Tracing an ecology

For the last few weeks I’ve been searching through programmes, newspaper cuttings, reviews and listings as well as funding announcements and abandoned but still accessible websites – and then trying to bring (sometimes contradictory) details into conversation while resisting the tidiness of a linear narrative. History as a straight line has the virtue of being easy to understand – but it can also give the appearance of progress to an inevitable outcome (such as the creation of a performance) in a manner that makes it harder to trace the conditions which shaped and enabled that work.

To give you a sense of what I’m attempting, here’s a page of rough notes tracing one brief strand of the relationship between theatre maker and live artist Nic Green and two venues here in Glasgow – the Centre for Contemporary Arts (formerly known as the Third Eye Centre) and the Arches (forced to close in 2015).

Looking at this page, I’m conscious of the kinds of detail that may be needed to connect the development of a single work (or the career of a single artist) to the broader conditions of support and development which makes Live Art or experimental performance possible. Here, that might mean tracing the different funding and curatorial structures supporting the venues that supported Green and her work in turn, examining the different qualities of that support (access to space? funding? feedback and encouragement?) or tracing the parallel works and careers of the different artists that worked with Green in creating and then performing Trilogy. And then there’s the detail of the work itself, and its associated history of praise and critique (as well as Green’s own later reflections on her practice). 

As the project continues – and as I’ll explore in future months –  I’m eager to find ways to communicate and animate this history that will foster a broader conversation about Live Art’s development. Are the opportunities and structures which have supported work of this kind in Scotland still working? Do they still even exist?

Variant and ‘radical arts’

For the last few weeks I’ve been patiently reading through about thirty years of Scottish arts coverage looking for traces of experimental performance that by the 1980s would come to be called Live Art. This is partly an exercise in scoping the scene (making a very long list of galleries, festivals, happenings and people) but it also involves a kind of pattern recognition as I start to piece together names, places and stories, and start to notice recurring events. I am trying to feel my way into the archive with an open mind, rather than looking for what I think should already be there. This is partly a response to the slipperiness of Live Art as a term that can refer to a very wide range of experimental, body and time-based practices, overlapping with but not identical to performance art. It’s also a process of starting to trace what has actually been seen as experimental or even radical art in the given context of Scotland, in the closing decades of the c20th.

One of the sources that’s shaping my understanding of that bigger picture is Variant, an arts and culture magazine published in Glasgow from 1984-1994 until the withdrawal of Scottish Arts Council funding, and then online from 1996-2012. Variant’s output was characterised by a mix of critical, social and political commentary, reviews and interviews, news and occasional gossip – and by an editorial outlook that positioned itself as antagonistic to Scotland’s cultural establishment. In the words of the editors in 1996

Variant has always been part of, and aimed to represent ideas that are refused the hospitality of the would be ‘mainstream,’ which itself represents and replicates the ideological chastity of a tiny elite.

In thinking about this claim on radicalism over the weeks ahead, I’m conscious of the ways in which performance art and Live Art has itself been framed or criticised as an elite form – and, in turn, the ways in which those involved in its practice have insisted on its relevance and connection to everyday life.

You can read archived issues of Variant online, with a small number of early issues also preserved at Monoskop.

Funding resilience

One of the early steps of the project has involved trying to better understand the ecology that supports experimental performance in Scotland and across the UK – and the ways in which the economy of that infrastructure has developed over time. While arts funders and policy makers often celebrate creative risk-taking as a vital dimension of innovation (and, in turn, economic growth), the recipients of state funding have been under increasing pressure since the 1980s to demonstrate ‘value for money’ and a responsible, business-minded approach to the use of public funds.

As I’ve explored in a recent paper for the journal Cultural Trends, a key concept in understanding that dynamic is the ‘mixed economy’ in which arts organisations are supported by mix of state funding (via arts funding bodies like Creative Scotland), sponsorship and earned income from box office and bar sales as well as through education programmes, venue hire and other professional services. Though this mix is imagined to provide stability, it can also create risk. One of Scotland’s most well-known venues for contemporary performance and Live Art – the Arches – was able to grow and sustain its performance programme through income from its hugely successful and internationally-renowned club nights but left unable to sustain itself when a dispute with the local licensing authorities forced an end to its late night events.

Tim Etchell’s Fight Posters (2012) as installed at the Arches, Glasgow. See:

Though the ‘mixed economy’ principle is now broadly taken for granted, it has a distinct history that starts with the founding of the Arts Council in 1946 (when public subsidy was understood as an intervention within an arts ecosystem that had managed without subsidy for centuries) and continues through Thatcherite reforms intended to reduce the role of the state in funding the cultural sector – and organise its operation on market principles. This has meant the expectation that artists – and the organisations who support them – understand themselves as entrepreneurs who take willing and individualised responsibility for ‘risk’, regardless of whether they have access to the power and resources that might allow them to fulfil this duty.

In thinking about the implications of that history for the support and development of Live Art, I’m interested in how a more recent emphasis on ‘resilience’ has serve to justify and naturalise these ideas, often by appealing to the language, imagery and moral impetus of ecology. I’m also conscious that Live Art practitioners – as well as many other culture workers – are indeed resilient, and capable of sustaining their practice while often working at the margins of institutions and institutional support. We might also understand that one of the very things that characterises Live Art is its refusal or troubling of institutionalisation – and its wilful embrace of risk as a practice of experimentation. How do we learn from those practices without falling into the trap of fetishising a lack of resources, most especially when the expectation of unpaid or underpaid labour persists across the cultural sector?

Greer, S.  (2020) Funding resilience: market rationalism and the UK’s “mixed economy” for the artsCultural Trends, (doi: 10.1080/09548963.2020.1852875

Training for live art

Work on the Live Art in Scotland project started more than a year ago with some initial research into the ecologies of support and development that have existed for practitioners working in the space of experimental performance, performance art and live art. This early work resulted in an essay for a special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, edited by Heike Roms and Bryan Brown, focusing on New Moves International’s (NMI) artist-led ‘winter schools’. Though NMI is perhaps best know as the parent company of the National Review of Live Art, its work under the artistic directorship of Nikki Millican encompassed a range of other programmes, commissioning schemes and opportunities for artist development.

Programmed in Glasgow between 2003 and 2011 as part of the New Territories performance festival, which later incorporated the National Review of Live Art (NRLA), the Winter School’s contributing artists – including Goat Island, Richard Layzell, Geraldine Pilgrim, Franko B, Anne Seagrave, Ron Athey, La Pocha Nostra and Black Market International, amongst many others – represent many of the major figures of Live Art active before and since the turn of the millennium.  (Greer 2020: 214)

Curated by Millican and led by artists, the winter school programmes were intended to allow emergent and established practitioners to step outside their familiar creative process and critically assess their work. This approach can be understood as running in parallel to the Live Art Development Agency’s still-ongoing DIY schemes, explored in another contribution to the issue by Dee Heddon.

In this essay, I trace the emergence of the winter schools from an earlier NMI project – the ‘choreographic core’, offering professional development opportunities for artists working in dance and choreographic movement – and make the case for the significance of Live Art’s resistant relationship to conventional forms of performer training, especially those characterised by ‘masterclass’ teaching.

Greer, S.  (2020) Training for live art: process pedagogies and New Moves International’s Winter Schools. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 11(2), pp. 214-228. (doi: 10.1080/19443927.2020.1748100)