Events in May

We have two exciting conversation events lined up for Glasgow and Edinburgh at the end of May, with more to come in June. We’d love to have you join us – see below for details.

Live Art in Scotland:

Building a Better Residency

26th May 2022 / CCA Club Room, Glasgow / 2-5pm

Scotland’s live art and new performance sector is coming together to talk about the future of artist support and development. What does experimental and interdisciplinary practice need to thrive and flourish? How are different organisations approaching the work of supporting creative exploration and risk?

With contributions from Take Me Somewhere, The Work Room and the CCA, this forum will share information on residencies and development schemes on offer for artists working in Scotland. We’ll hear from artists on how different opportunities have supported them to develop their practice, and think – together – about what the future of artist residencies might look and feel like.

  • What would make a difference to the development of your own work? What are the conditions that allow creative experimentation, exploration and risk-taking?
  • Where are there gaps in what’s already on offer? How do residencies line up with other kinds of training, support or development?
  • What new models can we imagine, together?

We’re excited to welcome you to the space, refreshments provided. To book free tickets and for information on access funds, visit: https://www.cca-glasgow.com/programme/live-art-scotland-building-a-better-residency

Live Art in Scotland:

Festival Futures

30th May 2022 / Summerhall, Edinburgh / 7-8.30pm

With contributions from artist and performer Harry Josephine Giles, performance artist FK Alexander, artist and researcher Anthony Schrag, artist, researcher and arts programmer Natasha Thembiso Ruwona, and performance maker Mamoru Iriguchi, this event asks: what’s next for Scotland’s festival city? 

If the past decade has been characterised by continuous growth, what might shape the next chapter of Edinburgh’s existence as home to the world’s largest arts festival? What are the practices adopted during the pandemic – often centred on access – that we want to see continued in the rush to return to ‘business as usual’? And how can the Edinburgh festivals offer space for creative risk when the cost of taking part is still often steep?

To book free tickets and for information on access funds, visit: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/live-art-in-scotland-festival-futures-tickets-335296158837

Conversations

March and early April have been a busy period for the Live Art in Scotland project as we start to share more and more of the project’s initial outputs, and work to create spaces for broader conversations around the histories of live art. A few highlights:

  • We’re very excited to share the first version of the Live Art Scotland: Research Resources guide, a directory of more than 30 archives, collections and other materials that might support further research into live art, performance art and interdisciplinary performance in Scotland. It’s the research-focused partner to the practitioner directory launched earlier in the year – together, we hope they might give a better picture of the past and future ecology for experimental practice.
  • Live Art: Histories of the Present took place in early April, with presentations from Gavin Butt, Harriet Curtis, Dominic Johnson, Vanessa Macaulay, Phoebe Patey-Ferguson and Heike Roms. Recordings of these talks, along with other documentation of the event, will be available here later this month.

Listening to the archive (2)

I’m listening to interviews that have already started to feel like a record of an entirely different moment in time, even though they only took place last year.

Part of the process of transcribing the project’s interviews with practitioners involves fact-checking to catch the names of artists and projects that were unclear, or whose names have changed over time. This is slow, careful work – slower than I had first anticipated because of the necessary acts of care involved.

Before that moment, though, is the work of close listening, and an attentiveness to the quality of sound transmitted by laptops, wireless networks and satellites. Nearly all of the interview conversations took place by zoom and I’m keen to preserve the imperfect and sometimes scratchy quality of audio as part of what we experienced in the original event. These recordings are the marker of a particular moment in time, a particular set of conditions, as much as any attempt to engage with artist’s memories and practices. 

A laptop and microphone set up as a temporary recording studio
My home recording studio (with pillows to muffle the echo)

During this process, draft transcripts and recordings are shared with the interviewees for their review. This is an important – if not vital – step of the project’s approach to informed consent. Small additions or corrections added at this stage are marked with [square] brackets, most often clarifying a personal reference by adding a surname but also occasionally introducing a missing detail like the name of a venue or performance work or, more rarely again, to add important nuance that was lost in the flow of conversation.

The expectation of something like perfect recall ghosts the project, though I try hard to (gently) reassure that this is not the goal of the research. Memory is naturally imperfect, and the act of recall reinforces some details while allowing others to fade from view: this project works with rather than against that dynamic.

The first set of interviews and transcripts will be launched later in summer 2022.

Glasgow Theatre Seminar

Here’s a recording of a talk I gave as part of the Glasgow Theatre Seminar series in December 2021 with a socially-distanced live audience in Glasgow joined by a remote audience via Zoom. The talk was hosted by Professor Dee Heddon, who you’ll hear me to talking with at a few different points.

Live Art in Scotland – Glasgow Theatre Seminar

Some footnotes:

Transcript to follow.

Curating for live art

Last night I gave a talk as part of the Glasgow Theatre Seminar series on live art, curation and the development of Scottish experimental performance. I’ll post the audio here once it is available. One of the things that I was interested in exploring was a range of different curatorial approaches taken by producers, programmers and artists in seeking to (re)invent contexts of support, development and promotion for ‘new work’. Taking as a starting place the New Work No Definition season – mentioned previously here – I considered the framing of work by artists as varied in their practice as Mona Hatoum, Forced Entertainment and Neil Bartlett (among many others) as the ‘theatre of the visual artist’. 

In the broader context of this project, I am interested in performance curation and performance curators as a means of thinking about the interplay of artists, organisational strategies and institutions, and in turn, about processes of institutionalisation in relation to live art – a line of enquiry that’s strongly motivated by a knowledge of and interest in practitioners who were and are both artists and curators, for whom curation is an extension or articulation of their artistic practice.

Marta Keil has suggested that the presence of the profession of the curator in the performance arts is a consequence of systemic changes in European performing arts characterised by ‘the substantial growth of the international festival circuit and development of networks between artists and producers; the creation of new spaces, enabling the progress of independent projects and shifting the focus to a nascent, non-institutionalized system of work’ (Keil 2018: 320).

In historicising the figure of the performance curator, Florian Malzacher emphasises:

Contexts. Links between artists, artworks, audiences, cultures, social and political realities, parallel worlds, discourses, institutions. It is not by chance that the curator in the visual arts sphere emerged at a time when artworks often no longer functioned without a context, refused to function without a context. (2010: 12)

Writing in the journal Theatre, Bettie Ferdman similarly acknowledges the origins of the term curator in the visual arts before calling attention to the work of 

A growing number of artistic directors, festival programmers, creative producers, and artists [who are] not only are beginning to pay attention to what gets seen—either commissioning new work and/or selecting finished work—but are also conceptualizing how, where, when, why, and for whom such events are structured and presented. (2014: 7)

In illustrating his argument, Ferdman points to the work of Lois Keidan at the Live Art Development Agency as exemplifying the practice of curation as ‘both cultural and financial strategy’ (2014: 9), a process of labelling work in a way that might legitimize it and make it intelligible to and thus eligible for support from funding structures, while also offering a critical frame for its reception through an emphasis on both ‘the live’ and the interdisciplinary. 

Running through these three perspectives is a sense of performance curation as the product and response to a particular set of changing contexts or conditions of possibility, both emerging from the work of artists and serving to constitute the terms of its production and reception. Part of that work is an act of naming or making intelligible – whether directed by a single named programmer or curator, or a committee of artists-as-peers. What conditions of possibility does a phrase like the ‘theatre of the visual’ enable?

Live Art Data

This weekend I’m taking part in the LIVE ART DATA book sprint, a collaborative project between archivists, theatre historians and performance researchers at the University of Glasgow, Stiftung Universität Hildesheim and Hochschule Osnabrück. 

A ‘book sprint’ is a method of creating a book in a very short period of time, using the space of a conference to discuss and revise draft chapters before almost immediate publication of a new open-access text. In my own contribution, I’m exploring the particular challenges of working with archival traces that are distributed and fragmentary, scattered across and within collections that are personal, institutional and constitutionally incomplete – and as often existing outside of Scotland as within it.

In thinking about how a range of different archives might be brought into conversation, I’m drawing on a model offered by the Live Art Development Agency’s study room guides which are intended to help visitors navigate its open-access collection of live art related videos, DVDs and publications. Commissioned from “artists and thinkers”, these texts exist alongside the study room’s formal catalogue of its holdings to offer curated pathways or points of entry to LADA’s diverse holdings. In LADA’s own words, “the idea is to enable Study Room users to experience the materials in a new way and highlight materials that they may not have otherwise come across.” 

What would a study guide titled ‘Live Art in Scotland’ look like? How might it help researchers navigate not just a single collection but a series of collections, each with their own history and context of encounter? And how might such a strategy serve to interrogate the absences within those collections and the institutional, organisational and artists practices that they might be given to represent?

Showcasing Live Art

The new ACE-funded Horizon Showcase – subtitled ‘Performance Created in England’ – is the latest Edinburgh festivals platform aiming to connect UK theatre and performance artists with international partners. 

Curated by a consortium of Battersea Arts Centre, Dance4, Fierce Festival, GIFT, MAYK and Transform, it joins Made in Scotland and This Is Wales in promoting a range of established and emerging artists working across theatre, dance, circus, cabaret, live art and digital performance – or, more specifically, in putting their work in front of a selected audience of international producers, programmers and curators who might take those artists on tour. Oriented on the work of ‘visionary artists and cultural leaders’, interdisciplinary and experimental practices appear at the heart of Horizon’s participant call-out in imagining the possibilities of site-specific theatre, digital and app based performances, one-to-one encounters and postal works ‘created to unfold in our homes’.

It’s the rise of these and other showcase events developed by the UK’s regional funding bodies that informs the British Council’s recent decision to rest its own biennial programme and consider alternative future contributions to the Edinburgh festival ecology. This long-running showcase was created at the end of the 90s to promote ‘highly innovative, cutting edge work’ from artists and companies who have included Adrian Howells, Ursula Martinez, Action Hero, Lone Twin, Selina Thompson, Travis Alabanza, Project O and Brian Lobel. With delegates drawn from over fifty countries, the British Council’s event can also be understood an articulation of the UK government’s broader practices of ‘soft’ diplomacy in promoting international understanding and exchange.

Though playing a significant role in promoting UK-based artists overseas, the British Council showcase has historically been unable to support the production costs of taking part in the Edinburgh festivals, leaving artists to fundraise, seek organisational backing and/or gamble on the financial return of future international bookings. Made in Scotland – supported by the Scottish Government’s Festivals Expo Fund – has similarly required artists to self-finance their festival run, albeit while offering ‘top-up’ funding intended to enable artists to present their work at the Fringe ‘in the best possible conditions’.

While involvement in these showcase events – and access to their international participants – promise significant but deferred benefits, their dynamics also invite artists and companies without institutional support to participate in an exploitative economy in which debt (or potentially significant loss on the creation of new work) has been naturalised over the past two decades as an unavoidable part of the Fringe contract for ‘getting ahead’.

In contrast, the Horizon Showcase is distinguished by a commitment to paying presentation fees that reflect the scope and needs of the programmed works appearing at the festival, with all team members paid in line with the Independent Theatre Council’s rates of pay. It’s also unique in pairing the showcasing of ‘tour ready’ performances with a series of two-week residencies for existing but incomplete projects that are ‘robust’ enough to be shared in some form. Staged online and in venues across the UK, this model conceives of the festival format as more to do with an economy of focused attention than necessarily sharing the same physical space.

A subsided showcase – curated by a broad panel of venues whose choices are informed by independent practitioners – is in a strong position to reflect a diverse community of practice, not least by redressing some of the social and economic inequalities that prevent a broader range of artists from taking part in the Fringe (especially when the willingness of decision-makers across the sector to take ‘risks’ in their support continues to be shaped by prejudices surrounding race, class, gender and disability). 

But a subsidised professional showcase may remain a marketplace, and a potentially exploitative one at that. This is where the specific language of relationships and ‘partnership’ may signal the desire to develop international collaborations that extend beyond the sale or purchase of a performance product. Whether a programme that remains centred on the month of August and the context of the fringe can lead to those more sustained and sustaining encounters is perhaps what this year’s pilot will seek to discover.

In any case, Horizon’s model puts pressure on the UK’s other curated showcases to rethink how they might support the development of artists and their work in the professional and commercial hothouse of the Edinburgh festivals.

Artist-run initiatives and ‘gift labour’

For the last week or so I’ve trying to write about the relationship of Scottish ARIs (artist-run initiatives) and the broader spectrum of collective and collaborative practices in Scotland that have fostered the conditions of possibility for Live Art.

As Dan Brown, Deborah Jackson and Neil Mulholland have explored, Scottish ARIs in the visual arts have a lineage that stems from the New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh, whose work established the template of a volunteer committee of artists who would take an active role in administration and policy. Supported by an annual subscription fee, the committee’s work was accountable to the gallery’s collective membership; committee members also served for a maximum of two years, guaranteeing a continuous process of renewal and offering a form of resistance to the ossified, hierarchical patterns of curatorship thought to characterise Scotland’s existing and older art institutions such as the Royal Scottish Academy.

This model has since become the template for many other artist-run spaces across Scotland that include Transmission (Glasgow, founded 1983), Collective (Edinburgh, 1984), Generator (Dundee, 1997) and Embassy (Edinburgh, 2004). Given the widespread development of this structure – both in Scotland and internationally – it’s curious that there are few immediate parallels in communities of artists working from a background in movement and performance (or, at least, very few I’ve found so far). Despite a strong Scottish tradition of collective and politically-conscious theatre making, artists working in and through performance have more rarely sought to develop infrastructures that might support a wider community of practice – and the few exceptions may be revealing of a wider absence surrounding live art and interdisciplinary performance. 

One such significant exception is Glasgow’s The Work Room (TWR), an artist-led organisation co-founded in 2008 by Anna Krzystek, Diane Torr, Roanne Dodds, Kally Lloyd Jones, Linda Payne, Natasha Gilmore, Rosina Bonsu and Colette Sadler to foster a more sustainable environment for Scotland’s independent dance community. Currently funded as a Regularly Funded Organisation by Creative Scotland – and gifted the use of a studio space by Glasgow Life – TWR’s membership structure involves a ‘pay what you can’ sliding scale of annual fees that grant access to the organisation’s programme of events and advice sessions as well as eligibility to apply for a residency space. Applications for residencies and other projects are assessed through a structure of artist-led working groups, with the policies and futures plans of the organisation ratified through an annual general meeting.

The question of how – and if, and in what circumstances – artists might volunteer their labour is hugely significant. When Transmission’s committee postponed its annual member’s show in 2017 – in part citing a backlog of essential administrative work – they noted that the expectation of relative economic stability which might enable volunteerism assumed support structures that had been in place at the time of Transmission’s founding, but which largely no longer existed.

While an economy of ‘gift labour’ can operate as a powerful political and ethical commitment that can create and sustain a community of practice – and perhaps resists the exploitative commodification of art – that commitment does not exist in a vacuum. Being able to commit time ‘for free’ may be a register of relative economic and social privilege, or at least involve a highly conditional judgment about the exchange involved. Indeed, TWR takes particular care to remunerate artist members who take on work for the organisation.

In the weeks ahead, I want to try and put this history and body of practice into conversation with the larger history and economy of ‘free’ festivals and performance collectives – as well as the process of this project and what it hopes to achieve. What can the history of ARIs in the visual arts bring to an understanding of how experimental theatre makers and Live Artists have created structures to support their work?

Conditions of possibility: a directory of support for Live Artists in Scotland

Over the past month, I’ve been tracing the role of creative labs, scratch nights and artistic residencies in creating the conditions of possibility for live art in Scotland. This research strand recognises the ways in which interdisciplinary and experimental arts might need particular kinds of support oriented on process rather than product, and rely on contexts that allow for critically generous feedback and response.  It also reflects a long history of artist-led and institutional attempts across Scotland to create space in which artists might take risks – whether as emerging artists first making work in public, or in transitioning between ‘emergent’ and ‘established’.

In exploring that history, I’ve begun keeping track of current development opportunities for artists working in live art who are based in Scotland – not least because that information didn’t seem readily available anywhere else. So here’s the first draft of that resource: a list of residencies, mentoring and development schemes for interdisciplinary artists based in Scotland

A few notes:

  • Most of the schemes are listed because they either explicitly support live art and interdisciplinary practice or have a record of supporting artists working across/between multiple art forms as part of their practice. A few programmes identify a specific artform focus or have criteria relating to particular communities of practices – I’ve tried to note these.
  • A number of schemes are suspended or under review following the 2020/21 global pandemic and in response to renewed attempts to address structural racism and other inequalities in the arts – but most organisations (such as Jerwood Arts) have a mailing list for updates and announcements. 
  • I’ve included a few more generic funding databases accessible to charities and social enterprises in acknowledgement of live artists working in that space. For funds managed by Creative Scotland, see: https://www.creativescotland.com/funding/funding-programmes. 
  • This list focuses on opportunities based in Scotland. Arts Admin has a really excellent UK-wide directory of resources and funding opportunities: https://www.artsadmin.co.uk/for-artists/resources-directory/ 
  • The Live Art Development Agency maintains a helpful FAQ intended to be a starting point for artists who work in Live Art and who are at the start of their career: http://lada-memset.thisisliveart.co.uk/resources/information/faq/ 
  • It’s a first draft with some gaps that I’m working to address over the next few weeks – let me know if something is missing or included in error: stephen.greer@glasgow.ac.uk 

Listening to the archive (1): risk

A suddenly loud radio, carried by workers beneath the open windows of the theatre archive at the University of Bristol, on a hot day in early June 2021. Everyone is catching up on delayed projects, inside and outside. It’s my first week with the NRLA collection since.. I am not sure. It has been a long time.

Then the empty sound that accompanies noise-cancelling headphones. Then the hiss of a videotaped-recording preserved as a digitised file.

Then I am listening to a young man – Steve Slater – being interviewed about the work appearing at the 1989 National Review of Live Art. He is standing in front of a wall listing events in the performance spaces of Third Eye Centre, Glasgow.

How do you see the work changing? How has the work changed? ‘Each year there’s a different flavour to the performances that take shape because the artists are reacting to things around them,’ he says. ‘But the energy is always the same […] They take a lot of risks. They’re not afraid to take risks – they’re grasping, possibly too far some times, but that’s better than not grasping at all for ideas and things’.

In the next recording, it’s a year later: the voices of NRLA director Nikki Milican, festival Master of Ceremonies Neil Bartlett and artist Bobby Baker, taking part in a discussion event on what I think is the final morning of the festival. Often the recording is clear (Milican sits in front of a mic on a stand) but the speech of other participants is sometimes quiet or patchy. I am (not) in the audience, taking notes.

Milican is talking about the future, and inviting the artists in the room to let her know what they need from the NRLA, and the Platform – a programme strand of work from unsubsidised, emerging and often younger artists. She leads a feedback and discussion session on that year’s Platform performances and installations, inviting comments and observations from the floor. 

In one work, the performer smashed glass bottles, splashing the audience with milk and cutting his knee. I’m not sure if I’ve understood what happened. The details are unclear: not everyone in the room saw the performance, and the artist involved isn’t present. I make a note to check who took part that year and see if I can match the description of the work. It wasn’t risky, says a younger-sounding person, off-camera. It was out of control.

From his position sitting on the floor to one side of the room, Bartlett suggests that the NRLA programme brings together pieces with ‘not just differing but irreconcilable notions of decorum – what it means to approach an artwork, be with that artwork and leave that artwork behind’. He asks whether part of the experience of the festival is meeting people working ‘with different sets of rules’ and ‘encountering different forms of decorum, different ways of an audience approaching a work’. I recognise him from photos of work he made in the 80s and 90s, with his company Gloria. At least, I’m pretty sure I do.

The conversation turns to the generosity of audiences. After ten years, the audiences are perhaps becoming slightly too big and the rooms too small and too hot. Does the festival need to move?

Someone describes the pressure to succeed. It’s a very 80s thing, someone else later suggests, a sort of survival-of-the-fittest mindset. The exchange of voices suggests it’s ‘Anne’ speaking. Anne Bean? Another Anne, but still familiar to the festival? Another note to check.

Another young-sounding voice: ‘I think the thing that makes artists very very nervous is basically this is it. You’ve got no structure after this, you’ve got to succeed. […] If you don’t succeed at the National Review, there are very few structures where you’re going to be given that chance again. And it’s not a problem with the National Review, it’s a problem with everything outwith the National Review’.

Baker is sitting in profile but I think I recognise the voice well enough from her performances: I make a note to double-check. She recognises the concerns of the younger artists in the room – but affirms that failure is an important process of working: ‘I’ve failed consistently throughout my work. And I’ve failed recently. And it’s almost necessary to succeeding because so much comes out of it’.

That last line is unclear – perhaps the word isn’t ‘necessary’ but it’s the only one that occurs to me as making sense.

Then I’m racing through the last few minutes of the recording and the last few minutes of my time in the room before it’s cleared and cleaned for the next researcher. Bartlett is in MC mode, telling everyone – telling me – to please wait in the bar until we’re called into the space again. This is not the end, just a pause to breathe.