Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Live art: In here or out there?

From oil tanks to magic forests, Andy Field considers some of the unlikely homes offered to live art

October 25, 2012
6 min read

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase: four movements to the music of Steve Reich Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Tate Modern’s ‘the Tanks’ are a pair of vast cylindrical spaces buried beneath the surface of London’s South Bank. They are intended to be ‘the world’s first museum galleries permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art’. Currently only open until October, this industrial Batcave will become the Tate’s ‘permanent home’ for live art, a gesture that it hopes will foreground both its acknowledgement of the increasing role that performance is playing within the domain of the gallery and the value it places in such work.

There’s a lot that is brilliant in all of this, not least the arrival of a fascinating new space on London’s performance landscape. On my first visit the band Factory Floor is playing a reassuringly loud ambient set from the middle of the room, an ocean of noise moving back and forth on the pull of some invisible tide. Everything feels thrillingly vibrant; concrete, noise and bodies moving in the darkness. This is a venue that feels important; a place with enough gravity and scale to finally bury Ekow Eshun’s notoriously feeble assertion that live art ‘lacks cultural urgency’ under its many tons of concrete and steel.

However there is something in the way this project has been framed that doesn’t feel right; something about that phrase ‘permanent home’, which already sounds like a carefully chosen euphemism for incarceration. It’s interesting that Adrian Searle, writing in the Guardian, unconsciously associates the opening of the Tanks with the emergence of Marina Abramovic as a monumental international presence, chiselling out a space for performance art within the authorised canon of art history.

Both the Tanks and Abramovic’s numerous recent projects are quite explicitly engaged in the task of creating a legitimised space for live art. A ‘dedicated space’, as the Tate calls it. Yet I can’t help wonder if, perhaps unconsciously, this seeming generosity isn’t in part motivated by institutional anxiety and medial panic around performance’s error-strewn otherness, its slippery relationship to authorship and originality, its theatrical unreliability. As long as live art is in here, it is not out there.

Uncomfortable clothes

I think live art stands uncomfortably in such formal clothes. Recently Live Art UK, a network of organisations of which I am a small part, hosted a large event at the Battersea Arts Centre entitled ‘Waking Up in Someone Else’s Bed’ that brought together organisations and individuals associated with live art from across the UK. Perhaps the most striking thing about it was the number of times people attempted to distance themselves from the term ‘live art’, from Louise Jeffreys of the Barbican to Helen Marriage of Artichoke. I don’t find this particularly surprising given that a number of the organisations that make up Live Art UK are similarly reticent about labelling what they do. The assumption that live art is a coherent set of practices, or even a stable community of artists, is always fraught and problematic, loaded with generalisations that rightly make people feel uncomfortable.

For me, and I think for a lot of artists and other organisations in Live Art UK, live art is perhaps best understood not as a single discipline but instead a shared set of preoccupations that reoccur across a range of disciplines. I’ve always thought of live art less as the kind of label stitched in the back of a jumper, determining ownership and singularity, and more like the kind of label you add to a blog; non-exclusive, non-hierarchical, a way of drawing together many varied things that share something important in common.

Considered in those terms the idea of building a dedicated home for live art strikes me as the least interesting thing you could do for it. I don’t think live art needs the particular kind of legitimacy that the Tate and Marina Abramovic are trying to impose upon it. For me, live art thrives as a way of talking across disciplines; a means of drawing together disparate artists and even more disparate artworks around their shared fascination with bodies and liveness and time. I hope that live art might be a way of challenging those artists and challenging the assumption that art can ever function as a series of discrete disciplines.

I’m interested to see how the Tate chooses to navigate its way through the cat-herding process of defining and documenting this most elusive of genres. How can such an institution represent a set of disciplines so implicitly associated with resistance to the strictures of an institution?

Less than two weeks prior to the opening of the Tanks, the group Liberate Tate performed an audacious and beautiful piece of performance by reassembling the blade of a wind turbine in the cavernous turbine hall of the Tate Modern and presenting it as a gift to the organisation. Their purpose was to use the elusive, uncontainable spectacle of live performance to highlight the Tate’s ongoing and deeply problematic relationship with oil firm BP. The performance demonstrated not only the subversion that remains an integral part of live art but also the challenge faced by the Tate in attempting to reproduce such a quality when it remains bound to sponsors like BP.

It is telling that until very recently the Tanks were called ‘the Oil Tanks’. The quiet deletion of a word is not enough to delete the problem. This is a home in which some won’t be welcome and others won’t want to live.

Amidst the pine trees

Still thinking about a home for live art, I found myself in a forest near Gloucester, standing amidst the pine trees at In Between Time’s ‘Up to Nature’. I was moved and startled and filled with wonder. I heard people telling stories, I saw people cutting down and rebuilding trees, I saw dancers dancing silently as darkness settled around us like snow. I got my hair cut while I listened to the Troggs. I climbed a very tall tree. And drunk and lost at 3am in the morning I stumbled into a glade full of electronic fireflies.

Yet none of this work felt disparate. While all wildly different, these musicians, dancers, writers and performers felt like they shared a way of considering this landscape and our fraught relationship to it. A longing that was connected to bodies and time and how we live and how we might live better.

I wonder if that slightly elusive element they all shared might be something we could call live art. And I wonder if this might be the best kind of home for live art; undedicated, impermanent, belonging to other people or even belonging to no one. In fact, no real home at all.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Exeunt magazine

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun


4