Sandra Johnston

Sandra Johnston


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Research Interests

I am a Northern Irish visual artist active since 1992 in the areas of site-responsive performance, drawing and video installations, which have been presented internationally in diverse contexts and interdisciplinary forms.  Projects are often developed with artist-run organisations and activist networks, and I have been involved ongoingly with some of these collectives as a co-founder, committee member or advisor.

Since 2001 I have developed a substantial body of practice-based research investigating issues of ‘contested space’. Initially this research was developed through an AHRC Fellowship post at the Ulster University and involved exploring issues of ‘trauma of place’ through performative interventions and establishing how collective memory connected to specific locations had become altered after violent events, creating layers of stigmatization, or conversely, commemoration. From 2009-2012 through a PhD research project, the emphasis became focused around concerns of testimony and the ‘theatre’ of justice. It was published in 2013, by LIT Verlag, (Germany), and maps out how the diverse evidence of human rights violations is primarily carried and conveyed through gestures: from the enacted staging of terrorist spectacles, the interpretive performances of legal testimony and the embodied gestures of protestors, to the responses of survivors sometimes existing on the cusp of invisibility and silence. The research sought to complicate the often, unquestioned notion that legal processes are comprehensive, authoritative, and rational, whereas improvisation practices are inaccessible, irrational, and unverified. Through comparative reframing, the research showed that improvisation is not disconnected from other social processes but can be strategized and traced in ways that illuminate the equally flawed ephemeral and embodied processes at the core of legal practices. My current research approach is about evolving these core concerns of trauma and recovery towards questions of healing. Working collaboratively and through facilitated workshops, I am exploring the extent to which performance improvisation can be applied as a form of self-sensing/self-knowing that can extend our abilities of haptic intelligence and memory retrieval.

The performance actions that drive my research are experiential in nature, developed from the direct revelations of a body inhabiting space, light, motion and being stimulated by the behaviour of audiences. Each work is developed from carefully observing the tensions that exist between the history of a location, set in dialogue with the vibrancy and insistence of the passing moment. Therefore, the work is typified by an approach to improvisatory action that accepts and reacts upon the unpredictable and the unforeseen as points of catalytic encounter.

Funding Awards:

2020 Awarded the O’MALLEY VISUAL ARTS AWARD by the The Irish American Cultural Institute and Judges Christina Kennedy, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Donal Maguire, National Gallery of Ireland and Catherine Marshall, art historian, writer and curator.

2015 HAWKE EU CENTRE and HELPMANN ACADEMY FUNDING, Australia, in addition to BRITISH COUNCIL AND ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND joint award – Artists’ International Development Fund Grant for the Border Crossings and Gateways Project, commissioned by SASA Gallery at the University of South Australia and Galway Arts Centre, Ireland, curators Mary Knights, Michelle Brown.

2011 DIVA funding award for SIGRID’S STUE residency AARHUS ART BUILDING, Aarhus, Denmark

2010 ARTS COUNCIL NORTHERN IRELAND travel Award for Chaos Project, Canada

2009 ARTS COUNCIL NORTHERN IRELAND Travel Award for If to Drift, Boston USA

2007 BBC “POWER OF ART” joint commission with Arts Council of Northern Ireland

2006 British Council support for “ARAS 2006” Romanian Exchange project

2005 INTERFACE: Centre For Research in Art, Technologies and Design Travel award for the “SECOND PRESENT” Project, Budapest, Hungary.

2005 British Council Travel Support for BLURRR 5 Performance Biennial, Tel Aviv, Israel

2004 Arts Council of Northern Ireland Award for "apt" project with the Verbal Arts Centre, Derry

2003 Awarded "NOW" Festival Major Commission by Nottingham City Council & the Bonington Gallery, Nottingham and Trent University, England

2003 TYRONE GUTHRIE CENTRE INTERNATIONAL BURSARY, 1-month residency award at VCCA. Virginia, USA. Also- Arts Council of Northern Ireland Travel Award for flights to Washington

2002 NIFCA. RESIDENCY, Finland, & Arts Council of Northern Ireland Travel Award: flights to Helsinki

2001 SKOWHEGAN Residency Program, awarded position and full scholarship Grant, also an ARTFLIGHT to New York, (An Chomhairle Ealaion) Ireland

2000 YEAR OF THE ARTIST- Research and Development Grant from Northern Arts, Newcastle Upon Tyne, A research residency for the DIALOGUES LAB commissioned by management committee of the Grainger Town Development area.

2000 Arts Council Grant for development and production of Appearances Project, Ireland.

1999 Assistance Grant for participation in Europe in the Box, Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland.

1998 GO SEE Award If the Dead Could Go Shopping What Would They Buy? Travel and Subsistence, An Chomhairle Ealaion, Ireland.

1997 An Chomhairle Ealaion, ARTFLIGHT to Maastricht, the Netherlands, Ireland.

1996-1997 Pepinieres Programme Subsistence & Scholarship Grant for eight-month residency at the AKI Akademie, Enschede, The Netherlands.

1994 An Chomhairle Ealaion, Travel and Subsistence funding for Irish Days 2, Ireland.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 5 - Gender Equality
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 14 - Life Below Water
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


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