Joshua Sofaer

Seven reasons why Live Art gives better value

I [heart] LA

I [heart] LA
Arts Council England, 2001

In French & Saunders’ recent live stage show one of the sketches consists of an art college student who presents a work titled ‘Alphabet/Alphabet Backwards’. Dawn French takes on board the role, and performs the alphabet A-Z. There is a pause. She then attempts to perform the alphabet backwards starting at Z but soon gets stuck. The humour of this sketch (and it really is funny) arises not only from the character’s inability to work out the reverse chronology of the alphabet but also because it taps in to a popular belief about the absurdity and banality of performance based contemporary arts practices. Part of this belief is a consequence of the erroneous understanding of these practices as ahistorical and unthinking.

Although contemporary live art strategies have a traceable lineage, strong historical precedents and established methodologies they are often mistakenly referred to as “new” or “emerging” practices. Part of the reason for this confusion is that live art necessarily exists on the margins of cultural production. I say ‘necessarily’ because live art critiques dominant culture while combining together and deconstructing more traditional forms of art practice. Live art’s relationship with dominant culture is in many ways one of symbiosis. As the margin needs the centre to react to and against, so too dominant culture needs its margins, not only to sustain its position of being at the centre, but also in order to reinvent itself. Indeed, as with the way in which much of ‘queer’ culture has filtered across into the main-stream – from activism to styles of fashion – so too methodologies and practices of live art have often directly influenced mainstream cultural production, not only in the parodic terms of French & Saunders but in wide-ranging examples from Madonna to the Tango advertising campaign.

In an effort to try and persuade the uninitiated or unconvinced of the benefits of live art practices and the ways in which they can reflect, comment on and deconstruct mainstream cultural activity, I have selected seven different advertising slogans or product claims from consumer magazines (one for each day of the week) and used them as catalysts for a glimpse of just some of the eclectic work that makes up the current live art scene in the UK.

Outstanding performance and outstanding savings.

Live practices are still very often treated with scorn in Fine Art circles. By the very nature of the work – temporal, fleeting, often conceptually based – the works struggle to enter into the world of exchange capital. They do not accrue value. They are not investments.
They can not be sold on.

Ofcourse the great thing about this is that you don’t have to worry that you haven’t got enough money to buy the work in order to fill the space above the sideboard in your drawing room. Live art is the experience of the event and the subsequent contemplation thereof. It is not something that you hang on your wall. There are exceptions to this general rule. Hayley Newman’s series of photographs ‘Connotations’ were representations of performances that never actually took place. In this instance the (salable) object – the photograph – was the trigger to the contemplation of a fictitious performance.

La Ribot, the movement based artist, who sick of the fact that she couldn’t sell her work in the same way as her visual art peers has devised the notion of a ‘Distinguished Proprietor’. You can ‘buy’ her performances which are sold as works of art, each at $1000 or £600. As a ‘Distinguished Proprietor’ you will have your name printed whenever the piece’s title is announced and you can attend any of its expositions world-wide, free of charge. This contract is in many ways a marketing ploy, a reworking of old models of patronage, but a successful one nevertheless. La Ribot has sold a massive proportion of these performances. Some might argue this is because of the novelty value; whether this is the case or not, La Ribot is the exception that proves the rule – performances are not bought or sold – certainly not the way you might buy and sell a painting.

Ripe, flavoursome, fresh and delicious; a sumptuous hedonistic treat.
Proof that unlikely combinations can sometimes be utterly sublime. Whereas most forms of cultural production are restricted by the form itself (for instance television is confined by the fact that it will be seen on a box in peoples front-rooms) live art embraces a massive variety of media. This often leads to an explosion of conventional aesthetics.

‘Instant Exposure’ by Abigail Davies took place in a photobooth in the National Express Departure Lounge at Nottingham bus station. Davies set up a monitor outside the booth which allowed the spectator to see the action behind the curtain and also the digital image she, as the sitter, sees in front of her, of what is going to be printed on the photobooth print. Within this arrangement Davies performed a series of visual monologues that ranged from the ingenious transformation of the photobooth into a swimming pool by placing a glass of water in front of the camera lens, to blocking out the light for a murder scene.

In the latest work by Bodies in Flight, ‘Double Happiness’ the visual oxymoron of conjoining the live performers and their online chat discussion via a massive projection, left the characters simultaneously embodied and disembodied. In both cases it is the hybrid inclusion of the everyday recognisable object – the photobooth and the chat room – within the work, that makes for a vertiginous pleasure for the spectator.

Endless time, patience and passion, but probably gone by the end of the evening.

The amount of time we take to consume culture is usually standardised. A film normally lasts about two hours; a television programme between half an hour and an hour and a half; a novel assumes the pattern of its reader – perhaps fifteen minutes on a bus journey – or twenty-five before bed. Live art practices often challenge this consumptive process by stretching or condensing time. It might be that if you blink you’ll miss it, as in Howard Matthew’s series of supermanesque quick changes in telephone boxes around Hull witnessed by the casual passer by. It might be that the performance goes on for days, as in Lone Twin’s ‘Twentyfour Four’ where the performance duo stayed up for four days and nights wandering around Nottingham propelling proclamations “into the night”.

In ‘Filthy Words and Phrases’ by Forced Entertainment a woman spends seven hours writing out obscenities on a blackboard. As she becomes covered in chalk our reaction to these expletives fluctuates through shock, humour, surprise, and boredom. The protracted time-frame forces a shifting of meaning.

More than just a night out.
Many artists have chosen to make live work because they have become disillusioned with the way in which the art-market has commodified object based practices as investments. They have embraced the ephemeral nature of live work as a political strategy. Historically the deployment by an artist of their body has been to state a claim for the politic of that body. Feminist body art in the 1970’s, for instance, sought to challenge the way in which women’s bodies were being treated by placing the body at the front of the work.

Live Art practices continue to possess the opportunity for social activism in a manner which avoids party allegiance or affiliation. Some actions are directly interventionist as in for instance Reclaim the Streets, who seek to physically disrupt the flow of capitalism on the roads (which may or may not be considered as an arts practice). Others employ humour and entertainment as strategy for political communication. The Divine David’s rants against the homogenisation and fascistic aesthetic of mainstream gay culture on the stage of the performance club Duckie in London, works because the audience are saturated in the life-style which is being critiqued. The specificity of site and of audience are thus often crucial to the success of live art strategies.

There are no interviews, no commitment and no salesman will call; but together we’ll find the right one for you.

The entrenched body politic of the 1970’s and 1980’s where the personal was the political and identity politics were a necessary part of civil activism has become less fashionable and to a degree less necessary. While there are still many instances of social exclusion and discrimination, the fixed, identity-led artist strategy has in many ways been exhausted. Artists increasingly choose to confuse assumptions about formations of race, religion, sex, sexuality and gender; to liberate the crisis of indeterminate identities not by offering solutions or even options but by aggravating those already in place.

Ronald Fraser Monroe’s ‘Cesare Cappuccino, The First Black Pope and Anti-Christ’ moves around public places such as bars and cafes, offering alternative sermons. The ‘sermon’ is less that of the didactic activist and rather more about disrupting belief systems of the relationship between black masculinity and Christianity. Marissa Carnesky’s ‘Jewess Tatooess’ also moves away from an essentialist understanding of minority identity and rather takes as its point of inception an internal conflict – the Jewish law forbidding the permanent marking of the skin through tattooing. In both cases there is a shift in emphasis away from the formulation ‘here I am’ to the disruptive and inconclusive ‘what am I?’.

It loves the jobs you hate.

Using the body as its canvas, live art can confront society’s taboos and phobias. In the work of artists such as Franco B and Kira O’Riley, who explore the limits of the body, both in terms of its physical boundaries and their own pain thresholds, cutting the body becomes not only a challenge for them, but also for the audience who must confront any fear or loathing they may have about the penetration of skin. The spectator meets with the abject body to body.

Sometimes the challenge is not that of the voyeur, but of the participant. Martin Burton’s piece’Nausea’ where audience members were kept in complete darkness for all but tantalising milliseconds of the performance is a case in point. Entering the warehouse space and given a number, each member of the audience was called separately into a pitch black labyrinth and told to lie down on a stretcher. They were then carted off to hospital beds where bottles were being smashed against the bed frames and rotting milk sprayed by their ears. This was an ambitious attempt to involve the audience in a physical encounter with fear and repulsion.

Ideal for people that love the outdoor life, but don’t want to bring it home with them.

Live art plays on paradoxes and their ability to challenge common sense assumptions. Often combining many different media in unexpected ways, forefronting the body of the artist, its ephemeral nature focusing our attention before it passes away, live art can reconfigure everyday dross.

From Helena Goldwater’s hyper femme female drag queen who in a piece titled ‘Cream Tease’ transforms the making of a cup of tea – the archetype of bourgeois living – into a drag act, to David Gale’s ensemble piece ‘I am Dandy’ where social niceties become the stuff of nightmare; from Bobby Baker’s dinner table antics in a series of dinner party performances titled ‘Table Occasions’ where food is invested with sensory qualities beyond that of taste, to Gary Stevens retelling of the ‘Robin Hood’ story as a surreal mystery; live art practices force us to rethink what we might commonly understand as taken for granted.

While live art practices still battle for acceptance even within art institutions themselves, the increasing globalisation of live communication through internet and digital television widens the possibility for performance based art practices. Not only does this plethora of home access media mean artists can go directly to the people, rather than relying on them to make a trip to a gallery, nightclub or warehouse, it also means that there is an increasing premium on live interaction. The renaissance of cinema, after decades of decline caused by television, is tribute to the public’s need for interaction at an event they can collectively witness in space and time. Either way, virtually or in the flesh, the future looks bright for live art.