Adrian Heathfield

Going Live

The phrase 'live culture' connects two concerns. The event that takes this name works through and about the culture of Live Art: its histories, figures, discourses and present conditions. But it is also concerned with the broader culture of liveness that is so much a part of the contemporary milieu. Between these two zones of cultural activity and discourse there is a vibrant field of contesting ideas, conversations, and questions. In the hi-tech, spectacle-rich environments of the West, cultural production is now obsessed with liveness. Immediate news, mobile phones, imaging technologies, web-casts and reality tv supposedly plunge us into simultaneous experiences, into the felt nature of events, bringing us closer to the 'realities' that they convey. Increasingly media technologies are employed to make themselves appear to disappear. Within the visual arts there has been a pronounced use of ephemera, tactile objects, environments, installations, alongside adhoc, informal, itinerant and interventionist artistic tactics. These forms can be seen as part of an aesthetic shift from the optic to the haptic, from the distant to the immersive, from the static relation to the interactive, from the material to the temporary, a shift towards the performative. Live Art has long explored the drive to liveness through embodied events. Here, performance has been employed as a generative force: to destroy pretence, to shock, to break apart traditions of representation, to foreground the experiential, to activate audiences, to open different kinds of engagement with meaning. How does Live Art now sit in this changed cultural and visual arts environment? What are the lines of correspondence between performance and broader visual arts practice, between these practices and the culture-wide lust for the live? What should the presence of this drive tell us about the conditions of embodiment and identity, and of the social fabric, in the 21st Century?

In the contracted spaces of global culture, notions of place and the borders that constitute them, have been profoundly breached, de-stabilising the identities that were founded on their integrity. As national and cultural borders are opened, other ways of being and thinking are encountered, differences assimilated, accommodated or often aggressively repelled. In the urban contexts of the West public space has ceded to privatised space, where sociality is conditioned by a prevailing individualism and action is strictly regulated and surveyed. The moulding and containment of cultural space through the operations of place is increasingly exposed. Through the expansion of new technologies, new places have emerged in virtual fields, so that our experience of space is now poised between the distant and the near, between an expansive virtual space and an unstable real. These shifts in space and place have been the context and catalyst for performance to become ever more migratory; challenging the forces that try to locate it, leaving its traditional ground in the galleries and theatres, and running a restless and errant course into other places, other spheres of art and life, 'locating' itself wherever the necessities of expression, relation and finance dictate. In this emigration, performance has become a means through which to test the foundations and borders of identity, to bring the self into new relations with its 'outsides' and others. Having left home, performance has restlessly proved its unrivaled capacity to generate new forms of relation, collaboration and community that negotiate and traverse once solid divisions.

Technological development has also impacted profoundly on the status, imaging and conception of the body within contemporary culture. It too is increasingly surveyed and opened by technologies, becoming a site whose construction in and through culture, is evidently in question. As the cultural milieu becomes profoundly mediated and unreal, the body seems to offer the remaining ground through which the real may be encountered and felt. Live Art, with its aesthetic history of testing physical and psychological limits, and its persistent focus on the performing body, offers itself as a primary site where the contradictory impulses of the culture towards corporeal integrity and its dissolution may be played out. In this somatic test-site performance presents and interrogates transformations of the base matter and foundational meanings of fleshly existence. Being live has facilitated a questioning of the definitive boundaries of nature and culture, of the human itself, and its relation to the animal and the machine. The findings of the test, the meanings and resonances of contemporary embodiment, are received in and through a phenomenal relation.

The scrutiny that performance brings to the temporality of the art work has a vital significance in an accelerated culture. Here, time has become a capitalist commodity that is highly regulated; speed is the prime value and time wasted is money lost. The powers that construct our understandings and experiences of time inevitably try to hide and naturalize their force. Performance has become one means through which the nature and values of these powers may be questioned, their regulatory grip loosened. In its attention to, and playful subversion of, the orders of time, performance gives access to other temporalities; to time as it is felt in the body, time not just as progression and accumulation, but also as something multiple, faltering, imbued with loss. The experiments in time that live artists enact enable us to live for a while between two impossible desires: to be present in the moment, to savour it, and to save the moment, to still and preserve its power long after 'it' has gone. The ephemerality of performance, its tendency towards disappearance, is at the heart of its cultural value, but it is also this quality that sets in motion all the forces that seek to place, name and contain it.

Being vigilant towards 'live culture' then, will involve a constant attention to what is lost when performance is framed; through its incorporation within discourse, its placement within institutions, its rendition in the document, its residency within new forms and disciplines. I am interested in artistic, curatorial and critical strategies that find ways of approaching the eventhood of performance, mindful of its resistance to location. It is something like being attentive, not just to what is said, but to the saying. If performance constantly eludes thought, memory and writing, I am interested in ways of thinking, recalling and telling that acknowledge their own holes and gaps, their inherent failures. I tend to think of this as being about staging and re-staging an encounter, with what you missed in performance, with the other of your own thoughts and recollections, with other people, with the otherness of other people, with the unknown life that happens between you. I hope that there is something of this live turning towards the outside in the diverse presentations and dialogues that constitute the Live Culture event. 


Part of Live Culture at Tate Modern