We are tender and rumpled: Day five of the SPILL Festival of Performance, on the heels of a hard party. Images of towering queens tumbling, still viciously bright in glorious fall, blue nipples, blue mouths, slow talks through sunrise. And now here, in a church, ready to witness the infamous Sheree Rose and her collaborator, Martin O’Brian perform one of the few commissioned pieces for the festival entitled Sanctuary Ring. It’s the day before Halloween and I clutch my coffee and notebook in the cold stone church air with the other artists, producers, and attendees, ready. Sheree has been performing for a long, long time. She and Bob Flanagan were some of the earliest public performances of SM for art audiences in the United States. Others have done a great job of pulling out what happened and its historical importance (a great place to read about Sheree + Bob’s as well as Sheree + Martin’s work is in Dominic Johnson’s book of interviews, The Art of Living published by Palgrave, or in the 1997 film documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist made by Kirby Dirk). For now I’ll just give you a tiny bit of context and say: Bob had cystic fibrosis, Sheree was his Dom and he was her slave and it was sexual and sexy and they did it in public and it was new for people seeing it and then Bob died and Sheree pretty much stopped making work and it was a deep love story. Martin has cystic fibrosis, and he reached out to Sheree to make work together similar to how she did with Bob and now she is Martin’s Dom and he is her slave and it is not sexual for them but it’s sometimes sexy to watch and they do it in public and it’s not the same time or context but it’s still new for some people seeing it except now there are more ghosts.
While I watched Sheree shave, whip, penetrate, spank, and finally suspend Martin in that church on the day before Halloween, I wrote. Here is some of that writing, with some editing and additions since, but overall quite the same as that which came out while I was sitting with the live work.
His ass is perfect and pert and I’m jealous of the public shaming: let it leak out and then be held, makeout on the dance floor, feel celebrated. To go through something hard, something harrowing, a difficult journey, and survive: it’s why I make performance. Is that why you make it, too, Martin? None of us will survive but we all try.
He is beautiful surrendered. He slowly seeps out of himself but deeper into his body.
He lifts his own chains to turn when she tells him to.
He flickers between strong and stone///weak and whispered.
hair piles cat hacking
gorilla knuckles graze the ground
She shaves him like a lullaby. Everything is possible.
She marries him as he crawls from her womb.
heavy chain link bumps spine.
a cheerleader with black leather pom poms. Sheree will take care of you. Mamma loves you.
He’s so small and so perfect: half-moon, shaking and bright.
She listens close (tell me a story) to his jolts.
leather wrapping around hip bone—licking.
does the sharp bite of pain feel soothing, Martin? controlled and clear? is surrender a tactic towards containment? if you said STOP it would all stop and that must be a powerful feeling.
I trust them both and so the acts are beautiful. trust them to and with each other. deeply.
She is so fierce and soft and many gendered. every bit her 75 years and nowhere near it.
She flickers too, like him. they are both candles lit for the dead, holding vigil on a ledge in this church. and I am receiving the work, here in this church. watching which is witnessing which is a corroboration. we who witness and they who whip, affirm each other’s acts as actualities and in that a co-real-ity building begins and we are worlding together. worlding is a big idea to drop in quickly but I’ve written about it here so I won’t here.
He starts flogging himself without pause and I don’t know the final number of lashes and it’s so beautiful I want to cry and goes on for so long that the violence becomes banal and that is beautiful, too.
we are worlding a place where sickness affirms itself by fighting sickness with sickness, like Bob said. like Sheree and Martin and their helpers and some of the witnesses all say together at certain moments in the performance, which is laid out like a liturgy, like a church service with its own call and response: fight sickness with sickness: keep breathing. we world because life isn’t livable for all of us under the world as-is.
performance art as worlding which is a tactic towards livability. even when dying.
how do we talk about violence in the context of a new world we’ve built together. one that’s not held together through what Michel Foucault calls “secular morality” but that thrives in a new ethical economy. an economy that doesn’t centre on productivity and so can centre the unproductive sick body. our standards of productivity are different here. maybe we value how deeply a body feels or how close to its limits it can get or maybe we even value difference and giving of care and building of kinships that don’t rest on the promise of a good life with organic produce and homemade bath bombs and the newest books of contemporary thought on why neoliberalism is just so damn bad.
introducing each instrument to the body before using it. She pulls his penis dead snake and pierces his foreskin to a board. He makes sharp sounds. Breathes through it. She asks if he’s good and his face breaks from contorted concentration into a huge 8 year old’s grin: “Good.” he immediately replies without a second thought. Martin, Sheree, and a nameless helper peer into his crotch, working, clinical, attentive, matter of fact.
They climb into a bath of water, a baptism, a drowning. She impales him with her strap-on and it looks like he’s going to vomit and I feel the cold splashing water’s slow burn in my own bones, meters away. She asks for something and the helpers scatter and scramble; many black-gloved fingers spidering to support. He paints her toenails pink, slick and sweet, diva puppy dog. She impales, he paints—this is a love story. the in-between-of-actions parts are wonderful. funny and fumbling. staggering exits into shitty dad jokes and awkward costume changes amidst the other high arching angel images and holy moments.
we relocate for the next course. the witnesses are invited to move into the chapel area. I’m keen, I move right in, front pew centre, for the final act.
excruciatingly slowly, the sound of the chains in the roller beautiful and relentless. She pulls him by the feet, chapel-ward with red gleaming suspension. (a video on the wall plays of a woman suspending a man and I don’t realize till Sheree tells me after that the video is of her suspending Bob so long ago.) She, an old woman in a wedding gown, lifts this young man into the air till he is floating without touching, a tarot card turned, upside down christ, coughing and boney. I love him. like a dead deer in a butcher shop window,
ribbed and dancing, the spread between the hipbones and his rib cage slick and virgin.
he’ll sleep well tonight.
a breathless moment and she is talking to Bob under her breath I can tell and gathered below, chins tilted upwards, we watch him spin slowly. the perfect Christ reference but I’m personally not moved by the representation in this work. I’m moved by the deeply undeniable actual. these actual bodies in space are so real and permeable and their vulnerability reminds me that we are alive and I love when I can feel that.
she begins reversing the chain, the sound crashes back into the stoney space and it is agonisingly slow to watching him descend. two angelheaded hipsters (that Ginsberg line has always stayed in me), performance art choir boys golden and gleaming, catch him as he falls, cleansed.
arriving to the hard stone slab of the alter. the suspended world full of possibility is suddenly gone and everything is cold and shaking in these inhospitable conditions. he is made unseemly again. dressed and made crazy. coughing and spluttering with a patchy shaved head that reminds me of my badly cut Barbie doll’s.
Violence, non-violence, banal, exceptional.
She marries Christ, Martin, Bob,
and their wedding rings are cut into their chests.
It’s imperfect, utterly immanent, and in that I find a romance I can love.
I’ve been through a journey and survived.
I decline the wine communion offered.
I need a cigarette.
we need to grasp our freedoms where we can.
You can see video documentation of Sheree Rose and Martin O’Brien’s Sanctuary Ring here.
One morning, Adriana opened an email from artist Lina Moreno :
Last night I dreamed that I asked you my biggest question about race and capitalism.
Adriana Disman (text) is a performance art maker, thinker, and curator based in Canada. www.adrianadisman.com
Lina Moreno (images) is a Latin American artist, educator, and visual researcher based in Montreal. She creates strategies and spaces to explore generative forms of conversation in relation to objects, texts, and images. Her creative and intellectual practice moves between experimental pedagogies, visual research, drawing and writing. She situates herself in the intersection of artistic practices and education, searching for learning spaces where we can formulate and share questions about how we relate to/with images, ideas, and each other.