Art as Medicine – Part 3: Depriving, discipline & determination, an interview with Martin O’Brien

Art as Medicine – Part 3: Depriving, pushing & healing. An interview with Martin O’Brien

Unlike the previous two (here is part 1 and 2) CF performance artists I’ve featured in this series entitled Art as Medicine, Martin O’Brien is very much alive, kicking, and pushing himself to extreme limits.  Martin was born in August of 1987 in Burnley, a small town in Lancashire, UK. He is an artist and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Reading in England. He also suffers from cystic fibrosis, or rather, he grinds the face of CF into the ground every chance he gets.  Martin does not let CF get him down, and in the spirit of Bob Flanagan, he fights pain with pain, and fights sickness with pain endurance. Martin was first diagnosed with CF when he was 6 months old:

“I was a really sick baby: couldn’t maintain any weight, always hungry and constantly shitting. It has always been my digestive system which has been much worse than my lungs, because with CF the mucus blocks the pancreas so enzymes can’t digest the food.”

Martin shared with me. I asked him what kinds of drugs he currently needs to be on and what his physiotherapy is like. He said:

“3 different nebulisers, creon (enzymes to digest my food) and a series of other tablets, I take around 40 a day. Physiotherapy is designed to loosen the mucus on the lungs and airways so it is easier to cough it up. It consists of laying on a postural drainage frame (an inverted bed, with head lower than your feet) and someone beating your chest. It’s mainly for children or if you are ill and need to clear your lungs. Otherwise there are a series of breathing exercises and pieces of equipment that are quicker and less intrusive.”

Me: How painful is the physiotherapy (scale of 1 – 10)? 10 being like a broken bone, 1 being barely painful?

Martin: It’s not so painful, I would always wear a shirt. Apart from my most recent performance, ‘Mucus Factory‘, in which I used physiotherapy and other techniques to produce mucus which I displayed in jars and used in abject ways. The piece lasted up to 9 hours and so after a few hours the chest was bright red and painful.

Martin O'Brien during a performance in London, early 2011

Martin O'Brien during a performance in London, early 2011. Photo by Matt Levin

Martin has been performing for his family and friends since he was 7 years old.  He was also part of a youth theater but started making his art during his study at Dartington College of Arts which he attended when he was 18.  I asked Martin some questions about his art:

Me: Describe your performance art

Martin: My work is concerned with physical endurance, hardship, excess, pain, discipline and illness. It always involves me placing my body under extremes. In relation to CF it works on many levels: as a kind of pathological resistance to and revealing of illness, also a reflection on contemporary identity politics. In these moments of extremes the body demands the right to perform itself. I work a lot with long durations by setting up regimes of hardship which I carry out.

Me: What are you trying to communicate?  What is it you feel inside that you are trying to express?

Martin: It is in part to do with identity, but the aesthetics are very important. I don’t conceive the work in relation to the audience other than on an aesthetic level. The work needs an audience, it is important that they engage with the experience which they witness. In some ways it becomes about intersubjectivity- between me and the spectators.

Me: How does it make you feel to perform?

Martin: There is a kind of fire that drives me to make the work. During it, because of the nature it often feels horrible, but also very addictive. There is a strange, altered state that I enter into.

Me: Why does it help you?

Martin: It is a survival tactic. It is my life really, it is as important as food or medicine

Me: What does your doctor(s) think about your performance art?

Martin: I’ve only spoken a little with them about it, they don’t quite understand, I’d like them to come and see something one day.

Me: What are some new ideas for your next performance?

Martin: I’m thinking about a new piece at the moment which I am currently in conversation with a prof of neuroscience interested in pain. I’m interested in a scientific input into my work, but this is in the very early stages.

Martin O'Brien performing his art

Martin O'Brien performing his extreme art. Photo by Matt Levin

I then asked Martin about general community awareness about Cystic Fibrosis. What he said I hope with provoke people to motivate and support this devastating illness.

Me: Do you think your performances help spread awareness about CF?

Martin: Possibly, but I don’t aim for that. It’s not about that, but they probably do.

Me: Is there a strong support community for people in CF where you live?

Martin: No. Nothing really.

Me:  Are you connected to any CF awareness or patient support group there?

Martin: No

Me: What is the number one thing we can do to help develop better treatments for CF?

Martin: I’m not too sure. At the moment there is a lot of financial trouble in CF research.

In part 2, I highlighted a number of places to show your support for CF research.

Cystic fibrosis is a harrowing disease and much more research is needed in order to bring symptoms and root causes under control so that more than half the people diagnosed with CF can expect to live past their 30th birthday.  Here is a great resource for CF sites, treatments and clinical trials in the states.

Martin O'Brien

Martin O'Brien - Photo by Matt Levin

Thanks Martin for your openness and your time to communicate with me about your unique art as medicine for cystic fibrosis.  Here is a link to his own website.

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