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

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