Absolute Beginners: Live Art

Feature in Issue 20-2 | Summer 2008

Total Theatre’s Canny Granny gets her teeth into contemporary performance practice.

‘My next show is going to be closer to live art than theatre’, my great grandnephew Johnny announced between mouthfuls of chocolate muffin. ‘What is live art?’ I enquired, wondering whether this was a new kind of performance that involves speaking with a mouthful of chocolate chips. ‘I don’t know’, he replied, much to my relief because I hate to think everyone else knows the lingo even if my false teeth do make certain phrases rather tricky to pronounce.

‘Art that invests in the process, presence and experience as much as the production of objects or things’ is one such saliva-sucking phrase posted on the Live Art Development Agency’s website. I’ve never previously come across an artform that’s not an artform but ‘an influential space in which artists can take formal and conceptual risks’. Indeed, as the successor to performance art, with its emphasis often on endurance and duration, we wonder whether the audience is all that important to live artists; although satisfying oneself so blatantly without regard for one’s guests would, if one was in the dining room or in bed, be considered to be plain bad manners.

Live art is like the artistic equivalent to a rumpus room where you can take the kids to let off steam. It’s all about misbehaviour, ‘art that wants to test the limits of what’s permissible or possible’. So established events, like a guided tour, might be turned on their head to become a Mis-Guided tour (Wrights and Sights, Exeter), or small social interactions with the public are turned into art by FrenchMottershead. The notion of ‘risk’ refers to a general rebellious spirit, ‘disrupting borders, breaking rules, defying traditions, resisting definitions, asking awkward questions and activating audiences’. Hell yeah! Johnny, loosen my corset! I’m here, live artists! Activate me!

Audiences are being ‘activated’ everywhere. Plenty of opportunity to get involved, whether you are a performer or an audience-member, or a consumer who prefers to ‘resist definitions and question assumptions’ about whether or not you are an audience-member.

And indeed, many artists whose work features on Live Art sites have set up very exciting relationships with their audiences: Lone Twin’s blindfolded eight-hour line dance, for example, that the public could join in whenever they liked; or Blast Theory’s invention of various computer and satellitetechnology assisted live action computer games – artists who are involving audiences who wouldn’t normally turn up to see ‘a play’ but would happily engage in ‘a mad experience’. Now it’s theatre (or should we say ‘Dead Art’?) that’s looking selfcentred.

It all rubs off though: this smudging of the line between performer and spectator is taking place in theatre, as audiences are cast in more active roles everywhere from Shunt Lounge to Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death. Not that Shunt and Punchdrunk feature on live art sites particularly, but plenty of people you’ll recognise do: Forced Entertainment, Kazuko Hohki, Marisa Carnesky, Bobby Baker, Station House Opera – which could lead us to believe that Live Art is just a pirate ship sailing away with some of our most exciting and experimental theatre, with most of the programmers at BAC drunk on rum in the hold.

Certainly, the term doesn’t exist at all in the United States, leading us to suspect that Live Art is really a Hoxton conspiracy to cream off the pink wafers from the Foxes selection box, and that you too could invent whatever terms you want: after all, words like ‘jam session’ and ‘scratch night’ must have come from somewhere. So if anyone would like to join the Chocolate Muffin Development Agency just call me – but the phone won’t be answered by a person, more of ‘a space’.


Some venues that support live art:

Arnolfini (Bristol)
One of the UK’s major contemporary arts spaces combining galleries, live, dance, film, literature and education programmes, and presenting the bi-annual festival Inbetween Time. www.arnolfini.org.uk

Chelsea Theatre (London)
‘London’s theatre for Live Art’ which presents the Sacred season of live art within a theatre setting. www.chelseatheatre.org.uk

Bluecoat (Liverpool)
Year-round programme focusing on visual and performing arts and artists working in interdisciplinary terrain; organises the Liverpool Live programme for the Liverpool Biennial. www.bluecoatartscentre.com

Farnham Maltings (Surrey)
A multi-artform arts centre, supporting work by the likes of Lone Twin and Rajni Shah. www.farnhammaltings.com

Chapter Arts Centre (Cardiff)
Chapter is Wales’ flagship centre for the contemporary arts with an all year round programme of performance, cinema and visual arts from Wales and internationally. www.chapter.org

Colchester Arts Centre (Essex)
Housed in a converted church, and presents a year-round programme of performing arts, specialising in Live Art. www.colchesterartscentre.com

Basement Arts Production, South East (Brighton)
A ‘multi-use art space’: venue, rehearsal space, artists’ support service, producing house, exhibition space. www.thebasement.uk.com


Live Art Development Agency (London)
Has a study room you can book to use, a shop stocking dvds and resource materials. www.thisisliveart.co.uk

Artsadmin (London)
Provides a unique national resource, supporting artists across the spectrum of contemporary performance practice www.artsadmin.co.uk

New Work Network (London)
New Work Network is a national, artist-led support organisation bringing together people working in Live Art, contemporary performance and interdisciplinary practice www.newworknetwork.org.uk

Live Art UK
National network of live art promoters and facilitators. Initiatives include the Live Art Touring Commission, and their Critical Writing Initiative www.liveartuk.org

National Review of Live Art (Glasgow)
More, much more, than a mere ‘festival’, the NRLA is the annual gathering place for those with a shared interest in live art/performance www.newmoves.co.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-2
p. 23