess of activators in Laura O’Connor’s FIX15 performance. A female character uses the laden rope to follow several windows of instructional “jump rope” videos that are projected against her body. American production values, accents and pounding music collide; the constant changing and combination of techniques break any attempt of establishing a rhythm. With no foreseeable conclusion to this character’s exposure, we see her attempt to do it all, re-interpret, misinterpret and fail, in a long blonde wig and spanx, all whilst being streamed on the Internet.
O’Connor’s practice is sited in women’s placement in media, particularly those that are self-perpetuated online. The power dynamic is constantly in question in her complex live installations that are based in transactions of consumption, action and production, made both for audience and screen.
When you’re carrying out your performances and combining using, watching and interpreting, how in control are you of the situation? Is it like a live experiment?
Previously I made the work within the studio and would perform to camera, and being able to edit the film meant I was definitely in control all the time. Now I’m interested in playing with different viewing situations at the same time, like live streaming performances whilst I’m in front of people, seeing how these things work together and the difference between looking at something on screen and experiencing it in real life.
I still do try and control a lot in these situations, like how the live stream is created. With the performance at FIX I decided to use the same process of green screening that I’ve used before, but without the actual screen – and because I was projecting onto myself what was picked up on camera and put out on the other projection was always going to be very hard to see. I like that idea of playing with the information and images of the performance, and putting a barrier in place that makes it harder to enjoy or experience.
At the same time, when I do live performance I’m exposed, and as I’m streaming it online I don’t know where it’ll end up. I don’t worry about it because that’s the point of the work; I really want to see what happens and where it lands. The embarrassing things or failures are strategies in terms of the repetition that goes on – you keep going and in theory you’ll be fine, but the more you do it the harder it is and the more absurd you look. People at the live performances have told me that I make them feel really awkward, and I think: “now you know how I feel”.
There does seem to be an increased appetite for mundane entertainment online, like people doing videos of shopping hauls.
I suppose we’re just interested in other people’s lives – even if it’s only the things they’ve bought. I would film myself doing things for long periods of time, and I don’t enjoy the processes. A lot of these regimes aren’t important to me personally; I find it hard to be interested in shaving my legs, for example. The longer you do it, the harder it is to watch something so dull – I’m interested in exposing these private processes that women do at home so that people can see the time spent. I generally look bored in all of my work!
I get inspiration for performance situations through memes, pinterest, tumblr and instagram; I also go to Primark and collect clothes that have positive affirmations for women. Usually they’re lyrics from pop songs, and I wear them whilst performing alongside music. I had a tee that said “All About the B.A.S.S. (boys and serious shopping)” on it, so I used a line from that song, “it’s all the right junk in all the right places” and looped it over and over for a performance in Letterkenny. All of the elements that go into the performance and live streaming are meant to mess with people’s heads a bit – I like setting up awkward situations where people are compromised.
Your live work implies a lot of short bursts of long-term commitments.
It’s never-ending, if you start doing something you have to keep doing it. The absurdness I create comes about because in a way I see all of these practices as kind of absurd in themselves. It’s complicated because I do fall into a lot of these practices myself, dying my hair and wearing makeup, but I think there’s too much of an emphasis on women to be a certain way. My character is very specific – she’s blonde, white and wears spanx and fake-tan coloured tights, but it’s all really obvious and ugly. I’ve tried to wear spanx myself and they just roll down – I’m just stripping it back to show the madness.
At the same time, it’s hard, because I don’t want people to think I’m mocking women who buy into this culture. I’m trying to expose the culture around us that we don’t need to be a part of; it’s all constructed. The things my work brings up are really interesting – you end up getting into these big conversations about routines and our relationships to them. At the minute these conversations are what I think that’s what my work results in, as it’s kind of ephemeral in itself.
Your live work is often made using your character Sweetheart – is the character element important for your work?
It came about because when I started this work, I was looking a lot at cam girls and vloggers. I did a workshop in Dublin and we were asked to do one-hour live performances in the street. Press photographers showed up, and I was concerned that my name would be attached to certain photographs of me in the Sunday paper, rolling around on the street in my underpants, and people wouldn’t get it. The photographs themselves are watermarked and you can buy them online – I have printed them myself with the watermark as I like the dynamic of ownership there.
It was more of a strategy to separate me from the character as I have so many different lives as well – I’m not embarrassed by what I do but it just makes it easier. I’ve always dressed up and been someone else in my practice, and would always refer to “the woman in the work” and “she”. So I definitely separate my body from any of the characters I use because it’s not me and I don’t see it as me – to borrow a cheesy line, it’s my canvas. Sometimes women artists get a bit of grief about using the body as a tool, along the lines of “why do you feel like you have to use your body?” Yet the politics around a woman’s body are more extreme, so I think it becomes necessary to use it as an extreme form of expression.
In the past you’ve mentioned that you would describe your work firstly as installation – where does the distinction from performance lie for you?
The reason I use the term installation is to do with having control over the live element and the installation of the performance set-up. When doing live festivals you find there’s so many things that you don’t know about until you arrive – such as the internet not working, or there not being plugs, and as I perform to screen and in front of people those are really important elements that have to be in place. My work’s still performance, but I need to be able to control all of these things. I don’t mind doing live performances without the online aspect, but the output then is never fully what I want to do. For me, the structure of the show or performance is quite important and very different to just showing up and performing with objects. For FIX I was in the gallery for a few days setting things up and figuring out where things were going to go – it’s kind of like working in a studio but just within the gallery setting.
Where will your work be leading in the future?
I’ve been working on a series of SweetHeart selfie videos and I plan to work more on them, perhaps putting within a nightclub setting. I like women’s toilets, they’re such interesting spaces; I love the idea of going into a nightclub, dressing up as this character, taking some weird videos and then leaving again. I’d be interested in what that process would do to me, and how I would feel about it.
I have a solo show in QSS gallery in May, so I’ll be building an installation set-up for that and do a couple of weeks of scheduled performances, and making video work from it too. After finishing my PhD in October, I’ll possibly be showing work further afield as well; there seems to be an increased interest in this sort of work, with women artists being online and dealing with being online, perhaps more outside of Ireland than within it. Right now I want to build up a body of work I can go on the road with.