This Lockdown List is a reimagined Volume 6 of the Live Art Almanac, LADA’s ongoing publishing project focused on collecting and disseminating ‘found’ writing about Live Art.
Originally planned for publication in 2020, Volume 6 intended to bring together writings by artists, critics, curators, academics and others, published, shared, spread and read between January 2018 and December 2019. In June 2020, as COVID-19 had become a long-term reality, and the murder of George Floyd engendered a wave of Black Lives Matter protests, a decision was made to pause the Almanac in favour of more urgent and critical work. This included re-orientating LADA’s resources towards artist support, and accelerating LADA’s plans for organisational change and new leadership to address racial inequity and disenfranchisement within the cultural sector.
It had, however, already become clear that the Almanac would have sketched out a cultural sector undergoing a steady increase of inequality, precarity, and nationalism, a sector in a slow-burning crisis ready to erupt, as it did with the pandemic. It was this relationship between the before-times and the present that provided the impetus to return to the publication, reconceptualising it as a resource developed specifically to draw on the connections between Live Art and the conditions of the pandemic.
This Lockdown Almanac is structured in six sections, each encompassing a selection of texts from the original publication timeline, and a corresponding selection of texts gathered since January 2020. These pairings are imagined as a temporal back and forth, offering connections between the brewing crises of before and the state of emergency now. The collection ends with a section devoted to Dearly Departed, the only one presented linearly. You can skip back and forth between the sections by following the links on the page; external links open in new tabs.
Like its predecessors, this Almanac is a snapshot of a moment in Live Art, rather than an encyclopedic collection of writings. Even so, the collected texts stand in a productive, revealing dialogue. This, for example, is the most UK-focused Almanac yet, a reflection of the inward facing politics of the pandemic, unescaped by the cultural sector and currently unravelling through an international war for vaccines.
Reconsidered for the pandemic times, Volume 6 is also the last edition of the Live Art Almanac. In that, a publication which aimed to capture currents in and around Live Art becomes itself a document of institutional change.
This Live Art Almanac is divided into the following sections, each comprising of both writings from 2018-2019, and texts gathered after January 2020:
The pre-pandemic crises found its epicenter in a breakdown of the relationship between artists and institutions, the former frequently failed by everything from attempts at progressive representation to structural abuse. In her forceful text For Each Of Us; Gaps between professional advocacy and private experience, Alexandrina Hemsley unravels the state of persistent emotional, financial, professional and political precarity artists had been pushed into, as they navigated unhealthy relationships with institutions ostensibly there to support them.
When art organisations filled their social media with black squares in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, many were rightly called out for engaging in tokenistic gestures where structural change should be. The long history of a cultural sector playing diversity instead of enacting equality is dissected in Jemma Desai’s This work isn’t for us, a comprehensive expose of embodied exclusion caused by half-hearted attempts to ‘diversify’ the arts.
Without institutional cover, the conflicts between artists and governments became increasingly visible. The political pressures manifested as censorship, enacted through both threats to artists’ safety and softer means such as a questioning of the right to subsidy. In the UK, the disparity between government rhetoric, sweet and polished, and government policy, dehumanizing and disenfranchising to all but the most privileged, continued to escalate. It comes into full view in Joon Lynn Goh’s open letter rejecting the offer of an MBE.
The state-led stultification of socially engaged artists turned into an open war against ‘a small woke minority’ during the pandemic. Anti-racist work in major museums and heritage organisations was met with threats of funding cuts; ostensible voices of resistance were given commissions by Festival UK* 2022, a £120 million attempt to, as Migrants in Culture argued, ‘whitewash the UK’s endemic racism using our cultural capital’.
The (re)appropriation of performance by visual arts institutions combined with subsidy cuts to generate a flurry of discussions on how the ephemeral artform could be sold. The New York Times proclaimed performance a ‘difficult sell’; perhaps the question on whether the radical can be profitable would have been more poignant. This dilemma was invoked by the new Arts Council England strategy, promising a more equitable, risk-taking, environmentally conscientious sector, built by increasingly financially resilient organisations.
The full trickle down effect of a subsidy essentially conditioned on income diversification revealed itself in the pandemic. Artists found themselves at the bottom of the recovery chain, behind buildings and even commercial ventures, and in competition for one-off payments and small commissions for urgent pieces. It’s an infrastructure so inadequate that a punitive welfare system offers more protection and support, writes Jinghua Qian in the aptly named I Can’t Apply for Another Grant.
Live Art did not have to reinvent itself for social distancing: self-directed, instructional performances, participatory initiatives, public and green space reinventions, and slow-going writing projects, were all easy to turn COVID-compliant. In Jasmine Shigemura Lee’s text, this interplay between a surprisingly pandemic-proof past and an imagined, strangely distanced and mediated future unravels, and the digital realm gets exposed as a fickle, unreliable, and not inherently benevolent territory for the arts.
With live performance shut down indefinitely in March 2020, the artistic community split into those instinctively turning to digital performance, and those calling for a halt to insenstant production. Harry Josephine Giles argued that, rather than different work, or cessation of work, what is needed is a new kind of labour: to organise for survival beyond the present-day crisis, ‘before capital and the state loom over us and force us back into a system that has never worked’.
It was a year with scarce public congregation and liveness, with all they facilitate: a year without rehearsing riots in galleries (an act that may become all the more needed in the future); a year since performance worked to ignite community healing. A year, too, without performance as exclusion: in Theatre and Addiction, FK Alexander discusses the nonchalant marginalisation of artists and audiences in recovery, especially during the Fringe (itself lost to the pandemic, complete with its cruel economics and its imposing presence in Edinburgh).
The return to performance venues will be slow and meandering; how live performance will change after the trauma of the pandemic is yet to be discovered. There are clues however: in what liveness was as COVID-19 was seeping into our lives, in the work of those who will be in charge when it is tamed, or in Selina Thompson’s prophetic list of Post Pandemic #Work, written in the first month of the first lockdown.
Instead of a big, assertive conclusion, to this Lockdown List and to the Live Art Almanac, an offering of a more porous, contemplative ending: some ways to hope, own up, change.
Instead of a big, assertive conclusion, to this Lockdown List and to the Live Art Almanac, an offering of a more porous, contemplative ending: an immigrant asking performance to care better (or maybe differently); an immigrant trying to go home.
This section is dedicated to remembering those lost since January 2018. Many were directly involved with Live Art; some worked in other disciplines or academia, influencing the politics and practice of performance or learning from them. Two artists, Genesis P-Orridge and Ulay, passed away after articles about them had been selected for the original Almanac. Those submissions are included here instead of tributes.
Banner image credit:
Illustrations by David Caines
LADA is compiling a series of reference lists of writings and films which draw attention to examples of historic and contemporary Live Art practice that or speak to some of the experiences of lockdown or issues a lockdown raises.