Features Diana's ColumnDiana's Month AheadPerformance Published 21 December 2012

Performance Map: December as Retrospective

Looking back to look forward.

Diana Damian Martin

This month, the act of looking forward is momentarily suspended for that of looking back; perhaps Eric Hobsbawn’s death had made our commitment to cultural history a bit more fragile. It’s hard to tell. But one thing is for sure: in a year dominated by a dizzying financial and infrastructural dynamism, in a year in which the Olympic Opening Ceremony is closely followed by 100% funding cuts in Newcastle, there’s something to be said about the flippancy and fluidity of the cultural landscape, its economic and social embeddedness. It feels like a year in which performance and politics are both visible and entirely subsumed; it reminds me of Zygmut Bauman’s portrait of the politics and cultural shift from a solid to a liquid phase of modernity (though some would challenge that vocabulary)- of contemporary culture as signaled by the fast movement of formations that “decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them”. Skepticism aside, it’s hard to throw away the thick velvet curtain that has seen this powerful, confusing and problematic cultural shift of 2012.

There are three significant shifts which I want to briefly encounter- the strategy and site of the festival as a home for performance, the political in performance and the shape of critical practice; partly, because of their immediate presence in last year’s Performance Picks, and the significant rupture that has occurred just over one year; and partly, because I’m wrestling with any certainty in their deliberation.

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The festival; a likely host for performance, a strategy to resist institutionalization and constitute encounters that can reclaim some gestures that signal the lack of boundaries between an enacted moment and an authentic one. Festivals that, last year, dominated as performance’s most likely and friendly host. And it’s not as if this hasn’t been the case this year. In fact, the return of Spill Festival to Ipswich  Robert Pacitti’s home town, is a significant political gesture that posits towards the ways in which live art might be displaced and constituted outside of its central and likely site, London. With the arrival of the National Platform at Spill, and the deliberate strategies deployed for opening up this encounter, the centre was indeed displaced. What I found most notable was the intersection of the civic, the artistic and the participatory in the location of the Live Art Study Cafe and Lois Keidan’s sharp and generous definition of Live Art on the walls of Ipswich’s Town Hall. Amongst this collision of work that saw Forced Entertainment play with the direction and scope of narrative and the problem of ancitipation in The Coming Storm alongisde new work from Empress Stah, works with particularly potent political identities emerged: Lucy Hutson’s feminist film, If you Want Bigger Yorkshire Puddings your Need a Bigger Tin, Rosanna Cade’s engagement with identity prejudice, Walking:Holding, Grace Schwindt’s impressively sharp film Tenant, dealing with the remains of historical legacies and personal family politics in a warp of post Marxist rhetoric and complex visual tableaux and Tonya McMullan’s Criteria for Failure, a material engagement with the concept of failure.

Likewise, In Between Time’s brilliant Up to Nature saw works relocated in a more natural setting- the forest; collective dinners, walks, one on one encounters formed potent strategies that emphasized the power of community and the engulfing rhythms, nuances and narratives that emerge at the collision between nature and art, posing the question on what we consider to be a  natural home for performance.  From Nic Green’s beautiful and evocative portrait and ritual stemming from a year of Scottish isolation, Slowlo, taking place in the intimacy of a domed tent in the midst of the forest, to the eeriness and potency of another ritualistic process of recall in the darkness of the forest at nightime, Fiksdal/Langgard/Becker’s Night Tripper, Up to Nature brought together the potency of processes of recall and the natural intimacy of the landscape.

 

Within the same lineage a mention goes to Fierce Festival, which takes it cue from its locality, seeking not only to engage with Birmingham as a wider cultural site but also consider what might be the shape and praxis of contemporary culture, and how might curation respond to those challenges of collision and locality. This year saw Mette Edvardsen encounter with a living book in Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine, Uninvited Guests’s brilliant political critique and social game of rehabilitation, Make Better Please and Ron Athey’s experiment in writing, Gifts for the Spirit: Automatic Writing. Similarly, Chelsea Theatre’s Sacred Festival has now upgraded to a whole season of work, examining not only body politics but also engaging with formal questioning of the landscape of contemporary live art, with works such as Michael Pinchbeck’s The Beginning, Dominic Johnson’s conceptual and physical examination of the act of tattooing, its iconographic and associations in Departure: An Experiment in Human Salvage and Gerard Bell and Karen Christopher’s duet, So Below, as well as a collaboration with BAC for Tim Etchells’ evocative linguistic experiment, Sight is the Sense That Dying People Tend to Lose First.

 

Yet at the same time, the festival has also become a normative practice, appropriated institutionally and, within this framework, posing a question to the scope and nature of a festival as cultural infrastructure. Particularly within the remit of this year’s Olympic cultural feasts that brought some excellent works under the same roof, from Robert Wilson’s landscape journey, Walking to Pina Bausch’s World Cities 2012, the notion of the festival has been somewhat irrevocably displaced; its significant and practices appropriated. Of course in some ways, and in the particularity of this year, these modes of presentation with their long standing cultural capital and a potential sustainable infrastructure have allowed the presence of works such as Elevator Repair Service’s excellent literary experiment, Gatz in the West End as part of LIFT, or Marthaler’s sharp linguistic laboratory that challenges the notion of linguistic ownership and stability of meaning, Meine Faire Dame at Edinburgh International Festival. Likewise, the arrival of Wooster Group and Royal Shakespeare’s Company’s much disputed Troilus and Cressida alongside Back to Back’s intriguing postmodern portrait, Ganesh vs The Third Reich, posit a question on what we consider to be political in performance, and under what conditions can this politics emerge. It’s not incidental that the news of the joint commission from some of the UK’s most important platforms for fresh, new and experimental work, Pulse, Sprint and Mayfest, awarded to the young company whose work has rocketed this year, Made in China, is both an interesting proposal and a notion of concern, displacing the potential for independent platforms that can support a range of artists. Thinking about the power of festivals as those gatherings that are immutably identified through loud curatorial gestures, that do not contend to the same spatial and social politics, that can offer an experiences which erases boundaries and constitutes new forms, are also becoming normative (sub question: is Edinburgh theatre’s Documenta?).

 

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Outside of these frameworks, be they institutional or independent, or perhaps navigating both landscapes, some intriguing, potent, political work has dominated  performance, constituting those dialogues that have dominated conversations and columns; here I recall the premiere of Elfriede Jenlinek’s Sports Play as a potent commentary on the commodification of the body and the politics of sport in a UK tour, Simon Stephen’s Three Kingdoms, directed by Sebastian Nubling at the Lyric Hammersmith, a highly powerful postdramatic portrait of Europe appropriating the cinematic in the noir genre and considering sex trafficking as one its characters, as well as Phyllida Lloyd’s recent all female Julius Caesar at the Donmar and Bendict Andrews’ sharp adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Young Vic earlier in the year. I’d also go back to the beginning of the year, when Ontroerend Goed’s show about the politics of the collective and the problematics of revolutions, Audience, stirred controversy in its engagement with the paradigms of spectatorship and its highly controlled conflation of the subject matter with the form. DV8’s show Can We Talk About This?, contesting issues of free speech and multiculturalism through a discussion of Islam and its political fervencies, was an intriguing and significant moment of conflict that favorited questions of responsibility and duty ahead of ethical concerns. Likewise, Dash Arts’ public programme of work by disabled artists in the Olympic town of Much Wenlock, From the Medieval to the 21st Century, sought to make visible the diversity of this field of work as well as subvert and play with its expectations. And in a similar vein, Martin O’Brien’s Regimes of Hardship sought to reclaim the language of illness and investigate its politics.

 

Perhaps the question of politics seems relevant not solely because of its centrality within a year that saw a particuarly and overly political cultural engagement, but also because, rather uniquely, the question of site, context and responsibility became visible. In particular, I’m thinking of the problematics and significance of the opening of Tate Modern’s extension, Tate Tanks, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. Similarly, 2012 saw a particularly public engagement with performance art, with exhibitions such as Hayward Gallery’s show on invisible art, Art About the Unseen and Art of Change:New Directions from China, and, most recently, Tate Modern’s A Bigger Splash! Painting After Performance; and what this posits is not only a problematic engagement with a canon of live art that has dominated narratives of art history without paying particular recourse to its socio-political context,  or its consideration of theatrical paradigms (take Tino Sehgal’s Unilever Commission, These Associations, which made particular, situated reference to questions of relationality, participation and museology) but also a proliferation of misinformed articles providing  a certain era of performance art with an urgent political nuance which it doesn’t hold in that particular configuration (though I’m not disputing the importance and value of these exhibitions, merely their strategies). Apparently, this was the year when performance art was booming; when Marina Abramovic opened her performance laboratory, when Tate Tanks capitalised on participation as an essential element of performance contemporary rather than historicized, when sociality dominated the engagement between the gallery and the live event.

 

Of course, it’s undeniable that this public presence has shifted, maybe even polarised the infrastructure of the live art world; that it has given it a particular, almost aesthetic presence and cast it in an institutional glow. In this process however, there are bigger questions that have surfaced, problematic constitutions of canons of work, a lack of discourse from these institutions with the major cultural operators within the sector as well as a certain depoliticisation of performance (as I have argued in my review of Hayward Gallery’s Art of Change )

 

This canonisation of work is not devoid of its own politics, and it’s no coincidence that Claire Bishop’s critique of appropriations of participation and social practice within discourses on contemporary art, Artificial Hells, came out at the same year as the Tanks opened. The programming for the Tanks wasn’t entirely disputable; it saw an excellent re-performance of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase and an evocative, timely and potent new commission dealing with issues of cultural and personal memory from Sung Hwan Kim. However alongside this was an undefined engagement with the document of the live event (take Suzanne Lacy’s presence) and a lack of a wider contexutalisation of the history of the works on display; the radical and social narratives which the opening of the Tanks saw to engage with were simply absent, downplayed by the authorship of the site itself and the uneven mix of work. Likewise, in Tate Modern’s recent show A Bigger Splash!, despite a bringing together of an impressive range of work from painting and performance, seems to not qualify a distinction between document and encounter, between action and performance.

 

What becomes of the politics of the performance act when it is neutralised, located without its constituent requirements? What happens when a field of practice that positions itself peripherally becomes central, yet reconstituted?


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In light of that, I want to spend a bit of time thinking about those small gestures that resonated rather loudly; whose impact might linger in the fog of a post-Olympic landscape whom some fear is going to resemble a Baudrillardian desert rather than a road paved by rich legacies and infrastructures. And without the facts to hand, I’ll resolve with a proposition for deliberate cultural ambiguity; after all, it might just be a strategy for subversion in these liquid times.

Performance Space‘s programme of summer residencies as well as its monthy performance salons saw work from a diversity of international artists, providing a much needed home to the experimental. Likewise, LUPA’s (Lock Up Performance Month, an initiative curated by Aaron Williamson, Jordan McKenzie, Kate Mahony and Rachel Dowle) ongoing monthly showcase of work, that has seen an impressive array of both established and emerging artists, from Kira O’Reilly and Richard De Domenici through to Verity Whiter and Kirsten Norrie, taking place in a garage behind a Bethnal Green estate, has provided an excellent, nomadic and playful platform for work with an impressive sustainability. Drunken Nights, an initiative by company Drunken Chorus that showcases a range of work from young artists in pubs and similar spaces throughout London, following some of those pieces through as part of a mentorship scheme with artists such as Cathy Naden and Franko B, is a particularly good example of the ways in which nomadic platforms can present and constitute new work. Likewise, Show Time, an artist led project engaging with a range of new work at various venues (this year at Rich Mix) presented work from Shunt’s Mischa Twitchin, Augusto Corrieri, Rachel  Mars, to name but a few, as well as a writing project from Open Dialogues, Nota. Last but not least, Forest Fringe’s residency at the Gate brought together a death metal political rhapsody, storytelling from Alexander Kelly, poetic work from Ira Brand and Melanie Wilson in a two week programme curated by artists Chris Thorpe and, respectively, Dan Canham.

This was also the year when Sasha Waltz took centre stage at Sadler’s Wells in a reworking of previous pieces, Continu, the year in which Franko B presented his poetic, playful and theatrical examination of memory, Because of Love, Fleur Elise brought her visual play in 2Dimensional Life of Her as part of the London International Mime Festival and Shunt presented their major work since Money, The Architects, an engagingly mythological portrait of social structures and deception. Likewise, BAC tread new ground in rethinking the form and scope of the family show with Uninvited Guest’s The Good Neighbour and in a long line of re-enactments following on from Waltz came Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican, probing the cultural ethics of such historical engagements.

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Lastly, I want to end with criticism; criticism in its particular manifestations this year, in its urgency given the problematic force of institutions and funding bodies and their impact on infrastructure and constitutions of value. What’s certain is that alongside a debatable yet palpable diversification of critical practice, public discourse and open access conversation have come to dominate the realms of performance practice, be it in the Spill Salons and the activities of its Think Tanks, Bush Theatre’s Platform sessions as part of RADAR 2012 or in the public-facing research projects such as Performance Matters, which concluded this year with Potentials of Performance and Performing Documents, still in full swing. Likewise, projects such as the wonderful series of podcasts and live talks, Chris Goode & Co’s Thompson’s Live, and the development of Dialogue from Maddy Costa and Jake Orr have shown that there are ways in which the discursive and paralleling practices of academia might proliferate and be reimagined for a more public and open cultural sphere.

2012 is a significant year for critical practice, not solely in the UK but abroad too- take, for example, the closure of Alison Croggon’s excellent blog or the significance of Culturebot’s Citizen Critic Project (and their impressive collection of essays engaging with significant issues in performance at the cross road of theatrical and visual art paradigms), the playful interventions from Mary Paterson and Open-Dialogues at Show Time this year,  and the ongoing development of publications such as Divadlo and Theater Heute in Europe. This significance doesn’t solely come from multiplicity; it emerges out of a wider engagement with criticism not solely as a commercial or professional endeavor  but also, as I’ve said elsewhere, as a critical gesture that holds the potential to reconfigure. Because in a culture in which the commercial imperative and the need for immediacy and sudden, flippant curatorial gestures that filter through the rubble dominate, but also one in which discourse is appropriated and materialised in a range of sites and context, criticism is looking for its plural character; its identity as a cultural strategy that can help make discourse visible, reconstitute the fabric of culture, its production and reception.

I think the relationship between discourse and criticism is a dense and challenging landscape of contradictory narratives that are, in more ways that one, as effervescent as their formation. Questions of the sociality of critical practice and its relationship to performance and theatre culture, however, are less ominous; and if we’ve overcome the fear of the endless factionalisation that the internet was deemed to bring, and the commercialisation of criticality which late capitalism has constituted, then we’re still unsure how to tackle those nagging and central question of criticism: scope, audience, form. Sometimes, we’re guilty of assumed that we are a transparent, mediative force- between audiences real and imagined, culture and society. I think what this diversification is doing, despite its problematic sustainablity and constant reconstitution, is makes visible the assumption that these two fields of practice are separate entities that occasionally meet for tea; when in actual fact, their inteconectedness is very much present within a range of practices which are inherently central to critical practice, from the hosted discussion to the critical intervention (see, for example, the numerous playful critical interactions at art giants such as documenta in Kassel this year).

An infrastructure is emerging, connecting seemingly disparate elements together, from the body of work of a critic to the Live Art Development Agency’s Study Room Gatherings; from the collective critique inherent in a small cultural gesture- take, for example, Forest Fringe’s beautiful publication Paper Stages– to the politics of a debate- take the discussion on the presence and representation of women in Simon Stephen’s Three Kindgdoms. This is not to say that each inhabits this site in the same way; merely that together, there’s a collective constitution of a field of practice.

Something has shifted; I look forward to seeing its effects.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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