October 24th, 2008

operesque

Is live art dead art?

My Architectural Association lecture last week started with something that might have sounded like a joke, but was actually meant fairly earnestly: "When I lived in London," I told the audience, "I became such an acute social critic that in the end all I could stand was the AA and the ICA!" (I suppose we should add The Photographers' Gallery after Tuesday's sentimental outburst.) You get the general idea; if I love anything about London, in retrospect -- having left the city after spending 13 years of my life there -- I love its radical cultural institutions.

Of course, there's a paradox right there. How can an established institution be truly radical? How can it question and resist power, and at the same time co-exist with it -- in the ICA's case, in an elegantly-pillared Nash building on the Buckingham Palace driveway? Personally, I think an institution, and a state-funded one at that, can be radical and even, to some extent, "edgy and subversive", and I think the ICA has been. Whether it still is, I don't know -- I don't live in London (I enjoyed the Roberto Cuoghi sound installation I saw there last week, though).

But I can eavesdrop on London art world chatter. This week the levels are elevated; ICA director Ekow Eshun announced he was axing the ICA's Live and New Media department to save money. But he didn't just leave it there, with a budgetary explanation. No, Eshun rubbed salt into the wound and blamed the victim by making it sound as if Live Art was passé, dull, and irrelevant. Announcing the cuts, Eshun said "times change... I no longer feel that the artistic rationale for devoting considerable institutional attention to that art form – to the extent of maintaining a dedicated department to its pursuance – can be strongly made".

It's this stance which has caused an outcry and ignited a debate amongst interested parties. An angry entry in The Guardian's theatre blog yesterday by Lyn Gardner saw comments from some of the main players in London's live art scene, including Lois Keidan, who oversaw Live Arts at the ICA for almost fifteen years before co-founding the Live Art Development Agency, and Robert Pacitti, artistic director of The Spill Festival of performance, live art and experimental theatre.



What is live art? It's basically art that happens in real time, that overlaps with gallery performance, contemporary dance, physical theatre and experimental theatre. I have to disagree with Eshun; live art certainly isn't out of fashion or irrelevant in other parts of the world. My report on the Yokohama Triennale stressed high-profile performances by Terence Koh, Saburo Teshigawara and Marina Abramovic. I've also been making the point for a while now that, while all sorts of things (records, books, films) may be in trouble because they're ubiquitous and digital, live performance has a strong future, because people still want to leave their computers from time to time and interact in physical space, experiencing something ephemeral, something that can't be archived, a fleeting and unique communal event. Live art that deals with the body -- in this age of disembodiment -- is all the more relevant.



That's not to say Live Art doesn't have clichés all its own, especially body clichés. Nakedness is one, though I guess as long as it's taboo elsewhere it's going to be relevant in live art. I'm not a big fan of the Freak Show Self-Injury School of Franko B and Ron Athey, whose acts consist of bleeding themselves or attaching weights to their balls. Sure, I get it: church, circus, hospital, they're all connected. Pain can be a drug, and watching someone else suffer is never dull. But, you know, do I have to?

I have more time for Costes, who gave a performance in Paris which made 80% of the audience flee in terror (mainly to avoid getting piss and "shit" all over their clothes), a show I'll never forget. French body-altering artist Orlan -- I saw her last week at Frieze, excellently dressed, so you hardly noticed the horns -- is sort of interesting, although she and Genesis P-Orridge seem to have the same face these days. Mainly, though, I prefer people who do the poetry thing, or the observation thing; Pina Bausch, Forced Entertainment, Jan Fabré.



It may be that the ICA's moment as the home of interesting live art passed long ago, in the heyday of John Ashford (who went on to The Place, a dance-oriented theatre in Euston I used to go to a lot when I lived in London) and Lois Keidan (who I was oddly obsessed with circa 1988 -- she not only resembled Helene Weigel, but seemed to me to incarnate all the glamour of the "edgy" ICA of the day).

It's sort of sad to see the ICA axing live art, at a time when I think it can only get more relevant, but it's sort of not-sad at the same time. There are other venues for this stuff. I think Eshun's big mistake is to diss the department as he was kissing it off; he now has London's live art community calling for his head on a plate. Some of them would probably be happy to see it chopped off in clouds of billowing dry ice, live in the ICA theatre.