by Garry Cook (published on Double Negative website)
This is an article I was commissioned to write by Liverpool-based, north-west focused arts website Double Negative and their #BeACritic project.
You can see the Double Negative article here in all its glory with photos and everything here.
The article was also a top recommendation by website Cureditor.
Normal Rules Do Not Apply: The Realities of Being a Live Artist
It is obvious from the passion displayed by its practitioners that live art is here to stay. If we can give artists in the North-West more moral and financial support, says Garry Cook, then who knows what they could end up producing?
As live-art continues to position itself at the cutting edge of performance, the North-West of England has established itself as an innovator in this ultra-niche area. But just how difficult is it to write, produce and deliver inventive performance in this genre – and what support is available for its artists?
Good, contemporary live art focuses on creating experiences while pushing the boundaries between humour and despair, surrealism and reality, confession and misinformation. The genre sits somewhere between satire and social criticism: where inhibitions and standard politically correct rules do not necessarily apply. It is this attention to detail which makes collaboration, support networks and, ultimately, funding so crucial to a live artist’s future development.
I’ve seen live-art executed brilliantly by artists: such as Jade Montserrat’s homage to Josephine Baker, Shadowing Josephine; or Frances Kay’s hugely hypnotic live wine drinking and critique of beauty and conformity, Sorry. Then I’ve seen it delivered brutally. Female duo LEAK who, wrapped in cling film, pissed and defecated into mixing bowls before simulating sex acts on each other on the floor of a dirty basement toilet (where the emphasis was less on simulating and more on stimulating). As I said, normal rules do not apply.
The North-West is incredibly fortunate to have a well-established support network for artists. Venues like Contact Theatre, Z-Arts and the Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) (all Manchester) put on their own events, as well as hosting exciting external happenings — like Manchester International Festival, Domestic (‘Performance stripped bare’), Emergency (‘A free day-out for the curious’) and Flare International Festival of New Theatre. New arts venue HOME acts as a sort of bridge between these and conventional theatre. In Preston, the University of Central Lancashire is doing great things with its growing Derelict live art programme.
For individual shows, active organisations like hÅb – which has been around since the mid-1990s but started running Word of Warning (WoW) in 2012 — are crucial: not only for development, but by also offering a sense of artist inclusion through their consistently engaging and active profile. But WoW – who are also behind the aforementioned Domestic and Emergency festivals — are just one segment in a complex network of support for artists.
Take The Midnight Soup, for example. Performed by Leo Burtin, it is a beautifully surreal performance, delivered across a dinner table where the audience are the guests, helping to prepare and eat the food. The show, about suicide and family, has been hugely supported: not just by a large creative production team, but also funders, including ARC (Stockton Arts Centre), Live At LICA (now renamed Lancaster Arts at Lancaster University), Talk with LEAP development agency, Lancaster University and Word of Warning. Additional support — providing rehearsal and workshop space, technical equipment, and places to sleep — came from The Lowry (Salford), Residence artist community (Bristol) and Space Six studios (Newcastle).
Then there are the individuals: Mark Whitelaw, core artistic collaborator; Becci Sharrock, creative producer; David McBride, lighting designer (week to 10 days); Lucille Acevedo-Jones, costume/set designer (week to 10 days); Phil Cole, paid intern and production manager/stage manager; Adam York Gregory, website, design, promotional materials; and Rajni Shah, mentor. It is a long list.
Burtin says the unofficial list is even longer: “On top of these guys are all the artist-friends whom I tested bits of material on, who came in for an hour or two during rehearsals etc… That list is ever growing. Without the support I got from other people and organisations, there would be no show.”
On the issue of financial support, Chris Fagan, the man behind Liverpool’s The1st4 platform, puts it succinctly: “Funding is crucial; there isn’t enough money in putting on live-art events for it to become fully self sufficient.”
But while funded artist support is great for those who can get it, there clearly needs to be a more general sustainable model where artists can earn a living from touring work, a practice which is becoming increasingly expensive. The industry knows it has got problems in this area. Arts Council England launched a £45million Strategic Touring Fund in 2012 to research and address these issues; it is still open for works spanning 2015-18 (the last deadline is Friday 22 January 2016 for those that are interested).
Fuel Theatre has had success in developing touring; working with They Eat Culture in Preston on increased local engagement while developing a show with Andy Smith entitled The Preston Bill. Part of this project included offering bursaries to local artists to develop work in response, and using the ‘Pay What You Decide’ model (already used successfully by Stockton’s ARC).
Of course, attaining funding is an art form in itself. Some are simply better at getting it than others. It is vital that more support is given to developing artists who are not proficient in writing applications. For every supported artist, how many struggle to finance and develop their work before giving up the dream for good?
Just one interaction between a producer or developer could be the difference between an artist going on to greater things, or opting for the nine to five comfort of a call centre. You can only get so many ‘regrettably your application has been unsuccessful on this occasion’ emails before despondency leads to retirement. Failed application feedback is the most common way this interaction is carried out currently, but you would be surprised how many organisations offer this service but fail to deliver on it.
It is no secret that the biggest problem facing live art is its ability to reach out to new people. Too often, the innovative, ground-breaking performers working within live art are performing to other innovative, ground-breaking performers. It is almost a closed shop – but not by choice. This is where councils are failing performers. Arts development officers, along with libraries and museums, must offer more support to artists. They have knowledge and reach in marketing and local engagement terms which no artist could achieve on their own.
Though things are slowly changing, too often arts development officers have been keen to bask in the glory of an independently-run event on their patch while failing to offer support in the development of artists and their work. There is evidence of this changing now with some institutions, like Liverpool’s Bluecoat gallery and the Harris Museum in Preston, who are both bringing live-art into their buildings with increasing success. In Lancaster, their multi-disciplinary First Friday event generates a buzz around the city every month.
UCLan’s Derelict festival has also enjoyed success by placing performers in city centre venues. But it is clear that there is space in the North-West for festivals to match the profile of Fierce in Birmingham and Bristol’s In Between Time. Fagan agrees that new festivals – backed up by performance being incorporated into exhibition programmes within museums – is the best way to foster new talent.
“I think to see it develop and grow there needs to be some kind of platform or festival which attracts established and new artists to come and work in the area”, Fagan notes. “That’s one possible way that live art could become sustainable. One development I have seen over the last few years is the inclusion of performance as part of a gallery’s exhibition programme.”
Addressing the problem of earning money, Fagan is blunt: “I don’t know of any artist supporting themselves directly through their art. Many teach or run workshops. Many, especially the younger artists, support themselves through the regular part time bar or office jobs.”
Lancashire-born artist Frances Kay, whose first major performance was at Poolside Emergency in Liverpool (an off-shoot of Emergency, Manchester). She studied a theatre and performance foundation degree at UCLan. Kay describes a successful contemporary performer as “an artist who is making enough money to sustain their performance”. Kay finances her career with bar work at the local Wetherspoons.
“There are levels of making money as an artist, but the most general answer is it’s pretty difficult,” she adds. “Again, it depends on the life-style you want to live. There are alternative ways of living, where so much money is not an issue, but to live, say, a ‘normal lifestyle’ in UK – then I honestly do not know whether I could work full-time as an artist. I would like to. I do know, however that it is not any time soon. My view of being able to work as an artist full-time [would] include more than just performing and finding another way to bring in some dosh, [possibly] relating to performance, theatre or education.
“I do not feel I could end a career as an artist until I have attempted to work full-time, which has not happened yet. I have always worked full-time in pubs, clubs, and shops whilst being a performer. Although I do know that if the adrenaline rush of creating or performing a piece is lost, then it’s probably time to hang up.”
It is obvious from the passion displayed by its practitioners that live art is here to stay. But if we can give them a bit of support — moral and financial — then who knows what they could end up producing?
This article has been commissioned for the collaborative #BeACritic project — an annual programme of mentoring and commissioned critical articles for North-West-based writers, initiated and supported by The Double Negative, Liverpool John Moores University and Arts Council England. See more here
Are you an artist or organisation interested in developing a touring programme? Arts Council England’s £45million Strategic Touring Fund is still open, for works spanning 2015-18. Last deadline Friday 22 Jan 2016, see link