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Runt of the Litter

Performance artist and activist Becky O’Brien is bold and daring in her creative work. Exploring themes ranging from sex work to technology, she navigates her politics through her own body. Born in Ireland, O’Brien uses her work to explore the norms and traditions she was brought up with but most enjoys art that “asks questions without hammering home a message.” Frustrated by the threat Covid lockdowns posed to her favourite kinds of performance space, unofficial creative spaces, O’Brien took matters into her own hands and opened her warehouse home for performance art night Runt of the Litter. 

The night offers a platform for all kinds of experimental performance art and was largely a response to lockdown. As many of the smaller spaces started to vanish, O’Brien wanted to create a night where anything was welcome and any kind of performance could happen. She tells me that these are the spaces she loves the most, joking that “the Royal Opera House isn’t going anywhere but they aren’t going to show [extreme body artist] Roy Athey!”. Recognizing how important these spaces were to the community, she “wanted to host an evening where artists who perform more graphic work, including nudity or cutting themselves, would be welcome”. At Runt, anything goes.

O’Brien’s affinity for the community in Hackney Wick is clear but as lockdown set in she could feel the community fracture, noticing the lack of warehouse parties and large events but also the new developments “changing the whole environment of the Wick.” She wistfully recalls the Sunday Service events, an open mic night that happened once a month and was open to all kinds of art and music. Unfortunately their building was taken away so they ended up dispersed around Hackney. O’Brien highlights how important this night was to the community – “it was crucial for me to make something to bring the community back together. Creating a space that anyone could just walk into was important, to make it as inclusive as possible.”

With these goals, O’Brien and her partner Dorian quickly realised that it made sense to hold the night in their warehouse home. “It’s a large space with three bedrooms, so each one became a screening room, the hallway became a gallery, there were fire sculptures on the balcony and then we had a main stage in the living area.” The first night was hugely successful, “we literally had five performances happening at once. It was amazing. There were no constraints. You want to be naked? Go for it! Do whatever the fuck you want.”

Remembering the first Runt in October, she admits it felt risky bringing people into her home and she wondered if everyone would be respectful. “But people totally are,” she says. “People are amazing. They always help us clean up at the end and move our shit back into place. I think having it in our home is what makes Runt kind of run special.” 

It feels much less institutionalized than going to another space. Opening their warehouse allows guests to feel like they’re part of the community and “the audience are really good at monitoring each other and making the space welcoming.” The exchange between performance and audience feels incredibly mutual, everyone “is able to give directly, and receive from, the community.”

Looking to the future, O’Brien would like to start doing a monthly residency and give up one of her bedrooms to an artist from outside London; offering them the space to make work and show it. She speaks excitedly about the artistic possibilities here. “We just have so much on our doorstep, and it’s all free. There’s a lot to be inspired by. I also feel like Hackney Wick is such a great place to be creating art. You come out of the station and immediately feel excited.” There is talk of a Runt festival in the colder months too – “it would be great to extend the Runt over a day or two,” says O’Brien. “The first day could be talks and workshops and the second could have loads of performances and a club night at the end.”

Runt is a space for the “the weird shit, the unwanted stuff, the art that’s not really understood or seen as useful.” O’Brien elaborates that within Arts Council England, everything has to be seen as useful and productive, but why should art be seen in this way? “There needs to be art that’s not helping anyone per se and is just there to exist. I’m most interested in art that asks questions without trying to hammer home some obvious message.”

So Runt is for the artists that are not understood to fit on the West End stage. It’s a platform for the performance art that isn’t getting the funding. And it’s for anyone who feels different, “they can come along and feel welcome in the audience too.”

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