Notes on the ‘live’

August 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the things I absolutely don’t regret about leaving Warwick is my departure from any connection with the theatre. The campus includes an arts centre with a couple of theatres that put on one or two student productions a term, & a number of smaller spaces where such things occurred; when I first got there, there were a number of student theatre societies & by the time I left a number of students had formed into companies. There were mini-festivals of student theatre in addition to occasional & regular productions, & a strand of theatre at the annual student arts festival, whose bullying representatives made themselves felt for months beforehand. So theatre, at least in the School of Arts, was fairly hegemonic. If you didn’t know people who were acting in plays, you knew people who were producing them or directing them or making sets for them or doing background music for them or promoting them relentlessly, or people in creative writing or theatre studies who were writing or devising them. These categories often overlapped. More than that, theatre was an extension of sociality: theatre people all drank together, had house parties together, what have you; & you, knowing theatre people, drank with a few of them, chatted with them, didn’t know most of them. Theatre, its sociality, & its extensions in song, (mostly ghastly) performance poetry, were important, praise-worthy, ‘real’ in a way that few other things were. To perform, to erect activity in the space-time of the ‘live’, was to do something important, although its importance derived from the doing, the action. To make performance was to do work, & visible work at that: things, you could see in front of you, were really happening. To be ‘live’, in other words, was to be at the centre of things – to have, inherently, the qualities of spontaneity, wit, humour, &c. ad nauseum.

So I move to London, & what do I find? Time Out extolling burlesque, mime & whatever’s on at the National; 20 foot high advertisements for west end shows; micro- & not-so-micro-galleries advertising performances pieces; inch after bloody column-inch of coverage from the bleeding Edinburgh Fringe, where people I’d hoped to have left behind have shows; conferences & events on sound-art led by dubious Deleuzians; ‘expanded’ cinema – cinema for the pseudo-adventurous middle-classes & the perpetually-bored, in other words; gigs & readings where, of course, everyone knows everyone but me; & a Unilever Series at Tate Modern featuring 15 weeks of ‘live art’. Hmmm.

In the first week of The Tanks, there was a symposium on ‘materialising the social’ (I didn’t go, as it was £20. So much for public art, etc.) Claire Bishop, author of the excellent Artificial Hells, was among the speakers, & I imagine that she was the only one much interested in live art’s materialisation of the social, for the obvious reason that that very title stinks of the pseudo-criticality (gah! even that word!) that most contemporary art exercises, as a simultaneous acknowledgement of & attempt to ward off its own paralysis – the mode, no doubt, of everyone else’s responses. The very cast of that title is fraught: it implies that the social itself is hidden to us & that the ‘live’, as something separated, perhaps by only a hair’s breadth, from the social itself, has an epistemological privilege, an ability to make visible, in itself, the invisible of the social. This is not wrong: in a society in which relations between those put through what John Hutnyk calls the individuation machine are mediated by abstracted labour-power, it’s unsurprising that social reality should, in everyday life, remain opaque. But the very nature of the way the ‘live’ is framed suggests one needs to be there, to experience (ah! that fiendish word!) the social-made-visible in an unmediated fashion. Mediated social relations are presented, as if in a conjuring trick, as their own antithesis. Which ignores the empirical, visceral, phenomenological experience we do have of the social, which is – catching up on you in the interstices of the day – that of contradiction.

Art reverts to a popularity contest. For the interning or unpaid or precarious art-worker the exhibition or ‘participatory’ event is simply a site of anxious networking, of the exercise of social skills honed at art-school house-parties &, further back, private school & the entire set of institutions & processes for the inscription of bourgeois social codes on the precocious infant. Which is fair enough: we’ve all read our Bourdieu, we know how these things work, they prove no surprise. But don’t expect me to cheer about it, to take up that essential component of the ‘live’, Enthusiasm. Those of us who came to culture through discontent w/ the protocols of a damaged society – wh/, in my case, manifested in my working-class schools through relentless, vicious bullying – can’t be expected to be pleased to join in with the monotonous replication of those protocols. But expectation, obligation, is precisely the privilege of the ‘live’: if you don’t join in, you’re a stick-in-the-mud, a wet-blanket, a griping malcontent who can’t expect to be stood drinks in the bar afterwards; its atmosphere, channelled through its blaring command to get involved! (before, that is, you lose your chance to), is as dreary & harshly jolly as sports day (from wh/, regrettably, my mother never allowed me to excuse myself). It also (as Bishop has suggested) nicely replicates the browbeating & ontological charlatanry of enterprise culture & its mirror in workfare & CBT.

I haven’t come across much writing on this: the experience of being made to feel, by those enthusiasts of culture who should, by rights, be allies, that your work – in my case, as a writer, critic & theorist – is utterly worthless, an extension, naturally enough, of one’s social worthlessness. Higher education & the ‘adult world’ beyond it, it turns out, merely recapitulate the idiocy & agony of high-school. Even my entertainments – films, records, books – are judged secondary, because solitary, because mediated. (I remember a conversation w/ R. about records. She enthused over music b/c it was a communal activity: anyone could share a song, or headphones, & hence an experience. I was baffled by the very idea, & said so. Wh/ is a shame, as the only thing we had in common was a love for Amerie. & uh boys I guess.)

There is a lot to be written about the temporality that the notion of the ‘live’ implies. It’s worth noting that it is not the ‘real’ – as in ‘real life’, as in ‘IRL’ – but the ‘live’. It implies at once currency – one speaks of a ‘live project’ or a ‘live debate’, or of being ‘live’ to social conditions – & separation from the present moment of social opacity. Each performance, it seems to suggest, is an attempt to loosen the bonds that prevent us from returning to a prelapsarian state before alienation. (Most artists at least pretend not to be naive enough to think their situations actually do re-establish such a state, even temporarily.) JGV has written on precisely this question in an excellent recent piece on the Marina Abramovic documentary. It’s worth remembering that the ‘presentism’ advocated by Bifo & T.J. Clark comes across as merely an endorsement of the effects of neoliberalism on temporarility, which, as Fredric Jameson has suggested, consists ultimately of “a reduction to the present”. But if this is so, then this present, too, is the site on wh/ social struggle must be conducted. It seems obvious enough that the art-world’s recent enthusiasm for the ‘live’ is a reaction to the digital’s increasing extension of social mediation, a correlate to the John Lewis-ification of society advocated by Philip Blond & liberals alike. My own enthusiasm for mediation, at least in this regard, is ambivalent, uncoupled as it is from the historic opportunities represented by cinema during Fordism, etc etc. But if I have any recourse to ‘live’ entertainment, it will be that of the zoo, the circus or the fairground, not pseudo-serious cabaret or contemporary dance. (All great art, writes Adorno, “partakes of the circus, but fails as soon as it imitates it”. One feels robbed, too, on reading, in Minima Moralia, that German zoos hired brass bands who played on their thoroughfares.)

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