Live and Kicking

Extremist, self-indulgent and uncool it may be but live art also offers new possibilities for politically engaged art argues Sally O’Reilly

The attitude of the wider visual art audience, and even of practitioners themselves, towards performance art is largely unforgiving. Often considered extremist, self-indulgent or censorious the characteristics of ‘live art’, as it is now called, conflict wildly with the comparative sangfroid of ‘gallery’ art. But how does live art differ from an artist’s event? And why does the art press have such problems representing either? The recent ‘Live Culture’ weekend at Tate Modern articulated concerns within live art practice, but very much in its own terms. Rather than interrogating its parity with and exclusion from wider art practice, live art as a genre remained resolutely self-justified.

The history of live art runs parallel to and is intertwined with many other disciplines and media, and its provenance and basic nature remains manifold and contestable. The poet, painter, playwright and composer Dick Higgins expanded the complex intersection of live space into the term ‘intermedia’, while George Macunias, the self-appointed chairman of Fluxus, reduced an event – the smallest unit of a ‘situation’ – to ‘monomorphic’. In a paper delivered at ‘Live Culture’, the writer Peggy Phelan suggested that the genre has developed from three points: theatre, painting and a return to shamanism. The relationship of much live art to theatre is obvious, as the performer confronts an audience with dramatic gestures, props and/or narratives. The link to painting was initiated by Georges Mathieu, who realised the performative implications of Pollock’s process and staged the first live action painting in front of an audience. His Battle of the Bouvines at the Salon de Mai in Paris, 1954, presented the notion that a painting is simply the sediment of the act of making. The shamanic root relates to the recognisable traits of performance as ordeal, inspiration, therapy or trance, as the artist executes a ritual of cleansing or communication.

The presence of the artist is a priori in each model outlined above. During the 70s, much performance art was involved in the exploration of the body in space or the position of the individual in society, and today these themes are still apparent. Although intentions may shift, the prerequisite of one to many – artist to audience – mostly holds true. The choice of the ‘live art’ label over ‘performance’ was taken partly in order to shake off encroaching allusions to entertainment and connotations of consumption. The basic proviso of live art requires the artist to eclipse the art object, circumventing the enduring commodity.

The resulting, almost ubiquitous, presence of the naked body is often pilloried. The standard defence would employ the argument that western art has exploited the nude throughout history, and the live performer is addressing this hegemonic truism. But, surely, there is a counter to this claim. For the last 50 years or so, the nude has been receding in importance and the exploitation of the female form has been thoroughly covered. Contemporary practice in the plastic arts has come to terms with its past and redressed the balance. It seems more likely that the body and its associated identity politics is entrenched in the format of live art rather than its ideology per se.

Duration, too, is one of the more notorious aspects of live art. It might be used to represent the liminal state that occurs during ritual, or signal an attempt at a sort of temporal ballast in a culture of hyper-speed. Marina Abramovi? has tested the limits of her stamina by, for instance, walking the Great Wall of China, meeting her lover Ulay halfway in order to break up with him. In House With an Ocean View, 2002, she spent 12 days living on open-plan platforms in the Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, with nothing but water and ‘intense energy exchanges’ with visitors for sustenance. In 1983-84, Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh lived for a year tied together by an eight foot length of rope.

But for the art press, it seems, levels of duration are rarely long enough. Editors require a superhuman effort that lasts at least five weeks. It is understandable that a listings magazine like Time Out wouldn’t cover an exhibition unless it ran for more than three weeks as, allowing for publication turnaround, this gives the audience only one week to see the show after the review appears in print. The priority of the listings magazine is always its readership. However, the specialist arts press surely owes more allegiance to its subject than its readership. Is it not their role to represent the topography of practice within a feasible geographical reach? There are never qualms that European exhibitions will not have been seen by American readers, so why do periodicals dismiss temporary art as inaccessible? It would be a smarter defence to pronounce that live art corrodes the barrier between representation and reality, so to reproduce this in the pages of a magazinc would be an oxymoron.

This introduces the vexed question of documentation and, more particularly, the photographic moment. Documentation plays a push-me-pull-you role in the history of live art. While many performers of the 70s considered their actions to be a negation of the commodity, the compulsion to record events has furnished performance art history with iconic and ultimately marketable images. Cindy Sherman completed the transition from the temporary event to photographic perpetuity early on in her career, whilst Abramovi? is trailed by a library of images that threatens to stand in as the art itself. This was a fundamental sticking point for performance artists in more pedantic times, but perhaps now that commerce is not considered quite such an impurity, the role of documentation has come to be recognised as heritage rather than ideological jeopardy. In her series of photographs ‘Connotations’, 1998, Hayley Newman foregrounds this relationship between performance and photography. Her photographic constructions of fictional performances highlight the vast potential for fault lines between documentation and reality. Many of Newman’s elaborations also seem to acknowledge the scope for ridicule that live art affords by including plenty of nudity, duration, abjection and absurdity. Yet there will always be real actions that eclipse even the wildest fabrications. The following is taken from Russian artist Oleg Kulik’s Extracts from the Artist’s Notes on Performances in the Zoophrenia Programme:

Deep into Russia
Tverskoy region.
Dudrovky, 16 July 1993

This action took place on a hot day in the presence of eight witnesses (Vladimir Sorokin, writer, Iosif Bakshtein, Director, Institute of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Faina Koroleva, dairy-maid and others). Kulik’s head penetrated the vagina of a cow in an attempt to be born anew. After this tormenting action he stated ‘I have closed the theme of reality for myself. For the time being, at least. Just as Malevich closed the theme of painting with his Black Square. Inside the cow I realised that there is no reality, and that means that reality is still to be discovered.’

Kulik hands us ammunition on a plate. Although the artist claims to have experienced no reality, the cow certainly would have. It is these artist-centric conceits that alienate many of us.

Art as agency for political discourse has regained currency over the last decade, with, depending on how you see it, the aestheticisation of politics and the politicisation of aesthetics. Recent exhibitions such as ‘Strike’ at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Documenta 11, and ‘Witness’ at the Barbican recast the artist as globally and historically aware, instead of the non-vocal local. The parallel world of live art, however, oscillating with different tides of fashion, has never neglected the subject of identity politics. From Carolee Schneeman’s performances in the 60, and 70s – involving meat, body painting and texts pulled from her vagina – to the interminable stream of students’ knitting performances, the medium is almost subsumed by the message. This urgency to communicate is often transformed into a theatricality that jars with the rest of the art world. Generations brought up on the subtleties of film find exaggeration embarrassing. Whereas Michael Fried, in his seminal 1967 essay ‘Art and Objecthood’, equated minimalist (or literalist, as he called it) art with a theatricalisation of the relation between object and beholder, the naked performer in place of the inanimate object infinitely magnifies this process. For instance, even Marc Quinn’s blood head, Self, 1991, seems quite subtle compared to Franko B’s physiological essay as he parades down the catwalk, shedding blood from surgical taps at the crooks of his elbows.

In live art’s constant need to position the body as ontological fulcrum, digital technology is often harnessed as yet another external force. For instance, Stelarc wired his body up to a networked computer so that a remote audience could manipulate his tissues and muscles with electric impulses. It’s like a cyborgian translation of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, 1965, in which the audience gradually divested her of her clothing with a communal pair of scissors. Yet virtual technology does allow gestures that are essentially humanist, yet displace the body from the centre of the action. Groups such as The Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) have developed a strain of ‘hacktivism’ that entails virtual sit-ins and electronic civil disobedience. Currently in collusion with the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico, EDT are targeting US and UK government websites with an internet-based program that amplifies the utility of a web browsers’ reload button. The collective demand to reload the targeted site is so great that its server crashes. In these exercises, the artist’s digital potency transcends the normal physical constraints of distance and stature.

‘Insurrection! Mob football on the Mall, with Admiralty Arch and Buckingham Palace as the goals! If your government won’t listen to you, don’t listen to your government!’ Inventory’s call to arms was ambitious, but wisely pitched as a social experiment rather than a performance. On the day, there were only about 20 people kicking an inflatable skull around, which made the two goals far too far apart for the scant teams to run between, so traditional goalposts made up of coats and bags were arranged in a more practicable distance apart. Since the road was closed off, as it usually is on a Sunday, Mob Football, 2003, was hardly an anarchic threat to social stability, although there was a disproportionately heavy police presence. It was a bit of a damp squib that fizzled for about 40 minutes before everyone got bored and went to the pub. However, by framing it as a social experiment, Inventory neatly handed the responsibility for its success over to the participants; and by exhibiting snapshots of the event in Beck’s Futures at the ICA, they made it apparent that artists’ events increasingly require institutional support for them to happen at all. This is a situation also borne out by the current Tate and Egg Live programme that is hosting events by gallery artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Steve McQueen and David Thorpe as well as more independent collectives such as Kyupi Kyupi and hobbypopMUSEUM.

The acceptance of collectives such as Inventory into the art establishment illustrates a return to more interventionist or temporary forms of art production. For Mob Football, contingencies were formed on the fly, making planning an irrelevancy. This level of absolute social inclusion seems almost untenable in the realm of live art. Its associations with choreography, theatre and literature (or creative writing, if you want to be derogatory) strengthen control and authorship. Although many live artists acknowledge the need for reflexivity in their work, this tends to mean a formal response to a particular space, which does not interfere with the eventhood of the piece. In the Live Culture publication Tim Etchells, director of Forced Entertainment, exclaims: ‘Down with poisonous slickness, defensive seamlessness and rhetorical authority. We’d rather have the provisional, the vulnerable and the playful. We’d rather have the event that unfolds and unravels. We want intimacy, transformation, negotiation, subversion, exchange, exhaustion, slipping, sliding, ephemerality and eye contact. Less than this is very likely bullshit.’ The language Etchells employs here falls somewhere between the physics of success and failure, but it seems unlikely that a performance would be allowed to fail utterly, to amount to absolutely nothing.

Perhaps this tendency towards zero – the absence of the object if not structure – could aid the pursuit of post-autonomous art production. In an essay exploring the possibilities of post-autonomy, Michael Lingner talks about strategies beyond the prevailing Modernist tradition: ‘The actual, original goal of artistic autonomy was an aesthetic independence of the work from everything social ... Since it would otherwise destroy itself through self-negation, art is forced to develop a completely new strategy for autonomy. It must start with the assumption that there is now no other possibility for art than “self-sufficiency in society”... The creation of the work must be transferred away from the artist and into the realm of social communication, which – formulated according to system theory – is sustained by personal and psychic systems and has the character of an event and not of an object.’

Lingner is not talking about social inclusion in the sense that government policy does, but is probing the political agency of art. In this context, although live art’s recycling of unwieldy grand issues, self-marginalising tendencies and increasing dependency on institutions may damage its efficacy, perhaps more note should be taken of its formal integrity and uncool sense of urgency.

Sally O’Reilly is a writer and a critic.

First published in Art Monthly 266: May 2003.

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