Features Published 27 October 2015

A Performance Map

Diana Damian Martin on this autumn's live art and performance highlights.
Diana Damian Martin
Teching Hsieh. One Year Performance 1981-1982 (Outdoors)
Teching Hsieh. One Year Performance 1981-1982 (Outdoors)

Last week, I attended a talk at Tate Modern about the secret history of performance in the gallery’s collection; starting from the work of Rebecca Horn, and the performativity of her body-sculptures, and ending with Picasso, we followed an ever-expanding notion of performance in the museum, moving from its documents through to its reconceptualisation. The argument went something like this: providing performance with a history in these institutional contexts becomes a much more engaging and possible curatorial and archival project if we consider it to be a viewing paradigm, as that which frames any experience of art. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but suffice to say, this is a very interesting proposition because it is so utterly flawed. Sure, performance interacts and intertwines with histories of art practices in numerous ways, and there is value in looking further to those points of intersection. But with performance occupying an increasingly visible presence in museums, theatres and institutions, as a practice as well as a term, this abstraction becomes a very contentious gesture. 

As Coco Fusco mentioned in her recent talk at Tate Modern at the launch of her book Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba, boundaries are always tied to ideologies. Fusco urged us to look beyond power as a force performed onto the oppressed, or as mode of limiting free speech through censorship; instead, she argued that contemporary politics are embedded with hidden forms of power, wrapped up in institutional mechanisms, tying emotion and identity into much larger projects (hello, Foucault).

Specificity is what enables resistance, argued Fusco. And in our case, specificity enables a very different view of performance – one less tied to paradigms of spectatorship, and more in line with a cultural landscape that sees performance emerging in all sorts of ways and iterations. Understanding the roots and legacies of different practices often means working outside of value judgments; culture is not a series of definitions, but a landscape of events and experiences that shape each other and wrestle with each other in a constant game of position-taking. Just look at, for example, Lois Keidan’s recent article for The Guardian in which the Co-Director of the Live Art Development Agency argues for the pervasive influence of live art over much mainstream culture, in relation to Hal Foster’s extract from his recent book Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, proposing that this appropriation of performance leads to problematic assumptions about art, its representation, experience and, most importantly, a discouragement of critical attention. Despite the different agendas at play here, what we’re noticing is an explicit intent to both demarcate and problematise territories, particularly in relation to neoliberalism and its incessant desire for commodifcation and valorisation.  Maybe we’ll change our mind during On and Off Stage: Performance and the Theatrical, taking place at Tate Modern and seeking to investigate shared methodologies between theatre and art practice, liveness and the gallery as narrative site. The contentions continue. 

This question of frames of visibility and representation is evident, for example, in the excellent documentation of performance artist Teching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1981-1982 (Outdoors)   on Live Art Development Agency’s Online Screens, a project which seeks to bring documentation of seminal performance works for public access for a limited time. To view Hsieh’s work as simply a framing of experience, as the Curator’s Tour at Tate proposed, would be reductive; what becomes so apparent in the experience of encountering the film are the ways in which this performance becomes more than the artist’s experience: an essay on the city’s relationship to space, a meditation on duration, an aestheticisation of the passage of time, a letter to Lower Manhattan, a testament to different time. Further screenings coming up are Robin Deacon’s Spectacle: A Portrait of Stuart Sherman (2013) in November, and Ron Athey’s Sebastiane (2015) in December. A launch event marks the beginning of each screening period.

Spill Festival of Performance opens this week with Karen Finley’s Written in Sand. The American performance artist might be best known for having her National Endowment for the Arts grant revoked in the 1990s following a Congressional passage of a decency clause, but her impressive oeuvre of work covers sexuality, illness and politics with impressive breadth. Expect visibility around body politics, AIDS and representation.

This year, Spill is curated around the theme of ‘On Spirit’, in which you can encounter Zierle & Carter’s trio of works examining dying, Ria Hartley exploring memory and hidden histories, Sarah Jane Norman probing the boundaries of memory and the paranormal, or Robin Deacon investigating how medium changes our recollection and interpretation of events. This festival also marks a National Theatre debut for artist Heather Cassils with Inextinguishable Fire, a live performance and film piece that looks at the impossibility of representing particular traumas or forms of violence. Moving beyond spectacle to question ideas of visibility, confrontation and empathy, Cassils’ work will surely resonate in powerful ways. You can also catch National Platform artists across the two weeks of the festival, as well as attend the Think Tank discussions peppered throughout (and, maybe, catch me wandering with my notepad, and a few other writers taking part in this year’s Spill Writing).

Following the London-wide Dance Umbrella Festival, Currency , the festival of interdisciplinary, experimental European work, takes over The Place early November, with work from Natalie Reckert, Inua Ellams and Pan Gottic, and you can catch some of these broadcast online as well. Cardiff sees the return of Experimentica , a week-long programme of performance and live art, including work from Tim Bromage, Aaron Williamson, Greg Wohead and Rachel Mars, Tim Etchells, Richard Bowers and Mike Pearson. We’re talking  an essay on Antonioni’s Blow Up, a reinterpretation of You Tube ‘how to’ videos, a performance written on walls and a durational reading of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. Live art delivers.

Chelsea Theatre returns with an excellent season of work, featuring Dickie Beau, David Hoyle, Madeleine Botet de Lacaze, Sylvia Rimat and Season Butler. The Live Art Development Agency guest curates the London edition of Just Like A Woman , a two day programme of debates, shows and performance work that explores identity, feminimity and the queering of gender in performance, following a succesful debut at City of Women Festival in Slovenia and, more recently, in New York.. Featuring work from The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, Lucille Power, Lois Weaver and Narcissister. For one night only, Split Britches  (Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, Deb Margolin) come to Chelsea for a medley on gender and sexuality, a kind of greatest hits for those who miss the eighties. And finally, Live Art Development Agency curates Old Dears, featuring performances and screenings from an older generation of icon female artists, including Liz Aggiss, Penny Arcade and Marcia Farquhar.

Elsewhere, Forced Entertainment return to Battersea Arts Centre with The Notebook, whilst Artistic Director Tim Etchells presents A Broadcast/Looping Pieces, remixing material from his notebook, toying with form and meaning, and Seeping Through with violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, an improvisation of text and music. Steakhouse Live return to Artsadmin with Tender Loin 3 , featuring Daniel Oliver, Mette Sterre, Angus & Rayshal and Edythe Woolley, and Electronic Voice Phenomena returns to Shoreditch Town Hall with a new set of artists, drawing on hauntology, glitch, performance and spoken word, with special guest SJ Fowler. And that’s just a cross-section.


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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