Drag queens, funerals, “world changing” video cameras and lectures in skips. This can only mean one thing: the sharp teeth of live art are out once again as they bite into questions of cultural value and experience, chewing over what may or may not be “trash” in performance. A creative research project exploring the contemporary values we place on performance, Performance Matters, makes artists and audiences tackle difficult questions, such does performance matter, and does it have the power to change the way we see the world?
According to the Live Art Development Agency, live art is now one of the most vital and creative forms of performance in the UK. So what is it exactly? Lois Kedian, Director of the agency and curator for the ongoing Performance Matters project, explains, “Live art is about a different kind of relationship to performance and the representation of ideas.” It is a departure from expectations of what theatre should be. The Agency states that “the term ‘live art’ is not a description of an artform or discipline, but a cultural strategy to include experimental processes and experiential practices that might otherwise be excluded from established curatorial, cultural and critical frameworks.”
Trashing Performance, the second installment of the planned Performance Matters trilogy, explores creative expression that could be deemed trashy, low brow or of no cultural value. The project is a collaboration between Goldsmiths, University of London, the University of Roehampton and the Live Art Development Agency, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures tutor and Director of Trashing Performance Gavin Butt explains: “The project is about looking at aesthetics and forms of the denigrated or devalued and whether artists want to embrace that position.” For instance, one of the artists participating in the project, Mel Brimfield, has based her work This is Performing Art – Part Two: Experimental Theatre and Cabaret on the imaginary funeral of fictional artist Sir Francis Spalding. Rather than treating her subject matter with sombre severity, Brimfield uses comedy and cabaret to bring Sir Francis to life, even in death, with a resurrection of his body from an onstage coffin. Whilst this could be seen as distasteful, this is exactly the kind of social boundary that live artists are endeavouring to explore and transcend.
So if the project sets out to investigate ideas of what is (cultural speaking) trashy and what is not, then what conclusions are we, as audience and artists, to draw? The answer is, quite simply, whatever we feel. Both Kedian and Butt insist that rather than having a cut and dried thesis, live art is a framework within which artists research and then exhibit their findings, with Butt expressing a hope that all participatants in the project (including audiences) learn something from the experience. A great deal of live artists – like Brimfield – do not perform in their own works. Instead, they develop them to be performed by others. They are what Butt describes as a “choreographer of ideas”. The exploration of their ideas in front of a live audience becomes their performance. Live art can very much be seen as live research.
Is this experimental creative freedom the reason why more and more artists are being drawn to live art, then? Kedian believes “it is because artists are actively looking for an underground. They are looking for a creative process that has not been homogenised, appropriated and distilled.” They are after a space to be creative and experimental without having to conform to existing expectations of traditional performance/theatre. Brimfield, for instance, trained as an artist and curated her own projects “involving all sorts of performers,” but turned to live art to allow her work a stronger freedom of exploration. “I think Live Art is one of the most elastic containers for interdisciplinary work of the sort I want to make, and there’s potentially something really powerful about co-opting the forms of popular and low entertainment and loading them up with content.” Brimfield’s show This is Performance Art – Part Two: Experimental Theatre and Cabaret achieves exactly this by refusing to adhere to the preconceived emphasis on body, gender and identity politics expected of live performance artists. She establishes a unique context in whch to work by setting up a “spoof documentary” at the beginning of the piece. Brimfield describes the way she works as being “a bit like making a performance backwards. I start by inventing the documentation and context for the work I want to make. We make the photos a starting point for devising.”
Kedian also emphasises the appeal of the interdisciplinary nature of live art. She notes that the typical trend of UK theatre is for it to be dominated by drama. However, for her, the concept of “the play” is not what modern theatre is about. “Theatre is a space in which a whole bunch of things can happen, one of which is actors pretending to be somebody else. But the idea of actors pretending to be somebody else in this day, in the age of television and movies, is just completely redundant and we just shouldn’t even go there anymore.” If live art is live research, it is successful precisely because of its live nature. Every performance that makes up Trashing Performance boasts different arttists and different audiences, who “will never again be seen in the same room”. Each work is an experiment that can never be exactly replicated. Butt highlights that Trashing Performance is an unlikely meeting place for a wide demographic of participants and audience members, including both people of “the art world and those of the club culture”. For him, this is hugely beneficial from a research perspective: “We hope to attract scholars, academics, students from a range of disciplines.” This both invites a wide census of opinion when assessing what kind of art is accepted as valuable in the public sphere, and offers a chance for people of different backgrounds to meet one another. By pushing diversity beyond the bounds of the work on stage, live art is able to create interdisciplinary work that engages in one way or another with all of its many audiences.
On a spectrum that has “theatre” at one end and “performance art” at the other, live art can be troublesome to place. Its very ethos is to reject these kind of labels. If, as Kedian suggests, theatre is “a space in which a whole bunch of other things can happen”, then live art is full of “elastic containers” and constantly moving boundaries that defy easy classification. Live artists are becoming less and less reliant on traditional theatre spaces, instead choosing to blend the boundaries of art, theatre, performance and experience. Trashing Performance has been presented at Toynbee Studios, Tate Modern and Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club and includes not only shows, but also talks, films and workshops. The difficulty of labelling live art reflects the problem of trying to capture the spirit of performance itself in a phrase; like many creative forms, live art repels definition through language. But in its quest to entertain by challenging and questioning audiences, live art proves that anything and everything can become the building blocks of performance, even a skip.
In Kedian’s words, “Live art is the future, of course it is the future”. It allows artists the freedom to ask questions without the pressure of having to answer them in a particular way, and doesn’t define exactly what audiences should take from the work. Performance Matters will continue to investigate what may or may not be of cultural value through a variety of different live mediums with Potentials of Performance, the third part of the trilogy, scheduled for next year. Live art may be indefinable and ever-changing, but one thing is certain: performance definitely matters.
For more information about the Performance Matters project, visit the website here.
Image credit: Live Art Development Agency