Wednesday 15 October 2008

In•dex•a•ble difference

Documenting Live, by the Live Art Development Agency and David A Bailey

Documenting Live is a Live Art Development Agency publication containing postcards, filmed interviews and DVD documentation on 13 UK artists whose live practice explores issues of identity and cultural difference. The publication also includes 2 filmed roundtable discussions on the subject of marking blackness, and an essay entitled ‘Performance Based Art and the Racialised Body’ by curator David A Bailey. Each part of this publication has a distinct role to play. The DVD artist interviews, performance documentation clips and postcards archive a selection of UK artists from the 1990s and 2000s who are engaged in making culturally diverse live art. The essay and the roundtable discussions both set out historical lineages and contextual ground of UK live art and culturally diverse arts practice. They also touch upon issues of identity politics and visibility in the contentious act of documenting difference, and the live.

Harold Offeh, 2003 / C-Print photograph of live Performance, Rio de Janiero, Brazil

The 13 DVD clips show extracts of the 13 featured artists’ work and frank to-camera interviews that clearly situate the artist, their bodies, and their ethnicities for the viewer. The interviews focus upon how and why the live is used in each artist’s work, and what it means to them. Malika Booker talks intriguingly, amongst other things, of her audience as lover, ‘unpredictable and different every time’. The live enables her to engage in this mutual act of love. Yara El Sherbini uses the live in order to implicate the viewer and enable her to match form and content (enacting a traditional Pub Quiz in Pub Quiz series, for instance) in her socially engaged work. Harold Offeh talks about performing his work in order to embody risk, confront the audience and turn the focus onto the public reception of his work. Each of the 13 artists articulates performance and the live not as a form, or genre, but as utility and strategy: a means to enact (not act or perform) thinking and engage audiences to very specific and different social, political and artistic ends. Combined, their work highlights the sheer malleability and breadth of live art in all its guises and highlights the diversity of styles, content and concerns within culturally specific or diverse practice.

The two roundtable discussions show just what is at stake for the two different generations of artists included in Documenting Live. From the 1990s artists’ debate we get a real sense of alienation and isolation. When they were establishing themselves in the late 1970s and 1980s, these artists felt separate from mainstream culture but also from their contemporaries, whose culturally diverse practices were not visible, networked or archived as such. Sonia Boyce talks of only being able to find tribal art and African masks in the library when she was at art college in the West Midlands. Only by happening upon exhibitions by Frieda Kahlo at the Whitechapel, Eddie Chambers and other members of the soon to be BLK Art Group in Wolverhampton City Art Gallery, did she meet like-minded people and feel able to put autobiography to use in her work. MotiRoti and David Medalla have similar tales which circle the emotional, socio-political and artistic impact of a lack of representation and documenting of difference. Given this earlier lack of infra-structure for culturally diverse artists and practice in the UK, it is a wonder that these artists managed to find their way, and each other, and that the rest is history at all.

‘A Piece of Work’
Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, 2006 / Installation view, Camden Arts Centre, London, UK, as part of For One Night Only curated by Sonia Boyce / Photograph by Ben Roberts

In the younger artists’ discussion, there is a sense that the essential(ising) work concerning the inclusion of the racialised body in art has been done, and that these artists benefit from increased visibility and networks. But with this increased institutional brokerage of blackness comes the privilege of scepticism. These artists wrestled more with themselves, and their work, as being too over identified as culturally divergent or different. Robin Deacon talks of the pressures in being seen to make ‘black work.’ Offeh, El Sherbini and George Chakravarthi all discuss how their ethnicity is intrinsically politicised and stops other narratives being played out in the work. Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa incorporates these problematics of visibility into her work; ‘A Piece of Work’, 2006, for example, shows the artist installed behind a paper screen (with only her eyes and legs on show) in Camden Art Centre as visitors peruse surrounding paintings. Whereas, for Barby Asante, including herself in her live works such as ‘Wig Therapy’, 2001 is an acknowledgment that interacting with a black woman in British public places is still rare for a lot of people.

From these discussions it is clear just how archiving or documenting culturally diverse live art is an important but equally contentious act. Bailey touches on this contention from a theoretical stance in his essay when he says ‘visibility and positioning… of the black experience requires a critical framework that does not take for granted that it is all good.’ The critical framework Bailey is referring to is the writings of Paul Gilroy, Homi Bhabha and Pratibha Parmar, amongst others, whose postmodern thinking on the politics of difference represents a distinct shift away from confrontational modes concerning visibility and representation of Black identity. It was a shift which Stuart Hall (1992) clinched, by declaring ‘the end of the innocent notion of the essential Black subject’  Since then, these authors, and many other post colonial theorists, have done much to make the act of marking cultural difference and the representation of Blackness tantalisingly and indelibly fraught.

‘Whatever Happened to Colin Powell?’
Robin Deacon, 2006 / Photograph by Martin Clark, design by Robin Deacon

The specific act of documentation that Documenting Live completes becomes more loaded when twinned with live art and performance narratives. A year after Hall marked the ‘loss of innocence’ regarding the represention of Blackness, performance theorist Peggy Phelan voiced similar suspicion regarding visibility and the politics of the gaze. For Phelan (1993), the not seen or ‘the liminal’ was the only contingent, ethical subject position for marginalised people or the culturally different. The non-reproductive and ‘maniacally charged’ moment unique to performance, and performances’ subsequent disappearance, made the live a crucial factor in occupying this liminal state of cultural alterity. Any form of representation beyond this charged moment – whether in document, writing, photography or DVD – was, according to Phelan, borne of patriarchal, archival and commercial desires and was wounding to the ontology of performance. How then, within this combination of frameworks, to document cultural difference in live art?

Documenting Live answers this question by remaining difficult to locate, or liminal, with regards to these theoretical frameworks; it is self conscious about the problematics concerning the representation of blackness but at the same time openly performs a clear representational function. The readily accessible content of the interviews and postcards - full sized image on the front, artist’s biographies and written excerpts on the back - serve an all important promotional role for artists whose work, names and faces have hitherto remained relatively niche or missing from mainstream, commercial visual art fairs, magazines and galleries. The clear, broad chronological strokes of Bailey’s essay, grounded in practical examples, will be useful to relative newcomers to the combination of cultural difference and UK live art and performance practice. Combined, the DVD, essay and postcards can be easily assimilated into Higher Education, Libraries, Archives, Museums, used as teaching aid, visitor resource or research tool by professionals of all kinds.

This utility of Documenting Live is borne out of a practical recognition of the urgent need to complete past, present and future archaeology of culturally diverse live art practice; work that although hugely ‘productive’ remains relatively historically, institutionally, and commercially buried. The functionality is also in recognition of the plethora of specialist or academic treatises on post colonialism and performance; it is a deliberate move to filter these artists and their practice through funding, producing and teaching infrastructures on the ground level.

In this sense, Documenting Live is an important critical touchstone. It openly serves the pressing, practical and artistic needs of culturally diverse live art, but also demonstrates an acute self-awareness concerning the documenting of difference. In doing so, it renders the work accessible, ensuring that past, present and future (mis)readings of this practice might be possible, moreover indexeable, within contemporary culture.

Hall, Stuart ‘New Ethnicities’. Originally published in Ten 8, ‘Black Experiences’ special issue, vol. 2, 1992. Reprinted in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, 441-449. New York: Routledge, 1996
Phelan, Peggy. 1993. ‘The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction’ in Unmarked: The Politics of performance, Routledge: London and New York.

Available to buy online at
Documenting Live is produced by the Live Art Development Agency, the Curator is David A Bailey the Project Director is Rajni Shah. Artists: Barby Asante, Ansuman Biswas, Malika Booker, Sonia Boyce, George Chakravarthi, Robin Deacon, Yara El-Sherbini, Harminder Singh Judge, Keith Khan, David Medalla, Harold Offeh, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, and Ali Zaidi.

Related event - Mobile Academy presents:
Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge No 11
On WASTE. The Disappearance and Comeback of Things

A participatory performance installation with 50 experts where narrative formats of knowledge transfer are tried out and presented.

Saturday 29 November 2008, 8pm, the Bluecoat, Liverpool
check-in opens 7.00pm Free. No advance booking available
Book an expert for £1 or €1!

Presented in association with the Live Art Development Agency for the Bluecoat’s Liverpool Live programme for the Liverpool Biennial 2008. Further information:

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