The ISACS Artist Spotlight has a new addition as we caught up with Darragh McLoughlin to discuss his practice and perspectives on contemporary circus in Ireland and beyond.

Contemporary circus encompasses a wide diversity of form. Can you please tell us how you describe your practice?

I can answer this question in two ways: how I communicate my practice to others and how I think about it myself. Currently, I describe myself as a conceptual artist with roots in contemporary circus. While this description captures some of it, my practice is always evolving, and I may soon adopt a new perspective. When I think about my own practice, it includes everything I do that cultivates a way of thinking about and understanding the people and the world around me. This would include the obvious things such as my movement, juggling and concept development practices, but also activities such as: time consuming bread making, cooking, playing chess, dancing at a party, playing music, reading fiction, talking to friends, reading philosophy and psychology, practicing tai-ji and meditation. Essentially, I want to spend my time doing anything that is process over outcome-oriented and can put me in a headspace where ideas connect and concepts have a chance to emerge from the ether. My job is to be ready to catch them.

SquareHead Productions (SHP) was founded in 2012 as a platform for artistic research and collaboration. Can you please expand on this? What artistic research are you conducting and with whom do you collaborate?

 

SHP has always embodied a certain ambiguity, allowing me the freedom to do whatever I want without being bound to any specific genre or form. While much of my work is self-directed, there is always an element of collaboration behind each project. I have a handful of trusted peers I confide in (and vice versa) when I am working on a new piece. There are three general modes of making collaborative work I take part in: either I am leading the work and I ask others to be a part of it in some way or another, someone else is leading the work and I am assisting them realise their work, or I am working with someone with equal responsibility to realise the work. Each of the different constellations has something to offer and in turn, I enjoy different aspects of each.

What am I working on now? Over the past few years, I’ve created three different circus-themed video exhibitions. I just wrapped up the most recent one which was made with film-maker Mishka Kornai called ‘WATCHERS’. I’m not going to say too much about it yet, but conceptually I find it really exciting.

I am really interested in the process of game designers at the moment. Many of my favourite game designers prioritise mechanics over theme. Mechanics speaks to the way the audience, or players, interact with the piece/game rather than focusing on what is about. This aligns perfectly with my approach to performance design and will inform my upcoming remake of “The Whistle”, which was commissioned by NCFI in Tralee and will premier there this year.

Many artists seem to think theme and content are what makes meaningful art and besides that it is a very subjective and somewhat mystical space. I see it to be mostly a psychological game like space where we collectively explore and play with ideas around being human.

Earlier this year, you delivered a masterclass with the students of École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Fratellini in Paris. Please tell us about this experience, including any differences between the approaches of the two institutions and their students.

 

I led a 5-day lab in the Beaux Arts academy with around 15 students from the two schools. The Beaux Arts academy itself is a sight to behold and has such an immense history with many great artists among the ranks of the alumni. Beside the academy being more impressive than most museums I’ve visited; all of the surrounding streets are also packed with galleries overflowing with art. I had to ask myself, “what are the students here supposed to be doing? Make more art?!”. There was so much art around me I could hardly see it anymore. Seems like a hard game to beat.

I worked with the students on a technique I’ve been developing for several years called ‘[re]framing’ which essentially is about playing with how art is contextualised. Art is always presented in a frame, and this method invites the artists to see frames as something both transient and playful, rather than being rules they need to conform to. What if we present circus as visual art or visual art as circus?

It’s hard to make one general statement on the difference in the approaches of the two groups of students, as the two groups were made of very different individuals. That said, I did appreciate one thing about circus during the workshop: once you strip away a lot of the fluff that’s added to circus, what remains is really happening, and is the result of a long and dedicated training process. This gives circus a lot of credibility. The Beaux Art students I worked with were on the other hand much less bound to one particular genre, and seemed to have a lot of freedom in regards to medium and means of self-expression. I wondered if that freedom sometimes left them feeling a little lost though. Sometimes it’s good to just go for something.

You have been touring internationally, bringing 5 of your shows to at least 18 countries. Describe the most interesting/challenging place you have performed and why?

 

My recent tour in Japan was for sure a stand out moment for me. I performed a few shows of Stickman at the Shimokitazawa International Puppetry Festival and then went on to travel around the country presenting the show again, along with some other works. The most interesting part of the process was translating Stickman, which makes heavy use linguistic framing as a central mechanism in the work. I’ve already performed the work in French, Spanish, German, Italian and of course English, but this was the first time I had to make such a big cultural leap. Not only did some references need to shift, but also the entire form of writing was different. I collaborated with Yoko, the puppetry festival director, on the translation. This lady is an extremely versatile and impressive character and I think she nailed it, as it worked an absolute charm when I performed it.

I actually find Ireland to be one of the more challenging countries to perform in, but perhaps we can explore that further next time!

Can you tell us the relevance of the venue in situating your work?

 

It’s just another frame to play with. Every place is different, and so every place changes the work in different ways. I think the norms that come with different types of spaces challenge the audiences perception more than the aesthetic of the space itself.

What differences do you find between Irish and international audience’s attitudes to contemporary circus?

I perceive the Irish as having a strong distaste of pretentiousness, especially in the arts. You can just hear an Irish person saying they think an artist is a bit wanky and up themselves by referring to the artist as ‘artiste’ in a French accent. I think the Irish love generosity and humour on stage and while they can also dive into more serious themes, they like it with a dash of lightness.

As for the international audiences, there are subtle differences between groups, which keeps it interesting as you never quite know how people will respond. In “Stickman” when I ask someone to shoot me, the Germans never do it, but the Italians always do it. I don’t think the Irish have a great track record either!

What would you like to see happening in the circus sector in Ireland?

I’d like to see more interesting dramaturgy in other artist’s work. For the artists to challenge themselves and their audiences more. Ireland has so many great playwrights, writers and poets who dared to mould form to their own needs. I’d love to see some daring circus writing.

What are your aspirations for your own practice and for SHP?

In the next years, I am planning on collaborating with my brother and sister and build an artistic space in West Cork. The space will be crossroads between many different practices from circus, to dance, to martial arts and other body focused practices. This will be a dream come true.

As for SHP and work…. I’m not entirely sure. I have loads of different projects brewing simultaneously and I’d like to get them out there. I’m especially keen to show some of the many conceptual video and visual art installations I’ve made in collaboration with some amazing artists from different fields. I have plans for a few new creations, but I have to the time to do them.

I think I struggle more with motivation to work than ideas. One of the big downfalls to my work getting out there in recent years is the more projects I start, the more I have to work. I’ve always hated work, especially if it feels absent of play!

If you could give one tip for future circus artists, what would that be?

Cultivate your own taste – you need it to know when your work feels right. Don’t look to others to determine when something is good, but develop the intuition to know it yourself. It all happens inside of you, not outside. Observe your own experience of the world and attempt to share that with the rest of us. We need you!