Convener(s): Richard Kingdom 

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

I wasn’t sure what exactly we were coming together to discuss but that there was certainly something that I was interested in finding out… 

Initially the discussion was caught up on defining Live Art and performance art

Live Art:

  • ‘Doesn’t have to give a fuck about the audience’ or rather that the audience are located differently within the work than they are in theatre. There aren’t the traditional concerns of entertainment.
  • It’s a black hole of a genre in that it is broad enough to encompass whatever a Live Artist says it is. As a result, anything goes. 

Things shifted from this to consider what happens when Live Art comes to the theatre, the impact that this has on the work and whether this can compromise the integrity of the work or be uncomplimentary to the artist’s concerns.

A theme was then touched upon that re-emerged strongly later on: the assimilation of performance art by theatre practice, how both practices change through the influence of the other and the shared concerns of both.  In order to contextualise the changing concerns of performance art and to predict the direction in which it is likely to progress, a brief history of the art forms development was offered (apologies for inaccuracies):

1950s – American happenings

1960s – Bauhaus performances, Black Mountain College

1967-70s – Visual artists move towards using themselves as the subjects of their work in a reaction against the commodity-oriented commercialism of contemporary art by staging performances outside of gallery spaces.  Aiming to communicate more directly, artists began working with communities (giving rise to Community Art which proved limiting for visual artists due to its stultifying effect on artistic growth and this in turn created a new job of ‘art worker’).  This artistic movement (which was as much a political and cultural protest as anything else) also had a relationship with fringe theatre being made at the same time.

The influence of performance work by composers such as John Cage was also sited as an important influence.

Currently performance art is becoming an established form through the recording of its history, the improved means of documentation, its economic sustainability and self-sufficiency and the teaching of performance art at universities and colleges and the critical discourse that this brings to performance art (something that seems ridiculous to those involved in the movement’s inception).  As a result, performance art is moving back into galleries and developing a political infrastructure with lobbying groups, funding agencies and an arts council department.

Performance art, it was suggested, has a lot to teach theatre; as a comparatively new art form, it has a fresh perspective and a liberating approach to artistic and formal freedom.  This is a large part of its attraction to artists.  Part and parcel of this is its ability to fulfil a desire to get back to the rudiments (recalling the Bauhaus’s concern with simplification and abstraction).

A suggested trend was a movement towards more calculated, theatrical work as result of the futility of protest which had been a primary concern.  Current work that was concerned with protest was seen as failing in its aims.

The discussion then addressed what performance art had to offer theatre.  Chris Burden’s ‘Shoot’ (apologies if that’s inaccurate) was identified as a key performance and its concern with reality and the description of the audience as ‘witness’.  This seemed more akin to ritual than theatre.

Theatre practitioners who also embraced this concern for real were discussed.  Pina Bausch’s visceral dance work and the ever-complicated performance environments of the Wooster Group came up.  A comparison was offered with Franko B’s use of theatrical affects such as lighting and sound but again the ‘real’ impact of his work: ‘It was the closest thing I’ve seen to a bullfight’.

A debate then began about the difference/similarities between actors and performers and the benefits of an exchange of ideas between the discourses.  The ultimate need of a performer to have ‘presence’ and the different approaches to this, from the intense training to the laissez faire ‘just turn up and do it’ approach.  Presence is what’s need for the performance to ‘encounter’ its audience, waking them up.  20th century theories of acting have been attempting to achieve reality as much as performance artists and with as much success.

A really interesting discussion then got going about how the performer effects the performance or the performance effects the performer, the place of mystery within the outcomes of the performance and the necessity of the performer to do the work.  For an actor it is necessary to perform and the ritual includes warm up, pre-show preparations etc to the drink in the bar after the show.  For the performance artist, it is necessary to complete the performance that they are doing and the ritual is the whole thing.  This is pretty sweeping but illuminating nevertheless.  And also that the personality selects the craft and that actors and artists have almost opposite relationships/regard for their audience.  There’s something important in that I think…


Couple of other nice things that came up:

It was said that in the Wooster Group’s work, the performers were as much on the edge of their seats as the audience!

“All art is sculture” Joseph Beuys