Where Live Art leads, others follow

Where Live Art leads, others follow

(This is the full version of an article by Lois Keidan that appeared in Guardian Online on 22 October 2015)

Live Art is a research lab for mass culture and the mainstream owes a considerable debt to the pioneers who so seldom get acknowledged

For years I’ve been claiming that if you want to know what the mainstream will be up to in ten years’ time, just look at what Live Art is doing now. The claim was partly born out of the frustration of seeing high profile projects by big name artists being heralded as ground breaking by mainstream commentators, when that ground had already been broken by artists working within Live Art. An early example would be the effusive critical responses to Deborah Warner’s The St. Pancras Project, regardless of how wonderful that piece was, and seemed oblivious to the extraordinary site specific performance works that Geraldine Pilgrim, amongst others, had been pioneering for years.  Geraldine still doesn’t receive her due acknowledgement, despite her being cited as a pioneer and major influence by Punchdrunk, themselves now mainstream favourites.

Back in 2009, looking at the response to Antony Gormley’s One and Other project, where he invited members of the public to occupy the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, you might easily have believed that Gormley had single handedly developed the concept of participatory practices and that artists like Joshua Sofaer, French & Mottershead and others, who had been placing audiences at the centre of their work for years, simply didn’t exist.

These days the claim that where Live Art leads others follow rings true ever more frequently. Look at the debates about gender that are grabbing the headlines.  For many culturally, socially and politically underrepresented artists Live Art has offered a space where identities can be constructed, performed and given agency. Live Art has been a particularly fertile site for representations of gender and over the years there’s been women performing women, women performing men, and men performing women in the work of artists such as Lois Weaver, Diane Torr, Oreet Ashery, Vaginal Davis and George Chakravarthi, and artists who go beyond the limits of gender altogether like David Hoyle.

In 2013 LADA curated Just Like A Woman, a programme on the performance of gender for the City of Women Festival in Slovenia. We’re presenting versions of this programme in London (at Chelsea Theatre as part of Sacred) and New York (at Abrons Arts Center) later this year and given the current news stories about the rise in gender fluidity amongst young people, and the media coverage of transgender celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner we’ve surprised ourselves with the prescience of Just Like A Woman.

Live Art is a way of thinking about what art is, what it can say and do, and how it is experienced, and as such it can be seen as a kind of research lab for mass culture.  The influence of Live Art on popular culture is probably, for better or worse, most evident in Lady Gaga’s appropriations, most notably of Orlan’s horns and Jana Sterbak’s meat dress. But it’s also there in the experiential nature of much broadcast and online media, in advertising, and in the “experience economy”.

The ad director Dermot McPartland once said “as creative people we can get inspiration from this new generation of Live Art”, and the kind of immersive experiences pioneered by moti roti and Blast Theory in the 1990s, and more recently by artists like You Me Bum Bum Train, can be felt in many pieces across the country .

Live Art doesn’t ‘get’ much in return, but, as Mary Paterson writes “the experience economy is capitalism’s latest adventure in the conquest to commoditise and, like Live Art, it thrives on the generative potential of ideas and experience – or appears to. But of course, all of capitalism’s ideas are the same idea: money. And all of its performances are the production of capital. Artists, luckily, have a wider repertoire.”

The impact of artist-activists like The Yes Men, Pussy Riot and Liberate Tate reflects this wider repertoire and Live Art’s capacity to take on issues of social and environmental justice and other challenges of our times through embodied actions. Since 2010 Liberate Tate has lead the way in creative resistance to the “social license to operate” afforded to the oil industry in their sponsorship of the arts, a resistance that is increasingly supported by names such as Mark Ravenhill embraced by high profile organisations like the Royal Court, and covered seriously in the mainstream media. Meanwhile, Duckie, and artists like Ursula Martinez,  and Marisa Carensky have been significant in the cabaret and burlesque revivals: you could say that Carnesky’s Ghost Train (2004) haunted Dismaland. 

Live Art could be said to have paved the way, or at least offered a safe space to incubate different ways of doing things, for the expanded possibilities of theatre that we now see everywhere across the country, including in our regional theatres. Forced Entertainment, Neil Bartlett, Rose English, Gary Stevens and countless others who emerged from the intersections and edges of culture, were reimagining what the staging of ideas and the form and function of theatre could be long before Elevator Repair Service or Ivo van Hove appeared in the West End, or the National Theatre of Scotland was born. DV8’s journey to the National Theatre started at the National Review of Live Art. 

Whilst Live Art remains elusive to most mainstream commentators its influence is pervasive, and intriguingly the concept of performativity – its central tenet – is now so commonplace in public discourse that I just heard Tina Brown refer to Donald Trump as a performance artist on Channel 4 News. I don’t know who is more insulted. 

Banner image credit:

George Chakravarthii, image courtesy of the artist

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