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Third Angel, Inspiration Exchange, Compass Festival of Live Art Third Angel, Inspiration Exchange, Compass Festival of Live Art
photo Jonathan Turner
IN NOVEMBER 2011, WITH TONGUES SUBTLY POKED IN CHEEKS, FIELD THEORY UNDERTOOK DURATIONAL LATTES, A FOUR-DAY CHAT FEST DISCUSSING THE WHO, WHAT, WHERE, HOW AND WHY OF LIVE ART WITH CULTURAL LEADERS IN SYDNEY, WITH A “FINAL REPORT” PRESENTED AT PERFORMANCE SPACE.

Live Art is a sphere that continues to gain traction in Australia, though the then-artistic director of Performance Space, Daniel Brine, noted in his Durational Lattes discussion that it is a term that “has a specific relationship to the British scene.” Shying away from reliance on cultural importation is a valid position, but might negate lessons offered from international perspectives, not to mention a dialogue with similar practices that have long existed in Australia, albeit under a different name. These are some of the thoughts I carried with me as I set off to the Compass Live Art Festival and Symposium in Leeds whilst on a recent trip to the UK.

Compass is an initiative forged between Leeds-based Waymarking (Sarah Spanton) and the Arts Council England, and led by a consortium including festival curator Annie Lloyd and the organisation East Street Arts. Compass presents events throughout the year, but the main focus is the Live Art Festival that couples a weekend-long artistic program with a symposium program of workshop discussions.

The artistic program happened in markets, an empty shopfront, the City Museum, the streets and in galleries and theatres. Activating the city with art in unexpected locations provided a gentle and occasionally critical counterpoint to the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy that seemed to be going on around, and mostly obliviously to, the festival. ‘Exchange’ is now a familiar theme in contemporary art, with artists looking to propose alternatives to capitalist modes of economic exchange and viewing the artwork as a point of exchange for artists, audiences and the public. A number of the works in Compass asked participants to contribute something of their own, and then consider what they received in return.

Brian Lobel, Carpe Minuta Prima, Compass Festival of Live Art Brian Lobel, Carpe Minuta Prima, Compass Festival of Live Art
photo Jonathan Turner
Brian Lobel’s Carpe Minuta Prima presented an explicit monetary exchange, appropriate given its location at the commercially purposed Leeds Kirkgate Market. Lobel would buy a minute of your time for £1 and in an automated exchange your minute was captured on video. These were later sold as DVDs from a stand for £1, obviously not replicating commercial systems in which Lobel’s labour, additional resources, profit margins and ‘supply and demand’ would have been factored into the resale, but instead creating an almost naïve or Utopian economy where one equals one. I didn’t sell, but instead bought a minute, as did my festival hosts whose living room we later sat in watching the DVDs. We got advice (the best fish and chips in town), a performance (a mimed driving sequence) and a plea for help that will never be answered. I wondered how much participants considered what they were selling. The ephemeral minute that was bought turned into their image captured, distributed and out of their control.

Jenny Lawson, Bake me a Cake, Compass Festival of Live Art Jenny Lawson, Bake me a Cake, Compass Festival of Live Art
photo Jonathan Turner
In a former United Colours of Benetton shop, another work proposed to take people’s stories and turn them into cake. Jenny Lawson’s imperatively named Bake Me a Cake invited you to drink tea, share your story, choose your ingredients and she would bake a cake to your design. When I arrived I found something of a production line of volunteer bakers and icers. I was offered no tea, but managed to find a piece of paper and a pen and scrawl out a story of significance to me involving cake. I chatted to the women writing next to me but we didn’t share our stories. We left them on a growing pile. If the aim of this work was to make all the participants’ ‘life-cake’ on a single weekend, it was destined for failure. On Sunday afternoon we returned for free cake. Lawson had scrapbooked the masses of outpourings into an impromptu ‘recipe-book.’ Flipping through it provided no intimacy, and even the cakes-from-life that we munched on seemed disconnected from the origins of their aphoristic titles—“Divorce cake” for example, which was particularly tasty.

If exchanges are meant to be fair and balanced and offer something of value to all involved, Third Angel might have hit the nail on the head with Inspiration Exchange. The charismatic Alexander Kelly sat in a Victorian period model kitchen in the Leeds City Museum cataloguing the things that inspire people. You told your story to him and the cramped kitchen audience and then gave it a name to be recorded. In return he chose a card and recited a previous participant’s inspirational story. When people told their stories, they shared with great personal investment. When Kelly re-performed them, whimsy and banality were absorbed by the skill of a master storyteller, always looking to transfer inspiration.

The ‘bigger-ticket’ events recalled the indebtedness of Live Art in the UK to pioneering experimental theatre groups such as Yorkshire locals Forced Entertainment and the English-Belgian group Reckless Sleeper. Reckless Sleeper’s The Last Supper interrogated storytelling and history-making with what transpired almost as a word-association game of recalling the notable dead and literally eating their words, squares of paper disappearing into the performers’ mouths once their contents were recited. Performers and audience sat at dinner tables on the stage, intimately sharing the last meals of executed prisoners as distributed through a kind of raffle. We considered martyrs and criminals alike as defined by their last words and meals. We considered whether we were supposed to eat the cheeseburger and decided we were. Forced Entertainment’s And on the Thousandth Night… (see RT60) further undid the devices of narrative theatre. The pay-offs of duration in performance were explored as themes of half-told stories resurfaced over six hours of stop-start “Once upon a times” that were continuously elaborated and expanded, becoming more and more ridiculous.

It was the Symposium program of workshop-discussions that most defined the issues and politics concerning Live Art as artists, students and academics from a range of disciplines, arts workers and government body representatives mooted questions of access, city making, intimacy, dialogue, touring, funding and more. In the Symposium plenary it was noted by many that more discussions were started than could be resolved. Live Art continues to skirt definition as an art form, and yet still succeeds as a discursive strategy, a research engine and a creative space.


Compass Festival of Live Art and Compass Symposium, various locations, Leeds, UK, Nov 25-27; http://compassliveart.org.uk

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 6

© Megan Garrett-Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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