Art can create spaces to process ambivalences

Kira O’Reilly is an international artist and lecturer with a multifaceted career in the arts. With a background in the visual arts, her artistic work employs practices across disciplines both in the context of the arts and life sciences. O’Reilly is set to lead the Theatre Academy’s groundbreaking MA programme in Performance and Ecology, in which students will explore questions of ecology and ecological crises in a dynamic and cross-disciplinary setting.

How did you end up in Finland to lead the new MAECP MA programme?

I was interested to apply because I was attracted to the description in the advertisement of what the degree aspired to. I was particularly interested about the term posthuman, because in my work I have developed and explored ideas or notions about what bodies are. I have departed from the body being understood simply as human. Much of my work had become concerned with our relationships to non-human animals, to derivatives and abstractions of non-human animals, to plants, or to environments and to the complex relationships where the borders of what those are become very confusing, generatively and compellingly confusing. So I felt that the degree was going to be a very productive opportunity to think about what performance could be when we encounter those ideas, what might it look like.

How has your work been at the university so far?

I’ve only been here for a month. It’s been delightful and stimulating, getting used to be in a new country and a new institution. I’ve met fascinating colleagues, and through my meetings with them they help me generate different perspectives on what the degree will be. One of the most important things with this degree is that it will create many relationships with other programmes, different institutions and with people outside of the degree, such as arts organisations and artists. As much as possible we’ll be pretty dynamic.

You relocated from London to Helsinki for your work. What are your impressions of the city and the country so far?

I’ve visited Helsinki many times so my impressions continue to be very rich. My daily experience of Helsinki is like a photograph or lens coming to focus. At first things seem blurry, and bit-by-bit you begin to find your focus. Although I’ve visited Helsinki many times, living in a new city is a very different experience. There is a really fascinating process of disorientation in the beginning of living somewhere and gradually one begins to orientate oneself. I really like that process because it allows for openness to a new urban environment. I use public transport, but when I’ve got the time I take long walks to places. They are a way to feeling the city. My version of Helsinki has become quite sonic, because I’m particularly listening to bird song now. For the last few days I’ve been up early to walk and I’ve been aware of the birds. Also, I am fascinated with living and being surrounded by the sea. I’ve lived near sea but never had this kind of proximity. It makes the weather so much more fragile.

What has inspired you to explore elements of ecology and biology in your art?

Biology and ecology are very fascinating. As an extension of biology, ecology is about relationships: How they work, what their connections are, how they benefit, how they compete and how they cooperate. Behind those relationships are valuable stories, the stories of how ecosystems come into being. I think particularly at the moment, as we’re experiencing the world, one of the narratives is that it’s a world that’s changing very rapidly. Our understanding of what we think is natural has changed: We’re becoming suspicious of the word natural and nature. There’s a sense that everything is in some way affected by humans, human endeavour, activity and interest. That has huge consequences for anything and everything that isn’t human, be it environments or ecosystems. It’s a very rich time for ideas, philosophies and actions, be it coming from explicit political environmental activism, or from philosophies, or the arts, as we try and figure out what this world is that we’re in and of and what the stories are that we’re going to tell ourselves now in order to understand our participations in these emergent realities. It might be that some of the stories are about how other non-humans actually aren’t in crisis, or are emerging as stronger or as benefitting from some of the things that we might see as catastrophic for us as humans. It may be about the viruses that are flourishing, or strains of mosquitoes that are managing to propagate themselves and find new habitats. Then there are human struggles related to those. I think these are very rich areas that we can explore with the humanities, the sciences and with the arts.

Ecology, or the environment especially in terms of climate change is a hot-burning issue today. What do you think that art can bring to the discussion?

I think what is important for any discussion about climate change is to consider what we mean by a discussion. Do we mean a discussion at home and at the safety of one’s living room, or having a drink at the end of the week with your friends, or do we mean the discussions that can influence, be it in our local communities, or at a governmental or at a corporate level? There are all these different levels, both personal and political, and I think the arts are important for all of them. Moreover, what’s interesting is that during a time when, very understandably, one can feel very overwhelmed and disempowered when contemplating those issues, the arts can help create spaces - both conceptual and material - where it’s easier to entertain ambivalences, ideas that don’t have to be quite so binary, or so yes and no. I think the arts can give perspectives that are more poetic, in a way. By that I don’t mean poetic as in just lyrical and lovely, I mean how in poetry often language doesn’t conform in the ways that we expect it to, but rather will allow us to have experiences that are more usefully ambivalent and complex. Equally, though, much of what we’ve seen in terms of climate change are protests and activism and people wanting to create explicit gestures that demonstrate fear and outrage. Those, too, can often be articulated very powerfully through artistic acts: When we look back into history we see examples of great plays, great songs, great films, great operas and great artworks that focus and bring about change.

What led you to become an artist?

I think perhaps that it is a process of becoming. I was exposed to some great artworks and people and artists, and I was lucky enough to have a good education in the arts as well, and I was taught and am still taught by some extraordinary people. Opportunities and invitations to exhibit my art works further supported my intention.

What kind of students do you expect to have in your programme?

I imagine that they’ll be very curious and very motivated by ideas around ecology and quite possibly, ecological crises. I’m imagining the students will have some very pressing and key questions around the subject and that’s probably why they’re going to want to divert a whole two years of their lives to those questions. We’re really lucky that we’ve got an opportunity where we have between 6 to 8 people applying themselves to these questions. That’s pretty fabulous. It’s a real compliment to the University that they’ve created the degree. The degree is being created out of the insight and vision of some of the faculty at the Theatre Academy. I’ve inherited that vision; it doesn’t start with me.  I think it’s also interesting that the students might very well come from a variety of backgrounds, I don’t know that yet, but I imagine that they’ll be highly motivated, nevertheless.

The MA programme in Ecology and Performance is new and is set to have its first students in autumn 2016. What are your expectations of the programme, what do you hope to achieve?

We hope to create a degree that is dynamic, that will work with concepts of ecology that will come from different discourses, including the biological. To that, we’ll bring processes that might come from areas like dramaturgy, for example. As much as possible, we’ll work with other programmes to create filters through which we can find unusual and provocative perspectives. Moreover, I’m always interested in what happens when people from different disciplines get together, because it can be so incredibly rich and usefully unpredictable. In my experience that’s been particularly when artists and scientists get together, or when artists are inspired by, or work with, science and the processes and technologies that have been developed and deployed within the sciences. We’ll look at ideas like scale and duration as well, both key concepts in performance and biology. Or life cycles; some life cycles are very fleeting, some are extremely long – beyond human lifetime. So that’s very interesting when you are considering performance: What does it mean to perform with a forest, or with a mountain, or for instance to work with bacteria that have a tiny life cycle? Perhaps students will end up making performances that don’t look like performances, or perhaps will renegotiate the parameters of what we might consider to be contemporary performance. They will also receive mentorship and meet artists and art organisers and curators from other places, they will become part of a larger network that extends their experience from within the Theatre Academy.

MA in Ecology and Contemporary Performance (MAECP) is a two-year pilot that studies questions in ecology and performance in the era of ecological crises through a multidisciplinary approach. The programme’s first students begin their studies in fall 2016.

For more on Kira O’Reilly’s previous work, you can visit her website.