In the Shadow of the State

with Jesse Jones
[opposite]<br/>Legal workshop with invited participants, 2016. Courtroom drawings by Alwyn Gillespie.

"We’d known each other’s practice closely for many years and felt that at some time we would find the right opportunity to work together. This project, focusing on the regulation of women’s bodies by the nation state, particularly through the instrument of the law, was what brought together our shared concerns.

With Create and Artangel, we were fortunate to work over a two year timeframe. This allowed a year of intense research in relative privacy, focusing on developing our methodology as two artists working together for the first time. We followed our instincts through an eclectic succession of archive visits, interviews, meetings with activists and field trips to sites such as the Blasket Islands, the ferry from Dublin to Liverpool, feminist and women’s libraries and the Royal College of Gynaecology and Obstetrics Museum in London. We visited courts, sat in on the symphysiotomy trials, and began following and participating in the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project, an academic project in feminist jurisprudence. This shadowing of legal thinking was an incredible learning experience, opening up the law to us in a very detailed and performative way, embedded with this inspiring community of feminist lawyers and activists.

Through this process we assembled our core team of collaborators: legal academic Mairead Enright; midwife and litigant Philomena Canning; composer Alma Kelliher; material culture historian Lisa Godson; photographer Miriam O’Connor; curator / producer Sara Greavu. From there we planned a series of four events in Ireland and the UK, each to comprise a private legal workshop that examined the ‘touch’ of the law with an invited group of women, followed by a public performance. In each site we worked with expertise of women situated locally, such as the News from Nowhere bookshop in Liverpool, with support from Suzanne Dempsey Sawin of Heart of Glass. The community of interest for the project was built and expanded through satellite events such as screening parties and academic presentations. Later some of these audience members took on public roles as mediators for the performances.

We commissioned Miriam O’Connor to be photographer-in-residence for the project. As two artists who often work with moving image, we had the strong sense that we didn’t want the outcome of our work together (about tactility and the body) to take an image-based form. We delegated the visual sense of the project to Miriam, who has travelled with us from the beginning as we discussed how an alternative power of a ‘witches’ gaze’ might manifest – a gaze as an instinct; an alternative power; a gaze from the body. Miriam has created a photographic record, a response that does not attempt to be ‘objective’ documentation.

We have worked hard to find sensitive, appropriate and critical means to document the project. The legal workshops are for invited groups of women, who remain anonymous unless they choose otherwise. These sessions are not recorded, videoed or photographed, but we take extensive notes – as does Mairead. We have worked with two courtroom artists, Alwyn Gillespie and Priscilla Coleman, who make drawings of the proceedings. We initiated this approach in Derry, where we held the drafting workshop in a home that had been frequently raided during the Troubles. We were concerned with the home as the first institution of the state, and wanted to consider, through using this strategy of representation, how we could make evident the presence of law in everyday places and situations. We also wanted to respect the privacy of participants, reserving a space for secrecy within the work.

All public performances of the project were produced by femtech, that is, we worked with all-women teams of producers, performers, technicians and mediators. This is a key ethic of the work for us. We don’t record the performances themselves, photographing only a selection of key staged moments. The Touching Contract is documented most extensively through rumour, hearsay and first person account."


– Sarah Browne & Jesse Jones