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Being, not performing

RealTime talks with Zane Trow

George Chakravarti, Shakti George Chakravarti, Shakti
Since the 1960s at least, the body as raw material for art, as a canvas or screen, as a site for artistic exploration, as a kind of (anti-)performance in real time, has generated insight and alarm, especially where it’s been the artist’s body and the means have been endurance or invasion, often by cutting. There are many forms of performance art, even if they are rarely encountered these days in Australia, but in Europe what has become a tradition, or perhaps unfinished business, is still well and truly alive and provocative. Some of it is coming to Australia.

Zane Trow, Artistic Director of Brisbane’s Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts, met Nikki Milican at the 2000 Adelaide Festival of the Arts. Milican was there as part of the New Moves (new territories) venture with the festival and the Australia Council. The Choreolab workshop in Adelaide was the precursor to some 30 Australian choreographers and dancers participating in the New Moves (new territories) international dance event in Glasgow shortly after. In 2002 Millican invited 2 of those artists, Lisa O’Neill and Cazerine Barry, to participate in new territories, a celebration of new choreography and performance, incorporating New Moves, Scotland’s international festival of contemporary choreography, and The National Review of Live Art, a unique annual event which has been running since 1981—and since 1984 under Milican’s directorship. NLRA is focussed on performance art, contemporary performance and time-based art, all under the Live Art banner. Trow had attended the 2001 event and commissioned the works by O’Neill and Barry that Milican picked up. Now it’s his turn to bring several British artists, Milican, Lois Keidan of the Live Art Development Agency and a Glasgow arts journalist to Brisbane in October for the next stage of what he hopes will be a growing pattern of exchange and market development.

The NRLA is exemplary, says Trow, in providing infrastructure for performance: “It has done so for 20 years and you can feel that resonance…It brings together the young and the established and creates an energy.” The variety and richness of the performance forms Milican presents is evident in Edward Scheer’s report on the 2002 event in RealTime 49 (see also The festival featured over 200 professional artists from more than 12 countries across 4 continents. For his small but intensive 3 and a half day first-time program, Trow is focusing on performance art (as opposed to theatre-based contemporary performance): “I’m a lover of performance art because it is so anti-theatrical, so casual and off-handed, and it continues to investigate time, space and the body in significant ways.” He thinks the NRLA has been invaluable in nurturing performance, creating a safe house for the development of risky work, commissioning new work for many years and spawning offshoots like the London-based Live Art Development Agency (, an organisation which receives funding from the British Government and allocates it to the performance community (a model we should be giving serious thought to in Australia).

Australian performance artists have not been able to sustain careers focused entirely on their practice in the way that UK and European counterparts have done for over 20 years. Trow would like this issue debated, especially as he thinks that Australian performance artists are as good as any, more eclectic and often with a different sensibility with regard to the body, hence the acclaim for Lisa O’Neill’s idiosyncratic performances in Glasgow. It’s been a long time, he says, since the 1994 celebration, 25 Years of Performance Art (RT 5) and the appearance of Anne Marsh’s Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia, 1969-1992 (book and CD-ROM, OUP 1993). While names like Mike Parr, Jill Orr, Linda Sproul and Barbara Campbell have currency, and venues like Artspace are committed to occasional performance art events, the form is not prominent and careers are provisional. In Glasgow in 2001, Trow relished meeting artists “who are still ‘crazy’ and have careers as performance artists…appearing in Vienna, London, New York, and are recognised, and survive as artists and teachers in their field.” Trow also thinks that the NRLA “tells you a lot more about Britain than the RSC and Oasis.” The performers he’s bringing out, he says, offer a snapshot of British culture.

Given Milican’s enthusiam for Australian work, Trow sees the exchange with the NRLA as creating “a pathway into Europe in a different way from the Australia Council’s Performing Arts Market and the big arts festivals.” He’s also encouraged by the likes of Daryl Buckley, Artistic Director of the ELISION new music ensemble, who has successfully worked with a group of European producers to create an international audience for his company. For these producers, Millican and others, like Maria Magdelena Schwagermann (formerly of Berlin’s Hebbel Theatre and now Artistic Director of the Zurich Arts Festival), Australia is a hothouse of artistic creativity and distinctive inventiveness.

Trow describes the NRLA at the Powerhouse as a mix of installation, performance, workshop and dialogue. Performances will also be presented in Perth by Artrage (the longtime fringe festival is now under the new artistic directorship of Marcus Canning; see interview in RT#51). Trow is hoping that the visit will provide an opportunity for Australian practitioners to come and meet their British counterparts. It’s also an opportunity to hear from Milican and Keidan just how live art is nurtured, regarded and archived in the UK. The NRLA has a close association with Nottingham Trent University which has recently digitised 20 years of documentation of UK performance art. It could also be an opportunity to hear about the Contemporary Theatre Practice course at Glasgow’s Royal Academy of Music & Drama—Milican is Chief External Examiner. Lois Keidan (formerly Director of Live Art at London’s ICA) will speak about the NRLA, the Live Art Development Agency, curation and government arts policies and the support for performance across Europe. Mary Brennan, a mainstream journalist and passionate supporter of contemporary performance will address the media’s relationship with art.

Trow describes Michael Mayhew’s work as “extreme.” A preoccupation with death and decay is realised in a “durational work in a coffin in which he damages himself with glass and creates puppet icons of the body.” Mayhew has been creating works since the mid 80s, travelling “through the disciplines of dance, theatre, large scale and site-specific.” He is currently Artist in Residence at NRLA. In the notes provided on the performers, Mayhew writes that while in Australia he will search for a sister he has not seen for 38 years, and “I hope to travel to the desert to play with fire.”

Richard Layzell, says Trow, is “very anti-theatre”, “one of the first to stand in the street with a cardboard box on his head.” His “sustained anti-performance” has included a lecture on varieties of ducting tape “delivered in a bad 70s safari suit…funny, but real and with no theatrical pretense.” His work is “a mix of video, spoken word and meaningless gesture…so well-formed, a well-honed meaninglessness developed over many years.” Layzell is a member of Rescen, a research group of performers, composers and choreographers based at Middlesex University. For NRLA at the Powerhouse, Layzell will present Performing Everyday; it’s about “process, making, not performing, the art of cleaning, personal history, the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi and Layzell’s alter ego.” An intriguing aspect of Layzell’s career (which includes international performances, a widely seen interactive installation and several books) is his role as Visionaire for AIT Ltd, an arts-industry crossover company established in 1995, “recently voted in the top 5 companies to work for in the UK.”

Kira O’Reilly, whose work Trow sees as having kinship with that of Mike Parr and Stelarc, invades her own body in acts of self mutilation. He describes the work as demanding, as “monumentally beautiful and very considered”, “asking the most difficult question…how far can art go? Far beyond questions about voyeurism and ‘is the theatre dead’? It is a work of art, not self-abuse.” O’Reilly might perform (the demands of the work preclude an early decision); she’ll certainly talk and show videos of her work. She writes: “Making direct and explicit interventions in my body, I have bled, scored and marked and scarred by way of investigating the unruly and chaotic materiality of my substance and the disparate narratives at play within. This action begins where words fail me.” A 1998 graduate in Fine Arts from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, she has been the recipient of a grant, a visual arts award and 6 commissions.

George Chakravarti’s video installation, Shakti, fuses images of the Mona Lisa and Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and creation with that of the artist himself. Born in New Delhi, Chakravarti was raised as a Catholic but also came under the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism from within his family. He writes: “Shakti integrates painting and performance and delivers it as a time-based medium. An hour-long piece in real time, Shakti is viewed as a painting. I see the piece as a self-portrait, placing myself as the hybrid figure…I question my own identity and experiences of gender, race and sexuality, originating from the East and located in the West.” Based in London, Chakravarti is currently completing his Masters Degree at the Royal College of Art.

The 3 and half days of the NRLA in Australia at Brisbane’s Powerhouse promises to be intense and provocative, another (hopefully ongoing) significant addition to Brisbane’s burgeoning contemporary arts scene and a great opportunity to gain insight into the nurturing, funding and proselytising of performance in Europe. Most of all it’s about meeting and witnessing the work of leading British performance artists. To add to the frisson, you might think of enrolling in Richard Frayzell’s performance workshop, “which will explore communication, the irrational and the state of ‘not performing’. This is suitable for all ages and abilities, no previous experience is necessary.”

The National Review of Live Art, Brisbane Powerhouse, in partnership with New Moves International, Oct 15-18.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 35

© RealTime ; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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