Martin O’Brien and Nina Muehlemann, 23 January

London Theatre Seminar
Postgraduate panel, Spring 2014
Thursday, 23 January, 6.30-8.30pm
Senate Room, 1st floor, University of London Senate House

Martin O’Brien (Reading), ‘Bob, Sheree and Me: Enduring Painful Histories’

This paper focuses on my 2012 practice-as-research project, Regimes of Hardship, which was a trilogy of twelve-hour performance installations concerned with physical endurance and illness. My work focuses on physical endurance in relation to the fact I suffer from cystic fibrosis (cf), a severe degenerative chronic disease.  Regimes of Hardship took place during my residency at London gallery and performance venue ]performance s p a c e [. Situated in Hackney Wick on the approach to the Olympic stadium and performed in the year of the London Olympic Games, I considered the ways in which physical endurance could be used in order to examine and challenge contemporary ideologies of health and illness and how this relates to the social construction of medicine and the body. The three installation performances examined the ways in which self-imposed endurance could act as a personal pathological resistance to illness.

The third of these performance installations, which will be the focus of my paper, was made in collaboration with the legendary LA-based performance artist and dominatrix Sheree Rose whose art and performance work in the 1980s and 90s with her partner Bob Flanagan, who suffered and eventually died from cf in 1996 at the age of 43 (then one of the longest living survivors of the disease), explored their full time mistress/slave relationship as both metaphor for and a way of subduing the pain of cf. The performance began with me and Rose signing a masochistic contract in which I would submit to her. The next twelve hours consisted of me becoming a substitute for Bob Flanagan as Rose revisited the private and public acts she once performed with her lover within a very different context. This paper, then, will address the question of legacy. I will consider the way in which one artist with cf became a substitute for another within the genealogy of pain-based practices. The performance, for Rose, was a way of remembering and the performance, for me, a way of honouring.

Martin O’Brien is an artist and researcher. He has been commissioned and funded by the Live Art Development Agency, Arts Council England and the British Council. He has presented work widely in Britain, Slovenia, Germany and the USA. Martin is currently undertaking an AHRC funded PhD at the University of Reading and his work has been featured in a number of publications, including a special edition of Contemporary Theatre Review on Live Art in the UK and the book Access All Areas: Live Art and Disability. He is co-editing, with Gianna Bouchard, a new edition of Performance Research ‘On Medicine’.

Nina Muehlemann (King’s College London), ‘“CripTease Unlimited”: Negotiating shame and pride through crip burlesque performance’

‘CripTease Unlimited’, a burlesque and cabaret show hosted and created by Mat Fraser, was specifically created for the Unlimited Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. Staged alongside the London 2012 Paralympics, this production countered the widespread media narrative of disabled ‘superhumans’ who ‘overcome’ their disability. It offered an alternative perspective on disabled identity and, most importantly, of the disabled body and its sexuality and desirability.  Through the performances, ‘CripTease Unlimited’ creates a space where a wide spectrum of sexual and disabled identities is not only accepted, but celebrated, and the performance aligns itself with other sexual identities that are considered non-normative. However, the show’s effort to generate what could be called ‘crip pride’ also demonstrates the limits of a performance that is purely celebratory. How far is it even possible to perform an affirmation not only of ‘crip’ identity, but of the impaired body and the shame associated with it?  This paper is going to discuss how those performances make the complex relation between pride and shame visible, and how they open up new possibilities to reflect on pride and shame. It will also discuss the crucial role the audience plays in the negotiation of ‘crip pride’ and ‘shameful’ moments of dis-and in-ability onstage.

Nina Muehlemann is currently in the second year of her PhD at King’s College London, where she also did her Master’s degree in English Literature. Before that, she did her undergraduate degree in Basel, Switzerland. In addition to her PhD work, Nina Muehlemann is a writer and blogger for Disability Arts Online, and published many reviews of Unlimited productions, as well as in-depth interviews with artists and collaborators on the website. She has also published in the Contemporary Theatre Review, presented at the International Federation for Theatre Research as part of the ‘Disability and Performance’ working group, and facilitated Mat Fraser’s performance at King’s College London for the Arts and Humanities Festival 2013.