Saturday, 25 November 2017

Sights on Site

Site-specific performance is most often understood as work which takes place outside of a traditional space of performance. But how specific can site be?

We tried to come up with some ways of understanding the different terms, which are often used interchangeably

 In our seminar this week we discussed examples of work that we could consider to be site-specific work. One piece was a company who brought soil from another country into a performance space: through the re-placement of the soil, could the work could be considered to be taking place there, in the same way that embassies are considered to stand in for the soil of their respective countries? However, we then also discussed this in terms of theatricality: how do we know that the soil is actually from the country of origin? We are told, so we believe, and we allow it to stand in for the site.

Another example was a piece set around canals in order to represent a flooded world, or a performative bus tour of a specific city. Works like these explore the site and the space of conflict between official knowledge, lived experience, and potentiality. However, both of these examples have been transplanted to other places, so is the work truly ‘specific’ to the site? Is this truly site specific or is it site generic? Site conscious or consciousness of site?

We actually found it comparatively difficult to think of many examples that we had personally experienced. This could be because of un-acknowledgement (as in the case of Invisible Theatre, maybe we didn’t realise work was taking place), or maybe because not much true site specific work takes place (restrictions, permissions, and readily available space).

Image Source:
Interestingly, when I did a Google image search for Site-Specific Performance, most of the pictures were from performances in art galleries.

Levin writes that, in site-specific work, ‘the physical site comes alive […] in a complex process of reciprocal animation […] humans can be said to exist in the midst of a performing world’.[1] The site informs the work, but the work is, in turn, informed and influenced by the site. It creates, but also limits, the work to its space (and therefore boundaries), and the site functions as a character in the work alongside the traditional theatrical trappings.

We realised that we had mainly experienced site specific work when we had actively sought it out – as consumers. Therefore does work of this kind subvert or sustain the mainstream? Even site specific performance, which by its nature is ephemeral, needs validation (i.e. capital, or recognition by an institution) as in the case of  Small Metal Objects which was produced by Barbican. Even Graffiti, which is site specific art, responding to the local area, has gained recognition as an art form, so can it truly be considered subversive now?

Image Source:

How do we understand and respond to site? Site has history: people MAKE a site and imbue it with their own meanings. Even a ‘non-site’ could bear meaning for some people: I have a friend, whose now husband, proposed on a street corner under a lamppost because that was where they met for their first date. This non-place has meaning for them.

Levin writes that ‘our perception of environment is filtered through language, ideology, and memory […] the streets themselves have their own stories, cultures, politics.’[2] Site reinforces its own identity, by existing prior to, and after, the art.

Peter Brook famously asserted the theory of the Empty Space: but no space is empty.

[1] Laura Levin, ‘”Can the City Speak?” Site-Specific Art after Poststructuralism’, in Performance and the City, ed. by D.J. Hopkins, Shelley Orr, and Kim Solga (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009), p.240-4.
[2] Laura Levin, ‘”Can the City Speak?” Site-Specific Art after Poststructuralism’, in Performance and the City, ed. by D.J. Hopkins, Shelley Orr, and Kim Solga (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009), p.248-52.

Friday, 17 November 2017

An Afternoon of Art

An afternoon spent wandering through the Tate Modern raised some interesting (for me) thoughts.

One, Two, Three, Swing! Is the Turbine Hall installation at the moment. It is intended to raise speculation about global financialism, capitalist apathy, and the power of collective action. In one respect, yes, I understand that; however what struck me most was the tangled orange pipes, sculptural in their own right, twisting out of sight and out of the gallery. For me, this represents the potentiality of artistic action to spread beyond the place of its inception. Though this is possibly wishful thinking, coming from someone involved in the arts.

Some of my classmates on the swings

From the Turbine Hall I went to the fourth floor of the Blavatnik Building, and worked my way back down. Some of the pieces that struck me were, naturally, those related in some way to performance and performative action.

In 160cm Line Tattooed on 4 People by Santiago Sierra, a grainy video shows the artist tattooing, as the name suggests, a line across the backs of four women. These women are, we are told, heroin addicted sex workers, and they were paid for their time in drugs. This, for me, raises ethical questions about exploitation and participation, and where the two intersect: the women were obviously consenting adults, but are they able to consent clearly given that they are addicts? The symbolism of the work itself was also interesting: is the line representative of the line of drugs? Does it reflect the mark left by a whip, raising issues of slavery and submission? There is also the element of the Freak Show in the work: the women are being displayed in a gallery as art, as Other, and we are invited to witness a branding process. By presenting the work to an audience, the artist implicates the viewer, and forces us to confront our own place in the cycle of power relations.

In this same exhibition were many of the works we looked at last week, including Rhythm 0, One Year Performance, and Good Boy Bad Boy. It was nice to see some of the work we previously discussed in situ.

Making art out of opinions of art!

Some of the work confused me more than anything else. I didn't get the name of the piece but there was a sheet metal sculpture under glass. The information board stated that the artist had intended for the work to be participatory, with each sheet being movable and repositionable, so that viewers became participants in this ongoing, changing work. However it is now rigid, untouchable, only viewable. If this is not what the artist intended, why is the gallery displaying it in this way? I get that it's probably a security thing, but this malleable work is now fixed and untouchable which undermines the original intention and therefore the point of the work.

There is an exhibition running called Citizens showing art which is intended to make a social or political point, including Guerilla Girls, who comment on the lack of women in art. One work that particularly struck me was Flag I by Teresa Margolles; a canvas saturated in mud and blood from Mexican murder scenes, which was hung outside the Mexican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009, forcing viewers to confront that which is usually hidden, or think about the things we wish we could ignore. By presenting this grisly object as art, once again we are implicated in the consumer and capital relationship.

Tate Modern

There is plenty to see across the museum. I have an odd relationship with Modern Art: in one respect I like work that makes me think, that I can interpret as having a particular sociological or political motivation (although sometimes I resent being ‘told’ what the point is!). However, in another way, I like things that are just nice to look at! I could have stayed in the room with Olafur Eliasson’s Yellow versus Purple all afternoon! 

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Artistic Analysis

The artist Joshua Sofaer developed a structure for analysis of art, which comprises seven aspects of ‘conversation’ which takes place during enquiry. In the context of performance studies, this allows us an insight into the ways in which contemporary artists and artworks incorporate elements of performance into their structure.

Section One: Artist
Joseph Beuys believed that ‘Everyone is an artist’, or, that we should all harness our individual potential to view the world around us with the same tools we use to respond to art.

In Oleg Kulik’s Armadillo For Your Show, the artist becomes an object, but, by the inclusion of the body in art, the object/artist becomes a performance. Rebecca Horn, in Performances I & II explored the relationship of the body to the space in work for camera; however in this case it is the remnants of the performance (the artwork and the objects) which have become artworks in their own right.

Armadillo For Your Show
Image Source:

Section Two: Audience
We attend art events for myriad reasons, but, as previously discussed, the concept of an audience for art is a testament to a human need for collective witness. In many respects art can only be considered to be ‘complete’ once the reciprocal gaze of an audience has acknowledged it.

Guillermo Gomez-Pena used the audience themselves as performers in an artistic installation entitled Ex Centris (A Living Diorama of Fetishized Others), and Richard Layzell took the concept of performance provocation to another level to attempt to understand how the audience interprets what they are witnessing.

Ex Centris
Image Source:

Section Three: Form
The ‘form’ of a work can be understood as the arrangement of the parts, and how they manifest. Form is at the heart of perFORMance

In the context of performance studies, performance can be an element of an artwork, or the principle form itself. Performance art could be seen as a reaction to the commercial art market in its ephemerality; by dematerialising the ‘object’ performance art subverts the reproductive economic model.

In Piero Manzoni’s work, we are presented with an object of art that is the result of an action, but the value of the object comes from us not having seen the action. In La Ribot’s Panoramix bodies are displayed in different forms, and as multifunctional tools as a comment on the control of the artist and artwork

Manzoni's Artists's Shit
Image Source:

Section Four: Content
Content is the sum of the material elements. The content of a work could be considered personal, political, self-reflexive, and as spectacle, among others. Any single artwork may incorporate elements from these taxonomies, but Sofaer believes that most artwork corresponds to at least one of these elements.

Art is multi-semiotic and depends on the inconstancy of meaning.

Paul McCarthy’s Rocky could be interpreted as a comment on toxic masculinity, a criticism of mass media, a societal spectacle, or a masochistic display. In Robin Deacon’s True Stories the artist explores controversies that rises out of perceived bias, and in Bass Desires Stacey Makishi confronts us with the physicality of our fears and desires.

Image Source:

Section Five: Location
For artists working in the realm of performance art, moving away from a theatre avoids the conventional world of theatricality and subverts the commercial model of museums and galleries.
Duchamp’s Readymades forces us to consider that no site is neutral by re-placing mundane objects into positions of spectatorship. Location proscribes or influences meaning and interpretation.

In I Miss You! by artist Franko B, the gallery is transformed into the facsimile of a fashion show as an obscured body bleeds their way down a canvas catwalk. The ‘art-for-sale’ was both the show (location) and the blood-covered canvas (remnants of performance) but the value comes from the location of the work.

I Miss You!
Image Source:

Section Six: Duration
A performance only exists In the time that it is being performed, in the moment of its performance. The value of performance art is predicated on this impermanence.

In Bruce Nauman’s Good Boy Bad Boy there is no sense of duration or completion, and the coincidences of performance are entirely transitory. Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola! does have a start and a finish, but audiences are not expected to remain for the entire time, so duration is defined by participation.

Good Boy Bad Boy
Image Source:

Section Seven: Documentation
As discussed above, performance art is transitory. Therefore it is often the ‘evidence’ of the performance which garners value as part of a process of accumulation. Performance’s only life is in the present: performance cannot participate in the circulation of representation except as something OTHER than performance. The ‘evidence’ of the performance provides publicity for this or future works, and acts in situ as a commodified artefact.

Carolee Scheneemann’s Interior Scroll became emblematic of feminist performance practice only because of its documentation, as there were less than a dozen witnesses to the performance itself; it is the photographs and the communication of the performance which has gained commercial interest and value. Hayley Newman creates fictional performance pieces described through documentation and record and forces audiences to consider what value of the photographs and description can have, if the performance it depicts doesn’t actually happen. Documentation for its own sake disrupts the transition between artist and audiences, and questions the efficacy and truthfulness of art.

Interior Scroll
Image Source:

The ‘I’ Of The Beholder

In one respect, there could be considered to be no such thing as an ‘audience’. To refer, in the context of theatre, to an ‘audience’ indicates a temporary community comprised of many individuals. Rayner writes that the problem with the term is that ‘it signifies a collective version of a single consciousness rather than just the desire for such unity.’[1] When a critic writes than “the audience loved the show” they are assigning a single subjectivity to a multiplicity. To refer to an ‘audience’ is to desire the transition from a singular ‘I’ to a collective ‘We’ or ‘They’.

Image Source:

To talk about spectatorship is to mean ‘the gaze’. In theatre there is ‘an ideal spectator carved in the likeness of the dominant culture’,[2] i.e. heterosexual white males. However the majority of theatre-goers and ticket-buyers are female.[3] How does this inform or affect the viewing experience of the majority, when the productions are speaking to a male audience comprised of female spectators?

To further complicate this, what lens do we perceive work through? What subject position, or multiple positions, inform our gaze? When we interpret a performance or work of art, do we do so from our position as a man, a father, a son, a doctor, a jazz-lover, a gamer… A range of positions guarantees a range of interpretations. The simultaneity of interpretation also extends to the act of spectatorship itself: we watch the performance, we follow the story, we may impose our own story into this, we respond to the work, and we respond to our response.

Therefore, who has the control in this action of spectatorship?  Is it the performer who commands the gaze of the audience, or is it the audience themselves, who have the power to turn away and deny the acknowledgement required to make a performance ‘work’? If performance takes place in the space between the Self and the Other, then the space must be filled by the Gaze, otherwise the act cannot take place.

Image Source:

What responsibility does the performer have to the spectator? One interpretation could be that the performer has no responsibility to an audience: they have the right and the ability to ‘not perform’. However, in a consumerist society with the monetisation of theatre the performer is a commodity rather than an individual and therefore has the responsibility to fulfil a commercial contract by performing rather than exercising their individuality. Thus the spectator becomes, in turn, a consumer.

An audience is essential for performance to exist. Rayner writes that ‘In semiotic terms, the audience is a sign for purpose […] both performer and audience are partners in dialogue.’[4]. If an audience is a collective of individuals, then individually we collectively create and assign an individual interpretation to a performance, which assigns a collective meaning to the event. The power of spectatorship relies on the temporary suspension of the chasm between ‘I’ and ‘You’ to become a temporary ‘We’.

[1] Alice Rayner, ‘The Audience: Subjectivity, Community and the Ethics of Listening’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 7.2 (Spring 1993), p.3.
[2] Jill Dolan, ‘The Discourse of Feminisms: The Spectator and Representation’, in The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1991), p.1.
[3] Lyn Gardner, ‘Theatre’s gender inequality is shocking – but change is in the air’, The Guardian (22 September 2014) <> [accessed 14 November 2017]
[4] Alice Rayner, ‘The Audience: Subjectivity, Community and the Ethics of Listening’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 7.2 (Spring 1993), pp.3-13.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

A Live

What is ‘Live’ in the context of art and performance? I would posit that for an experience to be considered ‘live’ it involves a simultaneous shared space and time between an action and a spectator.

Image Source:

Peggy Phelan states that the life of a performance is only ‘in the present.’[1] And argues that liveness is defined by its ephemerality, its quality of disappearance and non-reproductivity. Even when a staged theatre production is repeated multiple times over many weeks or months, the elements of the performance itself will inevitably be different at each showing.

A quality of Liveness relies on semiotic and phenomenological individual interpretation, and could be defined as a limited and liminal experience, evoking an individualised reaction, and considering how we relate to the body in simultaneous space and time.

Phelan writes that Liveness ‘hinges absolutely on the sense of seeing oneself and of being seen as Other.’[2] Which, for me, reflects previous discussions on performativity and theatricality: Liveness is the experiential interpretation of filling the space between self and other.

Image Source:

However, to trouble this quality of Liveness, Philip Auslander discusses whether a mediatized ‘live’ still qualifies, if the reflection of Phelan’s ‘gaze’ is a critical quality for Liveness. Interestingly he notes that Live performance is a very recent concept: Live is only understood in opposition to media or recorded experience. Auslander writes that ‘the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest examples of the word “live” in reference to performance come from the mid-1930’s…’[3]

If Liveness is a sense of a simultaneity, then even televised work such as The Great British Bake Off could be considered in conjunction with this quality of Liveness, in that it is an event experienced concurrently across a community, who are connected, not by proximity, but through the immediate interventions provided by other forms of media, such as Twitter.

Image Source:
#GBBO is a trending hashtag on Twitter during the broadcast.

Where, then, is the Live located? Liveness may be considered to reside not in the ‘object’ but in the ‘subject’ – therefore is Live a matter of subject position? Can a ‘live’ experience be the experience of an individual in an art gallery, sitting in front of a piece of sculpture?

Phelan writes that ‘Performance implicates the real through the presence of living bodies.’[4] If, as Phelan’s argument goes, Liveness is defined by shared proximity, shared space, and shared time, then Auslander’s claim that ‘television’s essential properties as a medium are immediacy and intimacy.’[5] throws this position into doubt since even live television provides a sense of closeness and connection with the performer: a nearness that would not be possible for attendees at the given space of performance. However if Liveness relies on a reciprocal gaze then can even live television really be considered Live, since there is no conversation between performer and audience taking place?

Both writers agree that ‘Live performance now often incorporates mediatization such that the live event itself is a product of media technologies.’[6] Theatre has always made use of current media and technological practises in an attempt to enhance, not mask, the Live occurrence. This experience might be, in Auslander’s opinion, subsumed into the recorded, but without the Live, the record cannot exist. In a negative view, however the use of media in the Live creates a sort of ‘hyper-reality’ wherein the Live and recorded work in tandem to create an event which is more like a mediatized production than a Live one. Phelan writes that ‘institutions must invent an economy not based on preservation but one which is answerable to the consequences of disappearance.’[7] The difficulty in this, though, lies in the concept of cultural capital: theatre and performance relies on reproduction in order to be quantified in a commercialised economy. In a materialistic culture, is the Live is merely a package for future record and mediatisation?

Image Source:

Liveness foregrounds the I/Eye: I feel that it is a state of reaction, emotion and individual interpretation. It is phenomenological rather than theoretical: happening in the ‘here and now’. However, if the present can only be experienced as a series of disappearing moments, can anything be ever happening in the ‘now’ since the ‘now’ as we assimilate it is always in the past? Liveness is an attempt to display this possibility and capture the impossible by moving through a disappearing moment. To experience the Live in a constant Now.

[1] Peggy Phelan, ‘The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction’, in UnMarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.146.
[2] Peggy Phelan, ‘The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction’, in UnMarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.161.
[3] Philip Auslander, ‘Live Performance in a Mediatized Culture’, in Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.53.
[4] Peggy Phelan, ‘The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction’, in UnMarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.148.
[5] Philip Auslander, ‘Live Performance in a Mediatized Culture’, in Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.15.
[6] Philip Auslander, ‘Live Performance in a Mediatized Culture’, in Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.24.
[7] Peggy Phelan, ‘The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction’, in UnMarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.165.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Theatres of Law

As part of the Masters course, we recently visited the Royal Courts Of Justice, across the road from the Strand campus in London. Our Professor, Alan Read, has written about the ways in which Theatre and Law interact and intersect, and we were there to experience this for ourselves.

The first thing that struck me was the theatricality of the Court itself: the hall is built in a neo-gothic style, built in the late Victorian era, to convey the impression of the Law as something permanent, ancient, and impressive. I also wonder whether the style of the architecture is intended to reflect the hall at Westminster, which was where Law and Judgement in Britain has its roots.

I also reflected on whether the similarity with Cathedrals was to tie in secular law with divine law in the minds and attitudes of those attending the Courts? The law/god in judgement equates secular laws with divine right, and either replaces or reinforces the 'rightness' of the law, which is also echoed in oaths and judgements during trials.

The layout of the building made me feel, by turns, small and insignificant against the majestic weight of the halls, but oddly exposed, with nothing to 'hide' behind. Is this a physical demonstration of the intention of the Law to be open and transparent, with the ability to 'see' the Law in action? However the meandering maze of corridors, poor signage and myriad closed doors also made me feel extremely disoriented and reinforced that this was not 'my' place as I didn't know the routes and rules.

Layout of Royal Court of Justice
Image Source:

The theatricality of the space also called to mind the grand entrances to theatres, and the layout - with the beautiful, open architecture screening warrens of corridors where the work takes place, also called this similarity to mind: on stage it is that which is impressive that is seen, and all of the work is hidden in order to preserve the theatricality of the event.

We were encouraged to explore the Courts either alone or in small groups, so I'm sure others will have formed many different impressions and opinions, but these were my initial reactions and reflections after visiting.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Theatre Thoughts: Panel Discussion

King's College London recently ran their Arts and Humanities Festival. As part of this I attended a panel discussion titled Arts & Humanities research after Brexit: splendid isolation, Little England, Empire 2.0, or UK plc?

King's College London, Old Entrance

Not surprisingly, given the context, the bias was heavily towards Remain, and I would like to point out that this event took place prior to the McCarthyite letter sent to Higher Education establishments. It was chaired by Ziad Elmarsafy, and the panel was comprised of Professors Antoine Caze, and Raphael Woolf, Dr Benedict Schofield, and Labour MP Tulip Siddiq. The panel acknowledged, and reflected upon, this difficulty: they all broadly agreed with one another, and they recognised that this did reflect the wider opinion of tertiary education as being elitist and self-contained.

Siddiq pointed out several interesting facts: 28% of Government spending goes on tertiary education which is the lowest in the OECD and EU, yet UK Universities are second, only to America, in the world at attracting students. She stated that, shockingly, the Government refers to students as 'Revenue Centres', seeing tertiary education as a money-making venture rather than an educational advancement. This has led to an emphasis on academic grades and the cost benefit of students, rather than other forms of achievement. How else can impact be measured if not through grades or gains though?

In relation to Brexit, the panel lamented the potential loss of EU funding to Universities, which could lose up to £7billion, along with the lack of EU students wishing to attend UK institutions. Given the current political situation, however, Siddiq referred to the difficulties Governments have in planning for the future, when the here and now demands immediate attention and reaction.

Image Source:

The panel pointed out the effect of xenophobic writing and opinion, during and after the Referendum campaign. The populist media seem intent on scapegoating the Other; Theatre and the arts are all about the recognition of the Other, and I wonder whether this is the effect of the research I undertook last year, which found that areas with high levels of investment in the Arts were significantly less likely to have voted Leave.

During the panel discussion, they debated whether Universities should keep to the status-quo, or whether they ought to promote more creative solutions. What is, however, the 'solution' when individuals have vastly different ideas and opinions? Universities have a duty to educate students to be creative thinkers, rather than indoctrinating into a dogma or political viewpoint. In a post-truth climate that distrusts 'experts', though, Universities, and their students and teachers, are more likely to be viewed with suspicion rather than the authoritative voice they claim to be teaching and living.

In uncertain times Universities have to promote the importance of critical, objective, open and open-ended debate, emphasising the lived experience of interculturalism that a multi-national student population exposes individuals to. The output of University research, knowledge, and experience (along with the monetary contributions of students) is going to be critical in a post-Brexit Britain. In a reflective irony, Universities are likely to gain more importance in a post-truth world, despite being viewed with increasing suspicion.

Image Source:

In conclusion, the panel spoke for the importance of Arts and Culture in an increasingly machine-based, technology led world. To quote Caze, "Robots don't write poetry." What will it mean to be human when all of our jobs are mechanised? This is why the Arts are important. They teach us what it is to be human, how to stay human, and recognise our common, shared humanity.