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If you’re not into the arts, not involved in the world of performance in some way, if you live a normal life, then you won’t know about events like Emergency, where performances from the superb to the surreal come at you thick and fast and free.
It’s not a revelation to say that performance art, contemporary performance or live art is a niche thing.
Like any potential hobby, day out or experience, performance art is competing against all the noise and bluster that is modern life. Work, family, football, boozing, more work, shopping. Or whatever.
All of which means that stuff like performance art festivals are easily missed as we torpedo our way through our own lives. And then, even if you are one of the few who become aware, circumstances do not always allow for you to attend.
But there is another reason why we don’t turn up to performance arts events. And it’s an important one. It’s that people – people like you and I – don’t understand them. We don’t understand what a particular event is, what is supposed to happen, what we will experience and each performance (or installation as they are sometimes called) is supposed to mean.
This is a huge problem for performance art. Giving the big sell to those whose attention you have grabbed for a fleeting moment. Whether that fleeting moment is handing them a flyer when they are struggling with their shopping, them reading a poster on the wall of a supportive coffee shop or seeing a lovely image below a tweet on your Twitter feed, it’s still a hard sell.
It’s a hard sell because it’s hard to describe work that can be obtuse, ironic, intellectual or surreal – and often all of these.
And let me tell you – and this could come as a great shock to those of you who don’t do art, or don’t profess to have a grip on it – even those involved in this world don’t understand it all. Even if they say they do. I’ve seen them nodding as they’ve been discussing: the woman holding a set of blinds and flicking them, or the body wrapped in a white blanket lying in a heap on the stairwell. And as for the lady standing naked facing a pile of A4 paper piled to her height, slowly stitching her body to the stack with long pieces of thread, the less said the better. It’s complicated (but I will write about her in another blog).
Welcome to this wacky world!
Art has a habit of scaring people. And that’s true even of the more traditional stuff. You know what I mean, the painting which is a splurge of colour a five-year-old could have created, or the abstract plywood tree you saw once in a gallery in London.
That sort of sh*t is bad enough. So how are people supposed to compute this live art, where the work includes a person doing something so freaking weird that the viewer is left wondering about the mental state of mind of the creator?
Well, let me put it like this, bluntly: You don’t have to understand what you’re seeing (when it comes to performance art). You just don’t. So relax.
Okay, so sometimes understanding helps. And sometimes it is important. But, believe me, sometimes you can have something explained to you, still not have a clue what it’s about and then experience the piece in complete bafflement.
But it’s the experiencing which is the most important part of all this. Experiencing the work. Having an experience. Coming away with something memorable.
This experience. Going through one, having one, is central to many artists’ thoughts during the creative process. And that sets contemporary performance apart from, say, contemporary 2D art (such as a painting). Whatever it is performers are creating – and these works often have a hugely significant message behind them, no matter how obscure they initially seem – they are created, in part, to entertain. The bit about making you think is an optional bonus.
And that’s why you should not be afraid of any art, particularly live art, as no matter how pretentious, weird or downright silly it can seem, it wants you to experience it and to like it. The artist wants you to see it (secretly they want you to love it). It needs you, the audience, more than you will ever realise. And not just for the Arts Council evaluation forms they have to fill in.
Which brings us to Emergency, a very specific performance arts festival which does a lot of things (ticking boxes of audience engagement, previewing new work, supporting developing artists) but most importantly is a kind of introductory taster to this wild world.
Emergency uses this subtitle: A Free Day Out For The Curious.
Using language which common people like us understand (bizarre, beautiful, different), Emergency wants people to take a chance and spend a day watching performances like those listed above, alongside more conventional theatre-based ‘shows’. You know what I mean, where the audience sits in seats and someone stands on a stage and well, you know, performs. It’s almost like acting. Just don’t let them hear you call it that.
The main difference with these performances is that usually they have been written by the performers themselves. And rather than telling a narrative story (like a fable, Shakespeare or panto) the narrative can often be much more personal, or have a strong critique of a specific strand of society or culture. It’s this what makes performance art so much better – memorable – than conventional theatre. It’s why those who have experienced it get hooked.
And remember, you don’t have to understand every detail of the things you see – you can just enjoy the experience.
There are contemporary performances taking place all over the country regularly, either as one off shows or in festivals. If you discover one, go and experience it. Ask your local art gallery or independent theatre to point you in the right direction. Your local council (arts department) is a great way to find out about these things. If they don’t help you, report them to the Arts Council for being negligent.
Emergency was organised by Manchester-based producers Word of Warning and STUN, and held at Z-arts in Hulme, Manchester on October 1, 2016. This was the seventeenth edition of the festival. There were 28 performances spread across the day. And believe me, some of them where off the bloody wall.
This article is about performance art and festivals like Emergency are trying to entice new audiences to it. There will be a separate article on this blog, alongside more photos, about both Emergency and Divergency on this blog in due course.
NOTE: Though it might not look it, a performance – say by one person – could have had thousands of pounds spend on it and have had a production crew easily exceeding twenty people. I wrote about this in an article for Double Negative here.
Some of the performances at Emergency 2016 (top to bottom):
Sui Generis by Dominique Baron-Bonarjee
Hollie Miller’s Stigmata
Natalie Ramus’ 16000:3