Catherine Wood is senior curator of international art (performance) at Tate Modern, London.
Live as an adjective that used to describe a certain kind of art practice should be distinguished from the verb relating straightforwardly to the process of living. The adjective live connotes, variously, “burning, glowing”; “containing unspent energy or power” (alluding to ammunition or electrical current). It can characterize something taking place “in person” (the term was first used regarding performance in 1934); an unrehearsed radio or television broadcast; and, with the Internet, instantaneous video streaming. It has been used since 1903 to describe an active person; and also—significantly for performance art—something being in actual use, i.e., operational, rather than in a process of testing.
The term live for event or performance art has been used by writers and curators since the late 1970s. RoseLee Goldberg’s influential book Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present (1979) is one of the first important points of reference. Although most of the artists making work that can be described as live were using the terms performance, action, or happening between the late 1950s and the 1970s, the term live has nevertheless come to be strongly associated with a certain kind of body-art practice during that period, perhaps through its institutionalization in art-historical writing and museum programming.
Art that is “live” can be distinguished from art that is part of an idea of the “practice of everyday life” in terms of ordinary actions or interventions that are pedestrian and sometimes participatory. The latter approach has what might be described as a softer tone than that sense of charge implied by the “live.” While a number of artists make work that embeds performance within daily life—for example, Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s Celebration? Realife (1972), in which the artist drank coffee with visitors to his installation; Jiri Kovanda’s micro-interventions into the activity of Prague streets in the late 1970s, as forms of invisible theater, or Roman Ondak’s Good Feelings in Good Times, 2004, which comprises an artificially staged “queue” leading nowhere, to name but a few. “Liveness,” in sharp contrast, carries an intensity of being in the moment, a mutual presentness, even an element of physical risk.
Works by artists including Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović, and Gina Pane might be seen as key examples of this tendency. For example, in Rhythm O (1974), Abramović invited viewers to choose an object from a large arrangement on a table to give her either pleasure or pain: ranging from a feather and a bunch of grapes to a spiked chain and even a loaded gun. The piece ended soon after a viewer held the gun to Abramović’s head and other audience members intervened. This form of “liveness” draws upon the term’s association with risk as well as the suggestion of electricity or ammunition. Indeed, both Burden and Abramović’s work included the use of actual loaded guns; Burden’s famous Shoot (1971) was one of a number of works involving injury to himself that, like Abramovic’s work, dramatized the fallibility of live presence by invoking the danger of live ammunition and carried real risk. Such work has a quality of unpredictability in its unfolding and outcome and is to be distinguished from “theater,” which is assumed to be the results of scripted repetition via rehearsal.
In the UK there is a specific and strong history attached to the concept of “live art,” pioneered by Lois Keidan and the Live Art Development Agency since the late 1980s. LADA has had an agenda related to risk and what they describe as “marginalized” body-art practices. According to Keidan, “The term Live Art is not a description of an artform or discipline, but a cultural strategy to include experimental processes and experiential practices that might otherwise be excluded from established curatorial, cultural and critical frameworks. . . . For many artists Live Art is a generative force: to destroy pretense, to create sensory immersion, to shock, to break apart traditions of representation, to open different kinds of engagement with meaning.”1 Artists associated with this approach include Franko B, La Ribot, and Forced Entertainment. The term live art has similarly been applied, in large part retrospectively, to body-art performance from Eastern Europe, Russia and South Korea from the 1970s onwards, and, more recently, China, where extreme forms of risk-taking and physical endurance emerged in performance in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Younger artists today are less likely to use the term live art and more to label what they do as performance or event. While many still explore the intimacy of “being there,” less emphasis is placed on the excitement or charge of a one-off moment, and broadly speaking the work of this generation is less concerned with physical risk. Furthermore, since performance work has, to a large extent, shifted from being an underground activity toward a more mainstream art medium, it is increasingly being made not only for artist-run spaces or clubs but for institutions, and being collected by museums. Tate has had a program titled Tate Live since 2003, and institutions around the world use the notion of “live” projects (though not necessarily “live art” per se) as an important part of their programming. Museums use the term to both distinguish the work from the unchanging formats of exhibitions and displays and to suggest an accelerated area of change or instability, as well as the necessity of showing up at a particular place and time.
In contemporary art practice, the notion of the “live” has been complicated in the past decade by the capacity of the Internet. While live television, used for to-the-minute news reportage and broadcasting of events such as sports games or coronations, conveyed a certain authenticity that may have appealed to artists, it was rarely available as usable technology. However, artists now are free to explore commonly available media such as webcam, Skype, live online chat, and streaming in various ways, fracturing and elaborating upon the notion that “live art” necessitates immediate physical presence. The Internet opens up the possibility of a “live” audience that is separated geographically but nonetheless actively engaged in the same communal conversation or experience. Arguably, as Philip Auslander has explored, boundaries between the “live” and the recorded lie become ever harder to pinpoint given the ubiquity of CCTV, Skype, and other forms of immediate image capture and relay, via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat on smartphones.2 In this sense, lived life itself is frequently being transmitted “live.” For this reason, perhaps, many artists are—in what may seem like a contradictory choice—drawn strongly to the old-fashioned idea of the “live” event in real time and space: where one sees one’s audience concretely, just as many people are drawn to attend live “gigs” to see bands.
At the same time, the primary event (say, a concert or performance) is often considered only truly visible or experienced when it is simultaneously transmitted via instant messaging and online video platforms. The act of witnessing live-ness requires a form of relay that is also “to the moment.” This perhaps takes us right back to early forms of expressive fiction such as Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1748), written in epistolary style, the narrator reporting on the events of her life minute-to-minute through a series of letters.
Similarly, forms of live performance are often, now, explored as sculpture or choreography. Artists such as Tino Sehgal, Roman Ondak, and Tania Bruguera have led the way for the subsequent generation by making work that can be reproduced via scripts, scores, rehearsals, and repetitions. Many live works are “available” via documentation, after the event, and indeed, since the Vienna Actionists, many were in fact staged for photography or film and video. The live is, arguably, no longer understood as a radical or urgent quality, but more as a medium description that is at the center of a constellation of formats including photography, video, object-prompts, and written instructions. The current generation of artists have pushed this question further by establishing “liveness” as a potential quality of the state of things rather than something attributed only to human presence. Cally Spooner describes her interest in live action as a way of representing art’s “refusal to settle”: a quality that can be embodied by sound and video—for example in her Stedelijk Museum exhibition of 2015—as much as by the presence of performers in the gallery. Phillippe Parreno and Ian Cheng are both contemporary artists who have experimented with the generative potential of digital algo-rhythms: the idea that a computer coded animation might develop a sustained and shifting life of its own, so long as it is fed by electricity (a live current). Questions of artificial intelligence, then, increasingly haunt the status of liveness previously imagined to mark our unique human presence.