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Features Performance Published 5 January 2016

Feminism, Age and Performance: Old Dears

Live Art Development Agency Co-Director Lois Keidan talks about feminist performance art, age, and the contexts and intersections that led to the curated programme of talks and events Old Dears at Chelsea Theatre this November.
Lois Keidan
Photo: Marcia Farquhar.

Photo: Marcia Farquhar.

Curated by the Live Art Development Agency (LADA) for Chelsea Theatre’s Sacred season, Old Dears was a two-day programme of performances, screenings and discussions, representing some of the radical, influential and fiercely feminist practices of an older generation of women artists who embody feminist histories and continue discourses around contemporary gender politics. As well as performances by Liz Aggiss, Marcia Farquhar, Penny Arcade, and a collaboration between Rocio Boliver and her group of women workshop participants, the programme featured screenings of work by Lois Weaver, Francis Mezetti & Pauline Cummins, Monica Ross and Bobby Baker, and a panel on feminist influences and influencers with the artists and producers Claire MacDonald, Liz Aggiss, Judith Knight, Geraldine Pilgrim, Nikki Milican, Lois Weaver and Anne Bean. That everyone on this list is over 50 years old is a fact of great significance that I’ll return to shortly.

Liz Aggiss’ The English Channel is her current touring work in which, representing the new lease of (artistic) life she has found post-retirement and post-sixty, she becomes an unwitting channel for wilful women and forgotten archives. On seeing the piece at Old Dears, the ‘mature’ scholar Geraldine Harris wrote in Drama Queens Review that “reviews for Aggiss’s The English Channel all dwell on the moment when, wearing a bronze sequined swim suit, she strikes a series of poses and carefully and slowly enunciating asks ‘Do I please you…… or do I please myself? Do I please you….. or do I please myself?’ Answering her own question by stating ‘Fuck it, I’m sixty I’m going to do what I want’. And she does -but it’s what I want too. In fact this is exactly the performance I would love to make at this point in my life, if that is, I had lived it as a live artist, dance performer and choreographer, with training in modernist expressionist dance and in ‘eccentric dance’ derived from Music Hall, a film maker, singer and (still) had long blonde hair to wallop about like a heavy metal rock star, and the courage to wear sequins (lots of sequins).”

Marcia Farquhar’s generous, witty and deeply moving performance for Old Dears, Recalibrating Hope: (h)old dear and let go, saw her playing the songs to which she danced and dreamed of becoming a woman back in sixties’ Chelsea from her collection of 7” singles – or as she put it “ listening back to look forward” – as she hammered out the words Give Up and Go On on a tin foil light box. Hope or despair? It’s a tough choice, especially for women of a certain age. Fresh from her sell out run of Longing Lasts Longer at Soho Theatre, New York legend Penny Arcade’s contribution to Old Dears was an improvised monologue, My Life as History, touching on, amongst many other things, the kinds of wisdoms, attitudes and ‘rights’ that are accrued with age.

Old Dears was part of Restock, Rethink, Reflect (RRR), a LADA initiative running since 2006 that aims to map and mark significant artists and practices that had been underrepresented and excluded from both official cultural histories, and the histories of Live Art, and to write them (back) into public awareness, whilst also investing in future generations through specialised resources and artistic development opportunities.

Previous iterations of RRR have been on Race (2006-08) and Disability (2009-11). RRR3 focused on Live Art and Feminism, and took place across 2013-15, exploring the impact of performance on feminist histories and particularly the work of artists who might otherwise be forgotten, or written out of, official cultural histories. The project has involved all kinds of collaborations with artists and generated publications, programmes, research and archival projects, and new resources including a collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute on an Open Gallery about Live Art and Feminism in the UK, in which the young feminist scholar Ellie Roberts describes the frame of our project as encompassing “a range of artists and works which may be identified as feminist, or as holding feminist possibilities – interrogating gender inequalities in society, advocating for the empowerment of women, and exploring issues related to identity, gender, sex and sexuality” and its aspiration to reflect the ways in which “a resurgence of interest in feminist issues is visible in, and informed by, the vibrant activities of women and feminists making Live Art. Their work challenges audiences and energises discussions of the body, and the contemporary politics of identity, gender, sex and sexuality.”

Another key resource RRR3 generated was the free print and online Study Guide Are We There YetThe Study Guide was created by the distinguished artist and feminist Lois Weaver and Ellie Roberts through a series of dialogue events, including coffee table discussions with artists, archivists and scholars, and open-to-all ‘Long Table’ discussions designed to share knowledge and shed new light on contemporary and historical feminist practitioners. We also invited a number of artists to create home-made maps representing their personal journey to or through Live Art and Feminism for the Guide, as a way of reflecting the multiplicity of voices involved in this project and in feminist discourse more widely. Claire MacDonald’s response to this invitation eventually led her to a new project, The Red Thread, in which she literally threaded together the written names of women who had made a difference in her life.

Inspired by Claire’s own mapping and marking, we used this approach to shape the Old Dears panel discussion, by asking panelists and audiences alike to explore the feminist threads that connect our lives and the significant encounters that have shaped us, and to join Claire in telling stories, recounting moments and stringing names along a red thread as a means to retrieve overlooked parts of the past, and to mark them in the present. The Red Thread created at Old Dears now lives on in LADA’s Study Room.

RRR3 was not just about older artists, but about artists of all ages, and we were particularly interested in encouraging intergenerational connections to reflect the awareness that a younger generation of artists are showing in the achievements and legacies of those who have gone before, and the engagement of an older generation with the artists who are following in their footsteps and keeping the flames alive. The first Long Table we held for the project, in collaboration with Lois Weaver in October 2013, was characterized by the presence of both first and fourth wave feminists, and these intergenerational dialogues continued with FemFresh, another collaboration with Lois at Queen Mary University of London in June 2014. FemFresh was a day of performances and dialogues featuring Fresh, an emerging artist platform and Art Tips For Girls, presentations on, about, and around feminism and age in Live Art by Oreet Ashery, Anne Bean, Bobby Baker, Tania El Khoury, and Marcia Farquhar.

But the question of age was a hugely significant element in RRR3, given both the challenges to visibility and representation facing older women, and that so much support for artists these days is aimed at ‘the emerging’, often at the expense of ‘the established’. The invisibility of older women in public life is an issue that regularly features in public discourse, but is rarely attended to in actuality as we continue to see, for example, more and more older female TV presenters replaced by younger versions. And the cultural sector is no better. At a recent event at the ICA as part of the Now You Can Go series on Feminist art, the gallerist Lisa Panting said that she is still being told (by male curators and collectors) that art by older women artists has little cultural or financial value. The number of women directors of major UK cultural organisations and institutions can probably still be counted on just two hands (with the exception of those organisations set up by women in the first place for precisely these reasons). The scholar Dominic Johnson is scathing about the lack of support for older artists within Live Art’s programmes, festivals and opportunities, and its considerably worse for older women artists than male ones. So the issue of age is important in relation to the diversity of our culture, and of increasing urgency as we see a generation of women artists who came of age in the early years of Live Art in the 1980s face a future of not just uncertainty but the fear of invisibility. And it’s an issue that increasingly concerns us at LADA.

An opportunity to privilege the issue of age and visibility for women artists came with an invitation from Camden People’s Theatre (CPT) to curate an event for their Calm Down Dear Festival of Feminism in 2014. As our contribution to a programme that was representing a younger generation of feminist practitioners, we presented a performance, A Bit Of Slap and Tickle, by Liz Aggiss and a screening of performance documentation and works to camera by older feminists. In keeping with CPT’s reclamation of the phrase Calm Down Dear (famously used in Parliament by David Cameron in a reference to an infamous Michael Winner insurance ad) the provocatively titled Old Dears was conceived as a tongue in cheek reclamation of derogative terms for women.

A year after the CPT event we were invited by Chelsea Theatre and Abrons Arts Center to present London and New York ‘editions’ of another RRR3 programme, Just Like A Woman. First presented for City for the Women Festival in Slovenia in October 2013, Just Like A Woman was about the performance of identity – the ways femininity can be ‘performed’ and representations of gender can be queered through performance, with women performing women, women performing men, men performing women, and artists who go beyond the limits of gender altogether. Given the increasing level of public discourse around gender fluidity in recent years and new understandings of the way Live Art is a space where identities can be constructed, performed and given agency, we were determined to revisit the Just Like A Woman programme and jumped at the opportunity to do so in the UK and US with contributions from some of the most radical and exciting artists working on both sides of the Atlantic including Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, Narcissister, George Chakravarthi, Dickie Beau, Lucy Hutson, Harold Offeh and The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein and many more.

We saw the Chelsea Theatre invitation as an opportunity to revisit Old Dears, and consequently LADA ended up bookending this year’s Sacred season – opening it with Just Like A Woman and closing it with Old Dears. 

At the same time as were developing an expanded Old Dears programme for Chelsea Theatre another opportunity to explore feminism and age arose through an European Union funded research project that we are a partner on, Collaborative Arts Partnership Programme (CAPP), which is researching collaborative practices within socially engaged contexts. The CAPP project made it possible for us to support a series of artist led workshops, and so we invited the fearless Mexican performance artist Rocio Boliver to conceive and run a workshop for older women artists within the context of Old Dears, with a focus on the possibilities of collaborative approaches and the ways in which working together might open up new possibilities for representations and understandings of some of the issues facing women artists, and particularly older women artists, including the ageing body, disempowerment, and invisibility.

Rocio described her workshop, Between Menopause and Old Age, Alternative Beauty, as “demystifying the horror of old age, inventing my own deranged aesthetic and moral solutions for the problem of age”. And it certainly did that. After a week of working together, Rocio and her ten workshop participants created a performance installation at Chelsea Theatre as the culminating event of Old Dears and of RRR3. To see a group of woman, all over 45 years old, making such stunning, profound, provocative, transgressive and radical works by using their bodies as their subject and site was a testament to the staying power of women in performance and a timely reminder that age shall not ‘wither her’.

Old Dears took place on the 27th and 28th November at Chelsea Theatre, curated by The Live Art Development Agency. For more information visit the Chelsea Theatre website

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