'In the home and in the 8th. That’s where women belong in the Constitution'

Broadside: The Touching Contract is a new show ‘about the State and how women are affected by the law’

‘In the Shadow of the State’ in workshop. Drawing by  Alwyn Gillespie.

‘In the Shadow of the State’ in workshop. Drawing by Alwyn Gillespie.

 

A cycling helmet, a swimming hat, a birth certificate, a carton of juice, a Hermes scarf – ordinary, everyday things, brought by women to a recent Dublin workshop for The Touching Contract to explain how the law has impacted on them.

The Hermes scarf represented a lawyer one woman had known growing up. For her, it was an expression of how she sees the legal profession: refined, privileged, glamorous.

A midwife brought a mobile phone to indicate the call-outs she receives from pregnant women and their partners. It signified a woman’s right to access birth services as and when when she needs them.

Birth certificates would chart women’s arrival into the State. Some adoptees had no documents. The absence was profound.

Sarah Browne, who teaches sculpture at the NCAD, and her colleague Jesse Jones, from Cork’s Crawford College of Art, are about to stage their show as part of In the Shadow of the State in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. It is the third time it has been performed; Derry and in Liverpool previously played host to the show. Like all children, it is completely different, but just as cherished.

“It’s about the State and how women are affected by the law,” says Browne.

More than about abortion

The Touching Contract takes place the same weekend as the annual March for Choice, where people take to the streets of Dublin to call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and free, safe, legal abortions. However, she stresses that it is about more than reproductive rights.

Browne is aware that emotions are running high, and believes there is a gaping hole that can be filled with art and contemplation.

“There is a feeling that there is a space for activism and there is a space for art. This is not explicitly an activist project. I think there’s is value in finding an aesthetic form for ideas. There is a value in someone thinking about what it is like to be in someone else’s body encountering a touch by the State.

“We always talk about what the law looks like, but this is about it feels like. What it feels like for somebody else.”

That is what the whole project is trying to hook us up with: what the law actually feels like.

Browne says it has raised her legal consciousness.

“After a while, you realise that you have grown up in a State with a Constitution that names women only three times and men, I think, 91 times. Women are mentioned in the context of the home and the Eighth Amendment. That’s where we belong in the Constitution.

“When you realise that, you really start to feel differently about how the State sees you and wonder about your place in it. It is profound.”

Touched all over

Audiences arriving at the Rotunda for The Touching Contract will indeed be touched, artistically, emotionally and physically. But only if they choose to be.

Mairead Enright, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Birmingham, has also worked with the artists and drawn up a contract that audiences can sign, agreeing to be touched by the performers. Alternatively, they can decline to sign the contract and leave. It is all about choice.

It is, of course, also about touch – feeling different kinds of touch: the caring, the medical, the playful. But don’t expect fragrant candles and a full body massage.

The four prongs of the project roam across the British and Irish States, where women’s lives are circumscribed to different extents. Ireland does not permit abortion, of course, whereas London and Liverpool appear to offer some sort of reproductive nirvana, a safe haven for the women of Ireland and the choices they might make.

But everything is relative. In London, Browne says the show will focus on a post-Brexit vision and the concept of strangers and of fear. The Derry production focused on activism and respite at the kitchen table. In Liverpool, they talked of the city’s place in the history of slavery and the lack of choices some women still have.

Browne thinks that with “artistic imagination, maybe a different type of political imagination is possible”. It is worth a try.

‘The Touching Contract’ is co-commissioned by Create (Ireland) and Artangel, and is a key project in the Arts Council’s ART: 2016 programme. It will be performed in the Pillar Room, Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, September 23rd-25th at 6pm. See intheshadowofthestate.org

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