'All the same' - Where is the new avant-garde?

Daniel Pitt, 3 October 2012

This question was born out of a frustration with seeing performance that is similar to itself. In traditional theatre in the UK, there is only slow innovation whereas in the more experimental and ‘live art’ sectors, where innovation and boundary pushing should be rife, there are trends that are widespread and sometimes even dull.

This conversation began prior to its scheduled slot with a chat (with Ruth) which suggested that the most exciting space programming/commissioning performance that could be considered the new avant-garde is the Tate Tanks, at Tate Modern. The eclectic opening programme spanned ‘art forms’ and by do so, effectively disregards labels, which can be limiting. We were agreed that looking at looking in places and organisations that don't consider themselves to be making ‘theatre’, could be where real innovations were. In particular video gaming, which was again mentioned later in the scheduled conversation.

We established that trends in live art included solo performance, storytelling, autobiography, and questioned why the artists creating these performances chose to position themselves in a live art community, and whether they were really sometimes making contemporary theatre. But again, we decided that the labels were not helpful.

One person suggested that live art came from a DIY ethos, and the financial restrictions attached to it have become limiting factors.

It was suggested (by Zoe) that there was too much rhetoric surrounding newness, without a sense of not really being new. Some shows are marketed as being new and innovative when they are not and it highlights a lack of knowledge.

It was suggested that geographically, for Cambridge, visual arts is a priority, and that certain cities have their own specific output: Norwich being literature, Live Art in Colchester, due to established support, through Escalator programmes for example.

It was suggested, this time by Laura, that computer games may be where the new avant-garde could be found, but the designers working on their own projects do not consider what they are making to be art. Innovative projects are being made for fun and they could easily be considered ‘art’ if framed in the right contexts.

It was suggested that traditionally, the avant-garde has always lived off other incomes (as separate from one's art), and with funding etc, the avant-garde artists are the ones who are not making a living from their art. A desire not to be funded comes from the outsider, DIY ethos that we had already discussed. As a working artist, there is a balance needed between risk and being ‘professional’.

Zoe talked of a friend's company, based in China, who are of course not funded because they are a ‘theatre of resistance’. They do not want to live off the state. Having been separated from Western progressions in aesthetics etc, the work they make looks dated, but they are working outside the sanctioned systems. They are ‘not illegal, but don’t have permission'.

In technology, there is little pride in being paid for one's new work: it is often the honour of going viral, or the praise of the community that is more important, because the commercial industry supports its staff better financially.

We continued meandering into the democratisation of film and publishing, referencing fan fiction.

We discussed categories of art forms, particuarlly for funding. This conversation was centred around performance poetry and the theatrical, innovative side of the form. It was noted that Innua Ellams was funded by the ACE literature department and viewed as hugely innovative in that area, whereas the theatre community may claim his work as in their sector which makes it look more traditional. Ross Sutherland's experiments with form were also praised. Simple ideas in one sector are viewed as the extreme end of innovation in another.

The Junction's position in the community was raised, and whether the avant-garde was what people wanted. It was agreed that audiences (including new audience) do want innovation, experimentation and new experiences, but the marketing has to be accessible. It must not come across as niche or aloof.

The assembled group changed at this point. Marcelo asked the younger group whether the world was running out of new ideas? We discussed the ‘golden ages’ of being able to do things that were ‘new’, such as the early 20th century Modernists. It was argued that nothing is new. It was then commented that the conversation had been based solely on the Western artistic history and that fusions of world cultures and knowledges are where interesting creation could be. People need to mix more, to cross pollinate more.

My notes end with final phrase: SHAKE THE FOUNDATIONS.