Careers in the arts: in conversation with performance artist and activist River Champion

Suzanne Flynn speaks to Trinity alum River Champion about performance art, homelessness and monstrous feminine energy

“I always wanted to be an artist, but I came from a background where that wasn’t really an option”. These are the words of transgender performance artist River Champion. Born and raised in Dublin, Champion has moulded and crafted her art form into powerful expressions of self-identity with elements of queer punk, now incorporating dancing as a central part of her performance. With a Masters in Gender and Women’s Studies from Trinity, Champion is a valued member of the College’s alumni in the performance art world. 

“I call myself a medium performance artist,” Champion says, as we discuss how she started her performance artistry career. Having studied media as her primary degree, she speaks about how she initially got involved with the PETTY CASH collective. As they were largely interested in queer and feminist performance, the collective helped to develop her as an artist. Champion believes performance is a “viable form of visual art” and she sees being active in the area of queer performance as “being part of a cultural force.”

Glorifying a career in the arts may seem easy to do, but for Champion the path to success has not been without its challenges. Reflecting on her journey from beginner to seasoned performer, Champion shares that her “career was interrupted by homelessness.” She tells me: “I see homelessness as a disciplinary force in society, forcing people to conform to gain access to what should be a human right.” 

“I see homelessness as a disciplinary force in society, forcing people to conform to gain access to what should be a human right.”

This observation is further developed in an academic essay Champion published in relation to the effects of homelessness on the trans community. Quoting the idea of “precarity” around homelessness, Champion sees the precarity as an intersection “which constrains you from being able to express yourself and from thriving in society.”

For Champion, personal experience with homelessness has instigated a sense of disappointment with the government: “People making the decisions are so removed from the issue. This is an entrenched issue in society wrapped up in late stage capitalism. The movement to end homelessness needs to be pragmatic with an intersectional approach to other marginalisations.”  

It appears that this experience of being let down by the state has, among other things, led Champion to consider a career beyond Ireland. Although she credits Ireland as being a good starting position for those interested in performance art, moving onto “greener pastures” is inevitable for Champion: The idea about the function of art as almost making us as a small nation look good to larger nations, keeping up appearances with other countries, can define the funding and the landscape of performance artistry.”

“…there needs to be more recognition of art as a public good.”

Considering what makes Dublin so different compared to other European cities, Champion states: “The conversation and idea of what live art could be feels hindered by the larger conservative force in Ireland, it can feel very competitive for a small amount of opportunities. For marginalised artists the scene can be quite daunting.” 

“What about Berlin in particular?” I ask, having known from Champion’s social media that she spent some time there performing. “In Berlin there is a strong history of art as a social force,” Champion explains and proceeds to recount how open and accepting the scene was in contrast to how it can be at home. 

In Ireland making art can often involve “excusing yourself for taking up space and nearly having to play the role of an educator, an advocate and a token when performing and pitching, but the gains for you are limited.” And the culture surrounding this too is crucial: “This isn’t just in a commercial way, there needs to be more recognition of art as a public good.”

“…Champion is trying to build a base in Berlin, with a focus on “improvisational dance, freak drag and monstrous feminine energy.””

Due to her experience in Berlin, where she witnessed the stark difference in both the culture and the performance art scene, especially for LGBTQ+ performers, Champion is trying to build a base in Berlin, with a focus on “improvisational dance, freak drag and monstrous feminine energy.” 

However, Champion does strongly credit A4 Sound Studios, a non-profit artist-run workspace and gallery in north inner city Dublin: “A4 are a force to build strong communities, but they are an anomaly in Dublin.” She emphasied that A4 Sound Studios are running an opportunity for performance artists, which may interest prospective artists or those starting out. 

Champion will soon go on to work with The Live Art Development Agency (LADA), the world’s leading Live Art organisation based in London, who support “the most challenging artists, practices and ideas of contemporary culture, including emerging artists, and artists from culturally diverse backgrounds.“ Champion credits LADA for being socially focused in what they do and really defining what is coming next in the live art scene. However, she is not inherently critical of the government in her reasoning why the performance art scene in Dublin isn’t as fulfilling: “It’s unfortunate that the scene in bigger cities is better, but there are distinct cultural reasons for why Dublin isn’t as viable. Starting out somewhere smaller is more encouraging, but it can be harder to progress.” 

Champion is currently taking a step back from performing to develop dance as part of her practice, and is seeking opportunities to exhibit this. Champion’s current piece for exhibition is A Body Abstracted, a collaboration with the artist and experimental musician Briley Mullen. “A body abstracted is a 20 minute intimate spectacle exploring trans-feminine embodiment through expressive movement and ritual mark making. Combining glitch art, audio cut up, and DIY aesthetics the artist invites the audience to explore the claustrophobic mindscape created by the negative social messages she receives about her body.”

 “It is being part of a cultural force”

“What advice would you give to students that may be interested in pursuing a career in performance art?” I asked. She takes a moment to dwell on her own experiences during her career’s infancy, noting that: “There are programmes to study performance art and specific performance art colleges but not in Ireland. I did an introduction course with A4 Sounds when I was starting out, to have something on my CV.” With this in mind, she remarks that finding mentors is the key to success: “You’re navigating a very messy world without the support of someone to help you along.” 

And that’s not all she suggests: “Anyone interested in advice can contact me at my email address [email protected],” a generous and inspiring offer to help others interested in performance art. 

Her final words of wisdom? “Don’t undervalue yourself, it’s easy early in your career to get really frustrated at the lack of tangible ways you can exhibit and question the value of your art. If you are committed to it and do the work, you will be committed. Try to keep your practice broad when you’re starting.” A role model for those interested in queer performance art and performance artistry in general, River Champion has surely entered herself firmly into the conversation. 

Suzanne Flynn

Suzanne Flynn is the current Deputy Life Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Law and German student.