As part of the Marked spring season the Arnolfini in Bristol in association with the Live Art Development Agency held a one-day symposium to delve deeper into the processes, practices and representation of radical art from the 1960s to today. The symposium, which took place on the 16th of March, served as a way of contextualising and bringing together the artists whose work with the body as site, metaphor and material was presented during Marked. Most central to the season and the symposium was the exhibition of French artist Gina Pane’s installations, photographs and video documentaries of Pane’s live performances or Actions in which she used her own body as material and cultural signifier. Also included in the season was a series of new commissions of live art by British-based artists Doran George, Jordan McKenzie and Kira O’Reilley, all of whom attended the symposium.
Concentrating on ‘the body in performance’ the symposium consisted of two keynote papers and two sets of panel discussions.
Patrick Campbell, founder of Middlesex University’s MA in Performing Arts, had been set the almost impossible task of creating a 45-minute overview of live art from the 1960s until today, but he succeeded in mapping some clear connections between artistic concerns across Europe and the US and also in explaining artists’ continuing exploration of the possibilities of the human body. In questioning why artists use the body Campbell noted how words tend to close down meanings whereas the body remains a fluid signifier.
His survey was followed by Guggenheim curator Jennifer Blessing’s more specific paper in which she argued that Gina Pane employed reproductive technologies such as photography and video in her live performance pieces for several reasons. The series of photographs from the performance piece Escalade non-anesthésiée (1971) which were displayed at the Arnolfini both documents the piece for posterity but also clearly emphasizes the durational aspect of the work in a way a single photograph could not have. Furthermore, as it transpires from the video recordings, Pane worked deliberately with the camera as an integral part of the performance, playing with conventional notions of the who is looking at who.
The main issue of the symposium’s presentations and discussions - probably sparked by the similar use of video documentation in the work of both Pane and O’Reilly whose work was screened during her presentation - was the question of how one archives the live body in performance. Does the body necessarily become sanitized when it is archived? It depends on the way in which it is archived. There seemed to be a general agreement among the panelists that video documentation of a live performance offers the artist a second audience (the first audience being those who attend the live event) and that the experience of the performance is no less valid and can be just as thrilling if it involves watching the work on video 20 years after the event.
The views were heavily informed by the theories of performance studies scholar Peggy Phelan from whose seminal work Unmarked (Routledge, 1993) both artists and curators were keen to quote. In her investigation of the relationship between the live event and its documentation, Phelan famously states that “performance's only life is in the present” (146) - because a performance disappears at the moment of its execution it immediately becomes something other than a performance – its ontology is changed.
What the discussion could perhaps have delved into more thoroughly were the possibilities offered by the different forms of documentation of the live event. Video recordings are not less stifling than still photography or written representation simply because of the durational nature of the medium. When the documenting photographs serve as a piece of work in themselves as in Escalade non-anesthésiée, the performative aspect of the documentation is heightened. Likewise, writing as envisioned by Phelan can be “performative” when it stops working in purely descriptive terms. Setting a marvellous example with her own style of writing Phelan urges us to employ performatives and non-hierarchical associations in our documentation of the live, thus creating new events rather than attempting to recapture and re-present that which has always already disappeared. An example was presented by Andrew Quick, another panelist, who was commissioned by the Arnolfini to co-edit Shattered Anatomies, an alternative artist’s book which succeeded in being both documentational and performative. An additional interesting layer to the discussion could have been added by drawing on Philip Auslander’s Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (Routledge, 1999) which offers a critique of Phelan’s observations of the ontology of live performance would have offered. Auslander argues against Phelan’s privileging of the live over the mediatised/recorded performance – he points out for example that video recordings deteriorate with every viewing, thus effectively rendering each experience different from the one that preceded it. This throws a different light again on the notion of archiving the body.
Another issue which it would have been useful to investigate further is the future of performance art. Live art seemingly thrives on its reputation as a persistently marginal art form, but does the wider public really, even after 25-30 years, remain estranged from artists who employ their own body as material or do the artists themselves seek to remain on the margins of the art world? Sadly, the juxtaposition of Pane’s work with contemporary artists’ live performances did not reveal any significant development in terms of modes of representing the body or in the ways in which the body is being used to address political, cultural or artistic concerns.
Lots more questions were raised by the panelists, but symposiums can be difficult forums for fruitful debate particularly when members of the audience are more interested in expounding their own views on radical live art than actually developing an argument. Nevertheless, the Arnolfini created a very worthwhile event and one can only wish for more of the same kind.
ANJA MUSIAT, April 2002.
Anja Musiat is the Projects Assistant for Picture This Moving Image, a Bristol-based organisation that promotes artists’ film and video. She is also the Overseas Editor of the Danish dance magazine Terpsichore and writes about visual and performing arts.
Peggy Phelan, Unmarked (London: Routledge, 1993).
Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London: Routledge, 1999).