Performance Matters proposes a different approach to performance research, one that capitalizes on the potential of public discourse and collaboration, and sets out to challenge how we approach value in performance, the inherent social and political baggage that comes with that. This year’s incarnation, Trashing Performance took place at Toynbee Studios at Arts Admin in east London and paid particular attention to forms of performance and popular culture which are often categorized as low art, omitted from academic analysis and on the outskirts of mainstream culture.
Questioning cultural status is a pertinent proposition given the current performance ecology, and what Trashing Performance takes as its starting point is the particular forms of performance and live art that exist outside the institution. It is, in part, a clinical response to the wide distribution of performance across the cultural spectrum that attempts to problematize how curating, presenting, discussing and making performance happens now. What constitutes trash, where does it come from, and why are we looking at it?
The economy of taste is put to the test through a deliberate concern for a particular aesthetic: the kitschy, tacky and tawdry. Work whose internal politics lie at the edge of societal respectability or, as Scottee himself terms it, ‘light art’ (read the Exeunt interview with Bryony Kimmings for more on the idea of ‘light art’). In work of this kind, glitz and glamour walk hand in hand with social commentary, all wrapped up in potent discussions about public identity. Removing the safe critical net of established forms, the programme proposes a venture into a performance ecology that trashes in order to reconstruct: from the club night cabaret to faux documentaries and feminist exhibitions. There is a clear narrative here about the value of removing boundaries, of simply discussing content and process without categorization. Can we ascertain value without imposing forms?
Two contrasting performance pieces, Mel Brimfield’s This is Performance Art Part Two and Eat Your Heart Out’s Performance Doesn’t Matter explore identity, the relationship of critical discourse to misinterpretation and the free and often problematic assigning of value in how performance is ‘read’. On one hand, you have an account of a part-fictional part-fact art history lecture presented by a fictional art critic, Sir Francis Spalding, at his own wake (in This is Performance Art Part Two). On the other, a raucous evening of cabaret that is messy, playful and reminiscent of David Lynch’s Club Silencio (in Performance Doesn’t Matter). The historical and the contemporary, subverted and problematized with plenty of humour. Mel Brimfield’s This is Performance Art: Part Two: Experimental Theatre and Cabaret concerns itself with the assessment of value throughout history, and the question of (mis)interpretation. With an intriguing structure, this is an evening of juxtapositions that mirrors the often problematic approach to discussing performance. During Sir Francis’s wake, we witness his last product, a film charting the history of experimental theatre and cabaret, before enjoying some of the highlights of this scene live.
The film is a blend of real and fictional archives, juxtaposed with an engaging narrative from Sir Francis himself which traces the origins and development of an experimental form of live performance, referencing the likes of Gilbert and George and Morecambe and Wise along the way. It’s not only a highly potent critique of the way art history is produced, but is also incredibly witty and packed with endless references. In collision with the madcap performance of the likes of New Art Club, it opens the question on how easy it is for a work of art to be imposed on and mythologized, rather than allowed to create its own discourse. Brimfield and her collaborators challenge our hierarchies of value by subverting the modus operandi of this system of assessment.
Scottee and the performers of Performance Doesn’t Matter take a looser approach, equally humorous and even more glamorous. Scottee delivers a keynote lecture -The Observation of Live Art Practice in 2011 as seen by the Working Class Protagonist, the Figs in Wigs perform a dance, Baghdad’s Got Talent showcases her range of talents, and Miss Annabel Sings takes us on a sexually charged journey. Once in a while, we are reminded how little performance matters; after all, Scottee says, it doesn’t save lives or rescue starving children. This is work between live art and everything else – it’s entertainment with a heavy dose of rigorous deconstruction and a battle with expectation. There is also an element of transgression in both performances; amidst all the raw footage, the silly performances, the narrative of a dead critic and the flamboyance of a cabaret artist, there is plenty of space for dialogue.
Imposing cultural baggage on performance will only deliver mythologies. Both performance pieces poke at the importance of critique that rests outside formal modes of complaint. There is value particularly because its distribution rests on a public forum. This is live work concerned with trashing in order to reflect and propose strategies; work that doesn’t consider itself outside of societal practice, but delves right into to its most taboo rituals. It’s challenging, yes, but it’s also a lot of fun too.