Jennifer is an extremely talented Irish artist/vocalist/curator/anything you can name! I was lucky to get to know her through the exhibition Aisteach when I helped with its installation in The Model. the depth of thought that goes into all her work is remarkable. It rewards the viewers that take the time and effort to look. There are clear lines of thought that go through a lot of her work even when she is using different mediums, and I hope you all take the time to check out the exhibition when you finish reading the Interview.
(this interview was recoded in September Prior to Culture Night 2018)
Let’s talk about your current show Aisteach is on in the model at the moment.
Well, to talk about Aisteach I feel we must first talk about Grupat. I feel the two are linked in a way. Back in 2007 up to 2009, I had a commission from South Dublin County Council – I applied for that commission in 2006. It was at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom, they were giving out public art funding to do very, very big public art projects, and I would probably say maybe more progressive and more experimental work than ever before. Simply because they had more money. Microsoft and Facebook had built campuses, and the ‘Percent for Art Scheme’ generated a lot of money for the South Dublin County Council… the council is Tallaght, and it crawls through sort of west Dublin, so it’s not a posh area of Dublin like Dún Laoghaire and Rathdown. They really wanted to do something that they felt that would put them on the map as public art commissioners, so they commissioned me and four other people, and we all did projects for two years. The project, it was the kind of art that county councils might not usually be interested in – a lot of the time with public art, it might be a sculpture that you have at a motorway roundabout or something like a poetry writing project that you might do with the library.
I was a kid we lived Lough Line which falls into South Dublin County Council, and I had this feeling that there were loads of interesting people, but there wasn’t really an experimental art scene out there. So I thought ‘what if I just made one up?’ With the hope that kids growing up could feel, yeah I can do that. That is within my capabilities. So, I made up this sound art collective called Grupat, all born within five years of me. I was thinking, these were sort of my people – my team, you know? I could have worked with these people. If I can put it this way, for me, Grupat are alter egos. We’re very used to the idea in pop music that people will have alter egos, like David Bowie will also go by Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke. We’re very used to that idea.
For me with Grupat, it felt very natural that it could be me in the same way. And for two years we did the project, and with lots of exhibitions, performances, we had two books published as well as two CDs released, and the culmination of it was in 2009 – we had a retrospective in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, as if Grupat had existed for years and years.
From that I then had an exhibition in the Chelsea Art Museum in New York in 2010, it was a solo show called Irish Need Not Apply. I decided that I would put some Grupat works in that show, but it was also in that show when I started exhibiting works that played with the idea of created history. I claimed that some of the work was on loan from the National Museum of Ireland. The Robert Boyle alchemical ceramics that are in the current Aisteach show in The Model, they also saw the light of day for the first time in this Chelsea art show.
The other thing I showed in this show was the DORDÁN piece. It has these fake Ellis Island immigration records that claim that this is this early drone music, this idea of making historical stuff that sort of started happening like within a year of Grupat. My interest was drifting from contemporary, living alter egos. I think it’s notable that it began in New York, because I was very good friends with a drone musician called Tony Conrad – he’s sadly dead now, but he was a close friend, and he was involved in the discussions about who invented drone music and who invented minimalism. Was it La Monte Young? Was it Dennis Johnston? Steve Reich, Phil Glass? And that DORDÁN project was a way of saying ‘no no, none of you invented it! It was invented by an Irish trad musician who was doing this weird sort of music!’ For me, that was a different of way of intervening compared to having a contemporary alter ego, because it was it was a way to go back and actually question history – how we told stories about music.
When I started working with the idea of imaginary people who are dead I didn’t think of them as alter egos, I thought of them as personae. That might seem like a technical difference but for me it was important, because I felt these aren’t me acting in the world right now. These are people, and I really have to imagine what they were like now that they are dead. They are a way to hack my brain to try and do something differently. I guess it’s the classic artistic way that you set yourself constraints. So in a way, all the backstories… they’re just a way of making a score, and then I have to make the music from that score. So the first person that I came up with was Caoimhím Breathnach. And that was completely organic. I had just bought a house in Knockvicer in Roscommon, and I had felt very strongly attached to that part of the country. Buying the house really made me I feel so privileged and so lucky that I could buy that house, and it sort of rooted me in a way I had never felt before. And so Caoimhím Breathnach sort of started happening in my head. He was the first person to come along, and I would have done the first exhibition of Caoimhím’s work in the ‘Roscommon Arts Centre’ in 2011. Around that time I also had this idea of this making a series of pieces called Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde, which was driven by me and just my interests. I knew I wanted to start off with Dada. So by 2012, I had made this piece called Historical Documents in The Irish Avant-Garde Vol 1: Dada.
Aisteach actually has contributions from other artists – how did that work?
I think of it as something like Marvel or DC Comics. I’m open to others using my characters or introducing new characters to Aisteach. It really depends on the person/people so, for example, Alice Maher said to me, ‘I don’t have any time to make something new’, and I said to her ‘well, do you have something you have never shown before? We can use it and I’ll fit it into Aisteach for you.’ So she gave me this bronze cast of the mouth, and it’s fantastic because we already have this idea that Steven Graham had come up with for Aisteach called the Keening Women’s Alliance and so it was a perfect fit for that! I had to curate the piece and create a history for it.
It was the same with Vivian Dick. She had this film, Images: Ireland. I thought ‘ok great, can we say that some of the people in it are part of the Kilkenny Engageists?’ She was great and let us go for it. And on the other hand, we have people like Mark Garry, who’s like ‘right, it’s Sister Hellen Brown and she makes these collages of her bullfinch Susan’, and he just ran with it. I do in a way have to give it over to other people. Like, when Mark Garry says he wants to do a nun who teaches a bird how to sing I have to think – okay, well, we already have a Sister Anselme who does these drone organ compositions, should they have any relation? Or do we need more nuns?
Then we have Kevin Barry who made this character Benji the Rant, where I went over and recorded him to make a sound piece. And probably the two most involved in the whole exhibition Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Jack Fennell who both wrote three thousand word essays about their personae that they came up with. Jack mocked up a fictional notebook, Doireann created a suitcase. For me that is the scale. On one side we have Doireann and Jack, then close to them is Mark Garry and Kevin Barry, and down the other end, we have Alice and Vivian. I’m really happy with all those contributions – I just try and keep an eye on things. And I try and edit it well. So my role becomes curator and editor and dramaturge, just trying to make sure that Aisteach still makes sense. Something I’m really happy with is that we have loads of women involved in every level – we have the female artists and we have queer artists and it’s not just a roll call of dead white men. I had never given anyone that brief, but I think it is quite deliberate. Because people want to write into being the type of Ireland that they want to be in and the one that we hope that we will be, and that is an Ireland that’s very pluralistic.
I think a product, I think it is really interesting and one of the things about Aisteach is that every single person who becomes involved in it becomes part of the project – it’s not me. Grupat felt like me, whereas Aisteach feels like a much more collaborative effort. So everyone that worked on the project in any way becomes part of it, whether it is technicians preparing the rooms or the artist who contributed to it and all the performers. And what I love about that is it feels open. It feels that other people could step in. I kind of feel like the editor or the dramaturge. I watch what people are throwing in and I’m trying to balance the universe.
What I love about this model is that it creates fresh openings. One thing that was really sweet that happened last year: there are these sound artists based New Zealand, called Sisters Acumatica, and they just decided one of the Aisteach personae – her name is Róisín Madigan O’Riley – that they wanted to do a performance of Róisín Madigan O’Riley in New Zealand. And so they emailed me, and I was like, ‘go for it’. And I thought how beautiful Róisín Madigan O’Riley was, and Felix Ford [English sound artist who studied in Ireland] who invented Róisín Madigan O’Riley, and these New Zealand women the other side of the planet – laying out all these stones and radios on the beach doing this performance of this imaginary Irish persona.
So I’m quite happy because I think Aisteach first and foremost is an idea, that a lot of Irish and non-Irish people are very invested in, which is the idea there is a bunch of weirdos out there that we want to show a lot of love and support for. We want to find those weirdos and lift them up and let people see that there are weirdos who do weird, cool and interesting music, and isn’t that beautiful? And that idea is bigger than me.
There is more to Aisteach that just the exhibition itself. Would you like to touch on the performative element, specifically your plans for Culture Night?
I think that in Ireland it is changing, but certainly a lot of Irish people feel very conscious about their body and they feel shy – they feel like they can’t dance, or they shouldn’t dance. That shyness about our bodies is everywhere, even in the changing rooms in swimming pools!
I’m currently doing a lot of hip-hop dance classes at the moment, and I was working with the dancers who were part of the Worlding performance at the opening. They were always teaching us new tools like warmups, we did a lot that has made me enjoy life more. Everyone does two things when they’re drunk, they dance and they sing. When they feel that horrible voice in their head observing them is gone, they dance and they sing, and so the thing that we want to do is for Culture Night in The Model is try and make that space for people. And to say to people, come along and do some vocal warmups and learn just a little bit about how to use your voice. Instead of saying ‘I can’t sing’, people will think everybody can sing and people can try so many little dance things. There’s a lot of joy to be had with that.
It’s interesting to see how Aisteach plays with false history, as at the moment we have a lot of people editing their own versions of history on Facebook.
I think that you’re totally right. The thing is, with social media, even if you just think of Facebook – people are creating curated versions of themselves on Facebook. I read an article about teenagers on Instagram lately, and it mentioned how everybody has a Finsta, which is their account which is just visible to their small group friends, and then they have their ‘real’ Instagram where they’re projecting this idea of
the perfect life. And the thing that that I thought was amazing, was that the Finstas were much raw and honest, and far from perfect – and I thought, ‘that is amazing, it sounds so much more interesting than the real Instagram, I want to see the Finstas!’
I would hope we are becoming more used to the idea of that we go online, and we might not necessarily trust the sources of news we are getting, because there was Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey testifying to the United States Congress about Russian actors having influence, these Russian ads that have been on Facebook to try to sway the election, to sow deception… but still everybody is opening Facebook willingly, to willingly be exposed to those, and we are all having to contend with Holocaust denial, people who say climate change isn’t happening, things like that.
One thing that Aisteach tries to talk about is, who gets to curate? Who gets to choose what an artistic canon is and why? What do we say is worthy, and if we are making a combination of Irish music from the last hundred years, who should be in there? Who are the people making those choices and why are they in there? And with Aisteach, in a way we just said, ‘hey, we’re going to make those choices by just making it up!’ Because we realised a lot of the people who would be represented (and are represented) within Aisteach, those kinds of people wouldn’t have been represented. You know what I mean? We don’t know about all the people in Ireland thinking of all sorts of mad shit! There must have been. They just ended up working in the docks in Liverpool or having to emigrate to the US. Or they were barely capable to keep things together financially. So there has to have been tons of weirdos – there are so many weirdos now, how could there not have been? We genetically come from weirdos.
You have quite a range of skills, and actually you might be better known for your compositions like your opera XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! Let’s talk about that.
So XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! is an opera that I wrote for Barbie dolls.
My sister and I always thought that I would never write an opera – I think if you go and see a well-produced Wagner opera, it can be very beautiful, but I just thought that this way of expressing ideas just didn’t make sense to me living in the time I do live in – and then at the time I was reading about marionette operas. Because Mozart and Beethoven had written these marionette operas for puppets, that they would do at the summer retreats. The second I read about that, I remembered the Barbie dolls house that my sister and I had in the attic, and I called my mum: ‘do you still have that? Please tell me it is still in the attic!’ And my mum said ‘oh yeah, it’s great that I want to write this opera for Barbie dolls!’ Through working on XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!!, I got to know the operas of Robert Ashley and composers like that, which I feel is closer to contemporary ways of using speech. Even a bit closer to rap music. It felt like their approach to producing opera made more sense to me, you know, in terms of how we use the voice and how to tell a story. Things like that made a big difference.
It’s been quite interesting for me as an experience, because I made it in 2003, we performed it a bunch of times, we released it on DVD and that was great. But you’re onto the next piece almost straight away so I sort of thought ‘that’s fine, if it doesn’t get done again I’m extremely satisfied – it’s on DVD, it’s been performed all over the world.’ But what has been quite interesting for me in the last few years, people have become very interested in the work again, which I think is really linked to the #MeToo movement and changing sexual politics. A group in Chicago called Mocrep decided to do it. And then they did it in the Bendigo Festival in Australia and we just did it in France. It’s amazing seeing these all-new productions happening. Somebody in Columbia just wrote their PhD dissertation about framing the entire opera as consciousness – like how date rape victims deal with reality in the aftermath. Because, you know, it starts out with everyone laughing because it’s a Barbie opera, but it ends with a date rape.
I wanted to make something that created a dialogue, and at the time I was making it I just felt like I needed to make it. To just put these things that have happened to me, and to women I know, to put it in a way that reached out to others. I think it was Louise Bourgeois who used to say that her emotions were inappropriate for her size, so she would make art to put her emotions into, so they wouldn’t overwhelm her. And I think it was the same for me definitely, with my work there is a lot of emotional stuff that gets sort of metabolised through making the work. So with the Barbie opera, it is quite amazing for me now to see a lot of productions and to see people writing their PhDs about it, really going in and doing a deep analysis of things that I had hidden away in the score. You know what I mean? Where they’re saying, ‘this part where the accordion is typed like a typewriter, but they keep crossing out their text, I’ve viewed it this way,’ and I think, ‘nobody’s ever asked me about that.’ Because everybody only sees the accordion typing, and they don’t pick up on how the accordion is typing something, but I have put something in there. So that has been really nice, just to see the pieces have a new life, in a time when people want to have conversations about these things. There are some things that other people are noticing, or paying attention to, or picking up on or trying out. Seeing people take this on is really beautiful for me, it’s like watching a new person draw your characters. And you just think that this is really beautiful, it’s not just something in my head. Whereas when we did it in new music circles, well over fifteen years ago people weren’t so open to those sorts of discussions about sexual violence and gender relations.
How do you compare making music to making art?
For me the boundaries are very sort of blurry. If you’ve seen the biggest piece that I have done recently, a piece called Everything Is Important for voice and string quartet, and that has a massive video part which I made. So a huge amount of the pieces that I write, they are very visual, and that can be in the video part or that could be in things the musicians are doing physically, or often both. So with Everything Is Important, it’s a forty minute long piece and there is video almost the entire time. And there is a piece I did called Self Care last year where I used an accordion, and the accordionist is just moving around and using their body, and then also there are video parts. So yes, those things are blurry, for me anyway.
The issue is that I think musicians are trained in environments where they are told unless they are doing an opera, that somehow they are neutral on stage in a visual way, and it is not true. it’s complete bullshit. I don’t know how much you know about blind auditions in orchestras, but one of the things they discovered in a lot of orchestras was that the only way to get more women into the orchestras was to have what they call blind auditions – so at a certain point in the audition process the person auditioning has to perform behind a curtain they even put a carpet down so people can’t hear if a person is in heels, and what they found was this actually meant that they hired more women. I think when musicians walk onto the stage, it’s a very visual theatrical situation – Prince knew this, David Bowie knew this, and even the free improv scene knows this. But classical music still tries to say that we are all wearing black so you can’t see us. You know what I mean?
It’s interesting you say that, considering the physicality you employ in the works like Women Box.
It’s funny you say that, because Women Box was an example of the sort of commission that you usually hate, which is that somebody says you have a really specific brief! In this case the brief was that it was to tie into the Commonwealth Games in 2014, it was the first year that they let women’s boxing into the Commonwealth Games as a sport, so they wanted somebody to write like an opera about boxing specifically women’s boxing . And Laura Bowler approached me to do it. I said to her, ‘I’m only going to do it if you learn to box. Because I do not want like faking it on stage, that’s bullshit.’
And Laura to her credit said to me: ‘I only want to do it if I learn to box.’ From there I knew we were onto something good! In that situation, it was more like a method acting approach really. When I mean method style, I mean Daniel Day-Lewis style! Laura started training with Cathy ‘The Bitch’ Brown, I even went to a boxing class with her to see what it was like. Laura really trained and Cathy really put her through her paces, and Laura ended up doing a white-collar boxing match! It was really amazing because her body changed, and she even said she was aggressive in situations she never would have been aggressive in before. Working with Cathy and working with Laura was phenomenal because they’re both really committed, and I saw the joy of committing to something that is out of the ordinary. Laura committed to trying out boxing, really ate like a boxer, she took vitamins. And then at a certain point, Cathy got a man to come so Laura could punch him, so she could get the feeling of what it’s like to punch a human being. We talked a lot about what it means to hit somebody – the difference between rough housing and domestic violence, what it means for a woman to hit a man and for a man to hit a woman, and what it means for a woman to hit a woman. All these different things. And for me it was just such a rich way of working.
And that is what I’m interested in. Sometimes in art school, research becomes very dry and sometimes students feel like they need to do this research so they can justify the work of art by writing a good essay about it, and I’m not interested in that. I’m just interested in learning more about the world, knowing more and having a richer experience so for me all the research, learning new physical things, it all comes with having a richer experience of the world.
And going forward?
What I had hoped to have for the exhibition was an AI system that wrote Irish mythology. But the thing is, that is way beyond my coding skills! So to create it, I had to rely on somebody from the States who just didn’t have time, which is totally understandable.
Aisteach introduced me to strange dead weirdos who I’ve viewed as my like great uncles and aunts, and great-great granddaddies and grandmammies artistically. I think that the AI, for me, is a way to introduce a truly other intelligence and alien intelligence in that – last year for instance, I wrote a piece that with a dog in it because I was trying to understand animal intelligence. This year I’m involved in a whole bunch of different AI projects, where I’m trying to understand artificial intelligence.
You can find out more about Jennifer’s work through her website links below
thank you Adrian Mc Hugh for your work editing