‘Curating Performance’ workshop at the Arnolfini

Bristol, Performace, Performance art, Theatre, Video, Workshop

Thursday 12th – Friday 13th September 2013

This two-day workshop on curating performance at the Arnolfini comprised of lectures and artists’ talks considering themes such as the relationship between social spaces, aesthetic experience and the audience, as well as similarities between curator and dramaturge. The opportunities and limitations associated with contextualising time-conscious work and live art were also considered. Additionally, notions of staging, movement, image and body were pertinent tropes throughout.

Jamie Eastman, the Arnolfini’s curator of performance, introduced the workshop and set the scene by asking the burning and complex question of what is a curator. He suggested a curator was a mediator of live moments, someone who is concerned with the production and presentation of narratives, and whose role links to theatre. Another memorable moment from the introduction was Eastman’s suggestion that the context for live performances is highly important as each event is made up of narratives told in social spaces.

Anja Dorn, a curator and guest professor for curatorial theory and dramaturgy at the University of Design Karlsruhe, began the first session with her workshop entitled ‘Curating the Audience’. She offered the notion that the increasing numbers of performance programmes were largely due to consumer culture and attempts to engage with, and even be dictated by, a wider consumer audience. Due to this, performance art takes place in what is called social spaces. (This breakdown of boundaries between art and the public dates back to the 1960s where de-bordering art was taken into new accessible places). From this observation, Dorn was keen for us to discuss how far these social spaces enable aesthetic experience and what implications this powerful consumer culture has for curatorial decisions. 

She drew upon Duchamp’s lecture from 1958 to illustrate the importance of the audience and show that there are always two sides to the creative act – the artist’s intentions and the viewer’s own independent thoughts. This shows the creative act to be an intersubjective process; it is not just the artist that creates.

Dorn then advocated that the audience must identify with the experience offered by the live performance but must also be distanced from it. Distance is important because it allows the audience to reflect, and to see and give space to different positions. In this way, art should show and refer to differences. This emphasis on difference links art to democracy because both are about accepting ‘the other’ as ‘other’. During this workshop we learnt that this distance, which can be manifest in the audience’s feeling of alienation, is part of the aesthetic experiences of a live work.

Discussions about aesthetic experience them moved onto ideas about the audience’s taste. Dorn showed the artist Andrea Fraser’s performance work ‘May I help you?’ to present the theory that taste, and the way one shows taste, is a way of defining one’s social role. This makes performance a political act. Fraser’s satirical work illustrated these points by emphasising the theatricality of roles and exploring the many ways of speaking about art as well as the multiple cultures surrounding it. In other words, different social positions narrated by the actress were directly addressed to the audience, which subsequently put the audience in changing roles themselves – sometimes as a visitor and other times as an art collector. This also illustrated how roles presented within performance art play with the expectations implied by the social space of an art gallery, museum or social institution in which they might be found.

Mark Leckey’s live performances were among the other works Dorn drew upon to spark conversation about aesthetic experience. In 2011 Leckey presented a performance at the Serpentine Gallery that involved playing sound from a speaker at a Henry Moore sculpture. This gestured towards the notion that aesthetic perception is beyond words and sometimes can only be felt or communicated physically. In this piece, Leckey addressed the alienation that is part of the aesthetic experience – it cannot be pinned down or fathomed in rational language.

Florian Malzacher, artistic director of Impulse Theatre Biennale in Germany, freelance curator, dramaturge and writer, took the first afternoon session entitled, ‘Dramaturgies of Curating’. He began with the claim that the curatorial role for theatrical visual arts is similar to that of being a dramaturge. Malzacher went through many examples of curating performances to explore the use of space and time, as well as its similarities to the theatre. These example included work by Lady Gaga (‘The Abramovic Method’ 2013), Jan Hoet (‘Chambres d’ Amis’) and Nada Prija (‘Peace Wall’ 2012). What was interesting here were the questions that ensued about what it means to enter a space and whether durational time is felt more by the audience or the performers in certain live art pieces.

On the second day of the workshop, Bridget Crone, curator and former director of Media Art Bath and editor of the book ‘The Sensible Stage’ 2012, took her session on ‘Curating Sensible Stages: Live action and live images’. This was one of the most fascinating and engaging workshops for me. Crone opened with the thesis statement that it is no longer possible to differentiate between projected images and live bodies. Images dominate. Scrutinising the theatre scene in the 1970s horror film, ‘Messiah of Evil’, followed this powerful, provocative and thought-provoking statement. Crone suggested that the protagonist Tony becomes suspended within the images (images of violence, death and zombies) and is even devoured by them. This unfolding of the body into the image is apparently common in 1970s horror film.

We then discussed how media culture produces an incorporeal body of life, a disconnection between real bodies and projected images. Crone was keen to impart that we are in a culture that is experiencing the dematerialisation of the body and is immersed within images. The rest of this session was preoccupied with discussing possible reactions to the question of how the stage can help us in such a hectic world. The stage here was being defined as a contingent, something that takes place rather than being a fixed state (in accordance to Alain Badiou’s theories). We also approached the concept of the stage through the idea that it is a place of exception and is the action of creating a break or split – hence set apart from the everyday and stops of rapid movement of life around us. Images and bodies meet in the space of the stage, which enables a recalibration between the image, body and language.

We looked at performance art that used the stage to interrupt the hectic movement of images we encounter and that use both live bodies and projected images. Heather Phillipson’s art performance, ‘A is to D what E is to H, was particularly outstanding for me. It consisted of a live body narrating and presenting itself. Images in the narrative were from multiple sources, yet there was the constant voice of the artist in juxtaposition to this, which created a tension and challenge with the images. In other words, although the audience was immersed in the world of images, the artist’s corporeal presence remained and so refused the hierarchy of body and image. Furthermore, this work suggested that the stage was constructed through the live presence of the artist, and the images in relation to the body.

Other questions we thought about in this session included: how does the stage produce a space to think about moving images? What is this stage and how is it produced? What is it to show images and other people in a work of art? Should stages be clearly defined? Can stages in a public place be clearly defined?

The final session in the afternoon was led by Frank Bock, co-founder of The Featherstonehaughs Company and co-director of Bock and Vincenzi, now currently teaching on the Creative Practice MA and visiting lecturer at Doch in Stockholm. Bock gave us a lecture on dance before sending us off in groups to focus on a task that asked us to think about spatially framing movement and action. Doch began by claiming dance is a problematic art medium, and that people are fearful and ambivalent towards it. This lead to questions about whether we are scared of our own bodies, of its exposure and tendency to fluidity. This fear about dance could also stem from the Hellenistic split between the rational mind and the passionate body. (Improvisation has been a way of reconciling this split as it demands both mind and body, both thought and action).

We then thought about what we as curators want dance to do. Dance can bring dimensionality and make us consider durational relationships. It can help to free the mind yet also point out the audience’s own lack (for example, a lack of movement or connection with their body). In this way, Bock suggested that as curators, we need to understand that we are ‘inside the frame’ and so need to search for new forms of spectatorship. We talked about how dance has a long theatre history with collectively formed responses yet currently audiences are becoming freer, with individual responses encouraged and recognition that they are no longer subservient to the object (discussion that almost linked us full circle with the very first workshop in this programme). In this way, the spectator is also a protagonist, and staging is a collaborative event between the different protagonists – some which perform more than others.

Overall, this was an extremely diverse and thought-provoking workshop. It has helped me to think about the genre of performing art in new ways and increasingly appreciate its many forms. At times it did feel overwhelming academic, though I am keen to go back and read some of the essays the lecturers touched upon as well as research into many of the performance artists mentioned over the two days.

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