Absent presence

photo of carving of horned cattle head, left side of entrance to Royal William Yardphoto of carving of horned cattle head, right side of entrance to Royal William Yardlife-size model of white horned cow on grass area, 2 crows in background, Royal William Yard2 life-size models of white horned cows by tree on grass area, Royal William Yard
Live Laboratory Symposium: The Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow
The purpose of the Live Laboratory Symposium is to discuss the past, present and future of live art practice. The Live Laboratory Symposium is a collaborative presentation by Plymouth Arts Centre, the Marina Abramovic Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, and University of Plymouth; and is co-organised by Roberta Mock and Lee Miller, University of Plymouth; and Paula Orrell, Plymouth Arts Centre.

“In the context of the development of Marina Abramovic’s new Institute for the preservation of performance and the work she is co-curating in Plymouth, participants in the Live Laboratory Symposium are invited to witness durational performance works and engage in a dialogue about the issues of foundation and generation in performance and live art practice. This is an experimental space in which artists, curators, scholars, students, and critics can imagine and conceptualize their future. The questions driving the Symposium are:

1. What are the foundations of contemporary live art practice? How do we find and make them?
2. How do we generate live art practice in subsequent generations?
3. How do we facilitate cross-generational exchange?
4. In these generative processes, what are the potential roles of art foundations, institutes, training and professional development providers for artists, curators, artist-curators, archives, and universities?”

Symposium session 1: Lineages, Memories, Legacies
Brewhouse, RWY, Plymouth
Friday 22 January 2010

Gemini: You haven’t been the easiest person to live with recently. You’ve done a lot of changing over the last few days, though, and can see what needs to be done to find happiness.” ‘Your Stars with Claire Petulengro’ in The Extra: Plymouth and Districts (21 January 2010) p.4

Before: this morning. Seminar 11am - 12.45pm for the 3rd year Media Arts Individual Practice module, in my favourite room in the Scott Building, 109. Putting yourself at the heart of the work, development and documentation strategies, and establishing contextual anchors. Three students came who are not in my tutor group, but who wanted to come and join in because they “heard something was going on for the module”. We all sat around two large tables pushed together in the middle of the room. To Clare, I talked about the weaving and over-layering of memories: her London childhood, putting her past/present selves in the picture, and place: the Suffragettes, Patrick Keiller’s London, Iain Sinclair, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches, and Janet Cardiff. The square / the green / keep off. Dusty wax Tussauds / weird unheimlich dummies / we’re in uncanny valley: the proximate distance between, inhabiting the space.

1.00pm Checked in with Michael at RWY. He gave me my ticket, I held out my left arm, he fastened the red plastic ID band around my wrist. Rob Gawthrop was standing at the table on my right: we talked about Ian Helliwell, whom he knew from Hull and who’d stayed with us a few weeks ago before doing a visiting lecturer gig at Dartington. I suggested that Stuart and I go on a cultural visit to Dartington, and then he can come and visit us at UCP Marjon and UoP.
Paula - The conceptual notions of why we are here today. The preservation of performance art. The durational impact/experience of performance / examine contemporary art / a conceptual space documenting temporal experience of performance art. Through the window over Paula’s right shoulder: Mayflower Marina, lines of broken sun reflecting white.

The reasons why we are here: the preservation of performance. This event explores the limits the problem of preserving performance over time. Performance art is a notoriously ephemeral medium in the making, once it is over: what remains? Caught between the push and pull of past and present time, the present is the time frame that we never address. The nature of performance is about the here and the now, and about transformation.

Does one rely on the testimonies of the witnesses as a means communicating the essence of the original piece? The artist Marina Abramovic’s growing interest in preserving the legacy of performance acts for the future: as both archaeologist and anthropologist, examining peformance art using all its component parts. Does the documentation become inextricable from the work of art? Does it need to be processed and dead like meat before it can be consumed? How does the cultural and mechanical processing of the live (animal) affect the reception and experience?

The Pigs is the first step of the curatorial journey. Performance: “one of the most provocative of artforms.”

[I imagine a pink soft rug for my knees, travel blanket, a thinking comfort.]

Roberta - this symposium is built on conversations held over the last decade, and in Manchester last summer. Live Culture: the centrality of art practice and the artist’s voice in articulating important moments. We need time together to experience new work, to discuss it, with the artist.

As a teacher I was very aware of the significance of performances I was unable to attend ... because they happened before I was born, or because they took place in another country. In order to teach my students about performance, or ‘live art’ as it used to be called ... in those days performance art was rarely videotaped, so I had to rely on “the iconic photographs”, and on describing what I had seen, but - despite my passion - my words could never really communicate my experience.

This symposium asks questions about the preservation of performance art, and the relationship between the past and present art-making practices in performance.

Foundation: etymology. [I like this.]

RWY: This regenerated military establishment is the Royal Navy victualling yard, built of granite and limestone in the early 19th century. Nearly 100 cattle at a time could be slaughtered here. The Brewhouse, built to float the navy on oceans of beer, became redundant before the RWY opened - because the beer ration had ended. It stood empty for years, before being re-purposed as slaughterhouse, storehouse, workshop, HQ of the Royal Marines, and now stunningly restored waterside apartments with a café on the ground floor: Urban Splash
Maria x Marina Skype conversation
We sit in rows. At the command Hello Marina! we look up as one creature, gaze through the screen in the centre of the wall to a room in another continent.

The camera is placed high above a hospital bed, its metal frame painted military grey-green. We look down onto the figure of a woman who lies flat on her back, fixed by gravity to the coiled springs that support her weight. She wears a long sleeved nightgown made from calm un-dyed cotton: we can see the her feet, arranged together, the toes falling slightly to the side so the rosy bunion on each foot is exposed; her hands rest palm up, a few inches away from her sides; her face looks back at us, full lips, parted below a strong beaked nose, framed by her long dark brown hair with its right parting. The eyes are those of a tired predatory bird, piercing us, old as ages: our grandmother.

The filming set-up is that of a rostrum, or photographic copystand, in which a fixed camera looks down onto flatbed, upon which the artwork is placed. The set-up is used, traditionally, to re-copy photographs or to make a photographic copy of other 2-D picture forms, although it can also be used in animation to create stop-motion sequences of 2-D cut-out shapes and 3-D small objects. This set-up can be expanded to human scale, so that a person becomes the artwork viewed by the downward-looking camera, and audience. The woman Marina performs Marina, an absent presence.

[Ringtone, coffee grounds, the end of a caffetiere gurgling down the plughole.]

MA: [her voice is low, very very low] ... I don’t hea ... the image? Good afternoon everybody. [Cheers + applause] In 10 years of ... my advice ... my advice to everybody ... [throaty cough] [shorter cough, an octave higher]

M: The institute: why is it needed?

MA: I think in my life as a artist that teaching is a part of his duty and his responsibility ... Coca cola ... I spend my whole life ... work of art itself ... I want my institution ... should undress the situation ... performance art ... young artists ...

M: Tell us a little bit more about how it will work?

MA: You see at the moment I will donate this building to a non-profit-making organisation .... not just performance ... theatre, film dance, sound, experimental part everything that is performative. I am also addressing long-durational artforms. I think this is very important in the future.

M: The next generation of artists, those coming after us?

MA: It’s important, unconditionally .... we have to take responsibility ...

M: We’ve lost you altogether. Let’s try another question. You said it’s important for us to teach and support those artists coming after us?

MA: How to teach the public to watch performance art today. A retreat, in solitude, gather energies for performance. Enable possibilities for young artists to meet a range of more experienced performance artists from all ages.

M: How does performance and live art find a place in the market?

MA: I been doing performance for 40 years of my life ... a mainstream art in the museums of today.

M: Do you have a message for the people here, now?

MA: I like to say, it’s so so important ... young people talk to me and say how to succeed, find a place in the art structure? ... they want to have success immediately right now, but not to compromise: every good bit of art never die.

Marina is simultaneously both an absence, and present.
Open Forum
Picking up themes mentioned by Marina, such as preservation, cross-generational contact, the art market and the hybridisation of artforms - are we starting to see a new kind of artform that takes place in a virtual space, such as Second Life, or via the internet?

Tessa Fitzgerald, ACE: it provides another platform. If you use the technology it gives you a new audience. How do you survive? Digital technology is a priority for the Arts Council, and if you use digital technology in live art you’re more likely to get funding.

Maria Balshaw: the real thing is just as constructed mediated and manipulated as the thing that comes after, the film. How do we think about the event itself, the moment, and the elements that are set up to give that performance longevity in an archive?

And for performance practitioners: becoming aware of our own role and our experience of our own world during the performance.

We are looking at a collection of material, including subjective memories of verbal transactions we can’t quite capture; and social, cultural memory.

Performance art is at a moment when it seems to be institutionalising itself. It is a good time to reflect and think how we can preserve what has been, past experience, and ask if we want to go down the ‘museum route’ as a repository of cultural and social history and memory?

[Perpetual stasis framed between glass / reflective live-streaming victualling anti-body.]

The framing of work
Q: thinking about framing work, When we experience a live performance we frame it in our memories. When we see a film of a performance, it is being framed for the audience.
The building, the place, the history of the space: where do I place myself in the architectural body?

Kira O’Reilly, an Irish artist working with her body and bio-aesthetics: During the performance I was aware of the audience’s constant negotiaton of the space “it was a cunty piece, there was a lot of flesh”.

Educating the audience
Maria: Response from a male viewer of one of the performances yesterday in The Peformance Market: “Well that’s the thing where the man eats the flower and puts it in the woman’s mouth with a kiss, but they’ve got it the wrong way round.”
How can we educate an audience to take that analysis on to another level? What if everyone walks out?

A curator originally was a caretaker or conserver of objects, there is a sense of responsibility, of care, in the process of trying to bring these experiences an memories of moments. MA wants to create societies or communities around her.

Looking after objects as if they are looking after people.
Lois Weaver The long table
Ephemerality of memory and aware of my dependency on those around me when I think about legacy and lineage. Experiment with public engagement: a democratic conversation

The idea is inspired by a film Antonia’s Line, in which the dinner table becomes longer and longer, and finally has to extend beyond the house. “I want to move the dinner table from the private to the public. There is no moderator: the table becomes the moderator. Talk is the only course. The table takes on a performance of its own. There’s an end, there’s no conclusion. Please feel free to come and go. I think we’ll just begin...”

Smiling man who comes from Plymouth and who use to live in Stonehouse when he was a kid - Memory of the Athaneum in Plymouth: my first performance was when I was a fox aged six. The Athaneum was being knocked down yesterday. It used to be behind the casino that used to be a cinema. Should we be letting go, instead of trying to remember things?

Unseen man - What can the building remember?

Smiling man who comes from Plymouth and who use to live in Stonehouse when he was a kid - RWY: the forbidden place. Once I sneaked in and got into this building, and there would be rooms full of rope, and barrels of gin; a forbidden place, military place.

Maggie - My first performance was the back end of donkey in a nativity play ... my first entry into theatre ... my bottom exposed on stage, a small girl. They didn’t give me enough fur, and said it wouldn’t matter as I was at the back and everyone would be looking at its head. Then the donkey turned round and everyone could see my backside. [...] granting yourself permission to perform ... giving yourself that permission.

German man - I look around this place: passageways, blocked-up windows. If you could actually hear the sounds they have absorbed over the years, what that would be? Silent memories, in these blocked-out passages right here. Lineage and memory. The present embodiment of it all: here it is.

Alastair - I couldn’t help but think of my first memory of theatre. Not quite 2 years old in Scotland, my mum used to take me up a hill to a lady to get eggs. A white cottage. As I arrived at the corner of the cottage at eye level, a white duck we were inches from each other. I was entranced by this image ... this whiteness and 2 black eyes on the sides and this huge yellow thing, this huge yellow banana thing.

If stones could talk, wouldn’t they also be able to forget? The moment can just be there and then it can be forgotten. It’s had its purpose, and then it’s been forgotten and no one can remember it

KIra - Lineage: in art I do things that I’m not sure about. Last year I worked with fertilised eggs, these were incubated and one by one I took out the eggs and I dissected them.
Growth factors start cascades of development of form, cutting up limb buds and growing them in the laboratory, looking at how they developed into muscle and so on. What does it mean aesthetically, ethically , when we work with living materials. There is a series of events, and one leads to another. It’s a cascade.
At times I would break the eggs. ”A bad breakfast scene, a bad kitchen scene. I’ve quite literally got egg on my face [...] I have deep and dark desires and curiosities. [...] What happens when I stray from my territory?”

Smiling man who comes from Plymouth and who use to live in Stonehouse when he was a kid - There is a direct link between talking about lineage and this event - on Darwin’s voyage The Beagle was victualled from RWY.

Lee - Lineage + stray + beagle makes me think about pedigree: used as a way to exclude (in the dog world). Lee’s dad is a retired butcher: after he stopped working he began to make things with bricks and argue about Carl André’s bricks. Is it art if anyone can do it? Who can and who can’t make art?

Maria - Reclaiming something that has been lost. I’m interested in reclaiming the stories of women who haven’t been remembered. I’m keen to keep on to things, so they don’t get lost. [...] Elephants teach their children to trace the bones of the dead, so they will remember, and they will know what has gone before.

Alastair - Accept and embrace the present moment that we’re going through all together [...] I was fascinated by the duck, I’ve never seen anything like ... long white neck and two black things on either side, maybe this gave me the idea for long durational performance? [...] I saw some home movie footage: the camera moving around the back of people. And I saw something I recognised, a jerk of the elbow. It was me: I had no close relation with this person. It’s just a quirk, a trait. I would never have known if I hadn’t seen the footage. If I had not seen the film I would never have realised that I made that quirky movement.

Italian man - For me there is no such thing as a collective memory. Memories are always personal. Lyotard said knowledge is going to be the new power. Which stories are interesting? Some are not. Why are we so fascinated? What is it that makes a memory that everyone can connect to? I am interested in when a story opens up a place: why is it that memories are important, what makes it interesting in itself?

X - When a memory is told it becomes a story. When you have a memory and you tell it, is it still a memory?

Y - We know what we can remember.

Z - The beauty of memory is that is not constant, and it is not knowledge. Performance - a very tangible experience of it that is very hard to relay. I was brought up in South Africa, where the oral tradition is very strong.

Young woman whom I can’t see - My parents were antique dealers, furniture would come and go in the house. My mum put all our family photos in the drawer of a dresser, and my dad shipped this off to the US. I have no photos to tell me what I looked like when I was a child.

A - The photograph as proof that memories are true.

Alastair - Although they do not exist as photographs, the energy is still there, and ”you might find them yet.“

Another woman’s voice - Your lost personal photographs being found by others. You know how people bring a found photograph to a performance workshop. There may be lots of performances about your childhood, for all you know.

Alastair - Framing: sometimes it’s useful to have an invisible frame. It must be something to do with being a painter: ”You enjoy having a capacity to frame and reframe.“

Woman with glasses in a white woollen shawl and brown-grey hair drinking from a large white china mug - Memory is like an eloquent editor. It’s as much about the person remembering, as the memory. Let the actual memory decay and keep the actualité. I’m a fine artist and I work in melting ice.

Someone else I can’t see - Why keep a record?

Woman with glasses in a white woolen shawl and brown-grey hair drinking from a large white china mug - I pick up stones for memories. I pick it up and I know it’s a memory, although it’s not always the memory of that object.

Kira - coming from Ireland, storytelling and songs are ‘it’.

Lois (?) - Who brought me here to this moment?

Alastair’s memory - the stench of the tramp, as a young painter. ”It’s cold“ - it was the tramp in the corner. A few minutes later a voice said ”It’s warm, isn’t it?“ [Old black leather jacket, patterned knitted black woolly hat pulled down with plaited black wool ties hanging down on either side of his face] I was trapped. What he said was always at the back of my mind. [Kindly Santa white beard profile]

[Toes cold, shivery outer thighs. Who brought me here to this moment? For me it is a chain of people cascading back through the lineage: Roberta Mock; Richard Layzell; my mother ‘in character’ (masquerade) on stage in Berengaria; Mrs Flegg reading The Midnight Folk to me at bedtime; my three imaginary childhood friends: Toni, Betti, and the dark one whose name I never remembered.]

Lois (?) - I have friends who have died but who have a Facebook page, and people still write to them.

Alastair - ”Memory is such a distorting thing. It expand and distorts so much ... The mind augments and does all sorts of exploratory tangential things with events.”

KIra - her friend who is a film-maker and who documented a performance: she followed her closely, walking down the stairs as she fell down them, mirroring movement, had written herself into the manoeuvres, partnering KIra’s perfomance with her camera: “coming down the stairs with me.”
Also, documentation of performance where cameras are given priority over the people at the event, and over-documentation when the energy and attention is in the recording and record, not the moment.

4.20pm Laptop battery ran out

There was an exchange between Kira and Alastair about ‘inhabitation’ and the capturing of ‘moments’, using the moving camera to follow the performing body. How difficult it is to record on camera the states of mind, of being, when we engage with performance work.

Kira - “Can we capture that moving stillness and that ephemerality?”

Alastair - “Sometimes, through inference, even though it’s a still [photograph] it somehow manages to convey the spirit in the form that it is.”

Lois - 90 minutes ... Add to the lineage: “the long table is open source. I’m still experimenting.”
Reading room
Old Performance magazines. In one, a review of a performance in the 1980s by Richard Layzell at the Gate in Notting Hill that I went to. I remember the upstairs space, a bit creaky, painted grey, quite small. I was there. At another event, when I was still a student, I remember meeting Rob La Frenais the editor of Performance, and him being interested in my work.

I like the little library cards.
Screening: Seven Easy Pieces 9.00pm - 10.40pm

Fully kitted out in coat, scarf and grey felt hat; and Lidl clementine left over from Christmas. Jason with a friend who has started a PhD at Exeter University. Roberta, at the centre.

I deliberately didn’t look at any information about this; so, my unmediated writing to the film as it happened: