Short essays on the Live Art Screenings by the artist-curators
Pope & Guthrie
Wish we’d been there?
If pushed to define why we have chosen these works, the answer would be very straightforward: they document the live art 'experiences' where we wish we'd been there.
Perhaps then it was this fear of regret which compelled Karen to witness Marina Abramovic change from Miyake to monastic at the launch preview of her performance The House with the Ocean View at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York City. A twelve day fast followed, where Abramovic, on view in three open-walled rooms, sustained herself only with water and intense 'energy exchanges' with the gallery visitors whose gaze she invited. In NYC at the time, much was made of Abramovic's role as the last of the great 1960s endurance-performers and this unmissable opportunity to 'catch it while you can'. Concurrently, PS1 was showing Video Acts, a vast private collection of largely 1960s and 1970s video art where on hundreds of monitors Abramovic, Nauman and Acconci could be seen enacting some of their most seminal works to the camera, usually their only witness and in some cases their confidante.
In 2002 Whitechapel Art Gallery's A Short History of Performance included 're-enactments' of seminal performance works by Schneemann and Brisley. The events were hugely successful. Besides the fascinating (but too long for here) debate around this 're-enactment' heritage industry, they too were surrounded with a feeling of 'catch them while you can' causing those too young or too uninterested first time round, to flock to them.
With all of the work we have selected for Action (bar our own!) we didn't - like most people - catch them when we could have. It is the documentation surrounding the work that we have responded to. In this we include not only the video works but their accompanying publicity, reviews, anecdotes and media attention, all of which constitute the 'afterlife' of a project and ensure its longevity. Whilst this might be regrettable, for these particular works it is also strangely apt; for almost all of them were, even when 'live', already re-enactments of some kind. A pony race, a battle, a journey, a play; each of these 'performances' already acknowledges a history or preceding event and the 'art event' becomes just one point in the life of the project.
From our personal perspective, it's probably fair to say that the included artists share with us a belief in a broad, maybe even 'pop' level of accessibility to their work, a commitmentto the potential and role of the social catalyst. They also share our proactive and often left-field engagement with public contexts and can be in turns funny, deadpan and epic, all qualities to be aspired to in our book.
Our selection bears witness to the complexities associated with the documentation of live work over the last decade. These diverse re-presentations articulate many influences; from awareness of the previous generation's scarcity of documentation (some of our initial selections were scuppered by this), to greater access to video and new media technology, to the needs of funders for a tangible 'legacy' from a live project. We no longer need to rely on the grainy stills that provide the compelling but frail links to, for example, many important Fluxus works. Overwhelmingly though, the diversity of the works included reflect our interest in the broadening debate around what constitutes Live Art; its move from the theatrical performer-audience dynamic to a more socially-engaged model and the question of how audiences may meaningfully access this work at all stages from the 'live' to the 'document'.
Mike Figgis' film of The Battle of Orgreave (2002), Jeremy Deller's live re-enactment of the famous 1984 miners' strike battle, functions as a brilliant document, and as a mainstream TV production, its reach far broader than any 'art video'. The film also adds a critical, conceptual dimension to the project, elevating and historicising a seminal part of Britain's recent political history from its participants' perspective. It is also worth acknowledging that Channel 4 funded a large part of the whole project on the back of this film, demonstrating in hard terms the importance of the document.
Grennan & Sperandio (who latterly have been working with the mighty MTV) have contributed The Hand and the Word , an archetypal tale of good and evil, which likewise uses a mass-appeal popular genre: this time the animated film. The piece was developed in collaboration with the Progressive Players, a Gateshead amateur dramatics group from whose performances the sequences for the film were (literally) drawn. Like many of the duo's works, this 'outcome' is only partial evidence of the long and socially engaged process that led up to the film.
The work of Yuan Cai and JJ Xi has attracted much media furore in the past, notably when it included jumping onto Tracey Emins' bed. The documentation of their Soya Sauce and Ketchup Fight bears their characteristic spontaneity and humour whilst occurring as an intervention into an existing public protest. In the documentation we see them gradually 'lose control' as they engage a confused but ultimately supportive audience under the watchful gaze of a police cordon.
The shift in the status and even the responsibility of the audience towards co-performers and collaborators in many of the works chosen, is also critical to our selection. This shift is something that we have been considering in much of our own recent practice. Our interest lies in the breakdown of the 'classical' roles of the performer and spectator in Live Art towards a more integrated dynamic between all those involved in the 'experience', whether long-term or transient. In /broadcast/ (a re-interpretation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales produced for the 1999 Tate Annual Event) we invited twenty-nine people to make a one day pilgrimage and communicate their tale via mobile phone to a live webcast event we held in Borough Market. Here we've chosen a few of the tales to give an idea of what became a rather epic, day-long and at points emotional event. Our twenty-nine pilgrims functioned as the first 'ring' of audience for this project, the work being 'live' from the moment they engaged with it, months prior to the actual event. The project' s presence online sustains this and like a number of our other works, has an indefinite lifespan as well as an almost infinite number of routes the audience may take to interact with it.
A similar attitude to the long-term, 'live' engagement of what we might call a 'collaborative audience' permeates the work of Anna Best. One piece we were unable to include since Anna's work is present in the Specifics selection is her project A Real Pony Race For A Bridle (1997). To create the event she worked with South London Stables and Pony Clubs to organise an urban gymkhana in response to a Victorian archive poster from the South London Gallery collection, advertising an event of the same title. Other projects by Best, PHIL (2002) and The Wedding Project (1998), share this unmediated relationship with a primary 'ring' of a collaborative audience. In The Battle of Orgreave this integration of an experiential 'space' that is between performer and audience - of the re-enactors themselves - is even more clearly prioritised. Shortly after the battle, it was interesting to note the on-line prominence of a (favourable) 'review' of Deller's piece by the very re-enactment company employed by Artangel, and to hear Deller describe his own 'position' in the live work. Apparently he was unable to watch the first half due to nerves and for the second half actually joined in as one of the miners in the re-enactment. Perhaps here even the artist couldn't tell if he wanted to be in the audience or in the work.
More of a medley than a survey
My selection for this programme, despite a debate with myself about achieving what might be described as 'representative sample', has been more eclectic than systematic, and arrived at through a serendipitous process. I have seen none of the works 'live', some were chosen 'blind' on the basis of something seen or heard; with others I know the maker well.
The brief was to assemble a number of works under the title - Specific - 'site specific performance works made in, through and for particular locations'.
sitespecificsiterelatedpublicnewgenrepubliccommunitycontextrelatedinterdisciplinary combinedinteractiveconvergentfinevisuallive performancebodybritscicontemporary... add.your.own...ART
Thankfully it is the specifics of the works, which have risen to the surface.
If I began writing this with the aim of achieving an overview or formulating a debate, what has become important instead is to reflect something of the way in which a 'particle' of each work has lodged in my mind's eye - setting off trains of thought, suggesting strategies, stimulating the imagination.
They have become for me at least, a set - like the coloured pencils I played with as a child, endlessly arranging and rearranging them in different combinations, or a deck of cards - I keep reshuffling.
Forming collectively a medley - a playful term, evocative of the feeling I have of putting together a kind of compilation album, each track resonating through and with the others:
the scale and ambition of Station House Opera's Bastille Dances (1) - as first encountered in a photograph circa 1990 - its absolute privileging of materiality and offer of liberation from narrative structures and representational devices
Fiona Templeton's You - The City (1988) (2) - intriguing, evocative - a piece formed in my mind until now, by report - its twists and turns somehow anticipated in response to the conceptual strength of the work
the possibilities opened up by the way in which the piece collapses the roles of performer and participant
the uncertainty and discomfort it provokes even when viewed on video
Kirsten Lavers' pyr(rh)ic solution # book two (1998) (3) - her capacity to connect different aspects of her life and experience, the satisfaction I derive from the poetic and material balance she achieves between preservation and destruction, constituency and disenfranchisement.
the space afforded to me by the understated character of the work
the wit and simplicity of Anna Best's PHIL (2002) (4)
the excitement I feel as each of the monitors comes to life - an opening to rival any musical finale
the pleasure of a work, which so deftly combines lightness of touch with subversion
my own experience of making Present (1997) (5) - the way in which the cultural politics of the commissioning process forged a new understanding of the need for work to operate reflexively - to address and redress the functions of art
1) The work shown in this programme is Salisbury Proverbs (1997) a later work in Station House Opera's series of breezeblock pieces.
'For The Salisbury Proverbs the company built a temporary and ever changing monument to celebrate Salisbury's most famous and permanent one Salisbury Cathedral. The piece involved 25 performers, singers and musicians, the Salisbury Festival chorus and over 10,000 breezeblocks. The performance itself consisted of a network of proverbial and allegorical narratives - a version of Breughel's Netherlandish Proverbs - given an architectural and sculptural form'. Notes received from the artist by e-mail 2003 .
2) 'an intimate Manhattan wide play for an audience of one', first created in New York in 1988, and in London in 1989. It was both site-specific, using about 14 locations and the routes between, and radically interactive, taking only one client at a time on the journey, who was directly addressed by each performer. The video shows the client's-eye point of view, although the aspect of response is lost in the document. Notes received from the artist by e-mail 2003 .
3) ' pyr(rh)ic solution # book two - The Boots Library, Nottingham. A five day performance involving the recorded reading and burning of individuals' names, from a notebook used to document the nightly events within an emergency winter nightshelter for homeless people, sited in a disused library. Note s received from the artist by e-mail 2003 .
4) '15 London Philharmonic Orchestra Musicians played their part of a Mozart Serenade in a Phil's home and this was filmed on video. These separate performances were then reunited for one evening in the form of an orchestra of televisions in the Beaufoy Institute'. Notes received from the artist by e-mail 2003.
5) Present took place in Beverly Public Library and Art Gallery and incorporated archival material about the donation of the building to the people of Beverly. The central action was the attempt over three days to paint a perfect circle - a 'gift' attributed to Giotto and regarded as a sign of his genius. At the end local arts officers were invited to select the twenty best, which before being donated by the artist to the permanent collection, were hung opposite the twenty paintings that had formed the original bequest.
At a time when the body has been neglected and/or rejected as a serious instrument of knowledge for so long, the physicality of these new media has been grossly overlooked. (Bill Viola)
There is an inherent contradiction between Live Culture and works made for the screen. But as Philip Auslander argues, there is less of an ontological divide between liveness and mediatized works than common sense might suggest. TV, for example, is transmitted live and thus is vulnerable to interruption or breakdown, like a performance. Furthermore the advent of live video screens at sporting events and pop concerts has merged the live and mediatized in unexpected ways.
The pathways between Live Art and the screen are well worn in both directions. Mike Figgis' work with the People Show segued into feature films such as Leaving Las Vegas and Timecode . Another 1970s pioneer, Sally Potter found arthouse acclaim with Orlando and Annie Griffin's The Book Club is a hit for Channel 4. Peter Greenaway has made the transition in the other direction, making installations involving live performance.
In In A Network Of Lines , Mark Gaynor juggles with these oppositions and correlations: live performance, pre-recorded video and (ostensibly) live transmission intercutting one another, vying for pre-eminence, each laying claim to authenticity. As Gaynor bursts through the exit doors of the performance space and into the night, he appears as a talking head on a screen, soothingly engaging with the audience at the same time as pounding the streets in paramilitary garb.
Where Do You Want To Go To Die? by Gob Squad also plays knowingly to camera but here the video is part of an installation. The video shown as part of the Live Culture event was originally made to be projected onto the windscreen of a van aligning the viewer, who sits inside the van, directly with the point of view of the camera. From that vantage point we see eight moments of abandon performed on the streets of Berlin. Accompanied by cheesy pop classics the work slides from parody to pathos, and is at once laughable and profoundly moving.
As artists moved ever more freely between disciplines in the 1990s the exchange between live and visual artists became pronounced. In Dancing in Peckham (1994) Gillian Wearing used a static camera to make a record of herself dancing in a shopping centre oblivious to passersby. The Buzz Club/Mystery World (1996-1997) by Rineke Dykstra records young teenagers dancing awkwardly alone against a plain backdrop to the sound of dance music from the adjacent nightclub. Whereas these works use the camera impassively to record a performance, The Sweatlodge , directed by Mike Stubbs from a performance by Man Act, is a re-imagination of a live work. The camera is used in a kinetic and cinematic way to conjure the testosterone of the original work, and as it does so, it constantly demands the imaginative engagement of the viewer. The black studio space allows us to enter the performance space; our knowledge that it is a performance is a crucial part of the film's power. Where Wearing and Dykstra use the camera to assert the authenticity of video as document, Mike Stubbs' piece is choreographic and posed to make a seductive rhythm of masculine mores.
The camera as authentic record was never more forcefully questioned than in Watch the KLF Burn A Million Quid (1995), a video that does exactly what it says on the tin. Or it is a pitiful stunt. By keeping the performance itself private (only four people were present at the burning) the video is the only document which proves or disproves what the KLF did. Even lengthy takes of burning notes do not seem to be enough to convince the skeptical viewer. The single camcorder, shaky hand-held camera work and poor lighting all seem to undermine rather than reinforce the veracity of the event.
Technology drives, disrupts and repurposes the relevance and direction of live art ever more pressingly. The mass market availability of first the video camera and then the video projector transformed live artists' use of time and space in the 1970s and 1980s. A camera could be used on stage as a dynamic tool, focusing attention on a particular place or - via record and playback - a particular time. The video recorder gave artists easy access to the mass media, allowing them to quote directly from Hollywood films and TV news. The resulting miscegenation between the real and the mediatized, between the actual and the virtual has provided new forms with which to address the information overload that characterises much of our social and political discourse.
The Internet has produced artists such as Heath Bunting playing with live performance via interactive media. His Kings X piece invited online visitors to phone any one of the pay phones at Kings Cross station in London at a set time. Made in 1994 it is an early example of the interplay between digital tools and live presence. One simple page of HTML (www.irational.org/cybercafe/xrel.html) provided the impetus for live interaction between dozens of people from around the globe, their status hovering between participant, audience, surfer and voyeur.
The rise of computer gaming as a cultural form, described brilliantly by Steven Poole in his book Trigger Happy , is merging with live culture, notably in Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games such as Everquest .
The spread of handheld mobile devices in which phones and computers are aware of the user's location will only accelerate this development.
Can You See Me Now? by Blast Theory uses a chase between online players and runners on the street to enact a hybrid form in which presence is simultaneously real and virtual. As part of a long term collaboration between the artists and the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham the nine minute video also serves as a scientific report on the work, including information about the structure of the game and the technology employed.
As the rise of mass media and the acceleration of technological change has transformed society, as audiences have learnt new languages, new tools and new forms of personal expression, interdisciplinary artists have been well placed to respond. Works combining live and pre-recorded, online and on the street, the real and the staged seem capable of engaging with a new wave of audiences about the social and political concerns of the contemporary.
Performance, Film, 'The Body'
In curating Body I was immediately given to reflect that this category has recently found, more than any other, a prominent and privileged status in the contemporary discourse of performative culture. From the 'Body Art' of the 1960s and 1970s to recent publications and exhibitions on the theme of the artist's body (particularly in relation to subjectivity and identity), 'the body', as a critical term is often deployed to assert an essential, 'irreducible space' (1) by which an aesthetics of the artist's own presence forms the 'material' of the work. However, it must be registered that the danger inherent in any deployment of the term 'the body' is one of hypostasis: which body, whose and in what ways can it, as a term, be thought constant through critical usage? Perhaps, given that no single attribute of the body is essential to its existence, (taking into consideration the dead body) we should speak of 'the bodily'; a collection of parts that, being indefinite as a composite and abstract category, allows a plural, ever-evolving register that expands rather than closes definition.
This is not a quibbling point over terminology: it seems to me that in the recent subjective/ identity cultures pertaining to the categories 'Live Art', 'performance' or 'performativity' (terms often used interchangeably), the primary gesture, I would say, by which the artist emphasises the bodily over the more traditionally posited 'body' is through a strategic self-effacement. Where the face is the primary index of the traditional performing arts by which the performer is identified (as character, persona, actor etc.), work which emphasises the bodily would be concerned firstly to enact either an effacement or a deliberated staging of the face's privileged index of personal recognition. Only then might a body take on a broader set of identifications away from those we recognise as belonging to the normative compulsions of mass culture, becoming posited as a 'figure' (in the artistic sense) over its projection as a 'person'. In this figurative register, the bodily, being a composite structure, acknowledges its essential subjection to the processes and claims of entropy over (a famed, immortal) facial presence. We can say then that in such work the bodily is primarily staged as a figure and that the degree to which this is made to stand in for the presence and person of the artist presents the key raw material by which the art is residually manufactured.
This formulation is particularly relevant to how performance may find its way into video or film as a distinct category away from classic narrative cinema. The films I have selected for this programme, through a variety of approaches, explore this dynamic and position 'the body' as a figurative, objectified construct. It may be relevant in this regard that all of the selected artists are in dialogue with Fine Art, through education or through their works and films being presented in galleries rather than theatres or cinemas. They range from films made incidentally to live events ( Leigh Bowery at Anthony d'Offay Gallery ); for camera (my own Lives of the Saints ; Jayne Parker's Rx Recipe ); or integrally between the two elements (Brian Catling's Migrant and Stuart Brisley's Incidents in Transit ). In each case, what is behind the camera is considered to be as much a component of the video or film as that in front of it.
In Leigh Bowery and Cerith Wyn Evans' piece the charged placidity of his emphatically corporeal creations, moulded to life through acoutrements and make-up, is reflected by the fixed, head-on camera recording his only occasional stirrings behind a one-way mirror. Here, Bowery emphasises that his performative presence is the alien other of the audience's implied voyeurism, eroticising both his appearance and the physically separated form of the encounter.
In Migrant Brian Catling, framed by the camera, remains a crawling figure throughout the film as he slides through a Scandinavian landscape tracing the path of a glacier. Although the crawling requires a great deal of exertion he advances at a speed millions of years faster than the glacier; enough to animate the deployment of film to document his human migration. The work appears to reflect on the essential rootlessness of bodily life as distinct from the various identifications we make in order to 'belong' to our personal selves. As Catling reaches the outskirts of the human environment towards the conclusion of the film, the comparative speed of quotidian human life bleeds into the film as it records the urban sounds and sights surrounding the still crawling figure.
Jayne Parker's Rx Recipe also explores the bodily-as-figurative trope, enacting, in the process, an evocative anthropomorphism. A large eel is prepared seemingly for cooking at first, as it is stuffed with vegetables and other foods, with Parker reciting a recipe over the soundtrack. Once stuffed however, the eel is then bandaged as if for embalming; for preservation rather than consumption. At this moment the eel is substituted in the film by a female leg which is then similarly bandaged or mummified. Throughout the film there is a sense of domestic estrangement. Traditional task-based activities have been ritualised into an uncanny enactment that multiplies associations and readings as the film develops rather than resolves them in the classic narrative manner. Rx Recipe depicts the bodily as an objective part (a human leg) that is malleable and treatable in ways that remove it from habitual self-determining.
My own film here, Lives of the Saints , began by exploring connections or 'overlays' between legendary acts of (mostly medieval) Saints and classic works of performance art. Having assembled a store of such overlays, I set out to create short video pieces titled after a Saint but visually informed by a classic performance work. I worked in isolation, direct to a remote-controlled camera, often taking an entire day in the studio to build up the performances in relation to the props I had assembled, recording and watching back footage as the piece evolved. I became increasingly concerned to define 'performance' in its broadest sense: as the invention of a causal idea through which indeterminate or 'unlikely' activities can occur. In this, bodily performance becomes, not a direct addition to that collection of work that has been generically labelled performance art, but a reflection on, homage to, or critique of it.
Stuart Brisley's Incidents in Transit (1992) was a durational performance over nine hours in a gallery in Spain. The footage of the performance is a classic example of the 'performance document' made by hand held camera in the space and later condensed to a seven minute film. This shows Brisley as a workman/shapeshifter exploring furniture, tools, a bucket of bull's blood (purchased from an abattoir after a local bullfight) and his own physical presence in a manner resonant of 'the artist at work'. The movements, attitudes and physical interventions with which he balances objects, paints blood, depletes surfaces and forms arrangements seem to suggest a compositional thought process at work. In fact, the 'composition' is one of ongoing transformation, of revealing the process as the 'object' of an indefinite sculpting. Brisley's actions are also objectified in this way and at times he modifies his own posture so that he suggests himself as a sculptor's model. The careful decisiveness of his transformations coupled to the precision with which he forms precarious balancing acts, reveals his own agency as one that is itself in physical contiguity with the life of objects.