Amanda Coogan on Silence – Culture File


My final piece for Culture File’s series on ‘Silence‘, is an interview with performance artist Amanda Coogan. I don’t want to preempt the piece by writing too much about it. I will say that of all the conversations I’ve had this year, both on mic and off, this was perhaps the most personally meaningful. Amanda is an unusually sincere person who seems truly present in the moment. There are people I occasionally meet, whom I feel honoured to send time with, because they are present without pretence or defence. Perhaps those moments are why I’ve gravitated towards jobs that involve attempting real conversation – psychotherapy, music journalism, whatever the heck I do now. In those moments I’m reminded that life can be more engaged and meaningful than our fears and shibboleths usually allow.

Download: Amanda Coogan on Silence

Below is a transcript of the Culture File piece, and I’ve also made available a largely unedited recording of our interview. Our discussion spanned a variety of topics from the relationship of performance art to shamanic practice, to Irish societies treatment of the other, the evolution of performance art, as well as embodiment, the abject, and the phenomenology of performance.

Download: Amanda Coogan Interview (unedited)


Amanda Coogan Interview Transcript


I love your shopping trolley.

I know, I’m like an old lady!

I think we always think of em, performance art as so

Oh yeah it’s super glamorous (LAUGHS)!


I met Amanda Coogan at her studio, on the grounds of
saint Joesph’s school for deaf boys. Her work over the
past two decades has explored the body, femininity and
the relationship between artist and audience, viewer
and participant. Amanda began by giving me a crash
course in what makes Irish performance art and her work
in particular, unique.


Performance art is a relatively new form of practice.
It’s about a hundred years old. But really came into
it’s own in the sixities and seventies. Irish
performance art practice is very much based on the
psychological self, the psychological body going
through actual experiences, real experiences. I work in
whats called durational performance. Durational
performance for me is anything over three hours. And
what happens in long extended periods of time (and I’ve
done up to twenty four hour performances), is that the
body is taxed. The body has to go through some
endurance. It is difficult, physically, emotionally,
psychologically, and that is what you are presenting.
And that is what the audience are enabling you to do by
being there.

Amanda’s work is notably free of the spoken word, and I
asked her why she’d chosen to exclude this most direct
mode of communication.

It’s a very particular choice that I’ve made in my
work, not to use speech. Not to use words. I am asking
the audience to come into a very particular embodied
experience with me. So consider the body. When you’re
looking at a body who’s presenting itself publically,
(as an audience memeber) you feel that empathy, you
feel that sympathy, you feel that communion with that
body. The body is the filter that we read the whole
world through, so your bodily experience informs every
way that you understand and concieve the world and
experience the world. It’s a radically different
experience to just the head, so for example I have an
older piece of mine called yellow, where I scrub the
dress that I’m wearing. And the audience members would
often rock in the same rthymn as my scrubbing. Simply
letting it wash over them. I strongly believe that if I
utter a sentence or a word, that brings people out of
the embodied experience, and brings them into the
rational self. I think there’s place for both of those,
but I ask my audience very much to be in the moment, in
the present moment, of the embodied experience with me.

Amanda Coogan isn’t just a notable performance artist.
She’s also one of the only people in the country to
have been a hearing person, raised through Irish Sign
Language, and this unique perspective has had an
inevitable impact on her work.

Irish sign language is my first language. Both my
parents are deaf and activists in the community. So I
suppose it makes pretty simple sence that as an artist
I’m very much engaged with embodied practice: Physical,
visual, manual practice. To utter something in sign
language, you must use your body, and to recieve
something in sign language you must use your eyes. Not
that it isn’t a rational language either, of course we
have vocabulary, of course we have sentence structures,
we have thoughts, it’s as rich and deep a language as
English or any other spoken language. It’s manifest in
a radically different way. The body and our bodily
consitution and experience is the major filter to how
we experience and live in the world. So the deaf body,
or the body that uses Irish Sign Language or any other
sign language, has a radically different filter onto
the world.

A hearing person, finding out about Amanda’s unique
background, might almost inevitable ask themselves the
question, what it must have been like to grow up with
’voiceless’ parents, in a presumably quiet home.

…People would often say that I would have come from a
silent world, it couldn’t be more opposite. Actually
deaf people are super noisey. But it’s really
interesting noisey, because it’s not a noisey that is
communicating. It is an accidental noisey. I was just
working with 42 deaf people in the Project Arts Centre,
a couple of weeks ago, on a piece called ’You Told Me
To Wash & Clean My Ears’, and they’re so noisey! You
know walking up the stairs, slamming the door, even
using sign language is noisey… Or they ’utter’ the
most beautiful sounds. That are not indicators of
communication, they’re literally the body making
sounds, because there’s no filter to stop doing that.
So sound for me I suppose has never been related
directly to communication. But it’s almost a musical
phenonena. In my familial home, when I was growing up
was very noisey. And even now when I return to my
parents house, the cooker makes noise, the fridge makes
noise… There’s often an alarm going off, when you
come into the house, and it could have been going off
for days (LAUGHS). It doesn’t make any odds to them. So
sound, as we understand it as hearing people was very
different to me when I was growing up. There’s no
silence, you go to Achill looking for silence. It’s a
different quality of sound that we hear. John Cage’s
famous four minute piece actually makes us as the
audience, hear the world.


We don’t hear the instruments not being played, what we
hear is the atmosphere. All the people gathered in that
particular concert hall, different bodies breathing,
shuffling, there is sound. There is always some kind of
quality of sound. I very much realise, our kind of
adventure to look for silence, is a fools gold. There
is no such thing as silence.


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