In days leading up to the session at Turf Projects, promoting the opportunity for artists to share work in progress at the event, I was confronted with a Tweet from a user unknown to me asking, “Is showing something you haven’t finished yet, like walking out in public with your pants off?”
Thomas John Bacon reflects on hosting Turf’s performance focused June lunchtime crit. This post may contain sensitive content.
In days leading up to the session at Turf Projects, promoting the opportunity for artists to share work in progress at the event, I was confronted with a Tweet from a user unknown to me asking, “Is showing something you haven’t finished yet, like walking out in public with your pants off?” Welcoming such engagement on Twitter, which can often feel like a vacuum of thoughts screamed into a void, I replied, “Would you say that performance art is ever finished?” Continuing, “I would propose that work evolves with each action we explore,’ before somewhat facetiously concluding, “Besides, I’d rather be metaphorically naked (though I often am anyway), brimming with risk as I step into any live experience.” This disembodied voice with the handle, Samuel – whose bio indicated he was a painter – retorted, “Any unfinished thing put in front of a viewer is as constructive as Guernica without the bull.” Rather than choosing to bombard one another with Memes and inspirational quotes from Pinterest, we concluded our discussion with mutual disagreement and said our goodbyes.
Subsequently I forgot about this interaction until today as I write this blog, recalling the wonderful work – finished and unfinished – that was shared during my lunchtime at Turf. Artworks for me are in a constant flux of evolution and are never finished, even when the artist lets go of an artefact such as the sculpture or painting, its life continues to evolve and change through the temporal space it exists in and the encounters it has with each person who bring new life to it through a reciprocal moment shared. Performance Art – arguably more obviously so due to its live nature – is exactly the same. While for my own tastes and interests I foreground the vitality that risk then imbues into these encounters.
During the lunchtime crit, dialogues of ‘meaning it’ and biography – such as in the imagined and dreamt drawings of Rob Young – were central to the conversations and work shared. Here social and personal commentaries – such as in the subversive and delightful sonic work of Robin Bale – were evident alongside the personal risk and exposure of Becky Bo or Clara Nizard. Humour, action art, painting, photography, theatre, sculpture and performance art were all shared, with some beautiful examples of practice from Andrea Abbatangelo, Lee Ashcroft, Rory, Harold Robson and Megna Sengupta. Through all present it was the locus of (notional) ‘healing’ that was briefly discussed, which I shall choose to address now.
About two months ago, I was having coffee with a live art photographer who seemed surprised when I told him that I was not interested in creating work to heal myself through. He seemed shocked, challenging me that this was somehow similar to treating the performance as an abortion. I clarified that for me performance art is about the shared reciprocity of the experience of the moment that we hold together as we share – both audience and artist – a perceptible exposure. Healing can of course happen through this, but I am not primarily seeking catharsis through live action and I am certainly not performing for the sake of therapy. If I need therapy I go to therapy, which isn’t to disavow that art has a vital role to play in healing and therapeutic practices, because it absolutely does. I was however trying to express that actions should not be so self indulgent – which quite often the worse examples of live art are the metaphorical equivalent of masturbation – that the conduit of reciprocity, the receptors (be that audience, spectator etc) are ignored. At this he agreed, as what we must always be aware within the action is a sense of mindful presence. To not shy away from the risk you are exposing yourself to. To openly invest in it and be able to share the experience with others. I expressed similar thoughts at Turf and these were echoed by artists present such as Jonathan Polkest, Robin Bale and Michael Norton.
Healing for me is secondary, in the same way that pain for my own practice is not the central concern; but rather is endemically manifest from the actions I create. I am more often interested in the exposure of vulnerability, the ‘uncovered’ or the ‘not meant to be seen’ moments that such work creates. So when reflecting upon the tattooing proposal by Natalia Markowska, the toilet notebook action of Clara Nizard or inner tube performance art of Becky Bo, here we find examples with an exciting potential to expose reciprocally a sense of shared investment and risk between artist and spectator. A dialogue that consists of urgency, intimacy and equally the possibility of failure and the utter humiliation for all involved. Which is ultimately a good thing, as the best work walks this line, testing its limits as it evolves.
To these artists in particular and all who were present I would offer the following provocations in the development of your work. Try these, not as final performances, but as a means to experience how they affect what it is you are trying to explore. If they cause you to fail or the work looses clarity, this is only a good thing as it allows you to become closer to what is vital to the action. If they bring new thoughts or resolution, then similarly this is useful:
- strip out all unnecessary clutter – what is the most simple version of this action you can create.
- repeat the action until the point of exhaustion and when you feel you can’t continue, continue.
- name your materials or key elements and list them in order of necessity (not significance), now attempt the action without the most vital element/s.
I wish you well in your journey and do let me know how your work develops.
Thomas John Bacon is an internationally exhibited Performance Artist and Artistic Director of Tempting Failure.