Martin O’Brien (b. 1987) is an artist and zombie based in London and the Whitechapel Gallery’s Writer in Residence for 2023. Over the next 12 months he will publish a new series of texts on the Whitechapel Gallery website, alongside a series of live performances at the gallery.

Jane Scarth (Curator: Public Programmes) interviews O’Brien to discuss his practice and ambitions for the residency.

Martin O’Brien ‘The Last Breath Society (Coughing Coffin)’, commissioned by Waiting Times for Institute of Contemporary Art (London), funded by Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England, image: Manuel Vason, 2021

In the book about your practice – Survival of the Sickest (2018) – you’ve published a Performance Manifesto. I’m struck by the powerful final sentence: ‘Performance is a mode of survival.’ What does this mean to you?

Performance and art are a way of life for me. The performance work I make is often physically demanding, lasting many hours. It deals with mortality and asks audiences to engage with some difficult images. I was born with cystic fibrosis, a life shortening disease, and death has always been an obsession. People often ask me if it is emotionally difficult to make the work I make. The answer is always the same: NO. Performance is a survival strategy. I understand death through the art I make, and making art gets me up in the morning! Performance is the space where I can be sick in the way I want. I find an abject pleasure in sickness, I celebrate sickness, and I find ways to be sick with agency. I’ve always insisted that my work isn’t entertainment (but can be entertaining), I believe it is a political act to share something with other people. So what do I want to say to the world? About the world? What can I give to people who attend a performance?

You’ve used the phrase ‘Zombie Time’ to describe the state of exceeding your life expectancy.  Can you describe this term and how it features in your practice?

Growing up with CF means a constant facing of your own mortality. My older cousin died from the disease aged twelve, when I was eight years old. This was the first time I understood death as part of life. The life expectancy for someone born in 1987 with CF, is thirty years old, this information was plastered all over charity appeals for the CF Trust. I was sure I would die at thirty. The temporal movement towards this age was the defining condition of growing up for me. Death was an obsession. I reached and surpassed thirty. Death did not come for me. In attempting to understand what it means to live longer than expected, I formulated the notion of zombie time.

Zombie time offers a way of conceptualizing a changing relationship to mortality. The temporal experience in my childhood and early adulthood was one of moving towards a death date. Zombie time insists on a different temporal proximity to death. Like the Hollywood zombie which holds within it a paradox, in that it is both dead and alive, those of us living in zombie time experience death as embodied in life. We had come to terms with the fact that we are about to die, and then we didn’t.

The Hollywood style zombie, post Romero movies, are very camp versions of the undead. I liked the idea of embodying this, they undermine the seriousness of illness. I started to embrace and play with the image of the staggering living corpse in short stories, performances, and video works. The humour of this resists the position of vulnerability: monster or creature instead of victim or patient. This is important to me. So, the zombie years are about living politically as a sick person. Living sick can also mean living well!

The coronavirus pandemic rapidly altered how our society relates to health, sickness and death. How is the spectre of this recent crisis informing your work? 

My most recent piece was a performance-installation at the ICA in 2021 ‘The Last Breath Society (Coughing Coffin)’. It was supposed to happen in March 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic. When turning to work on it again, I realised that everything about it had to be different. It was an installation with nine coffins, and recordings of my cough being played out of them. After the pandemic though, the cultural meaning of the cough had completely changed. Then, the image of a room full of coffins had a new significance after what everyone was going through. I made some changes, and many people said it became a way of processing the feelings about covid and living through a pandemic. It feels like an important time to be making work about illness and death. Many people who weren’t thinking about their bodies and the possibilities of illness and death are now forced to. That seems to me to be one of the effects of the pandemic. I have spent a lot of time thinking about these things, and I think my work can offer a space for people to sit with images of death, and not in a morbid way. Those of us who have lived in zombie time know death in a different way, and now is a good time to open up the conversations around mortality through art.

Your performances are part of a strong queer tradition in performance art and delve into the realms of pain, desire, S&M, often pushing the limits of what is considered permissible by bodies in public space. How do your performances develop?

My work emerges out of a particular artistic lineage. My mentor was Ron Athey when I was an emerging artist. It has always been important to me to reference and pay homage to this history. One of the main strands of my practice over the last decade has been my collaborations with Sheree Rose. Sheree became infamous in the 80’s for her collaborations with her partner, Bob Flanagan. He died from cystic fibrosis in 1996, age 43. At the time he was one of the oldest people with the disease. They were partners, in a full time BDSM relationship. Sheree was the mistress and Bob was the submissive. This lasted for sixteen years until his death. Together they made performances, installations, sculptures, poetry. Sheree and I have made many performances together that continue their explorations of love, pain, desire, and death. She is now 81 years old and thinking about her own mortality. So, we do that together. Me as a younger man who has outlived his life expectancy, and her as an older woman. I become a substitute for him in a way, a zombie version of Bob. It goes in different directions too, I love to mentor artists. I do it a lot, both formally through my university teaching job and informally through more DIY activities and individual relationships. I have many former students who are having amazing careers as artists and organisers right now. It makes me very proud.

I’m really interested in how sickness can be embraced as a queer tactic. My work often uses long durational actions or actions that involve endurance as unfolding processes, as sick queer images of life. Alternative, queer, and kinky lifestyles are affirmations of existence, of sick life being well life.

What is the role of writing in your practice, and how do see the relationship between text and performance?

I’ve always loved writing. As a kid, I used to constantly write stories. I would also spend long car journeys improvising stories for my little sister. It is interesting because my performances resist narrative completely. I have no interest in the idea of a story in performance. Yes, much of my creative process in making these performances involves writing stories. They allow me to figure out the colours of the work, the language of a work, the materials, the duration. Everything comes through a process of writing. The other important part that writing plays for me is as critical response to works. I always write essays and articles emerging out of my work. They contextualsie my performances in relation to other artists, art history, and theoretical ideas. This is also an important part of my process

Writing is a hugely significant part of my process. I spend a lot of time writing during the making of a new performance. These are short fantasy stories, philosophical and critical rants, autofiction, poetic descriptions of death and despair. They sometimes make their way into my performance work, or programme as context. My 2020 lecture-performance at Tate Britain was a sermon of sorts in which I read a series of prophetic stories about illness and the undead cause the fall of capitalism. This was just before the covid pandemic affected us in the UK.

In the last few years, I have started thinking about them as works in themselves. As part of this residency I’m really interested in how texts can be works of art too. I want to present them as works that can relate and speak to live performances. I imagine a series of works in different mediums, some texts, others performances. Each one following on from the other, using the same vocabulary and materials.