“I don’t see my art as activism. For me, making political art is not a sufficient replacement for actual political organising.”
For an artist, the quest for productivity can be at odds with creativity. Working to pay rent means you have less time to create, designating more time to art can mean not being able to pay your bills.
For London-based, Dublin writer, poet and performer Oisín McKenna these, and other modern day complications, are the issues he likes to sink his teeth into.
Through performance, theatre, comedy, music and video, Oisín tackles capitalism, class, health, history and queerness, “using satire and dark humour to undermine neoliberal hegemonies”.
Ahead of the debut of his new show ADMIN, as part of Live Collision International Festival at Project Arts Centre, we caught up with him to discuss capitalism vs. art, the old guard of Irish art and his reluctance to call his politically-charged artform activism.
I’m going to ask you a really mundane question first, but tell me about ADMIN? What’s the concept?
On a primary level, it’s quite a straightforward storytelling piece, in which I tell stories from my life about my first year living in London – parties I’ve gone to, relationships I’ve been in, work I’ve done, observations about the politics and culture that I think are funny or interesting.
It uses those stories as a political tool to examine the relationship between capitalism and health – particularly mental health. Conceptually, it charts the ways that economic, political and social conditions can create deep mental un-wellness, even psychological breakdown. But it uses accessible stories and observational comedy as an entry point to those politics.
What made you want to explore the relationship between class, capitalism and health? Was there a catalyst moment or was it a wearing down?
It’s something that I’ve gradually thought more and more about over the course of the last five years or so and I started making work about it around the start of 2017. I guess it came from slowly beginning to understand my own health in a political and economic context. I became more and more aware of the way money determined how well I could look after myself, the way I ate, the services I could access. I also became slowly more aware of the way money and work determined the way I felt about myself – the way I’d feel like a failure if I didn’t obsessively fill up all my time with ‘productive’ work, the way I’d feel worthless if I didn’t get up at 6am every day to go to the gym, the distress I felt at being unable to transform myself into a perfect vision of ‘success’ that was out of my reach to begin with. It became apparent that this determined much of my experience of being in the world and I wanted to make work about how that felt.
It seems like this piece touches on similar themes to Suddenly Paranoid About Aging and Eat Clean, do you feel it’s completely impossible to function with a healthy mind and live in a capitalist society?
This is something I think about a lot. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think it’s very hard and for some people it’s harder than others. I think there are ways we can support each other and ourselves to feel more well, more connected, less alienated. But I think living in capitalism takes a massive psychological toll – living in endless precarity, the knowledge that you may never have a secure place to live, the fear of becoming sick and not being able to pay for treatment, struggling to pay for rent and food every month.
As well as that, there’s the equating of money with success, the pressure to be seen as a ‘successful’ person, to be supremely productive, to fill up every bit of time with work despite the fact that it probably won’t make you any more economically secure, the loneliness of all of this. Capitalist discourse promises that through hard work a person can change the economic circumstances they were born into, but for a huge majority of people, this isn’t actually true, and that’s quite a distressing reality.
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself since moving to London?
I think I’ve learned a lot about care. Living in a new city without access to an established support network has meant I’ve needed care in a way that I haven’t really before, and I’ve been very lucky to be around certain people who have made me feel very cared for. It’s made me think of caring for people as a series of deliberate actions, rather than a vague sentiment, and that’s changed the way I’ve felt about others and myself.
How has it impacted your creativity?
It’s impact very positively and I feel very stimulated here. On a basic level, there’s a lot to write about. I often make work about capitalism and London is full of extremely rich source material in that regard. I also get to see a lot of work here, so I have access to a whole new set of influences and reference points. And also, there is just a much larger scene here – a larger queer scene, more platforms for early and mid-career artists. It’s felt like there’s more of a context for my work, and as such, it’s felt possible to take more risks.
What did Ireland give to you, creatively?
Dublin was an amazing place to cut my teeth. It’s where I learned what it was to be part of a community, and this hugely informs my creative practice. It’s where I first encountered many artists who have hugely influenced my work. It’s where I developed my political views and I feel extremely lucky to have being around people with such brilliant political insight and analysis.
You spoke about the mundanity and uniformity of Dublin in The Creative Quarter in 2017, is there any saving Irish culture or are we doomed to be banal?
I think Irish culture is amazing! There’s so much cool and exciting and radical things going on. The recent hip hop explosion, the new queer performance nights in Dublin, District Magazine, Live Collision festival – there’s loads of brilliant people working to push things forward. It’s more that I think there are some very influential gatekeepers within the Irish cultural and political establishment who are promoting a scene that celebrates ultimate banality, while ignoring anything radical, challenging, new, or oppositional. The heralding of the restaurant boom as something that’s somehow cutting edge or revolutionary, while there are literally no nightclubs left in the city, let alone secure affordable housing, is really depressing to me. But I know there are lots of great people working to change that, and I’m excited to see what happens.
How important is it for artists with politically-tinged work to be activists too? Or is it enough to use your artistic platform to speak about these things, without being ‘on the streets’?
I think everyone has different skill sets and if they can use those skill sets for political ends, then great. For some people, that might be writing a song, for others it’s union organising in their workplace.
In saying that, I guess I’m cautious of overstating the impact that art can have in creating political change. It’s not that I don’t think it has a very important role to play, but it doesn’t replace the unglamorous, often thankless, slog of day-to-day political organising.
I make political work, but I have no way of knowing if it actually creates or contributes to material political changes. I certainly hope it does, but that’s not necessarily why I make it in the first place. I make work about capitalism because it’s emotionally and intellectually stimulating to me, not because I believe it’s meaningfully contributing to the work of dismantling capitalism. Of course I want to bring down capitalism, but it would feel naïve and disingenuous to say that that’s the reason I make art. I make art because it feels good to me, for reasons that are informed much more by my ego then by my politics. That feels a bit unpalatable to say, but it’s true.
So in answer to the question – I don’t see my art as activism. For me, making political art is not a sufficient replacement for actual political organising. In saying that, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive and for other people, the boundary between making political art and doing political organising might be more porous, and that’s cool too.
ADMIN is part of Live Collision International Festival, at Project Arts Centre from 24-27 April 24-27, click here for more.