Sustaining the Ephemeral


VAI Professional Development Masterclass with Nigel Rolfe at the Dublin Live Art Festival 2013, photo by Fiona Killeen


During the Dublin Live Art Festival, which took place at the Back Loft from 25 – 29 September 2013, Visual Artists Ireland presented a number of professional development events that addressed a wide range of issues concerning performance art. Included in these events was a master class taught by internationally acclaimed artist Nigel Rolfe and a seminar entitled ‘Sustaining Performance Art Practices’. Both the master class and the seminar raised interesting points and posed questions regarding what it means to be a performance artist living and working in Ireland. As a new arrival to the Dublin art scene, I found that these sessions provided an opportunity to become familiar with local art making and critical practices.

Historically, performance art has emerged from the experimental margins of art making, where the artist makes use of the body, space / place and time to create live works. These works tend to be performed for an audience, though an audience is not required. Performance art is commonly ephemeral and may be connected to a particular site and context, though it can also be documented and distributed by means of other artistic media. With such a vague definition, what does it really mean to be a performance artist? In the master class, Rolfe emphasised that it is not a matter of “anything goes”, but that defining performance art is a complex process and contingent on the cultural context of the work’s development and execution.

Rolfe opened the master class with a lecture, providing a historical overview of performance art in addition to contextualising his own practice within these parameters. Instead of serving as a standard review of art history, his presentation drew connections between the works of established performance artists with conceptual themes and questions, including: action, materials, process and presence. Incorporating anecdotes from his experience into this rich canon of performance art, Rolfe laid out some potential guidelines for being performance artists, and discussed how to elevate and foster this creative practice. The day ended with an hour-long group performance with each participant performing actions while incorporating a range of everyday materials and objects – including yarn, marbles, flowers, and pieces of clothing – which resulted in a cacophonous session of motion, sound and images.

The ‘Sustaining Performance Art Practices’ seminar offered an opportunity to address the more practical questions associated with being a performance artist in Ireland. Moderated by Cliodhna Shaffrey and including speakers Nigel Rolfe and Dr Áine Phillips, this panel brought artists who are nurturing a live practice in conversation with seasoned veterans. Some of the discussed topics were: the advantages and disadvantages of performance art collectives; sustaining a practice in an ephemeral art form; issues concerning documentation; the role of gender in developing and establishing a career as a performance artist; and how to create room for criticality in contemporary Irish performance art.

While Rolfe highlighted his status as a ‘loner’ in the art world, Phillips emphasised the importance of artist collectives, especially in times of social and economic hardship. Such groups help build audiences and offer opportunities for artists to produce work and engage in a critical discourse. However, these positions are not mutually exclusive, as it is possible to develop an identity as an individual artist within a collective that can provide key resources, especially in the formative stages of an artistic practice. A group or scene may pose challenges to furthering an individual’s work, though these do not have to be incompatible and it is possible to negotiate between the two.

Artist groups also provide support that offers a more concrete understanding of what constitutes performance art. This point is significant since the uncertainty and challenges in defining performance art has implications for an artist’s professional practice. As noted in the seminar, during financial recessions, performance art tends to flourish because of the readiness and relative cheapness of raw materials. Despite this, there is still a need for financial resources to sustain a practice. For example, obtaining proper funding can be a challenge, as it can be hard to categorise performance works on grant applications. Even though art institutions are increasingly accepting and promoting performance art, at times even sponsoring the creation of such works, it can still be treated as the bastard child of the art world, despite efforts to distinguish its historical lineage. Also, since many performance works live events, finding opportunities to stage pieces becomes another hurdle. Subsequently, numerous festivals and performance events, such as the Dublin Live Art Festival, have popped up around the world. This raises another issue: unlike other visual arts media, a performance work usually means that the artist must attend the event, which may be costly.

The topic of payment for artists evoked a highly emotional response during the seminar. It is not uncommon to find an artist who has a day job in addition to maintaining a professional artistic practice. There is a concern that younger artists do not have the time to give their art the depth and care it requires, since they are preoccupied with working just to make ends meet, while simultaneously developing a practice that may leave pieces and ideas half-baked. This, combined with the pressure to be visible in order to stay relevant, offers a new set of challenges for younger artists. From what I gathered in the seminar discussion, many performance artists working in Ireland produce work for little or no payment, with artists regularly relying on their own funding to present pieces – a practice that has become commonplace. Rolfe challenged this acceptance, and raised several questions: Does this state of affairs create a space for criticality in performance art? Is it enough to just have a group of people creating work and supporting each other in the process? Instead of being able to effectively critique work, should we be satisfied with the chance to create work at all?

I consider these significant points not just for performance artists, but also for the visual arts in general. In the current art world, plutocratic collectors like Charles Saatchi are treated as gatekeepers of taste and many works are considered an aesthetic success based on popular draw in museums and the prices garnered on the auction block. The assumption that artists are willing to work for free perpetuates this state of affairs, which ultimately causes more harm than good for creative workers in the neoliberal economy. In this system, artists may experience little or no monetary return, which leads, potentially, to financial and creative losses for the individual. At this point in time, when performance art has made a strong enough impression on the canons of art history, it is not enough to just create work. We must also promote a critical discourse around this work while treating these artists as cultural workers worthy of being paid for their time and efforts.

How then does a performance artist develop and maintain a professional practice? What I gathered from Rolfe’s class and the seminar is the importance of working. Like any other artistic practice, performance art involves a skill set and craft that must be supported and developed. The collection of and interaction with materials, generating a sensitivity to time and space, and increasing awareness of the body, are some of the ways that a performance artist can further her practice in the studio. It is also crucial to use live events as opportunities to develop relations with an audience. Peer groups can be useful in cultivating and critiquing ideas, as finding a creative common ground with other artists can help break the isolation of studio work. Rolfe, however, warned against becoming too dependent on these groups, emphasising the importance of generating an interior dialogue and not becoming tied to the confines of a group or clique.

From these sessions, it is evident that performance art is thriving in Dublin, with Irish artists developing their own brand. This brings up an issue that was not addressed in either the seminar or master class: How does Irish performance art stand up in the transnational art world? I feel that increased scholarship and critical discourse concerning Irish performance art in both the regional and transnational contexts would further its development, offering unforeseen opportunities for artists working locally and abroad.

Dr EL Putnam is a visual artist and independent arts scholar based in Dublin.

First published in the Jan / Feb 2014 Visual Artists’ News Sheet


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