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Dr Sandra Johnston

Senior Lecturer

Department: Arts

The performance actions are experiential in nature, developed from the direct revelations of a body inhabiting space, light, motion and often being stimulated by the behaviour of random audiences. Each work is developed from carefully observing the tensions that exist between the history of locations, set in dialogue with the vibrancy and insistence of the passing moment.

Johnston has presented work internationally since 1992 in a diverse range of contexts and interdisciplinary forms, often with a particular emphasis on projects within ‘contested spaces’. Between 2002/05 as an AHRC Research Fellow based at the University Of Ulster in Belfast, she developed a practice-based investigation into issues of ‘trauma of place’. This research explored how aspects of collective memory connected to specific locations can become altered after violent events, creating layers of stigmatisation, or conversely, commemoration. From 2009/ 2012 this research extended as a PhD project entitled - Beyond Reasonable Doubt: An Investigation of Doubt, Risk and Testimony Through Performance Art Processes in Relation to Systems of Legal Justice.

Throughout her career Johnston has collaborated extensively with other artists, occasionally through participation in international performance laboratories, and also as a co-founder and committee member of various artist-run collectives in Belfast, namely: CATALYST ARTS, BBEYOND, and AGENCY.

Exhibitions & Publications

Research Themes and Scholarly 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 toimprovisatory action that accepts and reacts upon the unpredictable and the unforeseen as points of catalytic encounter.

Key Publications

Professional Activity

  • Please visit the Pure Research Information Portal for further information
  • Invited talk: Paula Rego From Creative Performativity to Irish Art 2021
  • Invited talk: In and Ease: The Performance Drawings of Alastair MacLennan 2020
  • Invited talk: Think, Feel, Move 2019
  • Invited talk: Ephemerality and Gaps in Evidencing Embodied Practices 2019
  • Invited talk: Haptic Intelligence: Understanding Touch in Performative Practices 2019
  • Invited talk: ArtasFoundation Public talk responding to theme: Art as a Source in Fragile Contexts 2019
  • Invited talk: Public lecture: Think, Feel, Move 2019

PGR Supervision

  • Simon Raven Companion Pieces: Performance, audiences and the aesthetics of disability. Start Date: 31/03/2021
  • Laurel Carpenter This Is She: Tracing Potentials of the Alterself Experience in Durational Visual Art Performance Start Date: 01/10/2016 End Date: 21/01/2021
  • Jasper Llewellyn ‘Making Up Life: Improvisation, Affect and (Performance) Art in Amongst the Ordinary' Start Date: 01/10/2019
  • Denys Blacker Interconnection, Synchronicity and Consciousness in Improvised Performance Art Practices Start Date: 17/02/2016 End Date: 07/03/2019
  • Francesca Steele Improvisatory action: the unpredictable and the unforeseen in site-responsive performance art. Start Date: 15/02/2017


  • Fine Art PhD September 01 2012
  • Fine Art MA September 01 1991

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