My Cultural Life: Sinead O'Donnell

The performance artist on working with dyslexia, collaborating with Iraqi artist Poshya Kakl and taking part in the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad

You have recently been awarded £70,000 by the Unlimited programme, a vital part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Can you tell us a little bit about CAUTION, the project Unlimited is funding?

CAUTION will bring together six of the world’s leading performance artists to collaborate on a major international project that explores 'invisible' disability through performance. The exhibition will showcase high quality, ambitious work over six weeks at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast in summer 2012 [during the Olympic Games]. CAUTION will be led by myself and produced by Artsadmin.

The participating artists are Sylvette Babin (Montreal, Canada), Mariel Carranza (Los Angeles, USA/Lima, Peru), Paul Couillard (Toronto, Canada), Poshya Kakl (Erbil, Kurdistan-Iraq) and Shiro Masuyama (Tokyo, Japan). The process will encourage the artists to challenge their methodology and create work that brings their disabilities into new territories. I will encourage the artists to push beyond their comfort zones to create work that opens doors, changes minds and inspires new work and collaborations.

Does your dyslexia help, hinder or make no difference to your artistic practice?

Dyslexia effects my day to day life. CAUTION is about exploring those issues within artistic practice and as the project unfolds I will be able to answer this question.

Why do you think CAUTION is important?

I would like to develop audiences in Northern Ireland and internationally as much as the artworks. I feel that performance art or anything time-based is so valuable for audiences - able and disabled - because the body is the most immediate material an artist can use and one that is most common to an audience.

Can you tell us a little about the other artists and why you wanted to work with them?

The artists I have chosen to work with have all been of great support to me and my work in the past, and through Unlimited I can make work with them and curate their work on an official, professional and international level.

Each artist has a great rapport and they have dedicated their lives to making experimental and performance art. Most of them have never addressed disability in their work. I have asked each artist to take this journey with me step by step over two years and develop new work that they have never considered doing before.

What do you hope CAUTION will accomplish in regards to a) the art world and b) the viewing public at large?

CAUTION will generate a lot of press and media interest and will have a positive impact on the artistic and wider community in Belfast, Ireland and the UK, opening up a debate about disability, identity and accessibility that has the potential to reverberate internationally.

The exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery will create a space for intercultural dialogue and the opportunity to form new links and partnerships through continued artistic collaboration and touring. It will raise awareness of the issues, challenge preconceptions and, hopefully, influence other artists working within disability arts nationally and internationally.

You were born in Dublin and studied in Ulster and elsewhere, and have been creating performance and installation art since 1998. Can you tell us about some of your previous projects?

My work has been presented in Asia, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America and supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Socrates Erasmus, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, and the British Council.  

I have also applied my skills and experiences internationally toward the development of a curatorial practise to enable exchange between local and international artists. I am interested in creating collaborative experiences in which artists can develop a current evaluation of performance art history parallel to the cultivation of a cultural common ground within the context of visual and live art praxis.

In 2010 I curated CHAOS with organisation Bbeyond, commissioning 10 Canadian artists for a week-long event in Belfast. In 2008 I organised Irish artists in Chile and 'mobilised' Chilean artists in Northern Ireland at Catalyst Arts in 2007. I also curated an Irish performance art section at the International Multi-Media Arts Festival in Serbia in 2007.

From 2004 until present I have extensively researched and contributed to the arts in Romania. In 2006 I managed six Northern Ireland-based artists to tour their live work across the Transylvanian region of Romania followed by a Transylvanian group touring their work between Omagh and Belfast in 2007.

What was the most challenging project you have worked on to date, and why?

All of the projects I have worked on were challenging. They were different in terms of what stage I was at in my career when I put them together. I see each project as a step towards developing knowledge about art and artists.

You are currently working on an online collaboration with Kurdish Iraqi artist Poshya Kakl, who will also take part in CAUTION. What does the partnership entail?

I met Poshya Kakl whilst working on Anne Bean’s project PAVES in 2009, and for the past year I have been working with Poshya to expose her work to international audiences that are beyond her reach due to visa restrictions.

Although we have been collaborating for nearly two years, Poshya and I have yet to physically meet. If she is granted a visa then Belfast will be the first place that Poshya has ever traveled to outside of Iraq and her first live performance at an international exhibition [CAUTION].

I also plan to travel to Kurdistan for two weeks and use the time there to develop new work around questions of identity and Poshya’s physically restricted access to the world outside Iraq. From that we will produce a series of performance actions, talks and an installation in the Red Jail, Erbil.