Live and Kicking

Feature in Issue 15-2 | Summer 2003

Four days of live art performances, events, video screenings and symposia – Alex Mermikides, Dorothy Max Prior, and Virginia Farman were there…

March 2003 brought live art to Tate Modern, in the form of the Live Culture symposium and series of events. Stuart Corner, the Tate’s Curator of Public Events, described this as a ‘landmark step’ in the Tate’s presentation of developing live art practice.

Lois Keidan, co-founder and director of the Live Art Development Agency, and co-organiser of the event (with Daniel Brine and Adrian Heathfield) explains that Live Culture had been three years in development.

Commissioned by the Arts Council of England to research and develop an event concerning live art’s relation to the visual arts, the Live Art Development Agency approached Tate Modern, which was just opening at the time.

This was ‘an opportunity for the Tate to look at their role and the part live art could play in that’, says Keidan. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, says the event was designed ‘to explore the current potential for collaboration between the museum (generally seen as a repository for documentation and artefacts used in performance work) and the moveable, non-site of live performance itself. Given the increasing institutionalisation of alternative performance spaces and the demise of the public sphere, Live Culture asks how artists and museums should develop their future relationships.

Why should live art have a role in one of the UK’s biggest art galleries? RoseLee Goldberg, speaking at the conference, promoted the notion that Live Art has its historical roots in the art gallery. In which case, bringing live art to the Tate might be seen as a homecoming, welcoming it back into the fold – although bringing live art to a gallery is a matter of course for artists such as La Ribot, whose work has often taken place in gallery spaces, with the most recent series of her Distinguished Pieces being presented at the South London Gallery, in contrast to the earlier series which were presented in a theatre context at the ICA.

Yet the relationship between galleries and live art is not necessarily a straightforward one. Peggy Phelan gave a spectacular lecture at the event’s Symposium, in which she contested the standard view of live art as emanating from visual and conceptual art: live art should be seen not as an ‘add-on’ to visual arts, or any of the other usual ‘stories of the history of live art’, she suggested; rather, it should be seen as ‘centre stage’ within its own history, stemming from political action and embodying existential and phenomenological philosophy. Which makes the Tate – as a symbol of establishment culture and the commodification of art – an unlikely venue and collaborator in the event.

Irrespective of such concerns, the Tate Modem building itself is a rich site for performance. The event was book-ended by one-person shows in the turbine hall. The opening evening brought us Russian ‘mad dog’ Oleg Kulik’s Armadillo for Your Show – the artist as a human disco-ball, naked and plated with mirrors, revolving in a hung cage to the sounds of disco and opera. The closing performance was the UK’s own ‘my body is a canvas’ Franko B with his bleeding catwalk show I Miss You! which he describes as ‘not an act of nihilism but of sharing and survival’.

These pieces fully exploited the height, length and sheer size of that spectacular space. Keidan suggests that they opened the Tate’s eyes to the way their gallery could become a live and social space… On the opening night, the Tate was turned for the evening into a warehouse party, as dry smoke wafted round an audience chatting and drinking as relentless beats echoed round the hall. Shadows of a giant human figure were thrown on the walls by Kulik’s body high above the audience, his image reflected as a perfect Doppelgänger in the glass wall dividers of the turbine hall – a performance that both referenced and exploited, in Kulik’s words, ‘the aesthetics of mass culture’.

The durational performances in the Level 4 Galleries were mostly effective in spite of (rather than because of) the space. This was nevertheless a welcome opportunity to see Forced Entertainment’s seminal durational piece 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), in which the five performers assume an assortment of jumble sale costumes and cardboard sign identities. It was truly magical to tum a corner into the room and come upon the fake starlit night backdrop, garish costumes and the performers trying to be too clever by half. Over the hour or so that I watched it, this child-like game of pretending to be someone else coalesced into a compelling experience. It is much funnier than one might imagine from the descriptions, but ultimately unsettling in its play on identity and self. In Quizoola! (1996) two performers at a time, in sweaty clown-face, ask each other a seemingly endless barrage of questions. This show suffered most from being in an echoing white box: the brightly lit room rather diminished the interrogation-room effect of the circle of bare lights and the questioning was often drowned out by the noise of punters and other exhibits. The effect was to bury the show’s deeply sinister underbelly, vaguely suggestive of both Kafkaesque bureaucracy and of torture scenes. Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s Ex-Centris, on the other hand, fully exploited the gallery setting by putting fetishised bodies on display like exhibits, and deployed the odd configuration of the room by arranging these characters in cruciform around an existing central column.

This ‘living museum’ of scary fantasy figures of racial stereotypes was a strong and colourful display, but also made a subtle political point about representation of different cultures.

Live Culture certainly succeeded in giving live art long overdue recognition. With its high profile and millions of visitors, Tate Modern is the place to bring the world’s attention to some cutting-edge work that is too often marginalised. Keidan and Brine’s curatorial approach was to bring together a veritable ‘who’s who’ of live art. The programme included a two-day symposium, ‘Performance and the Contemporary’, featuring leading live art scholars (such as Peggy Phelan and RoseLee Goldberg) and practitioners Marina Abromavic, Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainement, Matthew Ghoulish of Goat Island, Keith Khan of Moto Roti and others.

As well as testing our preconceptions of what goes on in a gallery, Live Culture offered an alternative to the usual symposium format. ‘Lectures’ were performative works of art. Phelan wove into a straight academic lecture on the origins of live art a letter to Marina Abromovic, delivered over a haunting soundtrack. This personal strand meditated on Phelan’s relationship with the artist, as a long-term student and admirer of her work, and gave a striking account of Home with an Ocean View, Abromovic’s response to September 11th in New York in which she put herself on public display in a gallery. The piece ended with Abromovic coming onstage to thank Phelan, evidently a surprise for the scholar and a moving moment for the audience. Etchells, on the other hand, unnerved us with his conception of the audience as (quoting from the film Performance) ‘a bunch of liars and wrigglers’, and ‘audience tactics’ that felt like a series of veiled threats: ‘Split the audience. Make a problem of them. Disrupt the comfort and anonymity of the darkness. Make them feel the differences present in the room and outside of their class, gender, age, race, power, culture… Give them the taste of laughing alone. The feel of a body that laughs in public and then, embarrassed, has to pull it back.’

In addition to the performances, lecture/presentations and symposia, we had video screenings curated by Blast Theory, Rona Lee, Aaron Williamson and others and photographs by Hayley Newman and Hugo Glendinning.

The event touched on key debates about live art’s position today. Guillermo Gomez-Pena saw it as ‘an attempt to draw the new outline of the 21st century context for live art: its correspondences, contradictions, current dilemmas and future challenges’.

Having alerted us to the potential for a relationship between live art and mainstream museums, how do the Tate and LADA plan to develop this in the future? While the Tate continues to house performance through its Tate and Egg programme (no relation to the LADA events), Live Culture’s legacy is mainly in documentary form: an educational pack by Joshua Sobal, a free catalogue of the event with contributions from many of the artists, and the publication of Live by Adrian Heathfield, co-curator of the event, by Tate Publishing.

For information on the Live Art Development Agency, including plans for the new publication, see www.liveartlondon.demon.co.uk For events at Tate Modem, log on to www.tate.org.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 15-2
p. 14 - 17