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Bern O’Donoghue – ‘Dead Reckoning’

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In 2017-2018 we are working with a range of artists on a variety of touring and place-based commissions across the UK; we’re also working with several artists to scale-up projects via R&D and through ongoing creative mentoring and learning. 

Bern O’Donoghue is a Brighton based visual artist who engages members of the public in immersive projects examining the power of words to shape perception. Since 2010 through a number of socially engaged activities, she has explored the concept that small creative acts might change the world. From 2015, O’Donoghue’s work has considered the experiences of displacement and precarious living. By focusing on the people behind the statistics, she aims to widen the debate on migration and challenge myths regarding refugees and migrants.
The artist’s current work, Dead Reckoning, is composed of a series of installations which take the form of private vigil and public engagement, as she singlehandedly manufactures thousands of origami paper boats and then invites the general public to collaborate in displaying them with her over several hours or days in museums, galleries and public spaces.
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Bern describes the almost solitary production of the tiny boats in her kitchen as a powerless and repetitive endeavour which bears witness to the huge loss of life along the Libya/Italy and Greece/Turkey migratory routes. Paper is water-marbled, dried, torn, folded and turned into a boat, each representing a person recorded by the Missing Migrants Project as drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea whilst attempting to reach Europe. She writes the words ‘son’, ‘daughter’, neighbour’ or ‘friend’ upon each one, building month by month a colour coded reminder of the similarities we share with people forced to leave their homes.
Discussion with young children and their parents about the meaning of the boats in Who are We? Tate Exchange 2017. Photograph courtesy of Richard M Williams
The work is a deliberately mindful act undertaken in the kitchen, the heart of her home, in recognition of the sharp contrast of the insecurity people on the move experience. The public performance and ensuing emotive discussions are a means of engaging openly with difficult feelings and nuanced values-led thinking, bridging disconnection and in this way, O’Donoghue turns data collected by the International Organisation for Migration into human centred and affective content. Participants are encouraged through workshops (schools and communities) and collaborative install of the work in (museums and galleries) to consider not only the experience of migrants and refugees, but also to find realistic collective means by which those of us living more secure lives might engage more supportively with refugees.
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Each installation takes a year to construct and it’s size determined by the number of deaths resulting from the treacherous journeys people are forced to take. Dead Reckoning 2017 is currently under construction; written in all the languages of the EU, O’Donoghue intends to develop partnerships with organisations working in the field, touring the piece across Europe and the UK and developing a greater presence on social media so that by scaling up the public conversation she might reach a wider audience.