In Conversation with Laura O’Connor

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Interview with Laura O'Connor from "Humans" Exhibition

Laura O’Connor: How’s the show? Is it down?

Kaitlynn Webster: It’s still up, it’s hanging out in there.

LO: I’m pretty sure my shamrocks are completely dead at this point

KW: You know, last time I was in, they were not dead, but it has been about a week.

LO: I have some in the window, in the medium that they’re in, and I haven’t watered it in about a month, and they’re still going strong. And I have other ones in a jar that don’t have any medium at all in it, just the food, and I haven’t touched them, and they keep growing. So I’ve got some experiments going on now with different ways to keep shamrocks alive, but I think they’re pretty resilient once you give them some food.

KW: They do seem to thrive everywhere… Do you want to start by just talking about the piece, actually – that is now sitting very lonely in the gallery?

LO: So the piece I made for the show is called “Cultural Methods”, and I have been thinking about making this work for quite a while, probably a year or two, since last year I’vebeen researching and figuring out how to do it. Basically, it’s a response to the cervical check scandal in Ireland. A lot of my work over the last couple of years has been about the contradiction between cultural pride and national pride and Irish-ness, and then the disregard for healthcare for women’s bodies – and people in general in Ireland I suppose, but specifically women, because I’m an Irish woman. 

My research over the last few years has been around online identity and digital identity, and so I’ve always kind of in the background been looking at the body and how we interact with digital platforms, whether it’s things like social media, or more recently looking at things like Fit Bits and fertility trackers, which is what I used in this work. I had thought about the way women were treated, and how their data was treated in the cervical check scandal – in the case, the smear tests had been sent to labs in both England and America, and the organization found out that some of the smears had been misdiagnosed, but the information was given to doctors and they weren’t obliged to divulge this information to the patient. And it was only that Vicky Phelan had found out through reading her medical history, that it had come up and she hadn’t been informed, and she ended up getting cervical cancer, and this has happened to lots of Irish women. So there’s an organization called 221+ – there’s 221 women who have been identified, and obviously there are more – and there are many women that have died, who may have got the cancer but it could have been treated so much earlier had they been informed. So this idea of holding data, or who has the right to have your data, that medical information is your personal data, but somebody else had the information, and the power over whether they tell you or not. In that way, I was kind of interested in where we put our information, or who we give our information to, and who has control of that. And also thinking about the fact that these tests are done, are sent to American, sent to England to get put through the labs. 

And also, then on the other side of that, thinking about Irish-ness…when I was a kid, I was in a marching band, and we went to New York twice and did the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and everyone is Irish in New York on St. Patrick’s Day, and everybody has a bunch of shamrocks on their jacket. Even at St. Patrick’s Day this year, Varadkar was over in America handing Trump a bowl of shamrocks on the 17th of March, and we went into lockdown a couple of days after, so it just felt really strange to have these things happen. That’s kind of the idea around it, is just the irony or the contradiction of how we look after the people on the island of Ireland and how we sell the island of Ireland in different ways. 

So the piece I made started with a fertility tracker bracelet. I was kindly funded by the Cavan Arts Office to get some equipment to develop this work, so I bought this Ava tracker bracelet, which you wear at night and it collects your body temperature, your breathing rate, your heart rate, your sleep pattern, and in the morning you get this report. It tells you your peak fertility time, all of these kinds of things, and you can put information into it. They say that it collects over three million data points at night, so it’s constantly collecting things and gathering averages. I wore that over the summer, I wore that for three months, and then I contacted the company to get them to give me the data points as on the app I only got a daily reading, I didn’t get all of the three million data points, but I got my averages for every day. What I wanted to do was to use this data to power a hydroponic grow system that grows shamrocks. A hydroponic grow system is basically just an indoor growing system. It would be associated with growing cannabis inside, but people are using them a lot more now to just grow in urban settings. It’s soilless, and there are lots of different ways to do I, but generally it’s soilless and you feed them water and nutrients and keep them lit with an LED lamp. I used the data; I had a friend help me to write the program for it. We used a raspberry pi, and we connected it to a relay, and the relay fed into three different elements of the piece. One was the water pump – so there’s a basin of water underneath this cabinet, it’s a medicine cabinet, that I put these shamrocks in a tube in, and in the tube there are three sections of shamrocks, and 28 shamrocks in each section, one for every day of my cycle, and the three months of data in the system. 

The water goes through the pipe, and the pump that’s connected to the pipe is controlled by my heart rate. There’s an oxygen pump in the water, to keep it oxygenated, and that’s controlled by the data from my breathing. The red and blue LED lights in the cabinet, they’re controlled by the temperature readings. So its is programmed that if it goes above or below an average number, it will turn on or off, basically. So the machine is constantly working, there’s constantly noise, there’s water flushing through, the lights come on and off. It’s a system, it’s an organ, it’s a body, it’s a living thing, and it’s keeping these shamrocks alive, and it’s based on my personal data, so in a way my body is performing through this organ in the middle of the gallery space.

The way we installed it then is to almost make it like an altar. I’ve always been interested in this church and state – brought up Catholic, and you constantly questioned it. I’m massively into religious iconography, and all of that stuff, but also not really into the doctrine of the church. But I’m drawn to those images, and that set-up. The way we set the space up was having the system in the middle, in the corner of the wall, and I made a drawing, an illustration of – it’s based on medical drawings of a cervix. But then I also put these wings on it, which are based on images from the Ark of the Covenant, which is basically the altar of the chalice. It’s kind of a hybrid image, and it’s done in a gold sticker. There’s green and pink rectangles coming out, and then this gold sticker. Everything is symmetrical, so it draws you in, but it’s got this altar-like set-up. And then there are two images either side, one of them is of a speculum with shamrocks coming out of it, and the other is of contraceptive pill packets, with shamrocks growing out. I’ve been collecting these pill packets for years, because I’ve always wanted to do something with them, and never got to use them, I’ve had them for so long, and I finally figured a way to use them.