Features EssaysPerformance Published 27 November 2012

The Performer in Live Art

Origins, traditions and the radical.

Laura Burns

How we conceive of originality is always a contested and sometimes avoided topic. It seems that we praise and look for the radical, especially in live art, whilst acknowledging that the individual performer is constantly in dialogue with influence and tradition, and the notion of anything being entirely ‘original’ is a fallacy. I am less interested in arguing about whether works are original or not, and more interested in questioning how our approach to originality is coloured by our cultural context, and how that in turn, influences our conception of the figure of the performer in live art.

At Spill Festival, the landscape was marked with traces of origins – director Robert Pacitti’s origins and return to Ipswich itself, Spill‘s commitment to supporting new work and originating conversations, and the works themselves that sought out new processes of meaning – making. ‘Originality’ as a forward movement, already seemed in dialogue with ‘origins’ and looking back, returning to the source. Some works recalled and were in dialogue with an ancestry of live art, whilst questions of originality arose in the Spill Think Tank sessions. Namely originality was discussed in terms of live art’s intention to create new ways of challenging boundaries and audience – artist relationships.

I felt as though many of the works did this by using the body as a site for processes and a landscape for politics. Pieces such as Ruth Flynn’s Diary broke expectations and barriers to the audience set up by the artist herself, through the volatile eruption of her body and language. Artists such as Bean, Nicola Canavan and Elena Molinaro used the body as material, confronting audiences with the visceral, live act of performance. These performances seem to fulfil live art’s intention to confront and subvert traditional roles of artist or performer; in doing so, the performers themselves seem to become the site of originality, perhaps producers of originality. I can’t help wondering what the political and cultural implications of this might be, especially when it seems in conflict with the sense that ‘to originate’ is to go back to the source, to the starting point, to reveal what is already there.

So what happens when traditional cultural roles are adopted within this context? Tim Bromage’s Untitled blended poetry, magic and folklore. As he took on a series of roles that re-established traditional artist personas, he challenged what may have become a conventional way of thinking about what is challenging, and what is original. Bromage opened his performance standing at a microphone, reciting a poem underneath a single spotlight. He then performed a series of magic tricks, before singing a folksong about a seamstress who sewed up her husband so that he wouldn’t beat her. He went on to methodically stick strips of blue gaffa tape to his face, leaving only his mouth and eyes uncovered. He finished the set with another spoken word extract, again standing at the microphone.

The performance seemed to defy live art’s notion of newness, of pushing boundaries of performance. In the context of a contemporary festival of performance, in which narrative was often broken and fragmented, history upturned and questioned, bodies left bleeding and static noise buzzing, a performance of romantic poetry, magic and an unaltered folksong was one of the most radical things I’d seen all week. Is the potential for a work to challenge, more about context than it is about originality? Or was there some dynamic that Bromage was tapping into, that subverted notions of ownership and thereby presented new ways of conceiving of originality?

The language of Bromage’s material – narrative, traditional, familiar – against a wider live art tradition that often breaks apart that language, and against the framework of his own performance, made his actions politically and aesthetically charged. To me they spoke of the position of the artist or performer themselves, and the political implications of the performance of folklore. Bromage stepped into traditional roles of the poet, magician and folksinger/teller, all of which rely on craftsmanship and speak of an era in which art was craft, and craft was often anonymous. Framed within performance art which prioritises intention, immediacy, concept and process over craft or product, Bromage seemed to be breaking the rule of live art to break rules! If these cultural figures were not anonymous, they were often carriers of tradition rather than producers of original works.

Epic poems often arose from oral storytelling culture, in which ownership and authorship were negated; similarly folk culture and the passing on of folktales generates a dynamic whereby the song or story is more important than the performer of it. A magician’s craft is about the magic; whilst the magician’s persona is often a charismatic one, it doesn’t get in the way of the magic. Likewise the storyteller doesn’t get in the way of a good story. In a sense, these traditional figures from an ancestry of art, folklore, entertainment and culture, were vessels through which the material would be passed.

The implications of a lack of ownership are inherently political, pointing towards the communal culture of collective meaning-making processes, rather than the production of art from an independent or ‘original’ individual. When the latter is often praised on accounts of pushing boundaries in new ways, perhaps the act of stepping out of the way of that which is being carried through, is radical in the context of Western society’s emphasis on the individual rather than the collective.

In contrast, the confrontation of the performer’s body in live art as the site of processes and production of meaning, situates the performer themselves in the centre of the artwork, more a stone in the river, than a channel for the water. Not that the subject of the artist obstructs the art, but often bodies become written on, dwelt in, part of the processes of breaking open these familiar roles. In works such as Elena Molinaro’s, the performer’s body becomes material and landscape for challenging politics of ownership over bodies. In doing so, the ‘I’ and the figure of the performer becomes the site and reason for politics of self and identity to play out. Power structures are confronted and revealed, with the performer remaining central to the challenged stereotype or politic.

Bromage uses and juxtaposes both dynamics within the framework of his piece. Singing the folksong he becomes an anonymous carrier of tradition; masked in tape, he is both anonymous and ritualistic, recalling and performing the anonymity of his act, whilst simultaneously making his body the site of this process. He combines the role of the artist in live art as embedded in the process of his meaning-making, whilst embodying the traditional role of a carrier of culture and tradition. One claims presence and reveals ownership politics, the other claims anonymity and collective cultural processes. The meeting of the two seems like a fearless rejection of pursuing originality, one that is, paradoxically, original.

The word ‘original’ stems from oriri, meaning ‘to rise, become visible, appear’. To make something appear, is to already have the thing exist. To be radical, is to return or come from the fundamental, the root or origin. This spiralling movement backwards and simultaneously forwards over time, finds originality occurring through ways of revealing, where the artist or individual cannot always claim authorship over that which is being revealed. These ways of revealing and returning are radical when framed in such a way as to reveal something not only about themselves but about our ways of reading.

Take John Jordan’s Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army: the traditional role of the clown, like the joker or trickster, is often to stir things up, to upturn notions of morality. Yet in certain contexts this figure is comfortable as well as provocative and revealing. As a complicit audience, we know how to laugh – or cry – at the clown; that is not to say he/she is not a complex character, but often the archetype is established in terms that the audience can predict and respond to accordingly. However, in the context and language of protest, and against a not immediately complicit audience – the police – the figure of the clown becomes unreadable, and therefore a politically potent and radical figure, shedding light on and changing the rules of the game. The traditional role of clown as trickster is reclaimed and re-triggered. Likewise, the folksong Bromage sings tells of a seamstress who sews up her husband in order to teach him a lesson about beating her. This in fact enables her to beat him. The act of sewing in one context is domestic and contained, yet within this context the act is used to subvert power structures and gender politics.

It seems appropriate therefore, to recall traditions in which the purpose of art and story was to carry meaning, with the performer being the carrier, not the producer, nor the sole holder of meaning. The travelling poet or bard, magician and storyteller literally carries their craft over physical distance, as well as carrying the story or song into being. To use traditional material is also to pay homage to craftsmanship, whilst at the same time acknowledging an oral culture which could be said to be in direct dialogue with the actions of live art that seek to bring processes back to the live and immersive present. The purpose of orality, be it through magic, poetry, storytelling or singing, is to journey collectively through an event, to be co-creators in bringing what is already there, into being. It is inherently performative, and perhaps a direct ancestor of live performance.

In turning away from a cultivation of product or object, has live art made the performer themselves the product of the performance? I mean this in terms of the performer’s concept, the performer’s idea, the performer’s originality. Is this what we are looking for when we watch live art? When the unaltered singing of a folksong strikes me as radical because it is clearly a recitation of material not originating from the artist themselves, this question naturally arises. Whilst live art attempts to reclaim processes over product or object of production, are these performances of process themselves becoming art objects? I don’t think yes is necessarily the answer to these questions, but I believe they are worth asking, and works such as Bromage’s Untitled are integral to their questioning. The place of folklore as material within these contexts seems an apt choice for performance and art that seeks to dismantle power structures and challenge elitism. The dialogic nature of Bromage’s piece through the proliferation of voices he adopted, spoke also of a plurality and a history bigger than that of the individual.

Perhaps in a quest for finding new ways of challenging artist – audience relationships, ways of seeing that are illuminated in archetypal roles of artists, craftspeople and folk carriers, are being forgotten. What is original may already be, and newness and originality don’t always go hand-in-hand. If we conceive of originality in terms of revealing that which is already there, perhaps we will be inclined to revisit the origins of performance, and shed light on ways of seeing that challenge our conception of what is new, original and challenging. From a context of live art that seeks to push boundaries by reclaiming process, and subverting politics of power and ownership, the stage seems set for these two traditions to be in more dialogue.




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