Art at the Edge

Feature in Issue 11-2 | Summer 1999

In the last few years, a new breed of Live Artists have been perplexing and inspiring audiences in theatre and gallery spaces across the country. David Harradine reports on two new initiatives aimed at supporting Live Artists in the UK and raising the profile of their work.

In the last few months, two new initiatives have added to the ever-increasing profile of Live Art in the UK. ArtsAdmin, the arts management and promotion organisation, has launched a three-year programme of lottery-funded bursary and advisory schemes for Live Artists, and the Live Art Development Agency – a subsidiary of Keidan/Ugwu – has been established, with London Arts Board funding, to develop, promote and champion Live Art in London.

At the same time that these valuable support structures are appearing, debates continue to rage about what Live Art actually is.

This is inevitable as the field continues to develop, but arguably one of the most recognisable characteristics of Live Art is that it resists any kind of conclusive definition. Whilst this is seen by many as a kind of fashionably postmodern vagueness, Lois Keidan of the Live Art Development Agency sees things differently. ‘Our position is that Live Art is in many ways more of a strategy than a practice; a strategy to avoid the expectations of working in any kind of discipline.’

Lois Keidan runs the Live Art Development Agency along with Catherine Ugwu. Both also work as consultants, promoters, facilitators and curators for new performance. Keidan used to head the performance art and interdisciplinary practices section at the Arts Council of England, and both Keidan and Ugwu ran the Live Art Department at the ICA before setting up independently. When Keidan refers back to her time at the Arts Council she recalls a huge body of work that fell between departments because it tested the boundaries between disciplines. This work – which often involved collaborations across disciplines, or looked at the gaps between disciplines – potentially offered a whole new generation of artists a means of entering the cultural landscape. Keidan suggests that Live Art is about acknowledging the huge diversity of these practices, and seeing that perhaps the only thing that binds these together is the refusal to work within any discipline.

The debates about definition certainly make Live Art an exciting arena. ArtsAdmin's newly-appointed Artists Advisor, Manik Govinda, is developing and managing an advisory and information service for artists working in Live Art, as well as managing the bursary scheme. Govinda shares Keidan's point of view on definition, and suggests that Live Art might be seen as ‘a more or less formal hybridisation of different practices’. At the same time, he suggests that there might be shared traits that bind different Live Artists together. For instance, the work is almost always conceptually based; whereas a theatre artist might approach a piece by considering what to do with the available form, a Live Artist would first think about what to say and then use any means necessary to say it. Another trait is the idea of working in 'real-time', that the work exists in the time and space of its presentation and does not attempt to create any kind of fiction. And that it is often closely linked to the lived experiences of the artists that make it. In this way, Keidan says, Live Art is very much about the here and now and really comes to life in the moment of exchange between the artist and spectator.

Live Art is very much about the here and now and really comes to life in the moment of exchange between the artist and spectator.

Inevitably, this refusal to fit into existing disciplines means Live Artists do share another common experience – the difficulty of finding support in existing funding, programming or critical structures. The establishment of the Live Art Development Agency and the ArtsAdmin bursaries are certainly, in part, responses to these kinds of issues, although there is a long way to go before Live Art is fully recognised and supported. Lois Keidan remembers receiving assessors' reports on Live Art performances during her time at the Arts Council, written by theatre assessors who would criticise the artists because they couldn't act, or weren't producing good work according to a theatre officer's criteria. This kind of lack of critical awareness certainly continues to blight Live Art and impacts upon another, perhaps more fundamental, problem that faces artists working in the field: that of sourcing and winning funding for their work.

Keidan/Ugwu often speak to artists who are concerned because their work doesn't fit into funding guidelines, and although they believe this is how it should be (that artists should always be way ahead of funding bodies), the worry of course is that funding bodies won't respond. ‘Until the end of 1998, the response was very healthy,’ Keidan says, ‘with LAB especially and also the Arts Council looking at ways of developing Live Art strategy. Supporting programming ventures, enabling research and development work as well as funding artists, and all these things had a great impact on the landscape.’

The follow-on from all this, however, is that in the restructuring of the Arts Council, the one department that is being dismantled is Combined Arts, and the whole sector is justifiably concerned about this. So although London Arts Board continues to encourage new and interdisciplinary works in all kinds of ways, it remains to be seen if and how the Arts Council's devolved structure will recognise it. As Keidan says, ‘It's not just about supporting real innovation and risk, but about being able to recognise it in the first place.’ These kinds of problems are certainly not helped by the difficulties that face many Live Art practitioners when they try to find venues that wish to programme or promote their work.

For many years, the ICA was seen as a kind of cultural barometer for Live Art; an indicator of the most innovative, most exciting, often most radical work that was happening in British and international performance. Recently, however, as its performance programme appears to have so drastically changed, those hungry to see or to show Live Art increasingly have had to turn elsewhere. One of the things that the Live Art Development Agency is doing is developing dialogue with venues to try and improve these infrastructures, so that work gets programmed and promoted in supportive and forward-thinking ways.

Similarly, ArtsAdmin showcases new work in its studios in Aldgate East, London, and the ideal outcome of this will be the development of an artistic culture in which Live Art becomes recognised and available in venues all over the country, not just in a few isolated institutions that are brave enough, well funded enough, or geographically lucky enough to be able to take the risk. Until this happens, advocates of Live Art will have to continue to produce and experience work in contexts that cannot always fully support it.

One of the reasons why Live Art continues to be visibly absent from so many venues and arts spaces is that it often attracts negative and stereotypical perceptions of what it actually is. There is certainly an idea that Live Art practitioners are self-obsessed or narcissistic and out to shock and enrage their audiences, or that Live Art itself is aimlessly and pointlessly 'experimental' (as if experimentation could ever be pointless). Manick Govinda feels that there is a huge gap between this perception and the reality of much Live Art. ‘I think people often just see Live Art as shock-value work, but it's much more than that. Live Art is incredibly exciting, often almost magical, and is certainly very political. Even if an artist isn't explicit about politics, it will often be there, in implicit kinds of ways, and I mean the politics of the personal and the social, the politics of identity.’

Lois Keidan suggests that Live Art is also political in an artistic sense, as it raises so many questions about what art is and what it is for, and about who can make art. It is probably true to say that a large proportion of people working in Live Art have traditionally been marginalised by mainstream art – black, female, queer, working class or disabled artists increasingly explore their own experiences through Live Art. In many ways, this possibility for formal as well as conceptual exploration is what unites Live Art with these kinds of practitioners – the field comes with less expectation of form or content than does more mainstream work.

This antagonism and interplay between the margins and the mainstream is something that is encouraged by both ArtsAdmin and the Live Art Development Agency. Lois Keidan sees the margins of Britain's artistic culture as the place that has produced the most exciting and important work of the last ten years, not least because the margins offer a kind of freedom that the very notion of mainstream cannot allow. Manick Govinda agrees, and although feeling that Live Art is still a developing field in Britain, sees that ArtsAdmin's role, at least in part, is to try and support Live Artists as they move from the early stages of their careers into a more widely recognised and received arena. ‘I think we all want to see some exciting artists come into a more public profile, and many artists definitely don't want to stay purely subcultural and do want to enter the mainstream, but without being co-opted.’

This problem of assimilation into the norm is one that Lois Keidan also perceives. ‘Live Art is making a lot of places look at their audiences and think about how they can get trendy and modern and up to date, but at the same time there's a terrible kind of assimilation going on. Much of the mainstream is going through the motions of what “contemporary” is, and is jumping on the bandwagon of the avant-garde, but really just wanting the superficial, easily accessible work, not the disturbing, difficult, provocative stuff that goes with it. Our plural culture should be able to recognise both things.’

The ways in which these things are negotiated in the next few years will be crucial for anyone interested in, or committed to, Live Art in this country. As the field continues to push at the boundaries of artistic practice, to stretch the limits of what contemporary performance can say or do or be, and to produce work that enrages, delights, excites and moves its audiences, it is to organisations such as ArtsAdmin and the Live Art Development Agency that we will all look, to see what hope there is for the future.

This article in the magazine

Issue 11-2
p. 7 - 9