How to Sell Art When It’s a Performance, Not a Painting

In the video, Suzanne Walsh chirps into a microphone and it echoes.

Walsh chirps again and presses buttons on the mixer beside them, and it reverberates, and they layer more chirps and more chirps until the audio becomes a chattering flock of birds.

The work, BirdBecomeBird, is born of Walsh’s interest in blurring the boundaries between animal and human, they say, sitting in a grey office chair in Temple Bar Studios on Thursday.

“It can be about birds, but it’s also about what you expect the limit of the human voice to do,” Walsh says.

They look up at the white-frosted windows that take up an entire wall of the studio. The tone of the light into the room changes from cool to warm and back again, as outside, clouds drift across the sun.

BirdBecomeBird is currently on show as part of Living Balance, a group exhibition at the Library Project in Temple Bar. And while Walsh is in the video and performance here this time around, they have handed over the agreement of when they will perform it next.

Last year, the Arts Council bought four performances of BirdBecomeBird, the first time it has bought a piece of performance art that doesn’t bring with it props or an installation, says Ben Mulligan, a collection manager for the Arts Council.

Selling performance art is new for Walsh too, they say. But it may lead to more opportunities for their work to disrupt people, as they put it.

“I love this idea that work can confuse you and disturb you and how you see the world at the moment, so that maybe there’s a possibility of something new coming through,” they said.

A Connection

On the floor at the group show Living Balance, is a screen showing another looped video of a jackdaw perched facing a wall, its shadow projecting the bird’s twitchy movements in front of the orange light.

Walsh fostered this jackdaw in 2017 from a wildlife rescue group, feeding it hourly for a month. The pair bonded and the jackdaw often perched on Walsh’s shoulder.

The two figures of the bird represent a duality of existence. The jackdaw is named Ovid, says Walsh, after the author of _Metamorphoses,_the narrative poem which explores transformations, among them from human into another being.

Photo by Claudia Dalby.

Walsh says that to become close with Ovid, a wild animal, they had to change slightly. “To understand a bird more, I had to become a bit more bird.”

They’ve always felt close to the non-human world, much like a jackdaw, raven or crow, which are often associated with the spiritual world, they say.

“Whether that’s animals, supernatural or geological, something like the borders of a human,” they say. “I think it’s about having a kind of fluidity.”

Walsh studied sculpture at the National College of Art and Design, followed by a masters in contemporary art practice.

They worked as an editor and a writer too, and have played music, they said, “performing in spaces like The Joinery [a project space in Stoneybatter] where I met a lot of other crossover people, musicians, film makers. It was a space for experimentation”.

Through their many forms of art, they can disturb some people’s normality and encourage them to change to become closer to something else, they say.

“I love this idea that your work can confuse you and disturb you somehow in the way you might perceive the world in a moment,” they say. “Not just for the sake of disturbing but more to sort of make space for other possibilities.”

Part of the Collection

The Arts Council started to add performances to its collection in 2019, says Mulligan, collection manager for the Arts Council.

The first was Plague Doctor by Sam Keogh, a performance about the Parisian catacombs. It bought the installation materials and performances of it, says Mulligan. It added Walsh’s BirdBecomeBird in 2021, he says.

How the Arts Council goes about buying performance work depends on the work, Mulligan says. Other performance artists, like Amanda Coogan and Sandra Johnson, have documentation or installation props from works in the collection, but not the performances.

Walsh’s and Keogh’s works in the collection on the other hand are the performances themselves, which can be loaned to future exhibitions, he says. “So that’s a kind of a new departure, I suppose, for the collection.”

Walsh and the Arts Council negotiated over how their work would be featured in the collection, says Mulligan.

Said Walsh: “It’s really mind-bending. It’s easier if you’re a painter.”

In the end, Walsh and the Arts Council agreed that it would buy four iterations of the performance, plus any documentation of them, they said.

“So I mean, that’s fun!” says Walsh, sitting up in their chair. “It is really interesting to be in this situation where I owe them performances.”

Mulligan says it’s a new challenge for the council. “It’s not as straightforward, as opposed to the work that might be, you know, physically handed over to our care, and to be shared through exhibitions.”

The artist is tied to the work, he says. “The essence of the work is that it’s experienced in that moment in time.”

Francis Fay, a performance artist, says making money from performances can be tricky.

“If they are going to make money or sell anything, it’s the documentation. A lot of artists will take that into consideration when they’re performing, with very good documentation either stills or video,” he says.

Fay says he’s not keen on putting a price on art practice. “That’s a constant battle to be true to yourself and your practice, and as well as that, to make enough money to cover you, pay the rent, and do the work.”

In Walsh’s studio, books and rolls of paper are scattered across the floor. They’re moving studios next week.

Their Temple Bar Studios grant is over. They’ll have to find another soon.

Walsh isn’t fully a performance artist and prefers the term “live” artist, says Walsh. “I probably just use artist because it includes everything.”

“Live performance is definitely central to my work,” they say. But their work is also cross-disciplinary, with writing and music. Sometimes they’ll make things, take photos, and other times, their work will be a performance.

“I’m like a creature with a few habitats, you know?” they say, with a hearty laugh.

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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