‘All art forms are in the service of the greatest of all arts: the art of living.’ Bertolt Brecht
‘We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly. She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.’ Gilbert and George[i]
In trying to plot the movements of an emerging and shifting genealogy of live art and social practice in Australia, I find myself thinking through molecular biology. Perhaps it is the emergent state, as it crosses several divides simultaneously, or the process of osmosis by which it occurs, that invokes the cellular metaphor.[ii] I am also recalling Baz Kershaw, a UK performance theorist and socially engaged performance-maker, whose investigations into the efficacy of radical performance resulted in him ‘straddling the cusp’ – the space betwixt and between modernist narratives and the promises of postmodernity.
My intention is that by thinking through cellular properties and mitosis (cell division), we may intercept a possible point in the unraveling of these messy overlapping threads of the ‘live’ and the ‘social’, which tells us something more instructive about ‘art’ genealogies and genetic codes for the future. And hopefully through that, demonstrate how the emergence of Live Art and Social Practice is being mutually shaped and re-constituted by the emergence of the ‘creative industries’.
Live Art and Social Practice in Australia appear as the bastard children of mutated genealogies from the 60s & 70s that ran screaming from the gallery and the proscenium arch. Some ran a million miles, whilst others screamed from within the gallery space, and still others ran screaming, only to return to the stage after a successful run on the streets working with ‘the public’. A few managed to straddle multiple spaces, and engage in a kind of site specific screaming.
To varying degrees these practices have been described as performance art, socially engaged practice, radical cultural interventions, conceptual art, hybrid performance, happening art, relational aesthetics, social sculptures, littoral art, performance-installation, “New-Genre” Public Art, dialogic art, site-specific art, practice-based research, and public performance, and participatory art. If we really want to stretch the ancestral line, we could include the politically motivated art periods that engineered such forms as agit-prop, epic theatre, radical people’s theatre, workers’ theatre, political theatre, community theatre, activist art, street theatre, participatory site-based performance, and cross cultural collaboration.
It is not the intention, nor the inclination of this essay to write an inventory of what constitutes Live Art or Social Practice. That seems to me a very dull assignment. It is however pertinent to my investigation that we acknowledge the differing places from whence we arrive at these terms in order to discover what discourses are being put to work in their service.
So, thinking through mitosis to meiosis we can divide the genesis into two camps: Are you a theatre/contemporary performance/performance-maker person? Or are you a visual arts/interdisciplinary/performance art person? Perhaps more crudely: did your ancestors descend from a white cube or did your ancestors hail from a black box? (Yes, it is more than just a matter of black and white.)
However, divisions are also useful. They enable critical distance, as they express difference through spatialised time. Sometimes for the purposes of knowing where we stand, we enlist the utility of divisions to crystalize where we begin and end, to separate out right from wrong, to recognize our outsides from our insides, and to recognize our enemy from our friend. These divisions are never permanent, nor do they pre-exist us, and we are forever destined to rupture these membranes in a hopeful bid to transcend.
Just as cells divide, the necessity of which recreates life, a rapid replication of cells dividing also marches us in a dance of death towards the malignant tumor. Cancerous cells divide in a furious drive towards self-annihilation, negating their function by over-function. This surplus of cells, having no place to be integrated into the organism, is like a hijacked plane diverted from its mission, left to kamikaze with over-production.
And sometimes, just as our immune systems misrecognize a Trojan virus for a helpful antibody, the recognition of divisions can also work happily in the service of a dominant ideology, whose purpose it is to sell fast cars as a substitute for happiness.
So distance and division is a methodology and a practice that is capable of generating both tyranny and emancipation. It is precisely in the straddling of division that live art and social practice resonates most significantly, both in its mode of operating (its interdisciplinarity) and in its delivery of service (engagement with audience, and relationship with space). But as others have shown – Beradi, Holmes, Negri, Harvey, Lazarato among others – this very slipperiness and straddling is also characteristic of the flexibility and permeability demanded by ‘capital’ in its bid to colonise new terrains for exploitation. This has some serious ramifications for how we do ‘business’ and how these practices become complicit with capital’s agenda.
Neoliberalism and its modus operandi behaves very much like the cancerous cell; it invades the host by mimicking its cellular properties, pretending to be what it isn’t, and then replicating without differentiation. (Think astro-turfing and strategic advertising campaigns). Eventually a malignant tumor will destroy the functioning of the organ, its rogue cells having conquered an otherwise humble process of inter-cellular collaboration.
In this example, the capitalist machinery confuses the inside and the outside, reinforcing the oft remarked post modern cry “there is no longer an outside”. Neoliberalism thrives in this confused environment by providing the optimum conditions for knee jerk reactionaries to reinscribe the same miserable divisions over and over again, unknowingly helping them spread the cancer, collaborating in their own death. Neoliberalism’s specialty is in blurring the distinctions between friend and foe, aping the host’s cellular properties in order to gain entry and propagate new divisions, based on the old divisions.
Neoliberalism is at its finest when it manipulates the emotion of the human brain, coopting the drive for mutual cohabitation, invading it to produce an artificial divide between what is public and what is private, between what is common and what is commodified. Between what you have and what you don’t have. Capitalism, as Marx’s thesis proves, alienates people from their labour, it separates their thought from their action. As Paulo Freire wrote so eloquently about, and as Guy Debord waxed lyrically: capitalism is the expression of the ultimate spectacle in which we are all passive consumers.
But like the slipperiness of the shifting divide between inside and outside, just as the membrane of a cell participates in mitosis, the same properties can be reversed and used against the intended affect. Like an immunized baby exposed to a virus, the body adapts and learns to identify the outside and the inside. By bringing attention to the fact, by framing the foreign experience through a heightened exposure, we allow our body time to distance itself, and in doing so, equip our body to know where it stands.
Bertolt Brecht’s methodology was an intervention into the domesticating affect of a realist drama, which sought to diminish the distance between character and actor. Brecht opposed the predominant Stanislavski technique whose acting methodology was analogous to an invasion by the character of the host actor’s body, contriving a psychological confabulation that one was the other. Brecht sought to undo this process and draw focus on the separation between character and mise en scene, between actor and constructed situations. The ‘verfremdungseffekt’, a defamiliarisation technique also known as the Alienation effect, was a reverse engineering of the collapse of the person into the character, in order to demystify and identify what was possible to change or be changed. Crudely counterpoised to Stanislavski, Brecht travelled through the body and expanded outwards to view the constructed social situation and identify structural flaws in the environment that conditioned ‘man’ to behave and make certain choices.
Brecht devised an epic theatre model, which sought to remind the audience that it was watching a play; that it was a representation of reality, and not reality itself. Leaving outside problems with such assumed simple dichotomies between reality and not-reality, the point worth noting is that Brecht drew attention to the parameters of the form, and in this sense kept the human senses alert to pretense or false division.
Taking my lead from Brecht, any useful discussion about the porous membrane dividing Live Art and Social Practice is best focused on the contours of spatial praxis and the agency of the spectator – or “spect-actor” if you prefer to use Augusto Boal’s definition, which I do.
The “spect-actor” is the dual occupation of the spectator who in the act of spectating can also take action.[iii] She becomes an actor, whilst remaining simultaneously an audience member. This enables her to see her self in the act of seeing – a radical act which Boal attributes to the transformative powers of the ‘aesthetic space’. The ‘aesthetic space’ is created out of the complicity between the actor and spectator, and is transformative because it contains properties that dichotomise time and space. This effect simply means that the spectator and actor simultaneously occupy the real time of the theatre auditorium, and the imagined space of the scene created before them. This renders the aesthetic space a safe place to practice transgressions in a ‘rehearsal for revolution’, which prepares the spect-actor to intervene and make changes to her real life situation. This was essentially Boal’s quest for a real theatre that diminished the separation between actor and spectator, thus intervening in a real world drama that constantly placed the oppressed actor in the role of passive spectator.
With any discussion of Boal, you venture into ‘theatrical’ terrain demarcated by a particular set of discourses. Performance, hailing from the stage, has a specific understanding of the relationship between the performer and the audience which is principally shaped by the necessity for complicity between the actor and spectator. As we approach the nexus of Live Art and Social Practice, our genealogical boundaries really come into play.
From the perspective of the white cube, the audience or viewer of the work is located in a different aesthetic space, which precludes their intervention. As the artist placed her body in the service of ‘an act of art’, the aesthetic space expanded and contemporary art experienced what is referred to as a ‘performative turn’. Then as the artist contemplated her escape from the white cube gallery it shifted into a ‘social turn’. Now, as site specificity unhinges the site from the practice, it appears to be experiencing a ‘contextual turn’, as biennales commission the artist to activate a site in the service of local participation, usually from an existing catalogue of work supplied by the artist to the curator. (Miwon, MIT, 2002: 37)
As artists step outside of both the cube and the black box, they enter the ‘public space’ to seek out ‘engagement’. Here we arrive at the nexus of Live Art and Social Practice, as the position of engagement shifts along a continuum of audience/spectator/viewer/participant contained within a porous membrane of site specificity.
As this writing exercise is concerned with imitating cellular properties, I am going to throw up another dichotomy between Live Art as a UK tradition and Social Practice as a US tradition. This is purely to see the interplay between what is being circulated and talked about in order to identify points of intersection.[iv]
Social Practice is a term more widely used in the United States. You can easily trace the growth of this movement of ideologies around spaces that are more likely to be artist led, and located beyond the white cube gallery space. They are also, and in greater number, focused on dialogical practices aimed at opening up discursive terrain, often in proximity to organised political or social movements. Examples of this in Chicago are: Incubate, Mess Hall, Temporary Services, and in New York: Not an Alternative, 16 Beaver, and Institute for Applied Aesthetics, to name but a few.
It is also useful to look to higher education facilities for the reproduction of genealogies. At the Californian School of Arts, their MFA provides for a major in Social Practice, which it describes as thus:
Social practices incorporates art strategies as diverse as urban interventions, utopian proposals, guerrilla architecture, “new genre” public art, social sculpture, project-based community practice, interactive media, service dispersals, and street performance. The field focuses on topics such as aesthetics, ethics, collaboration, persona, media strategies, and social activism, issues that are central to artworks and projects that cross into public and social spheres. These varied forms of public strategy are linked critically through theories of relational art, social formation, pluralism, and democracy. Artists working within these modalities either choose to co-create their work with a specific audience or propose critical interventions within existing social systems that inspire debate or catalyze social exchange.[v]
In Australia, we are yet to name a singular modality and seem more comfortable relating to a messier litany of terms such as socially engaged art, relational aesthetics, participatory art, dialogical art, littoral art, cultural interventionist, or the lazy tag of ‘artist activist’. Related to this is the absence of any distinct movement of radical ideologies around artist led spaces in Australia that would seek to provide points of friction with institutional agendas, but which regardless still permeate the spectrum of thinking amongst artists and their modalities of art making.
Some recent examples of Social Practice in Australia could include: boat people.org’s large scale interventions questioning race, pvi’s site based excursions into terrorist training camps, Natalie Jeremijenko’s Environmental Health Clinic, Squatspace’s tour of beauty through the suburb of Redfern, or any number of the walk projects commissioned by Performance Space in the first half of this year. These shared characteristics orbit around an interrogation of the subject through spatial dimensions and a critical engagement of the spectator as audience participant.
But some of these examples could also sit appropriately under a banner of ‘Live Art’, where site, intimacy and exchange are also shared as a fundamental characteristic of the practice.
As you know from visiting this website, Performance Space in collaboration with Field Theory and Lala were awarded a cultural leadership grant to further develop Live Art as a practice and a discourse in Australia. It is a fortunate twist that Daniel Brine having worked at the Live Art Development Agency (LADA) in the UK for a period of 8 years finds himself back in Australia as the Director of Performance Space, at an interesting point in the emergence of both Live Art, and the creative industries.
Like the creative industries, Live Art is an industry tag designed to properly categorise the form so it can compete with resources and guarantee future productivity. In the UK, Live Art has been around since the mid to late 80’s. Centres like Arnolfini, and the Inbetween Time Festival, and the National Live Art Review, have been major catalysts and incubators for Live Art practice. In Australia, Performance Space has been nurturing the way forward, particularly through its strong collegial ties with UK contemporary performance, presenting Live Works, the first Live Art festival in Australia in 2008 and again in 2010. With the support of the Australia Council it has also established investigation into practice through the P4 pilot program in 2010.
In 2009 the Melbourne Fringe under the direction of Emily Sexton inaugurated the category of Live Art. I participated in its key event TOYS (Take Off Your Skin) directed by Dario Vacirca in collaboration with the Kuronoz cloning project. Described as an elaboration, this event assembled over 100 clones of Japanese dance artist Yasuko Kurono, and dispersed them in choreographic fashion throughout the street of Melbourne’s CBD. The choreography of replication, of sameness produced, acknowledged the potential for affiliation and mimic whilst remaining simultaneously governed by the widely erratic differentiation of bodies in time and space. In its expression of sameness it illuminated the differences. It was ‘doing both’ and in doing so, did something entirely different and unique.
For now, I think it is more useful to think about the definition of Live Art from LADA’s definition as a ‘strategy’ rather than an artform. Perhaps this resonates more strongly for a practice where the divisions between performer and spectator are themselves the work, and where the multiple overlapping and messy divisions that constitute ‘site’ or space, are genetically predetermined to evade capture by the intentions of a neatly determined category. However as the global political economy continues its shift towards the immaterial, the terrain for Live Art and Social Practice will be required to move forward and coalesce into a discreet artform. And one most likely that conforms to the economic imperatives of the National Cultural Policy, currently under discussion by the Federal Government, and strongly shaped by the increasing hegemony of the Creative Industries.
The Creative Industries, like the term Live Art, has largely emerged through the imperatives of a market economy, seeking articulation of the productive capacities of knowledge-based, experiential markets, and immaterial labour for generating value. But unlike the Creative Industries, Live Art was prompted by a genuine desire to generate a space which brought together a number of practices, whose ‘work’ is expressed as a series of constructed relations, typically related through spatial concerns, and which do not sit comfortably under one singular funding category. Creative Industries however is symptomatic of a global march by capital in the search for new values to be exploited in its rampage towards the creation of wealth.
The context for the emergence of these three terms — ‘Social Practice’, ‘Live Art’ and ‘Creative Industries’ — is characterized by the amplification of late capitalism’s bio-political machinery expressed through the financialisation of every aspect of life, including our future/s, and the increasing privatization of the commons. We see this in the privatization of water, airspace, and in the patenting of thousands year old indigenous knowledge forms, such as medicinal plants, by multinational pharmaceutical companies. It is important to situate the emergence of these new productive areas in a context where the ‘dominant economic paradigm has shifted from the production of material goods to the production of life itself’ (Hardt & Negri, 2005: 283) and where the mechanisms for doing so increasingly rely on a blurring of the boundaries between work and life.
We see this also in the incessant creep of public private partnerships into areas that were once the responsibilities of democratically elected governments. What kickbacks are being promised in the delivery of services now partially owned by a corporate body? What happens to the delivery of these services when a private interest commands a greater return on their investment? Now that creativity is lauded as a key driver of the economy, who is reaping the benefits of this newly created wealth? How is this wealth being distributed and reinvested back into the industry mainframe, if at all?
We are living in the era symptomatic of a growing enclosure of the commons through an expanding network of privatizing arteries transporting cancerous cells to other parts of the political body, in order to halt differentiation, by encouraging rapid mass replication of the same cell with guaranteed predictable behaviours. A ceaseless and senseless division that eventually kills the host. Transactions, trading and exchanges now occur across a porous membrane, unlocking the gate for some to enter and determine the distribution of surplus value, while locking the gate for others whose surplus value is extracted and alienated from them in order to be distributed by those in power. Accompanying this is the proliferation of displaced people, trapped in refugee processing camps, whilst capital soars around the globe at a dizzying pace, unfettered.
This is the context into which biennales the world over insinuate themselves. Live Art and Social Practice may have inherited the radicality of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic formula, but just like creeping ivy, it can also manifest as poison. It appears to represent both an expansion of creativity or else an increase in the number of practices to be amalgamated or subsumed under an industry banner called ‘Creative Industries’ – making what is particular to a specific art practice, generic and general to an economic paradigm. This loss of distinction is characteristic of cancer as rogue cells keep dividing, at a rapid pace, without differentiation.
Live Art and Social Practices share a common genetic framework that pulls them in the direction of replication or differentiation; from rupturing the code to produce difference and opposition, to the replicated homogenisation of predetermined functions in the service of a system’s logic. Rupture or breach also creates distance – these positions are equally necessary and productive as they are equally destructive and terrifying. By understanding the capacity of these movements to rupture neoliberalism’s code, as well as its tendency for expanding the terrain for commodification, we will be better equipped to navigate our way through the nexus.
We straddle the divide as it occurs because it is no longer possible to remain tethered to the rigid and inadequate dichotomies of art versus life, private versus public, inside versus outside, as the cognitive and sensational apparatus of the physical and metaphysical reconstitutes and reshapes each other.
So does Social Practice and Live Art attempt to un-stitch the separation between performer and audience and bring participants and art itself back into the fold by reframing ordinary activities as art? Or by doing so, does the social practice reify the separation; confusing what truly is the outside, and subsuming it into the work? Do we need to know there is an edge, an outer limit, or a point of difference, from which to anchor our subjectivity? Or is it sufficient to simply intuit what we are seeing, opening ourselves up to the confused experience, with no guarantee about what it is? When something plays the edge, and art plays life playing art, should we not worry about whether it is concealing a virus in the host cell, a dark cancerous neoliberal lining inside the work?
As lived and embodied practices, I am buoyed by the transformative tactics of Live Art and Social Practice to disrupt and reconfigure the location of critical culture’s apparatus. In doing so it necessitates the articulation for new ways of understanding the significance of producing culture. But I am suspicious when this repositioning of the viewer and the practice folds deeper into the materiality of life, by making the creative “perform” in the service of the economy. Particularly as it does in ways that would confuse and make complicit our creative instruments in order to service a political economy whose mode of operating is based on a senseless aggressive march to increase productivity, at whatever cost.
The infection rate of corporatization into the cellular fabric of our everyday lives is everywhere, and growing with increasing speed. Straddling as a resistance tactic makes Live Art and Social Practice urgent and relevant to the conditions for intervening in a constant and senseless replication of homogenous cellular mass. Straddling eventually forces us to choose. When we are ready. The world is ready now.
[i] Anna van Praagh, Gilbert and George: ‘Margaret Thatcher did a lot for art’ The Telegraph, 9th July 2009. Accessed online 23/09/11
[ii] Molecular biology offers a way of thinking through this terrain, which requires taking an inside-outside-position, as you approach the nexus, the intersection, and the cross over. This is an approach that ‘mimics the mimicking’ required of these unclear divisions between where the ‘live art’ or ‘social practice’ begins and ends. It perhaps offers a microscopic interpenetration that is contingent on an understanding of the macro organ in order to understand the whole of the production of life. It requires a meta-frame that allows us to straddle multiple and concurrent lines of flight, without ceding priority to one or the other.
[iii] This idea is central to Boal’s practice of forum theatre and was developed before his exile from Brazil, where he first pioneered the Theatre of the Oppressed, a movement and a methodology among peasant communities to induce a conscious state of awareness which later spread to Europe specifically addressing first world problems. A good source for understanding this practice is: Augusto Boal, The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal method of Theatre and Therapy (Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge. 1995.)
[iv] We could also do this in Australia but given the discussion is still in its infancy, any attempt to draw intersecting lines at this stage might preempt the real discussion that needs to take place among artists beforehand.
[v] California College of the Arts website http://www.cca.edu/academics/graduate/fine-arts/socialpractices accessed 22/09/11
Rebecca is an interdisciplinary performance writer, single mother, critical thinker and sometime liturgical dancer. http://www.billandgeorge.org/
Photo credits: Lindsay Cox, Taryn Ellis, Mischa Baka.