Global Contemporary Performance Art
Closing comments on September 12, 2018 by Jennie Klein as part of History Will Be Kind To Me?
My remarks today are about the nature of contemporary performance festivals which have changed a great deal since performance art, which draws on experimental dance, music, studio practices, and avant-garde theater, became viable in the late fifties and early sixties as artists sought to break down the separation between real life, art, and actions. Early performance art events were generally tied to a gallery space or a small alternative theatrical space that could be used for dance and theatre. Sometimes the performance would take place in the artist’s studio, or, in some cases, at a local college or university that was willing to make a larger space available. The audience, and the artists, were for the most part local. Performance art was thus based primarily in major urban centers that had the population and the interest to support experimental art. In the early days of performance, there were not that many festivals, particularly international festivals. Some notable exceptions included The Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966, organized by Gustav Metzger, and the Fluxfests organized by George Maciunas in western Europe, beginning with the series of 14 “concerts” organized at Weisbaden, Germany in 1962.
The landscape for performance festivals has changed significantly since the 1960s. Many of the spaces dedicated to the performance in the seventies and eighties that flourished due to government support at the time are no longer in business although there are certainly some spaces left such as Dixon Place in NYC, Mobius in Boston, FADO in Toronto and ]performancespace[ in Folkestone, England. Whereas before artists performed primarily at alternative spaces or in a university setting, today that has shifted to performance festivals, most of which boast an international roster of artists. This shift from local performance scenes to events that feature an international roster of artists and attract visitors from outside of the festival location reflects the changing contemporary art world, which has of late been dominated by art fairs, biennials, triennials, and quadrennials. While some of these annual exhibitions are associated with specific spaces, such as the Whitney biennial in New York, many other biennials are not associated with any single institution, and are instead sited all over the city or urban territory. The same can be said for many performance festivals, which often change locations from year to year, albeit mostly due to economic reasons.
This shift corresponds to the globalization of the world. Communication technologies, social media platforms, global capitalism and neoliberal economic policies have all contributed to an art world that is no longer confined to certain major urban areas in western Europe and North America. Within artistic circles, according to Tim Griffin, globalization “describes an exponentially increased audience for (and financing of) contemporary art, attended by a radical proliferation of public and private museums throughout the world and, further, an expanded and evermore rapid travel network and exchange of information among constituents of art on all points of the compass.” In this new world, artists have become what Jen Harvie has called the artrepreneur, an artist/entrepreneur who, by working privately for their own advantage, models “neoliberalism, the contemporary from of economic practice that privileges the ‘liberty’ of individuals to trade as they please and, in so doing, promotes private enterprise within apparently ‘free’ or ‘open’ markets over publicly regulated economies” (63). Operating as a free agent in an economy that has little in the way of social institutions that can provide support is really difficult when the artist is expected to move between nations, institutions and cultures in their pursuit of a creative career. As we have seen in the talks given today, the artists also take on many roles--as curators, critics, organizers, bakers and chefs, and hosts. Many artists are expected to volunteer their time and creative output in order to build their careers with no renumeration but with the promise of writing their own history, or perhaps becoming part of art history. All of this allows for the production of unique experiences for an art going public that assumes it is normal for art workers to be fed rather than paid.
Contemporary art is big business. A biennial or similar large art event can bring thousands of dollars into the local economy where it takes place. Performance festivals, most of which take place over a few days to a week and have a much smaller audience, don’t bring the same amount of money, but they do make it possible for people to see a lot of work in a short amount of time. Support for performance festivals can also help to establish the reputation of a city or country as both an economic and cultural leader that is not afraid to promote more experimental art forms. Outside of the United States, whose current government is actively hostile to contemporary art, many countries including Norway, provide support for these festivals, allowing organizers to house the artists as well as pay them a small fee. In the case of the United Kingdom, there is more support for contemporary experimental art such as performance than there is for the more traditional media, with the result that the UK is host to a disproportionate number of annual international performance festivals such as The National Review of Live Art, Tempting Failure, Buzzcut, Spill and In Between Time. That said, international performance festivals still retain much of the DIY/Do It Yourself feel that characterized the early performance festivals put on during the sixties and seventies. Instead of a curatorial staff, most performance art festivals are organized by the same group of people, many of whom volunteer a lot of hours and also perform. Budgets are tight, staff are often working on a volunteer basis only, and generally the admission is either free or very cheap.
One aspect that is unique to performance art is the amount of grassroots institutional support that is available. Organizations such as Live Art Development Agency, Arts Admin, Performance Art Bergen, Defibrillator Apprentice Program, Mobius, The Present Tense, FADO performance space, and The Artists Village in Singapore, along with a number of university programs have provided support for younger and mid-career artist in terms of professional advice, resume building, and connections. Many festivals including the National Review of Live Art, Buzz Cut, Asiatopia, and Mobius have reserved spots for local and younger artists--called platform artists in the UK--to show alongside more established and international counterparts. Certain festivals such as undisclosed territory in Indonesia, Future of the Imagination in Singapore, and Asiatopia in Thailand have scheduled their festivals so that an artist may go from one festival to the next without having to fly home in between.
Contemporary performance festivals thus represent the shift from an art scene that was localized, tied to nation and identity, and not particularly beholden to documentation or even much of a media presence. Like the biennials and triennials, the festivals are international, intersectional, and interdisciplinary. However, unlike the biennials, which are big, sprawling affairs with fundraising openings where tickets cost upward of several hundred pounds/dollars, the performance festivals are surprisingly intimate. People are generous--locals offer to host artists, people bring food for pot luck openings, and often help with transportation by picking up and dropping off the artists. There is actually a rather small circle of artists who perform on the international art scene, and the range of artists in terms of their backgrounds, nationalities, ages, gender identity and style of performance is pretty broad. Nevertheless, everyone is very supportive of one another. And as we can see here in the community that has come together to participate in History Will Be Kind to Me? And It’s Personal, many of the artists present have met before at different festivals.