Unknown Territories - Sinéad O'Donnell in The Visual Artists' News Sheet


Unknown Territories

Sinead O’ Donnell/Artsadmin Artists Bursary

Artsadmin's Artists Bursary Scheme has been running since 1998, offering time, space and money to early and mid-career artists, allowing them the freedom to experiment, research, develop and make work.  It also provides regular advice to the artist, professional mentoring and critical writing about the artists’ work by other professional artists, curators, academics and writers.  


Manick Govinda, Head of Artists' Advisory Services and a Producer at Artsadmin engaged in a series of email exchanges with Sinead to find out how the bursary supported her at an interesting juncture of her artistic development.

1.  Can you tell us how you started out as an artist?

My mother brought me up to believe that ‘art’ is one of the most progressive and expressive tools in life. When I was a very young child she sent me to study painting. Later, in adolescence I had experienced major traumatic events occurring in my life and when things started to settle down again I returned to making art. So that's how I started. Art was something I could trust and something that held no boundary on how I expressed myself.


Right now I'm primarily working in performance art, in the past I found my way through developing skills in textiles and sculpture and eventually I became far more interested in the materials that I used. I was interested in the ‘raw’ material and the processes of cause and effect / subject and object, a sort of intuitive or invisible alchemy that happened between the material and me.

2. What are you trying to explore and convey in your art?

Again, with a personal history of trauma I at first had no idea of what I was trying to convey, it was so mixed up emotionally and also identifying myself as disabled - I could communicate. Performance and art became a communication. Probably because people who understood performance art and live actions weren’t judging me in a personal way but looking at what I was doing as a creative practice. So I felt extremely empowered and safe and although I was not 100% about what I was doing I definitely felt that I was in the right place. Conveying something? Recognising that I could step away from the trauma was when I was able to convey my ideas, which started to mature and that took about 4 or 5 years to develop. This development only happened after extended times of transit and travel, invites and opportunities to places and events. Feeling part of a community, not so much a network, networks are different. It was from travel, engaging with other artists internationally and experiencing other cultures through presenting performance art that I began to think more about what I was conveying and how.

3. Why did you apply for the Artsadmin bursary and how has it helped you in supporting your ideas and artistic process?

I applied in 2010 for the bursary because I felt that it was the right time to explore idea’s that were on a back burner for a while. I felt that it was a risk to apply while these ideas were still instincts and feelings in abstract and unknown forms.  But, I have been working in the field of performance art for over 10 years and really needed some sort of break to just have some time with my creative self. I was feeling low about working in non-art jobs and not having any money to experiment.


The one-to-one advisory sessions are free and not so intimidating. I was also primarily encouraged to apply in 2010 because there was a focus on prioritising artists identified as disabled. So I felt okay…maybe they might excuse my application mistakes and look at the artwork which is something I would struggle with. I found the online application system to have good supportive design and it was an encouraging way to do an application.

4. How have you used the bursary in a practical way?


In terms of practice I feel that I developed in two main contexts:
1. The disability community as a performance artist identified as disabled and

2. In collaborative practices in terms of leading groups of artists and re-defining the limitations of space in which we work.


In December 2010 I was invited to bring a residency group of artists to the DaDafest (Deaf & Disabled Arts Festival) I selected Gillian Wylde (UK), Mariel Carranza (USA) and Poshya Kakl (Iraq). For two weeks we made work entitled ‘Bordering on Identity’ and we were based in a room in the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool. It was a peculiar set up for all of us as the festival has a history mainly of disabled theatre and dance so our work was slightly on the edge and one could even say marginalized.  It was a set up in a room containing a table tennis table, flourescent lights, loaves of bread; some loaves had radios inside, other loaves had knives stuck inside.  


Gillian took on the persona of a pink pig and painted her body pink and she used the underneath of the table tennis table as her space to process ‘stuff’, she also wore roller skates and played records and Jane Fonda videos. Mariel wore a chain around her head and re-wrote words from books and tried to make love to the walls in the corridor outside the space.  We made animal noises, we were not allowed to be naked.  I felt compelled to a strong large tree branch I found on the street and used that as my material.  I stood in camouflage knee high socks, white panty and a white shirt, my nose blackened and shookthe branch until it felt like part of my arm, then I would stop and compose myself have a look around and do it again. Poshya Kakl Skyped from Iraq to be present within the residency and she created actions by presenting her brother playing live Kurdish music and we (Gillian, Mariel and I) pumped the sound through speakers and played these exotic sounds out the window of the Bluecoat.


Some people came into the room where we worked in the Bluecoat and talked.  They talked a lot, they talked so much we just had to talk back to them, we even let them bring in their carry outs, get under the table and climb up on the table.  Then some more serious visual artists came and asked us what all this mess was about and did we need a hand cleaning up…things got messy, piggy’s wore pink, chained women, virtual women, what about Iraq? What’s she doing under there? Do I look normal with my nose painted black? What if I obstruct this doorway? Is she considered naked if she’s painted pink? Is she violent if she wants to fuck the wall?

5. How is the Artsadmin bursary different from other forms of financial support?

The bursary is supportive in terms of understanding what the artist needs. Some funders seem to fund projects according to their needs and manipulate the fluidity or nature of growth of art practices to suit themselves. Adaptability is what I have learned from the bursary time, Artsadmin were hugely adaptable with me and understanding my process as practice. I feel it was because of this I was able to take more risks and felt more ideas coming. Support and advice was offered and given yet not forced. I did not have to keep track of cash and receipts; there was no one on my back or frustrating me with paperwork.  It was so great to be able to get on with the art work. I met other bursary recipients and got to know them and their projects.

6.  What does the future hold for you?

I am currently working on a commission for Unlimited, as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The project is titled CAUTION and brings together six international performance artists to collaborate on a project that explores notions of identity, similarity and difference through journeys, actions and performance (real and virtual). The project will culminate in an exhibition at Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast in August and September 2012.  

I would hope that in the future I further develop work between the east and the west. Opening up artistic communication and opportunities for artists working in many cultures. Raising awareness through actions - that we are not free unless we are all free.



Artsadmin’s Bursary Scheme 2010-11 is supported by Artsadmin, Arts Council England, Centre for Excellence in Training for Theatre at Central School of Speech and Drama and by generous donors to Small Change.  

This text was originally published in the November – December 2011 issue of Visual Arts News Sheet (Visual Arts Ireland).


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