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> > > SICK! Festival presents Under Observation
Photo of performance artist lying down on an upraised platform

Martin O'Brien 'Mucus Factory' (c) Martin O'Brien

SICK! Festival of Contemporary Performance Art produced by contemporary performance organisation / venue the Basement plays in Brighton from 1- 16 March. Colin Hambrook went along to an afternoon of durational performance and film

In his coat-trailer for the festival John O'Donoghue points out that The Basement's ambition is "to spark a conversation about a subject people aren’t naturally very good at talking about". Having spent 50 years struggling for an adequate language to describe how I feel about so-called 'mental illness' I am impressed by this intention. Making the 'invisible', 'visible' is an important step towards addressing how we as a society, as families, as communities and as individuals, succeed or fail to look after one another.

Martin O'Brien's durational performance The Mucus Factory is a case in point. In reviewing the outing of this piece at Live Art Development Agencies 'Access All Areas' in March 2011, Deb Caulfield said "So here’s the artist gazing into eternity, his face between his legs, peering at us peering at him. All the while, a nozzle attached to a tube, which is attached to a machine, is inserted into his anus. I’m slightly alarmed that this activity feels so… normal and ordinary. Does it hurt, I wonder. Whatever, he’s OK with it."

"Oh Jesus", someone exclaimed as they walked into the performance space at this point in O'Brien's 'durational physiotherapy session' yesterday. It needs to be explained here that O'Brien has cystic fibrosis and this routine is part of what he needs to do in order to survive.

Putting such an act on display in a public place raises some interesting questions. How do you define transgression? Disability Art in its ideal form, expresses the state of transgression that disabled people live in, in opposition to 'being normal'. How do you define voyeurism? In witnessing the body, others bodies, in extreme states are we, as audience, colluding with oppression, challenging it or doing neither?

O'Brien's performance is a direct descendent of the work of Bob Flanagan, who said: "Death is always with me. It’s in my lungs. I’m a factory of mucous as thick as pudding… a human foster’s freeze machine making sundaes of sickness." This describes more than adequately what O'Brien attempts to do with the mucous he collects during the performance.

The tension is relieved when performance artist and dominatrix Sheree Rose steps into the space in order to assist O'Brien in the hard thumping on his chest, which is an essential aspect of the physiotherapy processes. There is something touching about the level of care on display here.

O'Brien's performance piece was contextualised with a showing of Kirby Dick's 1997 award-winning film SICK: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. This extraordinary film, gives Flanagan an opportunity to share his complete irreverence for death. For example he sings his version of the children's musical song 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' - explaining how masochistic practices have kept him alive. He lived till the age of 43, whilst two of his siblings died of the illness in their early childhood and their early twenties.

The documentary shows Flanagan making a contract with Sheree Rose giving her permission to do to his body, whatever she deems fits. To complete the picture she gives her story on why providing pain, consensually, is an important aspect of her psychological make-up.

I was reminded of a cousin who died of cystic fibrosis when we were still teenagers in the 1970s. There was a desperation within the family, wanting to find a way to deal with his life. Sadly, religion and the promises of US Faith Healers were the best we could come up with. O'Brien pushes boundaries in making a statement about what 'care' is and what it isn't. His work, at the very least, forces the conversation beyond the trite promises of God's alleged representatives on earth.

Under Observation also explored care processes in the two other films: Mum by Adeleheid Roosen and You're a Mental Patient by Kim Noble. Using a mix of irony and honesty Noble describes the grim reality of 'care provision' within mental health services. Imprisonment and enforced 'treatment' with dangerous chemicals is the order of the day. "David Hasselhoff doesn't do counselling on the ward on Thursdays", he reiterates. "Be very cautious when embarking on your mental patient career." What Noble questions is the notion of what is 'mental illness' and how self-hatred and the inability to care adequately for oneself become causes for punishment by the system as the thought processes become medicalised.

In contrast 'Mum' is about how high levels of care through being with other family members can allow a woman with Alzheimer's to express herself. The film explores Roosens mothers’ responses to intimate situations. Where the illness disavows her from explaining herself in mundane language the film elucidates how she expresses her experience in poetic terms as she relaxes with her daughters and other members of her family.

The framing of Under Observation around 'care' processes broke down, contextually with the second live durational performance piece from Yann Marussich. Here we see a man in a large heated glass container, expressing sweat, saliva and tears in mysterious dark blue dribbles and exhumations, whilst loud bubbly sounds play in the background. The programme notes tell us that "in Bleu Remix, the artist once more lets us experience an intimate journey through his body." Marussich shows us how the body regulates temperature in response to the respiratory processes. We see the blue marks gathering intensity as his bodies secretions become more evident.

However, my uncomfortable fascination with being an observer was made more acute by the fact I could find no intelligent reason for why someone would want to do what Marussich was doing to himself, other than making a dramatic statement for the sake of it.

SICK! by medical definition is an attempt to explore notions of the impaired body. I think the curation needs to tread carefully to ensure that it doesn’t set itself up to be a display of ‘freaks of nature’ and thus compound the disabling aspects of having an impairment. Having said that Under Observation was thought-provoking and I’m especially looking forward to seeing Kazuko Hohki’s performance next Sunday.