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Features Published 22 July 2016

The Radical Act of Stopping

Rhiannon Armstrong discusses radical resting and her Public Selfcare System ahead of her performance at Tempting Failure.
Rhiannon Armstrong
Rhiannon Armstrong, performer of Public Selfcare System. Photo: Roisin Armstrong.

Rhiannon Armstrong, performer of Public Selfcare System. Photo: Roisin Armstrong.

Public Selfcare System is part one-to-one performance, part direct action, part masterclass in the radical act of stopping. It is a direct response to realising that the acts I perform in public out of necessity are also political performances with complex aesthetic and dramaturgical dynamics. I will perform it for the first time on Saturday 23rd July 2016, in Croydon, as part of Tempting Failure.

Public Selfcare System begins by appropriating as a performance gesture a necessary act of self care (lying down in the street to rest), and turning it into a guided tandem experience for an audience member.

Let me describe the spaces where these acts take place:

Not an alcove, but an indent to the narrow pathways and straight lines of city streets and buildings.

These are the spaces dogs and drunkards pee in, smokers stub out in, gum gets spat in and minor litter is dropped – snotty tissues, half-chewed rusks, dirty cling film, that kind of thing. These spaces are owned, but not looked after.

I crouch and lean against the wall in a corner, or I lie on my side or my back, bag under my head and clothing over my eyes but nothing between me and the ground.

I lie down straight.

Like cycling on city roads, it’s important not to be hesitant. Take up more space, be more visible, and you will be in less danger. Curled up in the foetal position makes you look more vulnerable. Lying down straight – like standing up straight – shows intention and self-possession.

As if this were completely intended, by the space or by me. Unquestionable.

Let me describe the castings that come into play when these acts take place:

Today’s casting is hungover hipster (I am in a park in east London).

Today’s casting is drunk woman (I am on the pavement in Islington).

Today’s casting is “mentalist” (I am on a train platform).

Today’s casting is pregnant professional (I am in an office block).

Let me describe what I can see:

I see a young child who desperately needs to pee but is hiding it from their parents: there are no toilets nearby.

I see one half of a couple steal a look at a beautiful passer-by.

I see a someone who has been waiting too long for someone else to bring them what they need.

I see an elderly person bend and pick from the rotting fruit the stall holders have discarded.

I see the stall holders pretend not to see.

I hear a guitarist try to convince themselves and those around them that they are not begging.

I hear arguing.

I hear a discussion about me.

It’s OK.

It’s OK.

Breathe, relax.

Lay your body down. Let it go to gravity. Let your head be heavy.

It’s OK.

Breathe.

This is necessary

I have a right to be here

I am not hurting anyone

I am not bothering/scaring/infringing on anyone

It is OK to stop

It is OK to rest

It is OK to take up space

 

I have a right to be here

I have a right to rest

I have a right to want to rest

This is necessary

This is important

This is needed

 

I need this and that is OK

Anyone else who needs this, that is OK

We are OK to lie here

We are OK

Breathe

It is OK

I am OK

Breathe

Rhiannon Armstrong is an interdisciplinary artist making work with empathy at its core as both subject matter and medium, under the lifelong series title Instructions for Empathetic Living. Her one-to-one performance, digital and archive project The International Archive of Things Left Unsaid is being recognised as a model of excellence and innovation: as a performance work in a digital medium, and as a space online that functions with an ethos of care.

Public Selfcare System – which will have its first test run at Tempting Failure on Saturday 23rd July – is the first work in which Rhiannon is self-identifying as an expert at the durational performance of thriving in a world that is geared against our survival.

She is claiming this title after three years of being invisibly disabled with a neurological condition that forces her to sometimes do quite visible things like wear sunglasses indoors, or lie down in the street.

Public Selfcare System is part of a wider project of making visible the value and power of embodied forms of knowledge that are increasingly needed, but often lacking in dominant discourse. Or in other words: people with disabling conditions know how to survive and shit is going to get real as fuck, so the rest of you had better take this opportunity to listen and learn.

Rhiannon will be in dialogue with Clara Giraud of Unlimited and other artists as part of ‘Challenging Spaces: access and performance art’, a panel discussion at Tempting Failure on 26th July.  

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