Infecting Archives: An interview with Martin O’Brien

Martin O'Brien; photo by Marco Berardi

photo by Marco Berardi

Martin O’Brien is a London-based performance artist whose work considers existence with a severe chronic illness within our contemporary situation. O’Brien suffers from cystic fibrosis (CF) and his practice uses physical endurance, hardship and pain-based practices to challenge common representations of illness and examine what it means to be born with a life-threatening disease. In addition to solo work, he has also embarked on a series of collaborations with Sheree Rose, a Los Angeles-based performance artist and photographer who was also the partner of Bob Flanagan. Flanagan, who passed away in 1996 from cystic fibrosis, made work with Rose that considered endurance and pain in the context of their BDSM relationship. In 2015, O’Brien was artist-in-residence at the ONE National Lesbian and Gay Archives in Los Angeles, which holds Flanagan’s archive. There, Rose and O’Brien continued a collaboration they had begun in 2011 in London. In this interview, O’Brien discusses the complexities of working inter-generationally, the practice of addressing incomplete archives, questions of infection and contagion, and the ethics of interaction in performance.

– Johanna Linsley

Johanna Linsley: Can you tell me about the work you and Sheree made in the ONE National Lesbian and Gay Archives in Los Angeles?

Martin O’Brien: Well, it was pretty intense. I hadn’t really anticipated as much as I should have how intense it would be for her to see these things she hadn’t seen in thirty years. I think it was thirty-nine boxes full of stuff. A lot of it was slides, something like 13,000. Too much to even look through. And it wasn’t just her and Bob. She documented the entire scene. She was the only one taking photographs at Club Fuck. She was the only one documenting the queer leather scene in LA and San Francisco. It’s a collection that no one else has done. It’s amazing. Videos – again, not just her and Bob. Fakir Musafar branding someone. Ron [Athey] getting his face tattooed. Incredible, bizarre points of reference.

But a lot of the stuff I was doing with her was thinking about the legacy of the work she did with Bob, and in relation to my own work. Him as a body living with cystic fibrosis, and then her as this thing in between – his lover. Then me becoming kind of a substitute for Bob, at least in her eyes. I was standing in for him, in his position or the position he would have taken in performances.

The piece that we did in LA was directly addressing the archive. We tried to make a piece that was essentially missing from the archive. In 1995, Sheree and Bob got a Guggenheim fellowship to do a trilogy of work about death, The Death Trilogy. They managed to make the first part, which was called Video Coffin. This involved a closed coffin with the head section open and a TV monitor inside with Bob’s face on it. As the viewer got closer a camera took a photograph and then Bob’s face was replaced with the viewer’s on the screen.

He died before they were able to make the other two pieces. They got the Guggenheim fellowship in ’95, he died in January of 1996 and Guggenheim removed the scholarship – took it back so Sheree couldn’t make the other two pieces. The following year she put in the same application again, and it was rejected. So we tried to make a version re-imagining the second piece.

Originally, it was going to be a coffin that was filled with tiny photographs of Bob’s face, like confetti. We made a version of that involving a coffin holding an effigy of Bob, with a paper mask of his face, a giant penis, and hands and feet, and dressed in black. Surrounding the coffin were tiny photographs of Bob and Sheree, and other photographs from the archive. The audience was invited to shovel the little photographs into the coffin, to bury his effigy in these images. Then we carried the coffin out in a procession into this cactus garden that they weirdly had. [laughing] Only in LA! We put the coffin into a grave and set it on fire.

JL: Would the audience who was there have known Bob? Or have been to some of the original performance?

MO: Yes. I think their legacy still looms quite large, larger in LA than it does here [in the UK], for sure. I mean they are pretty underground, subcultural. But in that community of people, they understand where it comes from. Also, all the advertisements explicitly made reference to the fact that we were making a second piece of the trilogy that had not been completed. That was made explicit as part of the context.

Really we want to make the third piece to complete the trilogy. It’d be great to show all three pieces together. The piece we made was called Dust to Dust and the third one was going to be called The Viewing, and it was going to be a posthumous piece. After he died he would be buried with a camera filming his face, and people could go into a gallery where there was a TV monitor and you could turn it on if you wanted to watch his face decompose over however many years. But he died before anything was put in place, and that didn’t happen. So we’re trying to think about how to re-do a version. We think it would be something like a 24-hour durational performance where I’m buried in the coffin and people will do the same thing but with me in the coffin.

JL: Had Sheree been making work in between Bob’s death and meeting you?

MO: No, she had stopped. She made something maybe a year or a couple of years after he died called The Bobaloon which was a twenty-foot vinyl inflatable Bob with four-foot erect penis. It was commissioned in Tokyo and it was put in a big public space. It was amazing. It’s got a leather straightjacket and a ball gag and a huge cock with piercings and needles. When it was erected it was such a scandal that they put a nappy on it to cover up the penis. But then she didn’t make any performance work until we collaborated on 100 Reasons in 2011.1

That was also the first time we met. And it’s interesting, when she met me, she said my cough is a sound that takes her back.2 When we first met, she was like ‘Oh my God! That sound!’ It’s this particular phlegmy cough, a particular sound. When you hear someone do that in the train, you think, oh, do they have CF? Or it might be like they just have a really chesty, mucous-y cough.

JL: That’s really interesting. The cough as a voice that isn’t in language but still communicates.

MO: Yeah, and one of the things it feels like it communicates is a kind of warning. Like a siren or something, like ‘I’m sick’. Get away. At least that’s the way it’s taken in public space. If I’m coughing people move away.3

JL: Does the work you’re doing with Sheree feed into your work as a solo artist?

MO: Yeah. That’s initially where the collaboration came from. People kept asking me, do you know about Bob Flanagan? At the time Ron [Athey] was sort of my mentor. And he knew Sheree and Bob pretty well. He brought up that issue of acknowledging history and influence in the work, but also finding your own space and not being completely overshadowed by it. That’s where the idea of actually collaborating with Sheree came from. It was to really directly address that history.

JL: Was it difficult at all, that comparison?

MO: After a little while it was. Like ok, I get it. But it’s kind of natural that people would make that connection. There is a way in which artists who are making work in relation to other types of illness don’t get that same reaction. Artists who working with HIV/AIDS, there’s a whole network of artists making work around that and they don’t get collapsed into each other. There is a kind of community. Even a lot of work that is done around cancer treatment. People like Hannah Wilke. There are a lot of people. But with CF, Bob was the only one like me.

Martin O'Brien; photo by Marco Berardi

photo by Marco Berardi

JL: I like that your response to that is to say, well, ok, I’m going to generate a community.

MO: While doing my PhD I have come upon some pretty interesting artists who have CF. There’s a brilliant one called Jill Hocking, who only made one piece of work before she died when she was about twenty-four. She made a beautiful piece. Two hours a day for three days she stitched together cabbage leaves and made a blanket out of the leaves, and then just lay under the blanket. So over three days the cabbage leaves rotted and the smell took over the room and the texture of the leaves became that slimy green. And bacteria is pretty dangerous for people with CF, so with these rotting vegetables…. And that was really in the last two years of her life. She knew she was going to die fairly soon, and so this was a different way of thinking about that sort of risk. When it was clear that she was going to die.

There’s also an artist in America – in LA actually – who’s more a visual artist, though has worked across performance: Dominic Quagliozzi. He was admitted to a hospital one time, and he called himself the artist-in-residence of the hospital. He was in there about a week, and he created an artwork using materials from the hospital, and he made some paintings as well with different things from the hospital. He had the opening at the end of it, during the normal visiting hours of the hospitals, and people came in and had wine and biscuits, or whatever. He had all of his work on the walls, and he was laying in the hospital bed, chatting to people.

JL: What are you working on now?

MO: I’ve been really interested recently in zombies. This idea of being dead but alive at the same time. I thought that might be a useful metaphor for talking about illness and the sick body – the ultimate abject body that falls apart. But also the infection aspect as well: they infect other people. I’m making a durational performance using that imagery of rotting, living corpses, and the idea of infection.4 It’s going to be a room covered completely in plastic, and I’m going to be tethered to a pole in the middle of the room. If I go around the pole the chain will hold me closer and closer and closer, and if I go the other way, I’ll be released out. The chain will reach the full length of the room, and I’ll be able to reach the walls. So the whole space will be used, and the audience will have to negotiate around that. That’s the framework for the whole thing, thinking about that proximity to spectators, and the idea of infecting them with a kind of contagion. Being in that same space, coughing.

I’ll probably bite people if they are in the way. There’ll be a sign on the door saying ‘Warning! The Artist Bites’. Because usually when I do different things people have to put warning signs up, ‘Warning, Explicit Material’. I haven’t told them yet that I want them to do that. [laughs] Because, you know, I don’t really like performance where the interaction is like New Age-y or like, kind. [laughs] I would always say no to any kind of interaction. Not that I dislike it in other people’s work, but just in my own. I never really wanted that interaction. And that actually came up in my collaboration with Sheree, the last time I was in LA. She really wanted to do a piece with an interaction. And I was like, I don’t know, I don’t know. And she was like, Martin, I really want to do it. And I was like, ok, let’s do it. This became a 24-hour piece in a BDSM dungeon near the airport. It’s called Do with Me as You Will aka Make Martin Suffer for Art.

The premise of the performance was, as usual, a kind of contract for the time period of 24-hours in which Sheree can do whatever she wants. The idea is that anybody can come and they can just stay in the room and watch, or they can propose something to Sheree, and they can have up to forty minutes to do it. Essentially she was the top in the room, and you entered into that contract that she was running the show. I was in a cage in the middle of the room, which was one of the cages she used for Bob. If someone wanted to do something, she would take me out of the cage, do it, and then put me back in. Every hour, she’d cut a line on my arm and we’d do a little video diary. And I had to be back in the cage every hour on the hour.

It started out pretty tame. She got me out and spanked me a bit, and there were a couple of people there who were a bit shy, and she made them basically walk me around on a leash. But some of the people were about shy about being in a dungeon –

JL: Because it was kind of an art crowd?

MO: Yeah. A bit of a mix actually. And that became interesting – she asked a few people she knew as well to come do things. And as the night went on more – I don’t know what to call them – more hardcore people, I guess, started to come and wanted to do things to me. And then the interaction started to be a bit more interesting. This dominatrix came in who used a piece of ginger as a dildo and stuck it in my ass. The most incredible section was with this guy, Dirk Dehner, who’s the director of the Tom of Finland Foundation. He’s a leather man, and he was one of the models for Tom of Finland. And he was pretty sexy. Now he’s in his sixties but then he was… And he came in around ten at night, and there was a crowd then, and she had him beat the shit out of me.

She had told me at the beginning, these friends from Tom of Finland were going to come, and they play real hard. I had forgotten about that until about eleven o’clock. She said they were going to come around nine. And I had completely forgotten. And then the door opened and these two sixty-year-old leather men were there and her words just flashed in front of me [laughs]. They. Play. Real. Hard. [laughs] And she shouts, Dirk! Ok, you’re next! And he got me to empty his bag for him, with like butt plugs that would never fit in my ass, and things I didn’t even know what they were. And he was putting this massive rubber fisting glove on, and meanwhile asking me about myself, just chatting away. He started by putting his hand in my throat. He bent me over the cage and got people to beat my ass with a stick. And he goes, ‘You know, it’s easy to be tortured when you’re tied up, because you can’t do anything about it. But I ain’t gonna tie you up!’ [laugh]

But you know, interaction then took on some interesting levels for me. I realized it could be more exciting than the more holistic, healthy – you know, offering them [audience members] a gift. It could be more challenging for them, or for me. Challenging for people to watch, as well.

JL: What work do you think that challenge does for your practice?

MO: One thing is, it’s directly making somebody face an abject body, in some ways. Implicating people in a different sort of way. When they’re there just as a viewer of a durational performance, I think it’s interesting to ethically implicate them in it. Something about that unavoidability – which is what death is – and having to interact with it is really interesting.

JL: So even if you walk away – there’s still something active about walking away.

MO: Yes,that you’ve chosen to walk away. And all the things about consent that are interesting, and that I explored a lot with Sheree, where I become submissive to her and give over my consent. Actually even in my work without her, I’m still working with that contract. There’s still some kind of consent that I let them do something with my body.

Martin O'Brien; photo by Marco Berardi

photo by Marco Berardi

JL: And then what does that do when you’re asking an audience to consent to being bitten or something like that?

MO: I think, similarly, that it’s about that idea of infection, and they become implicated by being in the room. They take a risk as well. They’re not going around and watching somebody else, they’re putting themselves in a situation where they’ve got to be willing to take a risk. Even if there’s not really much that could happen, I won’t bite hard, or whatever. They’ve got to be willing to take part in that interaction. A further context of this piece coming up is that it was commissioned by Arts Catalyst, and one of the things they’re interested in is the ethics of working with medicine or self-experimentation or extreme body art. So it’s interesting to me to think about the ethics of attacking an audience member, as the ethics of interaction. A lot of times with my work, people talk about smell – the smell of the body. There’s something infecting there. And I want to push that to another level, where the contagion is also potentially ethical. In all my other work, there’s been a demarcation between audience and performer but with this, you can stand at the edge of the space, but I’ll be able to get right to the edge of the space. Every part of the space could be used. So they’re going to have to negotiate that.


Martin O’Brien has been commissioned and funded by the Live Art Development Agency, Arts Council England, Arts Catalyst, Midlands Art Centre, and the British Council. He has presented work in Britain and abroad including SPILL Festival of Performance (London), Chelsea Theatre, Kapelica Gallery (Ljubljana), In Between Time Festival of Performance (Bristol), Chapter Arts Centre (Cardiff), Grace Exhibition Space (New York), Abrons Art Center (New York), Gallery Art Claims Impulse (Berlin), Edinburgh Festival, The Basement (Brighton), LAX Studio (Los Angeles), Midlands Art Centre (Birmingham). He curated the ground breaking symposium Illness and the Enduring Body at ]performance s p a c e[ in 2012. He co-edited, with Gianna Bouchard, an edition of the journal Performance ResearchOn Medicine’ and is a Lecturer in Performance at Queen Mary University of London.

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  1. 100 Reasons was a re-performance of a Flanagan/Rose piece which was also used in a video collaboration with artist Mike Kelley. The re-performance was created as part of Access All Areas, a project of the Live Art Development Agency looking at disability and performance.
  2. It is difficult to convey in text, but both O’Brien’s cough and laughter punctuate the conversation throughout this interview.
  3. O’Brien has written more extensively about the cough as a voice of illness. See, for example, Martin O’Brien, ‘Treating the Body’, Contemporary Theatre Review 22.1 (2012), pp. 146-151.
  4. Taste of Flesh/Bite Me I’m Yours, commissioned by Arts Catalyst and premiered at the White Building in London in 2015.

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