This was a presentation I gave at Queen Mary University of London on Monday 11th March as part of the module on Live Art Disciplines. For more information on Performance Magazine visit the online archive.
I am going to talk about Performance Magazine. My presentation is informed by my analysis of the first issue published in 1979 and some later issues from the 1980s. The last issue was published in 1992.
In preparing for this presentation I have learned that this institution was a driving force in naming and therefore shaping live art. It did this simply by being one of the first institutions in the UK to bring together a range of activities under the heading of live art and was therefore instrumental in not only shaping but establishing this field. At the same time, the publication favoured an intersubjective style of writing that permeates live art discourse today and is, arguably the publication’s most significant impact on the field.
The publication, or institution, to use the language of this module, provides a snapshot of what, at a certain point was gathered together under the banner of live art. The magazine regularly contained notices and adverts for forthcoming events as well as reviews of shows in pubs and fringe theatres and more informal performances on the streets of London and in disused buildings. By documenting these events this institution has provided an overview of diverse forms of performance work by artists from the Kipper Kids to Yoko Ono.
As Dominic Johnson notes in ‘The What, When and Where of Live Art’ Performance Magazine first used the term ‘live art’ in a subscription advert in its seventh issue. In 1981 the publication amended its title to become ‘The Regular Review of Live Art in the UK’. Founding editor, Rob La Frenais suggests that the term ‘live art’ emerged partly to avoid alienating those who might fund performance activity. Performance Magazine helped to establish the concept of live art in the minds of its readers simply by using the term.
This publication must be seen in the context of other performance documentation work such as the UK’s National Review of Live Art archive that holds footage of performances from the National Review of Live Art Festival covering the period from 1986 to 2010. I have looked at other comparable publications that were around in 1979 and it seems that Performance Magazine was perhaps one of the first UK institutions to prioritise a self conscious form of discourse in which people writing about performance wrote in detail about their own intersubjective relationship with the work. For example, in the first issue, dramatist, Bryony Lavery, in response to a People Show performance at Hampstead Theatre, writes:
“Frankly, the audience were foxed. Afterwards, four dazed old ladies, used to watching Quite Different Stuff, sat in the row next to me taking it in turns to say: "Well! And what was all that about?" I tried to sneak out past them, but spotting me as someone who was likely to know about such things (I was wearing my 'Women With Perms Against The Nazis' badge), they pinned me to my seat with, "Can you explain that to us?" "No", I replied. (Playing safe) They weren't going to let me past until I'd at least tried. ''Well, what did you think it was about?", I asked, dropping the ball firmly into their laps. "Well” said one of them, fixing me with a stare, "I think that this is to real theatre what Picasso is to real painting!" "That's it!", I said, and escaped over the back of my seat”.
This style of writing in which the reviewer writes explicitly and in detail about their own particular experience of and relationship to, not only the performance, but the broader experience of attending the event, marks a departure from traditional theatre reviews. This intersubjective or relational style has since become a template for both academic and non academic writing about live art and informs the way in which we study it today. A more recent example of this form of writing is Amelia Jones’ essay, ‘Holy Body: Erotic Ethics in Ron Athey and Juliana Snapper's Judas Cradle’ in which she writes in excruciating detail how she imagines what she sees in relation to her own body.
In a short film about Performance Magazine made by Hugo Glendinning and Alex Eisenberg, Rob La Frenais names Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine as an inspiration. In particular its ‘warts and all’ approach when interviewing artists so that everything that was said in interviews was published. This style also demonstrates how the publication sought to differentiate itself from a socially conservative older generation, perhaps epitomised by individuals such as Mary Whitehouse who in the 1960s campaigned against liberalism and indecency in the British media.
In the 1981 July/August issue, writer Andrea Hill tackles head on the complexities of writing about performance in her piece ‘Critics and Doormats’. I will paraphrase:
‘All your writing starts to plunge into free association…There are no paths of understanding, no common frame of reference, except one: that whatever it is, it's something kicking against the category, the classification’.
This supports the argument that Performance Magazine was an institution concerned with differentiating live art from other disciplines without ever defining it. In the same article Andrea Hill writes:
'We are working on the understanding that all our readers and writers constitute a supporting circle. What is said here will go no further than that segment of the art and theatre world addicted to art magazines. Things can be said therefore, that we wouldn't dream of saying in, say, a national newspaper where there are prejudices of the general population to contend with’.
This statement is key in understanding how, why and for whom people writing about live art do so. The live art world today remains small, with writers, academics and artists writing about and for one another. This community, which consists of individuals and institutions who are invested in the concept of live art, consciously or unconsciously continues to protect what is often embryonic and experimental work and shields it from the cut and thrust of the mainstream. An example of this is the bi-monthly, Live Art Club in London which provides a small and supportive space for experimentation.
Andrea Hill suggests that performance artists are more sensitive to criticism than visual artists because they are often less established and therefore more vulnerable. Attempt at a non-judgemental approach to this type of work is therefore perhaps appropriate and necessary if live art is to survive and is perhaps one of the most important ways in which Performance Magazine has shaped the field of live art.
In his conversation with me Rob La Frenais was at pains to point out that there was “no social media” when the magazine was launched. It was a way to express opinions and engage others in conversation at a time when he and others felt alienated by mainstream media and politics.
In his paper ‘Publics and Counterpublics’, Michael Warner describes a kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation. If, as Amelia Jones asserts, there is no single performance, because one’s experience of any event is always shaped by one’s particularity, Performance Magazine created a platform for performance writing and thus invoked and engaged a public whose lifeblood is subjective documentation and memory.
The online version of Performance Magazine and the bound copies in the Live Art Development Agency’s office form part of an evolving performance art archive. The fact that this institution has been preserved and written about by individuals from institutions interested in establishing the concept of live art, in particular Queen Mary University of London and the Live Art Development Agency means that it necessarily informs our discussion and shapes our understanding of the field.
With thanks to Shane Boyle, Rob La Frenais and Lois Keidan.