At Bodyjam, You Learn to Use Your Body as Material to Make Art With

A circular mirror lay on the chessboard floor, as if somebody had accidentally spilled mercury across the tiles of Unit 44, a DIY cultural space in Stoneybatter.

Six people stood around it, looking at their reflections. Some smiled. Others laughed.

Behind them, performance artist Day Magee paced, clutching a microphone, and dressed head to toe in black, save for a metal butterfly attached to their belt.

After a few moments, Magee spoke into the microphone. Their voice was saturated in reverb as it came through the amplifier, adding to the dreaminess of the event.

“If you have an identity or a sense of self, try hanging it up on the coat rack over there,” Magee said, gesturing towards a corner in the room.

But the corner in question was empty. “There’s no coat rack, because there is no self,” they said.

This instruction was how Magee introduced Bodyjam, a monthly workshop for both performance artists and those actively interested in engaging with the artform.

The sessions are mostly improvisatory and freeform. Magee presides over each one, steering the room, through prescriptive exercises, open-ended suggestions or music played through a speaker set.

It is like a guided meditation, they say. Sometimes the guidance comes in the form of a simple instruction. “Throw a shape,” they may say. Or “act out a dream.”

The artist encourages participants to let go of their inhibitions and express themselves through physical movement. “It’s about offering people space and time.”

The body is a material to work with, Magee tells attendants. “You have to remind yourself that you are a material. You are a part of the physical world.”

Be a Body

The shutters of the repurposed hair salon were lowered as the latest Bodyjam session was underway on the evening of Thursday 13 October.

“Be your body for a while,” Magee said gently, with each word bouncing against the walls.

The artist approached the group as they were positioned around the mirror. Then, they assigned each person either the number one or zero.

Ones were told to look into the reflection and make eye contact with the Zero standing across from them.

The Zeroes, Magee tells to say, “Me.” In response, the Ones reply, “You.”

Over and over, at varying tempos, the call-and-response played out, and gradually everyone’s tension eased.

The intention is to imbue participants with a sense of freedom, Magee says. “People need to be given permission to be free, however small or insignificant or embarrassing it may feel.”

Any such feelings are embraced as material for sculpting, they say. “I will often say, ‘Do you feel uncomfortable? Do you feel awkward? Why avoid that? Why should we deny that it’s happening?”

Once the ice-breaking concluded, and the first fully-fledged creative free-for-all was in motion, Magee, in a soothing voice, asked if anyone felt weird.

They were told not to shy from this, but lean into it, no matter how the result may look. “I’m tired of making good art, ” Magee quipped in a drawl.

For more than ten minutes, no music played. All that could be heard was Magee’s narrations, the sliding of feet along tiles, the faint hum of a female voice, and sporadically, a primal groan.

An ambient track eventually crept onto the speakers. There was dancing, gentle swaying. Participants bent into yoga-like positions and rolled on the ground, while Magee drifted about, gripping the mirror.

Gatherings of this kind give artists a slate for pure experimentation, says Áine O’Hara, co-founder of the Chronic Collective and occasional Bodyjam attendant.

“I had loads of ideas after I’d left,” she says. “It wasn’t even from anything I did during the thing. It was just the act of playing, being with other people. That encourages a new way of thinking creatively.”

Malleable Materials

Day Magee was born in Ballybrack in south Dublin. At 12 years old, they moved to Shankill in Limerick.

Their family was evangelical Christian. “So, to that end, it is both surprising and not surprising that I make the work that I do,” Magee says.

Their work explores such topics as chronic pain, disability, the concept of language and the fluidity of identity, often incorporating into their performance religious iconography.

Magee is most at ease when performing. Even in casual conversation, they are animated and seldom still for too long.

One moment they are seated, but gesticulating with both arms energetically and holding an intense eye contact. Next, they are on their feet, dancing, striding or pulling shapes.

On the Wednesday before October’s Bodyjam, Magee was performing outside the Newman Building at University College Dublin, as part of Sprawl, a single-day arts festival.

Their performance, “This is Language”, was staged on a set of benches outside the campus’ arts block, between the building and a pond.

They wore a black suit and tie and, over their head, a soundproof foam box.

For 30 minutes, they delivered a speech, broadcast via a wireless amplifier.

Day Magee performs "This is Language" at University College Dublin. Photo by Michael Lanigan.

“This is Language” dissected linguistics and the concept of self through autobiographical scenes, the Book of Genesis, and children’s fables like The Scorpion and the Frog.

As students strolled across campus, they paused or loudly expressed their shock at the sight of a faceless Magee, who read their script in a cadence akin to that of the automated voice heard on TikTok, or a phone’s voicemail service.

Computerised voices fascinate Magee, they say, as they are drawn to the closing divide between the sound of a human voice and an AI’s mimic.

The computer voice is jagged, they say, while imitating its coldness. “It’s all over the place, and interesting, when you think about how we first started talking, when our language was awkward. Then at some point it became sophisticated, complex.”

Like the body, Magee approaches their voice as a malleable entity to be stretched and toyed with in its pitch and pace. “That is a material. We are making, producing vibrations in our throats that hop from one body to another, across time.”

“Its vibrations, its structure. There is something for me about engaging with that. It is tapping into a sense of, if not undoing, at least playing with the early stages of, if not languages specifically, then the human voice, in English, in this specific body.”

No Wrong Answers

Sometimes during Bodyjam, Magee may request an action. Other times, they recite lyrics or offer comments on the flexibility of a physical body or one’s own identity.

From time to time, they pass the microphone to other participants, dropping it into a pair of unsuspecting hands, not requesting any specific noise.

In response, Magee’s subjects hum, sing or let free a guttural noise. One launches into a mantral of “yeah, yeah”, progressing from a gentle mumble to a raucous howl.

Magee doesn’t look for people to formulate the right response when a microphone is thrust into their hands, they say, or as they engage with the instructions offered during a session.

“People are concerned with being right and the others being wrong, and vice versa. Within ourselves, we say, ‘Oh I shouldn’t’ve said that,’” they say.

In the aftermath of the October session, they emphasise that what is enormously important during each of the Bodyjams is the act of stimming.

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, is a repetitive act commonplace among people with autism, and involves the creation of repetitive noises or body movements.

Magee says stimming is more frequent among children on the autism spectrum but is often discouraged as they mature.

Having been diagnosed with autism, Magee says, their approach to performance art draws deeply from their experience as a neurodiverse person, including in the ways in which they blur the lines between their public performance and persona offstage.

“A lot of this comes from being autistic and performing social relations,” they say. “Being a drama-theatre kid, you learned that, like Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’, everything is performative.”

When it comes to performance art, Magee says, there is a strong element of standing before a crowd of people and acting out an idea. “Other people can enjoy it or be moved by it in various ways. Or they can hate it.”

“But it is for me, on a selfish level. It’s experimenting with, well what is it to be here at all, to be at all?”

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Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post.

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