BY Hettie Judah in Opinion | 31 MAY 18

Has Performance Art Lost the Teeth to Offend?

In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

BY Hettie Judah in Opinion | 31 MAY 18

I’m cached underground in a humid dungeon, packed with bodies. The stone surface of the curved wall is puckered, bubbling off from decades of sweaty warmth. There’s an intoxicating smell, damp yet fresh: leafy, vegetal. Moody lighting sends shafts of red and blue up the walls. Occasionally a train thunders overhead. At the focus of the throng, on Astroturfed rostra strewn with sex toys and steaming aroma diffusers, a pair of PVC-clad performers lounge, enervated, talking about Pat Califia’s queer, S/M erotic classic Macho Sluts (1988).

And I can’t help thinking: is this the 1990s? Are we doing this again?

Last Yearz Interesting Negro / Jamila Johnson-Small, FuryZ, 2018, commissioned by Block Universe and Gaia Art Foundation, performance documentation. Courtesy: Block Universe 2018 and Gaia Art Foundation; photograph: Manuela Barczewski

It is, for various reasons, a thought that popped up many times over the opening few days of Block Universe performance art festival in London. Rave culture, durational performance, spoken word, the exploration of liberated sexualities and other mainstays of that earlier decade’s avant-garde programming all made an appearance. As the artists of the 1990s ‘performed’ as a corrective to the cable TV cult-of-self, the market excesses of the 1980s, the AIDS crisis, the culture wars, and increasing professionalization of the art world, so, their counterparts of the next generation are ‘performing’, perhaps, as a corrective to the social media cult of self, the excesses of the 2000s, to the crisis of precarity, the rise of the far right, and an art world divided along ever sharper extremes of the market.

Now in its fourth year Block Universe has grown bigger, slicker: the venues – including the British Museum, the Store X, The Brunel Museum, The Old Operating Theatre and Somerset House – are eye-catching, the installations pristine, the crowds enviable. Written halfway through its ten-day run, this is less a review, per se, than some thoughts about the programme, and what it means to present performance art in a festival format.

As widely noted on social media feeds, many of the performances ‘looked amazing’. Equally noteworthy, I think, is that the two that touched on subjects of moment, in an engaged, affective manner – Nora Turato’s leaning is the new sitting and They Are Here’s Simpsons Symposium (both 2018) – were those whose photogenic qualities were less considered.

Nora Turato, leaning is the new sitting, 2018, performance documentation. Courtesy: Block Universe 2018; photograph: Manuela Barczewski

Turato’s spoken (and at times sung) work harvests and subverts the search-optimized word spray of URLs, algorithm generated headlines (‘leaning is the new sitting, study finds’), bot-synthesised inanities of the Twitterati (‘this video is EVERYTHING’) and solipsism of self-care (‘I’m fine, according to me, the word’s leading expert on me.’) She breaks the fourth wall disingenuously: ‘Sorry, I ramble.’ A parting shot: ‘My head is a bad neighbourhood: I should not be walking alone in it’ hints at a darker relationship between the AI-led linguistic shifts making themselves apparent in the online environment, and the impact that environment is having on mental health.

The Simpsons Symposium is one element of collective They Are Here’s larger ‘Laughing Matter’ project at Studio Voltaire. A small group of participants sat on yellow chairs, taking The Simpsons (and Hari Kondabolu’s recent documentary The Trouble With Apu, 2017) as stimulus for discussion ranging from tattoos, shy radicals, the permissible arena for joke-making, the dangers of an atmosphere of permanent outrage, and the importance of creating space for what comedian Dave Chappelle has termed ‘reckless talk’. As artist Harminder Judge, a contributor to the event, noted: ‘If you start trying to police comedy and culture, it’s a dark place to go.’

Last Yearz Interesting Negro / Jamila Johnson-Small, FuryZ, 2018, commissioned by Block Universe and Gaia Art Foundation, performance documentation. Courtesy: Block Universe 2018 and Gaia Art Foundation; photograph: Manuela Barczewski

In the gloomy entrance to a Shoreditch railway arch, Jamila Johnson-Small appeared at first like a heap of crumpled cloth dumped on a waist-high plinth. The lighting remained low and pulsing as the dance-trained artist – performing solo as Last Yearz Interesting Negro – moved on a series of platforms and through the seated crowd to a hypnotic soundtrack. While the new work’s title – FuryZ – suggested hot emotion, Johnson-Small instead seemed all control, interiorized, and often closed-eyes. When the performance imposed on the audience, as it did at times, moving through a packed crowd, it did so gently. Even a request to use an audience member as a step onto a high platform was done with delicacy (he crouched obligingly on all fours).

Despite its heady atmosphere, FuryZ was curiously hermetic: a spectacle rather than collective experience. This quality was shared by Maria Hassabi’s STAGING: Solo #2 (2017) – slow choreography performed on a vast pink carpet – and Gery Georgieva’s На Чешмата (At The Source, 2018), a spirited song and dance routine flanked by projection screens and a walkway lined with flagons of mineral water.

Gery Georgieva, На Чешмата (At The Source), 2018, installation view, commissioned by Block Universe and Outset Contemporary Art Fund. Courtesy: Block Universe 2018 and Outset Contemporary Art Fund; photograph: Manuela Barczewski

Coincidentally set to open this week1, the Lee Bul exhibition at Hayward Gallery includes documentation of early live works, including Abortion (1989), a two hour performance in which the artist, suspended upside down, recited poetry and pop songs and described her experience of the procedure (illegal in South Korea, now as then). Other works saw Lee perform with bloodied rags, dead fish, and walk the streets of Tokyo over 12 days in improvised performances wearing sculptural costumes.

What does it say about Block Universe, that I cannot imagine such punk actions within its programme? It may be that such extremes seem outdated to a younger generation of artists, but the issues they respond to remain: the body is still a battlefield. Has a culture of hair-trigger outrage generated a form of tacit censorship on the potential for offense? Has strong feeling been swept along with it? Is it the corollary of a more established status? Of ticketing events? Of performance art reconceived as entertainment?

As the healthy audience for these and other performance programmes makes evident, there is clearly a hunger for live events: moments of coming-together for a society atomized along its fibre optic cables. But as it evolves, I would like to imagine Block Universe accepting moments of mess, shock and unpredictability, to behave more like a festival – a communal event, subverting the activities of the everyday – and less like a neatly programmed season of entertainments. 

Block Universe continues until Sunday 3 June at various venues in London.

1  The opening of this exhibition has been delayed, ironically, by a small fire caused by a chemical used to deaden the smell of rotting fish from one of the installations.

Main image: Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.