Skip to main content
School of English and Drama

Dr Martin O'Brien, PhD (Reading), MA (Aberystwyth), BA Hons (Dartington)


Senior Lecturer in Live Art



I am a performance artist and scholar. My practice and research are concerned with the performance and representation of illness and disability. My professional performance work considers and stems from my own existence with a severe chronic illness within our contemporary situation. My practice uses physical endurance, hardship and pain-based practices to challenge common representations of illness and to examine what it means to be born with a life-threatening disease.

I have performed throughout the UK, Europe and the USA including Tate Britain (London), Spill Festival (London and Ipswich), Kapelica Gallery (Ljubljana), Abrons Art Center (New York), ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives (Los Angeles), and Dansehallerne (Copenhagen). My work has been funded and commissioned by organisations such as Arts Council England, British Council, and the Live Art Development Agency.

In 2022 I was the recipient of a prestigious Philip Leverhulme Prize.

I completed my PhD at the University of Reading and have published on my own work and the work of other artists in books and journals. This has included chapters in several forthcoming books as well as in Contemporary Theatre Review, Dance Theatre Journal, and as editor of a special edition of Performance Research ‘On Medicine’ in 2014. My own work has also been received significant critical attention from other scholars.

Undergraduate Teaching

I have taught on undergraduate modules including:

  • Beyond Acting
  • Performance in the Gallery
  • Making Theatre and Performance
  • Performing Illness and Disability
  • Practice-Based Research Project


Research Interests:

O'Brien performs wearing a latex mask as an image of himself is projected on the back wall

Research Interests

  • Illness and medicine in performance and live art
  • Death, dying and the undead in performance and live art
  • Pain and BDSM in live art, performance, and contemporary art
  • Cults and art practices
  • Durational performance and endurance art

Recent and On-Going Research

My work emerges from my own experience of living with cystic fibrosis. I work through practice based research as well as more traditional methods to explore illness, death and dying in performance and live art. My written publications use auto-ethnography as a methodology for understanding illness experience and its representations in performance.


The cover of Martin O'Brien's book showing his face covered in a layer of latex

Books and Collections

Survival of the Sickest: The Art of Martin O'Brien (London: Live Art Development Agency, 2018)

(edited with Gianna Bouchard) Performance Research Special Issue: ‘On Medicine’ (2014)

Essays and Articles

‘You Are My Death: The Shattered Temporalities of Zombie Time’ in Wellcome Trust Open Research (2020)

O’Brien M, Gianna B: ‘Zombie Sickness: Contagious idea in Performance’. In Routledge Companion to the Medical Humanities. ed. Alan Bleakley, (London: Routledge, 2019)

‘Cough Bitch, Cough: The Sick Coughing Body in Performance’, in Performance and the Medical Body, ed. by Gianna Bouchard and Alex Mermikides (London: Methuen, 2016)

‘Flesh Eaters: Performance, Zombies and Cannibalism’, Leonardo Journal of Arts, Science and Technology (2015)

‘Lie Back and Take It: BDSM and the Performance of Patienthood’, in Body, Space, Technology (2015)

‘Performing Chronic: Illness, Endurance and Performance’, Performance Research, 19, 4 (2014)

‘A Dialogue with Ron Athey’, in Sexuality (Documents of Contemporary Art), ed. by Amelia Jones (London: Whitechapel Gallery Publishing, 2014)

‘Abject Clearances: Considering the Cough, Mucus and Breathing’, in Lois Keidan and CJ Mitchell (eds), Access All Areas: Live Art and Disability (London: Live Art Development Agency: 2012)

‘Treating the Body’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 22, 1 (2012), 146-151

with others (eds), Journal of Media Practice, 12, 3 (2011)

with Joseph Mercier and Gillie Kleiman, 'Threesome', in Dance Theatre Journal, 24, 4 (2011)


Public Engagement

I have reviewed performance for Disability Arts Online and appeared on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ programme as an expert on Freak shows and contemporary performance. My performance practice has been shown throughout Europe, the US and the UK.

I have appeared on Sky Arts TV, and BBC Radio talking about my practice in relation to wider cultural contexts of illness and art.


The Last Breath Society (2021)
Duration: 8 hours

Performed at Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. Commissioned as part of Waiting Times, a Wellcome Trust funded research project by academics from Birkbeck, University of London and University of Exeter. Sound by Suhail Merchant. Produced by Joseph Morgan Schofield.

We Walked with Zombies: Down the Primrose Path with Martin O'Brien, Sheree Rose, and the Ghost of Bob Flanagan (2019)

Performed at Performatorium Festival of Queer Performance (Regina, Canada). Made in collaboration with Sheree Rose.

The Ascension (2018)

Performed at Jason Vass Gallery (Los Angeles). Made in collaboration with Sheree Rose.

Until the Last Breath is Breathed (2018-2020)
Duration: variable

Installation version shown at St George’s Hall as part of DaDaFest (Liverpool). Performance version shown at Tate Britain (London).

Sanctuary Ring (2016)
Duration: 3 hours

Commissioned by Spill Festival of Performance (Ipswich). Made in collaboration with Sheree Rose. Live sound by Suhail Ilyas.

The Unwell (2016)
Duration: 30 minutes

Commissioned by Art Space Coventry as part of the City Arcadia Project. Created in collaboration with Suhail Merchant.

The Viewing (2016)
Duration: 24 hours

Commissioned by DadaFest. Created in collaboration with Sheree Rose with assistance from Rhiannon Aarons, sound design by Luka Fisher, and video art by Peter Kalisch. 

If It Were The Apocalypse I’d Eat You To Stay Alive (2015-2017)
Duration: 1 hour

Funded by Arts Council England Grants for the Arts. Created as part of Artsadmin Bursary Artist, with financial support from Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Performed at Toynbee Studios (London), DARC Studio (London), Live Art Bistro (Leeds), In Between Time Festival of Contemporary performance (Bristol), Montreal Arts Interculturels (Montreal). Live sound by Suhail Ilyas.

It’s Good to Breathe In… (2015-2018)
Duration: Variable

Performed at Dartington Hall Estate (Totnes), Glue Factory (Glasgow), Venice Week of Performance Art (Venice), Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club (London), Dublin Festival of Live Art (Dublin), Grace Exhibition Space (New York).

Taste of Flesh/Bite Me I’m Yours (2015)
Duration: 3 hours

Commissioned by Arts Catalyst as part of Trust Me I’m an Artist, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. Performed at The White Building (London).

Dust to Dust (2015)
Duration: 1 hour

Commissioned by and performed at ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives (Los Angeles). Additional funding from the British Council and Arts Council England through the international development fund. Made in collaboration with Sheree Rose. Live sound by Rain Lucien Matheke. Additional Performers: Toro Castaño, Sam Emery, Rafa Esparza, Michael MP Griffin, Grace Marie, Dulce Stein, and Albert Vitela. 

The Baby (2013)
Duration: 30 minutes

Commissioned by Live Art Development Agency and Queen Mary University of London for Peopling the Palace Festival, The People’s Palace (London). Created in collaboration with Sheree Rose.

Do With Me as You Will/Make Martin Suffer for Art (2013)
Duration: 24 hours

Performed at LAX Sanctuary Dungeon (Los Angeles). Created in collaboration with Sheree Rose.

Last(ing) (2013)
Duration: 45 minutes

Performed at Spill Festival of Performance (London).  Additional performer: David MacDiarmid.

Regimes of Hardship #1-3 (2012)
Duration: 12 hours

Performed at ]performance s p a c e[ (London) during a residency. #3 in collaboration with Sheree Rose. #1 & #2 installation designed by David MacDiarmid. 

Breathe for Me (2012)
Duration: 3 hours

First performed at Grace Exhibition Space (New York) during a residency with ]performance s p a c e[. Supported by the British Council and Arts Council England. Performed at In Between Time Festival of Contemporary Performance (Bristol), Dansehallerne (Copenhagen), The Wellcome Collection (London), Performatorium Festival of Queer Performance (Regina), Warwick Arts Centre (Coventry).

Thank you Ma’am, Please May I have Another? (2011)
Duration: 15 minutes

Performed at Live Art Development Agency’s Access All Areas: Live Art and Disability (London). Created in collaboration with Sheree Rose 

Mucus Factory (2011)
Duration: Variable

Commissioned by Live Art Development Agency as part of Restock Reflect Rethink 2: Live Art and Disability (London). Performed at: Access All Areas: Live Art and Disability (London), Chelsea Theatre (London), ]performance s p a c e[ (London), Kapelica Gallery (Ljubljana), Sick Festival at The Basement (Brighton), Spill Festival of Performance (London), Experimentica at Chapter Arts Centre (Cardiff), Abrons Art Center (New York). Additional performer: Becky Beyts.


Back to top