An*dre Neely and Phoebe Patey Ferguson, NOWisNOW. Image by An* Neely, 2021.
Live Art/Lives Art/Evil Art/Vile Art/Love Art are terms taken from a conversation between Anne Bean and Alistair MacLennan in the book AGENCY: A Partial History of Live Art (2019). Here and now is never possible without there and then.
Last year, a short pair of weeks before isolation became a necessity, exactly in that period of pre-lockdowns that we now wished had cherished more profoundly, like we do with most endings we are unaware of as such, we were together for a birthday. By ‘we’, we mean us, An*dre and Phoebe, writing; but also ‘we’ as in everyone who in one way or another, through the passing of time and the healing of scars, has bound themselves integrally to the way we belong in our bodies and without whom we’d be unable to produce any semblance of meaning. The birthday was Phoebe’s, if we really have to give it to anyone.
We danced all night, like we often used to, elated in the freedom of encountering each other again. There was dancing and singing-along, bodies grinding on each other, performing, there was making-out, skin-on-skin, sharing drinks and cigarettes and straws; a scene our COVID-aware selves would squirm at for the proximity to contagion. Droplets were shared between us, as a technology of belonging we revelled in before they were a lethal danger we are made to avoid. The afternoon after, after lavishly soaking our hangovers in a breakfast fry-up, we made our way to Artsadmin for Steakhouse’s Slow Sunday, in a hazy ritual we performed so many times before, intra and inter-city pilgrimages we repeated yearly: to Buzzcut, to Fierce, to SPILL, to Latitude, to Thorny, to IBT. Many (most) of the events we fell in love with/at, no longer exist, or no longer exist in the same format, some due to the pandemic, mostly not. The crisis is not new
Now, the UK finds itself a floating, flag-waving island, cut off in a post-Brexit, pre-post pandemic creeping fascist quagmire. Our self-imposed isolation, firstly from the rest of fortress Europe due to a rightwing nationalist-populist campaign and secondly, isolated out of fear, care and legislation designed to protect us from a dangerous droplet transmission of COVID-19.
In Live Art spaces we made friends, lovers, lost control, and excavated layers of abuse and exploitation that had long pre-existed us and sucked us in. In Live Art spaces our rules were different, our ambitions were for pleasure and our working-language was care. We write in the past because then it was then, a then whose temporal distance to now we won’t even try to quantify.
A few months ago, when filling in another Arts Council England form (EMERGENCY jumping off the title, as if our panic wasn’t already enough), I stopped as I wrote a list of all the work I’d had cancelled, and enumerated the previous work I’d been a part of that allowed me into a category of deserving EMERGENCY help. We want to imagine security and support beyond Combined Arts Officers at ACE, to think that our time together in rooms pulling each other into extremity can bring us more than a passport to through the borders of government support. We want to prioritise those who are shut out as the price we pay to be allowed in.
How could we ever afford good ideas and how are we to afford them especially now? The struggle for a liveable life has shapeshifted downwards as Live Art capsuled in an upwards plunge to recognition and visibility. In missing liveness, the overwhelming grief of the now has restructured what feels relevant, what relevancy in itself means. We’re grieving and we’re lost, or in the way towards finding. In our missing, we’ve been slowly shedding away the unnecessary layers of the programming/presenting apparatus; live bodies in live spaces watching live performance and thinking about living is for us what makes Live Art.
How is an art live when increasing populations are barely living? How should an art of liveness be moved by mass levels of government-sponsored avoidable deaths? In missing, longing and grieving, we’ve seen communities mobilising for mutual aid, and discovering ways of helping each other without being live, or being live without being together. Discourse regarding consent, physical touch and personal space supersedes our greetings in the rare moments we interact in shared physical rooms and I can’t stop thinking that Live Art nights, and the framed encounters we participated in then, were poetic bootcamps for the boundaries we’re required to be versed in setting now. Whilst missing liveness and lives, and sinking in a grief that mutates faster than it allows itself to be incorporated, we’re forcibly directed into virtualisation as the battle is wagered on our material condition.
We’re hanging by our feet, the knot around our ankles loosening its grip; we’re face-down but there’s all these other people with us, facing a fall that would land us directly on a skull-crush, one that still doesn’t feel as deadly as the fabricated credit crunch summoned to justify last decade’s financial crash. Cr-cr-cr as in the lethal stretching of the rope threatening to drop us head-first on the ground.
Is it possible to be parasitic? Bending our bodies and our art to fit the architecture of the institution. Watching as compromise is heaped on compromise. Witnessing up close the exhausting extraction of labour. Our institutions are built on structures of sameness, of taste decided by those who hold power, the ones with the privilege to reach the top. This sameness may attempt to include difference, but it can only do so as tokenistic gestures or as assimilationist force. These institutions are formed in imperialist history, yes, but also the history of art policy post-1980s, one that forces in the direction of a long-term existence, of ‘good’ business, of sustaining hierarchies; one that holds preciously onto longevity, growth, and a strive to continually increase resources and extraction at the expense of the Other.
The institution isn’t built for the insulted and the injured. Our precarious lives, caught up in the chewing and spitting up of racism, transphobia and ableism embedded at every level, silenced under the cloak of representation; our bodies an aesthetic prop, a disposable visual gimmick, the hurt, trauma and violence done to it minted into new markets but disregarded by a neoliberal state concerned solely with the protection of property. In 2020 we saw the rumblings and fragility that may lead to collapse. If there was doubt, institutions no longer serve the people: their empty buildings, the logos and reputations becoming more important than the workers and the people; conceptualising a political angle more important than doing the work of politics.
Our social evolution into the trap of visibility and representation has us stuck on an interminable cycle of being given a voice by swearing our silence; asked for discretion regarding the wrongdoings of the institution in exchange for a platform. We, marginalised people practicing marginalised practices (the crips, the dispossessed, those subjected to racism and xenophobia, the queers, the Live rtists), fear of speaking out for the damage to our reputations, to those of our comrades, fear we will have nowhere else to go, no home or support to find each other in. Black artists’ work about race is staged, their promotional images dominating the public-facing side of the institution, as a full white team lines up the desks in the office and in the mysterious collective entity we know unanimously as The Board; trans and gender non-conforming artists are championed as behind the scenes the only trans person files a complaint, or resigns over the toxic environment in the administrative team; our labour presented to a full audience in tears and rage over our explorations of abuse, as the abusers we’ve called for justice from roam the same corridors, present in the same programmes, get more money than we do.
Getting inside the institutions, we’re interested only in a vile art that purposefully hides its real intentions, populates the invisible folds of its shape with parasites and hackers, its presentation a smokescreen; an art whose visible aesthetics are also a distraction technique, art that grips with its formal experiments to allow redistribution and extraction under the veil of audience gatherings and reframed encounters. An art who remains living hides heists into the stolen artifacts stash in its curation of programmes at the British Museum; an art who remains living secures stable contracts and fair pay for all their partners’ in-and-outsourced service and cleaning staff when presenting with private foundations and rich collections; an art that remains living refuses the temptation of performative politics and of eternal replication, understanding when defending itself has taken over defending its original principles; an art that remains living isn’t afraid of irrelevancy, isn’t afraid to die.
THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE, claims the trend-slogan on every art institution. If an art institution admits to being ineffective to the point it ceases to formulate alternatives, then please bow down, close and fund others to replace you. In 2016 I challenged the then-Chair of the Arts Council England on an assertion over the success of trickle-down economics in the arts; he smugly patted me on the shoulder and said ‘it’s nice to see that young people are still trying to be radical’. I still regret fighting the urge to punch him in the face. It is not impossible, barely even radical, to believe in art’s purpose beyond keeping pockets full; in its capacity to pluralise and re-envision economies altogether.
We’re cowed by non-disclosure agreements, told to stand out but keep in line, perform radicality enough to be invited to the British Council Showcase party as ‘lively’ decor, but not so radical we disrupt the soft power of cultural diplomacy. If you’re lucky, you will be gifted enough drink tokens to down two bottles of rosé and vomit into the gutters of Edinburgh.
But when you are on your hands and knees, vomit trickling down your arms and into the gutter, remember who picks you up and gets you home, washes you off and puts you to bed. When you are screwed over by an institution and issued an exploitative contract, think who always comes to the rescue. When the party’s over and the networking lights are out, we share taxis, fears and information about abusers, forward voice-notes and a google doc with names because not even a pandemic stops this.
The majority of artists, producers and academics in Live Art are working together in the cracks to care for each other. We hustle, we build temporary spaces, we travel, text, zoom or call, we stick bits together, we find and bend time to make the art we believe in, to facilitate the art we believe in, to witness it and those who labour to make it happen. We have shared a million moments, a million glimpses of possibility, of potentiality, of difference and change; we have spent days, months, years, decades together building language, vocabulary, experience; attempting a place for ourselves outside of this bullshit. THERE ARE MANY FUCKING ALTERNATIVES.
We are bound together by seeking that rush of ephemerality: the glimpse of a body as it falls into the water, the tension in a string held in the mouth, the impact of a fist on clay, the hand that holds yours and the sound that rattles your heart, the falling of magnesium against brick, the arousal of tentacle-based fan fiction, the changing, i’m changing, i’m changing, i’m changing, the lube massaged into the suspended body, the leg pressed against yours, the whizzbang of firecrackers and catherine wheels, the glance across the room, the body contorting in alternate space-time, the glimmer of sweat and roar of breath that brings water dribbling out your eye, the lyrics on a screen making your voice gag in your throat when you’re asked to sing, the facing into a wall.
There is no poverty of imagination in the heart of Live Artists, but a lack of action in the structures that exist to hold us. A practice prefixed with ‘live’, should’ve always refrained from recycling organisational structures which have long been proved dead. Old financial models and strategic legal framings must be made anew: the institution as charity breeds the artist as charity-case, maintaining the binary of this always-repeating power imbalance, power-preservation through the replication of divisions of class; marginalised artists as a saddening calamity in need of help, misfortunate beggars desperate for the charitable hands of the gatekeepers of aesthetic and political sameness, a lower-budget fucked-up perpetual role-play of the philanthropic-patron fantasy.
This work, our work, all these millions of moments, need to be held, cradled and supported by systems that refuse to sloganise radicalism and instead enact it. Systems that hold themselves together with the flexibility and integrity that ephemerality deserves, forming and reforming in service of its desire of Live Art and the needs of Live Artists. The structures of care for ourselves and the work must be horizontally and collectively discussed, the stakes for all parts made transparent, its foundations ethical and altruistic. We are collaborators and co-operators, we build, re-build and collapse together. What doesn’t work should be scrapped, abandoned, their pieces broken up and redistributed for others to try, and eventually fail, and fail better.
Where we are at, and what is coming, are periods of deep, deep inequality, an intensification of the stale dynamic of winners and losers, the salaried and the precarious. We insist in the limited temporal moment because history is a fictional weapon we hold little power in; Live Art, with its weirdness, unpredictability, apparent obscurity and inherent queerness, can, in our attempts at solidarity and coalition building, be framed – and strike us – as so utterly frivolous and naive. As increasing numbers of people struggle to survive, as rents continue to increase, jobs harder to hold down, its wages unfailingly deflating, who has time to watch the artist perform her slow actions? The lie we begin to believe, the lie that the lobbyists of our ‘growing market’ and the out-of-touch campaigns of institutions inadvertently champion, is that art is luxury, that to feel differently, to desire differently, to commune differently is something we do not deserve. Live Art, as it exists now, for us, here, is to love, to feel, to share, to believe, to try, to hope, the friction of our bodies being and becoming. We may be held by a thread, but momentarily, we’re belonging.
Phoebe Patey-Ferguson is an academic with a counter-hegemonic practice of teaching, researching, making and curating Live Art.
An*dre Neely is an artist working at the intersections of performance, writing and digital practice.