The National Review of Live Art made a welcome, if unscheduled return
to Glasgow in late October/ November 96. The event had been planned for
elsewhere, but due to problems with the venue or funding, the honour fell
to Glasgow. The venues which filled the gap at fairly short notice: The
Arches, Bar 10, The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow School of Art, Tramway, The
CCA and the GFT are to be lauded.
That's most of the lauding done for the moment. Firstly, a funny
thing which happened on the way to the 'theatre'. This writer
made his long anticipated and scheduled visit on the 1st of November.
Variant had arranged for press passes for the last three days, to be left
in his name at the box office of the Arches, the main venue. Having come
from beyond Oban he presented himself at the booth, but there seemed to
have been some kind of mistake - there were no tickets under that name,
nor 'Variant'. The supervisor knew nothing either, but went
off to find a man-who-did. Muggins is left throwing glances at the ceiling
but batting them down with his eyebrows. "Huh! Administration, eh?"
"Aye", says the doorman. "No", said the man-who-knew,
who'd appeared in the lobby beside them. There was no mistake or
administrative error, there were no tickets for him, and no entry without
them. He acknowledged though, that arrangements had been made with New
Moves, the organisers, but went on:
"Since the arrangements had been made, the director, Nikki Millican
has reconsidered and has decided to withdraw the offer of complementary
tickets because of difficulties she has with Variant's editorial
While his gast was being thus flabbered, salient points jockied for position:
(a) What had Variant's editorial policy to do with any of its contributors?
(b) Might she not have informed Variant and the writer, saving him a journey?
(c) You tell me this?
Fully flabbered, he ventured to remark that since he had come so far he
was going to write something, and so far it could only be about this encounter.
The man-who-knew shrugged. Point (a), he said, was nothing to do with
him, he was only following instructions. point (b) was regrettable, but
was nothing to do with him. On point(c), however, he was only following
instructions - but it did seem regrettable. The writer must understand
that the man-who-knew had no leeway. He agreed that it was ironic that
the locally based organisation's local/national event was not to
be covered by the local/national art magazine, but see answers (a), (b),
Unaccountably getting miffed now, he took the writer down a peg or two
by revealing that, so tight were the restrictions on tickets that even
the artists had to have them, so who was he to be treated so differently?
The man-who-knew wouldn't clarify whether they paid for them, as
implied, or if (as it turned out), artists were given tickets for the
benefit of temporary staff who might not recognise them. At any rate,
he rendered the matter redundant with his clincher, a fine example of
the appeal to obscurity:
"Youse are a quarterly, anyway. By the time youse come out the event
is over. That's no good to us."
It was pointed out that the 're' in review admitted as much,
though the conclusion was specious. A 'preview,' to clear up
the misunderstanding, was what Variant had published for the benefit of
the NRLA in the previous issue of the magazine - but the man-who-knew
was resolute. Nothing could be done; he was bound by standing orders.
With impeccable timing the writer's name was called and a hand descended
onto his shoulder. Not the doorman but the Polish artist and curator Wladyslaw
Kazmierczac, with whom he has worked in the past and plans to again in
the coming year. They hug and do the 'It's good to see ya'
bit, then he asks: "Are you coming in to see my performance?"
"Eh, apparently not, Wladyk; they don't like the editorial policy
of the magazine the review would be for, so they are reneging on their
promise of press tickets." The man-who-knew lived up to his moniker
by here interjecting that, there was just a possibility that maybe a ticket
might be found, which would cover the writer just for this evening, he
Well understood, at least, is how the cover of the gloom of anonymity
allows us to carry out the grubbiest of details unconscionably, actions
that might instantly shame us in the light of day. For 'light of
day' read 'witnessed by East European artist of international
standing who is familiar with all the forms that censorship and repression
can take.' But all that is besides the point, if close to the bone.
In order to better comprehend New Moves' old move, the writer has
been trawling through old Variant editorials in a search for the bogeyman.
Could it be this, from the re-launch issue?
"We have resurfaced at a crucial yet not altogether unfamiliar point,
which in the interim period of our absence has witnessed this tendency
to openly and routinely consign independent and critical voices to silence,
developed into something like policy... It is our perception that the
current climate seeks to stifle any deviation from the cultural packaging
and re-packaging of a benign culture of entertainment."
Or could it be this older bugbear?
"Variant is not concerned with providing the 'institutional'
art machine with an approving image of itself...For the establishment
of a critical, engaging and diverse culture, lateral links have to be
made across media, and opinions need to be expressed and exposed."
(Vol. 1 No.16)
Radical stuff indeed. It amounts to a condonation of individual thought
and an espousal of free speech. Of course, New Moves objections may well
lie elsewhere, and in the interests of free speech and open debate the
editors wrote to Nikki Millican (7/11/96), inviting her to outline her
objections to Variant's editorial policy, and to explain why the
NRLA needed protecting from it, but three months later she has neither
replied, declined or acknowledged the letter.
Clearly, her discomfort did not predate or prevent her from supplying
the information for the preview of the NRLA in the last issue, or indeed
the original promise of press tickets. Her position is untenable, hence
the deafening silence. In that silence something doesn't ring true - the
adoption of sudden and vehement positions without precedence or context
is enough to send the average amateur detective to scurry in search of
the coercive element. But who could coerce the underfunded New Moves?
It's a poser, isn't it?
The aim of a 'national' review is presumably to bring its purview
before the widest audience, exposing them to the gamut of current practice.
That aim is compromised somewhat in an eleven day event when day tickets
are £6(£4). Leaving aside the qualms many performance artists
might have with the notion of anyone paying to witness their work, some
seventy people had done so that evening. It would seem, in the naive world
the writer inhabits, that if that were the average attendance, then £5,000
in extra funding or a re-allocation of the existing budget, would have
enabled the setting of nominal prices that would have allowed more people
to visit the review, and to see more events.
Any serial event that suffers itself to hang on the tenterhooks of fundraising
applications throughout the year followed by eleven days being flogged
with a shoestring budget is in the process of undermining itself. More
than one artist later remarked that the paucity of the materials and equipment
budget forced them to curtail their intentions. Okay, that's the
real world. But their wants were not extraordinary, and the object of
the lesson can hardly be to give artists a lesson in penury or to present
a distorted view of their work. One does not get more quality by stretching
what one already has; on the contrary.
When the term 'national' is appended to an event it presupposes
a commitment to enable an appropriate level of presentation that does
justice to the claim; that demands a consensus in the first place that
the event in some way represents the 'nation' in its field,
in which case the 'nation' finds the funding, presumably. All
that a shoestring can do is get tied in knots - but as we tie them ourselves
we think of them as bows. In today's management structure such skills
are, without a trace of irony, thought of as adding another string to
one's bow. The shoestring budget is the marginalizing element par
excellence, the classic technique for booting to the sidelines, from where
one's laces can be tied together with impunity.
The notion of a national event has other corollaries. One of the expected
functions is to serve in a definitive role, an invidious task in a medium
whose practitioners have yet to define to their own satisfaction. To judge
by the evenings events and the programme (needs must), much of the work
could be characterised as quasi-theatrical, and some of it not so quasi-.
The blurring of performance art/theatrical parameters is considered a
cardinal error by most theorists and practitioners. Commenting on the
9th Cracow Meeting of 1981, Jerzy Hanusek noted that reproaches against
theatricality were uttered virtually exclusively against foreign artists,
saying that, even though they had all emerged from alternative circles
which have remained in opposition to the commercial art market, "the
proximity of this market did, however, seem to cast its shadow, in the
form of the greater care for the spectacle aspect, which is as much as
to say the saleable attractiveness of the actions."1
It is clear that performance borrows thespian techniques - indeed,
Klaus Groh asserts that "performance art is life, portrayed by using
methods and systems derived from theatre,"2
but we must remember that theatre is life, portrayed by using methods
and systems derived from life. It seems, to blur rhetorical parameters
a moment, that we are in danger of counting our chickens before they hatch,
or our eggs before they are lain, and in any case, the one that comes
first gets to play in the road.
If performance art is to be considered a distinct medium (which the writer
thinks it is), it must qualify its distinction by delineating its boundaries
and scope. What does 'live' refer to in live art? If it is only
to the presence of the artist it becomes spurious, if not trite. If it
pertains to the immediacy of the work, it shares the epithet with breakfast
television. If it refers to the intensity of the action, doubt also appears - as
Hanusek put it at the 10th Cracow Meeting (1995), "a bad performance
can be more dead than a good picture."3
He prefers to think in terms of 'direct action'. Action he sees
as direct when the receiver is not aware of the presence of an intervening
media, or in which that presence is of little significance. When one's
activities are governed by such a subtle line, and if one's means
are blocked in with such a wide brush, little wonder that the results
can be equivocal and belaboured. And suspension of disbelief has no part
here - performance art/direct action doesn't have an audience
really, rather it has witnesses to the action. All that a witness need
bring is their full sensibility, and in these circumstances, artifice
glows in the limelight as well as in the dark.
Some find these terminological efforts tedious but nomenclature must be
defined if analysis or assessment is to be applied; as it must if the
medium is to orientate itself amongst other media. The reluctance to resolve
these issues has its result in a general unwillingness to judge performance.
If anything goes, art will surely take advantage of the out, and artists
will follow. When everything is valid, banality and egotism are legitimated,
with the usual vapid results. To countermand this tendency, Hanusek posits
a concept of performance art as 'work' in a way that functions
as a memento-art, and a fundamental point of reference: "The moment
when this concept disappears beyond the horizon of thought - this may
be from a macro- or micro-perspective, that is, when thought is bogged
down in details, or becomes too general - that is the moment when we
leave the area of art."4 A man who doesn't
need reminding is Polish artist Jerzy Berés, who has the definitive
word on this reluctance to judge, a defect that he sees as not confined
to the field of aesthetics:
"The prolongation of the suspension of judgement is, after all, an
attempt to stop, or at least retard, the course of history. And this is
the fundamental factor distorting the reality of the 20th century, which
has perhaps prematurely been labelled an age of astounding progress, which
is supposed to make humanity happy. It is perhaps this very model of life
made easier, a model promulgated by the advertising and propaganda machines
which has brought about the general consent to the lack of judgement.
For judgement entails rather the 'difficulty of existence' "5
Berés, who makes sculpture and 'manifestations' (the
latter sometimes serving to sacralize the former) is the most uncompromising
of artists who has been irking authority (political and artistic) and
subverting expectations before, during and after Poland's period
of totalitarianism and martial law. The creative act he sees as the result
of an independent attitude to reality. Such a unique attitude brings with
it an enforced responsibility for one's actions that is not negotiable.
The crux of independence rules that the creative fact - the tangible trace
of a creative act - is not intended to fulfil society's general expectations,
though it occasionally does so by common coincidence. Far more likely
is that the creative fact will serve to irritate and unsettle the collective
'self-satisfaction'. This is not its primary aim but a side
effect, and it is not politically motivated (though it can be). Berés
says he is not a political artist, he is merely "interested in more
than one dimension of art."6
The plot, or more accurately 'culture of complicity', thickens
when we recognise that events like the NRLA tends to be funded by quangos
and agencies of whom it would not be unfair to suggest that they share
a certain collective self-satisfaction, to the extent that we have not
become weary of the constant re-evaluations of their mandates and their
self-criticising zeal. And these agencies seem to be calling for creative
efforts to be 'populist', not 'highbrow', because
they have a responsibility to the people. To be populist is to have integrity;
to be highbrow is to be suspect. What a quasi-world it is we are living
The trouble is that in a culture of self-satisfaction and complicity,
being sure of the roots of our philosophical thought may be more difficult
than we think. Most thinkers think themselves models of objectivity, but
few can say that they have examined and are conscious of their base assumptions,
which define their attitudes. Those base assumptions are secreted deep
within received wisdom - we are exposed to them at a point in our development
when we are incapable of cognizing their ad hoc nature. Cognized, assumptions
act according to their nature as starting blocks. Unrecognised, they are
stumbling blocks (and can be picked up and used as blinkers).
There are signs that artists are becoming aware of the natural environment
for their actions. Berés likens it to animals escaping from the
zoo - not all will prefer the vitality of freedom. "Those who have
grown accustomed to the cages, to the runs of superficial freedom, to
the generous patronage of their feeders, and to the public, staring through
the bars, will remain to live out their days there."7
Too often - i.e. not always - watching the artist in a gallery situation
is like watching a seal with a ball balanced on its nose; when art is
reduced to popular entertainment even its ludic functions are played out.
So what, then, is the function of a national review of live art? As the
writer has examined three of the terms to date, he may as well confess
to misgivings about the remaining one - a re-view of live art? All
this may be hair splitting but sometimes the hair gets to be exhibit A.
The insignificant attains its meaning by tracing its associations with
more material facts. Such is the tangled web in this case, that one can
only assume that its function is obscurantist. Repeat performance by rote
is no more palatable of an event than it is of a performance art.
It is a pity that this article could not cover specific works, for not
all of them were done justice by the general remarks - but then, they
are unlikely to be in need of the writer's approving image. Of all
the works he didn't see, the one he liked best was Alexander Harvey's
'Holding Together.' Harvey went out onto the streets each day
and built sand castles; and no one needed to ask why. More than seventy
saw the action, which was free. Its simplicity would have been as eloquent
anywhere else in the world, which is no mean feat. Now that is a view
of Live Art.
1 Jerzy Hanusek, 'Cracow Meetings with an Eight Year Epilogue,'
in 'Spotkania Krakowskie' (1995, BWA Contemporary Gallery of
Art, Krakow, p115.
2 Klaus Groh, 'Theoretyczna idea sztuki performance,' in Performance,
a collective work (Warsaw: MAW, 1984), p61.
3 Jerzy Hanusek, op cit.
4 Jerzy Hanusek, p112
5 Jerzy Berés, 'The Work as a Stimulator of Judgement',
Spotkania Krakowskie, BWA Krakow p80.
6 Jerzy Berés, 'Zwidy, wyrocznie, oltarze.' (Phantoms,
Oracles, Altars.) An Autobiographical sketch) Grupa Krakowskia, Cracow
7 Andrzej Kostolowski, 'The Giggle of Time', in 'Zwidy
Wyrocznie Oltarze Wyzania', Museum Narodowe, Poznan 1995.