Live Art and Subversion
This essay will attempt to examine, question and contextualise the subversive in live art.
What makes questioning the subversive in live art particularly interesting is that it is a medium which has built for itself a system of language (critical representation, mode of interpretation: and indeed a history) based almost entirely on the idea of the subversive. Questioning this structure has become especially relevant this now, when the problems which surround categorisation, representation and documentation have been addressed through written and visual work: and where the formation of the term ‘live art’ (as opposed to the more loaded term ‘performance art’) has allowed for an extension of categorisation. Addressing these issues has broken down many previously existing barriers – giving us permission to question live art’s context in a wider sense. As a result, the practitioner, audience and critic must now be encouraged to become aware of their roles and expectations when approaching live art. Because this is a medium based around subversion (or the assumption of subversion), producing often irrelevant expectations and interpretations, a fundamental questioning of the way this concept has been rooted, (and the way in which it must be dealt with) is necessary if the momentum of live art is to be changed and brought further into the forum of art discussion as a whole.
In order to properly contextualise this question, we must first step back a little and examine briefly the ways in which the history and representation of live art has led us to place so much emphasis on the subversive, and to construct what I will argue has become a problematic language in terms of the expression and interpretation of live art.
Live art exists as a transient medium: the memory, history and writing of live art must necessarily exit alone, and admit to being something separate from the actual event. However, no matter how great our awareness of the structuring and problems of documentation, the live art’s representation will always remain influential in the way in which the actual event is seen: because there is no real physical evidence of the work as it once existed (a loss of the real inevitably occurs as soon as documentation is presented), all we have to rely on is handed down evidence, subject to filtering, selection, re-categorisation and re-interpretation – a critical historical Chinese whispers.
Because of its overtly confrontational nature, live art has always lent itself particularly well to artists and art movements whose aim is to subvert and transgress boundaries: live art holds no financial value, allows marginalised groups to “take control of the dialogue surrounding their own bodies by placing them at the forefront of the stage”, and is a very immediate art form. The way in which these factors appear to have been used has heavily contributed to a stereotype surrounding live art as being overly concerned with, or dominated by, the idea of the body politic. However, on closer inspection, it would appear that this stereotype has only been created by those who can shout the loudest, or whose work carries stronger documentation. A striking image, memory or rumour will always carry the most weight, especially when dealing with the ephemeral nature of such a fleeting medium.
The next thing to consider is the actual body of the artist. Live art is not a static art form that can be projected, positioned or hung: live art nearly always consists, in part, of the physical body of the artist. In this situation, the boundary between the viewer and the viewed (which exists in static work) is being to some extent broken – creating an awkward sense of unease. This situation becomes more apparent when considering the fact that, intentionally or unintentionally, the artist who faces the audience with their physicality will almost certainly create a tension that increases, the more that the performer decides to focus on their own body.
Therefore, confrontation lies inherent within all live work; which is of course why many artists have been drawn to the medium. However: confrontation does not always equal subversion. It is not always subversive to put the viewer in an uncomfortable space – it is just uncomfortable. The nature of being faced with the artist can often mean that the viewer is, in fact, unable to see beyond the point of confrontation – especially if one is being confronted with the body of the artist in its most carnal sense, and the tension between the audience and performer is at its greatest.
To return to the problem of the subversive: it is clear to me that in order to break free of live art’s ghetto, a change must occur in the language of live art: a new dialogue must be entered into. As a society, we have become a lot more tolerant of the kind of political issues which were being raised by live art in the past, and which have contributed strongly to the history, language, representation and interpretation of live art as a practise. It has therefore become less relevant, and less necessary, to produce this kind of work. The wish to convey a political dimension via the artist’s body now becomes instantly transformed: once it is seen to enter the context of art, a shift is made from the political to the personal. Whilst through our own highly visible cultural and political history we can be aware of this, to a certain extent we are still using the same critical and interpretational language to view live art. We still focus (probably un-necessarily; but on a human level also inevitably) on the body of the artist; and still expect the radical when choosing to view live work. This makes the change from political to personal problematic, and loads – in particular body-oriented work – with even more connotations. The fact that this type of work can rarely be justified through the political often means that it will come across as self-important, over sincere or repulsive, on a basic human level.
We must now raise once again the question of the subversive: and bring up the question of how live artists whose work falls into this category react to their practise within the given context. I will raise two examples of artists whose work relies quite heavily on the idea of subversion, and who have attempted to deal with it in different ways.
The first example I will use is Matt Fraser – in particular Sealboy Freak, in which Fraser stages a theatrical piece based on a historical character in a circus sideshow, on his own research into this character, and his reaction to this phenomenon in the context of his own disability. Matt Fraser is a victim of Thalidomide: this and a majority of his other work is based around this premise, and around the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of his condition – specifically the marginalisation of his body via society’s veil of liberal acceptance. Sealboy Freak forces us to accept the visual nature of his disability: we are faced with image after image of Fraser ‘entertaining’ his audience – showing us how he is able to shave, eat, drink, iron his shirt, and perform any number of day-to-day activities.
However, the fact that he is discussing his disability in such a visible way means that his audience is unable to take a critical stance on his work: as it instantly holds an inbuilt defence mechanism. As an audience who will choose to view this work (Sealboy Freak is a ticketed performance, and the viewer will almost certainly have even a very basic knowledge of the fact that Fraser has a disability), we must consider ourselves to be a ‘liberal audience’: something we feel to be incorruptible, and which holds a strong inherent value. Furthermore, Fraser’s work admits to the fact that his audience is ‘aware’ simply by presenting us with something that is a take on previously held conceptions of his body, or the disabled body. Even though he challenges our supposed P.C. attitude, the fact that he expects his audience to be aware of its own history, his own acceptance of this awareness – and the importance the audience places on liberality – renders this questioning fairly meaningless. His work innately defends its own position, and simultaneously builds a defence mechanism for his audience (whereby it is even acceptable for us to laugh at ourselves): his work is a case of preaching to the converted, rendering it hardly more than bourgeois posturing.
The second example is Franko B. The mechanism he has used to deal with the problem of the subversive is more one of denial: still believing that, through a sticky cloak of physical repulsion, his is able to convey a concept to his audience. When interviewed, he constantly pleads innocence – stating that he would rather remain naïve to the history of his chosen medium, thus wilfully attempting to de-contextualise his work. This is impossible (and unconvincing – whilst claiming naivety, he still cites Viennese Aktionism as an influence): although he would wish to deny all connotations, it is evident that his work uses a very familiar language – the language of the body in pain, used heavily by artists in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g. Gina Pane and, again, the Viennese Aktionists). As an audience who holds even a very limited awareness of this previous history, we cannot fail to recognise, however much he asks us not to, many of the over-used signs that lie within his work.
Franko B's work also exemplifies the shift from the political to the personal. The fact that the titles of Franko B’s works virtually all indicate some kind of personal struggle (O Lover Boy, and I Miss You, to give two examples), and the over-emphasis of his experiences as a child in his interviews and writing, makes it very hard for us to enter into some kind of dialogue with the artist. When his work forces us to observe his body on a very superficially carnal level, the pain is projected to the audience on a physical rather than an emotional level.
Franko B argues that his work encourages us to see the human body at its most visceral and fragile – the difficulty is seeing it as ‘a’ body, rather than ‘the’ body of ‘the’ artist. Setting aside the rich history in this kind of work, we are still confronted with someone else’s body, not our own. Although it is possible for us to rationalise what we see, maybe to read a press release or to categorise it ourselves, our gut feeling will almost certainly be squeamish disgust. To get past that point of confrontation is particularly hard: especially since Franko B has already alienated us through emphasis on the personal nature of his performances. His claim that the letting of blood in his work is ‘life giving’ is impossible for us to absorb; to us, to our bodies, the letting of blood will always be equated with death.
It is my argument that we simply do not have the physical and mental capabilities to deal with this kind of material. The language surrounding live art which has been built up over time has focused so much on the subversive nature of the medium that when nowadays we are faced with work such as Matt Fraser’s and Franko B’s, the concept fails to move or affect us, and its physicality leaves us uncomfortable or repulsed – but still unimpressed. Subversion can only take place on such a low level that, because of the medium, subversion is cancelled out by familiarity: all we are left with is a feeling of being confronted by something which only has the power to question its self.
Both Fraser and Franko B clearly indicate an awareness of this problem through their work: and an unwillingness to deal with the issue face on. In spite of the fact that both of these artists have built up a positive reputation within the live art establishment, they still remain more within the outskirts of contemporary art discussion. However, it can only be seen as a positive thing that artists such as Hayley Newman, whose work questions and sends up the live art background from which she stems, Janet Cardiff, and Sophie Calle, whose work both exists simultaneously as performance and documentation, have been more successful in entering the art ‘mainstream’. These, and other such individuals and groups such as Forced Entertainment, whose work was recently featured in ‘Live Culture’ at the Tate Modern (alongside Newman’s), indicate a growing awareness both amongst audience and practitioners. As ‘second generation’ live artists, an understanding of language, history and interpretation is imperative for the success of the medium. The problems of live art can work in its favour – its immediacy, fragility and often captivating quality can be very powerful tools: a positive discourse must continue to be formed so that these qualities can be used effectively.
Forced Entertainment’sDirty Words and Phrases depicts a woman spending seven hours writing dirty words and phrases onto a blackboard. The repetitive nature, and its duration, transforms the shocking into the boring: an effective metaphor for the change in the quality and success of attempts at subversion in live art today.
Rosie Cooper is an artist and writer who lives in London. This year she has shown live and video work at Anneley Juda and Deluxe Gallery. She writes about contemporary conceptual art, with a particular interest in live and live based work.
 Peggy Phelan, Unmarked, the Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1996, p.148
 Marina Abramovic has been ‘remembered’ mostly for her body-oriented works, e.g. Imponderabilia (Ulay and Abramovic stand, nude, each side of a gallery doorway: visitors have to push through the small space existing between the two artists) and Rest Energy (Ulay stands in front of Abramovic, a taught bow and arrow pointed at Abramovic’s heart) – both highly charged works with Ulay. These have been ‘remembered’ over her more subtle work e.g. Night Sea Crossing (Ulay and Abramovic in a static pose, in a variety of different locations, staring at each other across a large table) – similarly charged but less visibly confrontational. This selective memory has very little to do with the comparable merits of these different works – and far more to do with a lasting visual and dramatic image.
 E.g. Yves Klein’s 1960 performance Anthopometrics of the Blue Period in which Klein pressed nude models covered in blue paint against canvas whilst an orchestra played Henry’s Symphonic Monotone. Since 1960, documentation of this performance has been re-categorised by the art mainstream as painting.
 Ed. Tracey Warr, Joshua Sofaer, I Love LA, Arts Council Publication / Phaidon Press, 2000
 For example: whilst appearing at ‘Live in Your Head’, the Whitechapel live art retrospective of 2002, Carolee Schneeman (who was re-creating her 1964 performance Meat Joy) voluntarily stood up from the audience, during the initial panel discussion – firstly questioning the relevance of re-creating Meat Joy at all, and secondly stating that she felt that concerns she was dealing with at the time, in works like Meat Joy, had largely been addressed and dealt with by society.
 I use the phrase ‘choose to view’ because live work, unlike work which can exist in a gallery over a period of time (and with the exception of some durational performances) is harder to stumble across, and mostly performed in front of an audience who have specifically chosen to view a live work.
 Hayley Newman’s Connotations – Performance Images (1994-1998) is a series of photographs of faked performances – many of them sending up the self-importance of body-oriented and politicised live art.
 In Newman’s work, this is partly because she addresses themes of documentation - presenting itself mainly as photographic evidence of staged events makes it far easier to enter into an art world dominated by the production of static objects.
 Forced Entertainment’sDirty Words and Phrases depicts a woman spending seven hours writing dirty words and phrases onto a blackboard. The repetitive nature, and its duration, transforms the shocking into the boring: an effective metaphor for the change in the quality and success of attempts at subversion in live art today.
 Alongside constant evaluations.