Live Performance: between madness and celebration of liveness

photo credit Joseph Carr

Art has always been a matter of fervid discussion, what one can define to be art one other may consider it to be madness.

That is the main reason why most of the greatest artists of whole time gained recognition for their work only once left this world in complete poverty. Throughout the centuries and the changes in society new artistic streams emerged facing great struggle. Innovation and breaking with the tradition have always generated controversial response. As a matter of facts, Monet’s Impression, soleil levant was very criticized and defined with the denigrating connotation of “Impression” by critic Louis Leroy, which ended up naming the 19th-century art movement Monet started with his painting.
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Today art translates itself into other less traditional forms which do not only involve canvases or sculptures but the action of making these objects itself. If in 19th-century artists were painting “impressions” on canvas, nowadays London-based artist Millie Brown has gained popularity as the “puking rainbows performer”. Her technique consists in drinking soymilk mixed with colors and regurgitate it on the canvas during her live performances. Her most famous work Nexus Vomitus is estimated around $ 2500. 

Martin Creed won the Turner Prize in 2001 for his work No. 227, The lights going on and off, which consisted in an empty room where the artist switched the light on and off every 5 seconds. This performance caused the reaction of a visitor who threw eggs to the wall of his room protesting that this kind of art would actually transform painting into an “extinct skill”.


all rights reserved Bernie Blackburn
all rights reserved Bernie Blackburn

Are odd and shocking becoming the two fundamental qualities in order to make art nowadays?And  can we really judge what is art and what is not?! 

Two weeks ago, Unit 1  (a platform for live performers in Ireland) organized a live performance exhibition at the Broadstones studios, taking place in the 1840’s Georgian-style dining-room of the building, located in 22 Harcourt Terrace, Dublin 2.

In order to find out more about live performance, I had a chat with curators of the exhibition and founders of Unit 1 : Ciara McKeon & Dominic Thorpe.  

When did you found Unit 1?

Officially in 2010. We have organized 70 acts so far. We are visual artists ourselves and perform once a year, one solo and one collaborative. We did not want Unit 1 to be about ourselves, because we do that in our own practice separately. We wanted to do something related to the Arts and we thought that Live Performance was not so facilitated in Dublin so we started this association. The opportunity to see live performance it is not as common to see as any other kind of art so we wanted to create a platform for the artists, to inspire people and their work.

How did you get interested in Live Performance?


College. We both went to Arts colleges: I went to Galway Institute of Technology and then NCI in Dublin, and Ciara went to IDT Dun Laoghaire. In visual arts, Performance Art has a very long history so most people we meet that are performers very often come from visual art background. Some people have started with drawing, painting, sculpture. And quite often people make their way from sculpture to video and from what they make on video to performance.


I was interested in live performance as long as I came across it and then I have done video, sculpture ext. And we get a good introduction in college of any of these so we were naturally driven into it. 

Live Performance has often been underrated by many critics and labelled as a “second league” kind of Art, many people are skeptic about performing arts even because usually for “exhibition” they picture a gallery full of objects while this is a complete different experience from the traditional conception. What do you think about that?


Live Performance is difficult to understand and it needs to be. It can be problematic for critics because it is a different language from the one they use. If for example, you have been using a language based on critiquing existing objects, it is very hard to take that same language and apply it to things that only exist for a fleeting moment and so I think that is the struggle some critiques have, but I don’t really mind that I think it could be healthy. I know that in some cities in Italy every contemporary Art has had struggles, eventually because there is a strong link to Renaissance art and it is a very heavy cultural baggage to cope with. I think you are right , that the appreciation of performances has been difficult but it needs to be.


Performing art is the experience of being there, being with it, the smell of it, the sound of it, the feeling of it, the kind of weather of that day. Some people take pictures of the performances as a record but those are completely different things; they are only there to be referred, they are totally a separate thing from the performance itself.


I have been moved by every kind of Art, drawing, painting, comedy ,dancing. But I have found something in performing arts that I haven’t found in any other kind of art. This idea that you must show up in order to make it happen, that you must be present to make it happen and that, at the same time, the audience sees the work, it is very different from the experience to make an object. It can be a very vibrant place, and also in Art you are always wondering about the potential of things, of what you made or your own potential to express yourself and the space it leaves behind it. If you make a drawing, it exists as an object, with the performance there is nothing after that: so it has got great potential, it is very exciting the idea to leave nothing behind.

Do you make performances on a concept usually or you are influenced as well by what the audience thought of the performance?


I rarely would say what my performance was about, because I think it is simplistic and it kind of narrows things. Having said that, when people asked me -what was that about- it depends who is asking and if it was my mother I am not going to ask her what did she think that was about. But if it was a twelve years old child who really loves art, or a fellow performance artist, or someone who I can engage with what experience they have, I will ask the person, and most of the times I do to start a conversation.


I don’t think it’s possible to interpret a thing wrong. Even if a performance was about something and then a person comes and his opinion is totally different still it is not wrong, I am just happy that someone is there giving their opinion about my performance.

Sometimes performances are about a specific subject, sometimes they are about having made it: the action.


It is very surprising to know what people thought about your performance because sometimes they tell you something that you didn’t remotely thought about.

I think this is really interesting. For example, I was watching this interview with Martin Creed who won a Turner Prize for his work no. 227In the interview he was saying that he just came up with the idea of the empty room and he liked to switch off and on the lights and then people started to tell him what they were thinking his performance was about and the outcomes that came out basically brought him to the Biennale in Venice.


Oh yes, he was performing here actually few months ago.


Any art work requires an audience to do some work, you know it is not a soap opera. If you are watching a soap opera, we are talking about vegetating and watching television and not really thinking, in art you as an audience have to do some work, and the emotions and feelings they bring to the performance transform the performance itself. A work depending on who looks at it can be different and it has to be that way.

And what do you think about the Irish Live performance scene?


It has got a long history that goes back to the 70s. For decades many people have travelled to Ireland to make performance. Nigel Rolfe in Dublin, Danny McCarthy in South Ireland have been making work for years and years and it is a growing thing. I think the difficulties happen when critics don’t appreciate. Criticism is a very narrow world, it applies to much greater things and so with performance art in Ireland. Because life performance is temporary, there is such small record and it appears as it has a very short history, but live performers have been on for decades.

Irish people are becoming more aware and more critically engaging with this art form and thus we have more interviews like this happening.


I think the Dada was the beginning, which means it is over one hundred years old. But if people think that it is young, young is in so I agree with that.


I think it is developing so more people are engaging with this as a discipline or a subject so you have more books about performance in life and it doesn’t surprise me. I think in contemporary art in general Liveness as become a much bigger thing: community-based project, relational-based project, engaged projects, it’s because people are becoming more interested in life itself and not only objects, so it doesn’t surprise me that this awareness grows.

The next time I am going to do a workshop with students I am going to ask them not to perform and see if it’s possible for them to realize that live performance goes to anything in life: professional performance, the performance of gender, socially, how we behave on the street and at home.


Someone was asking me recently if I thought it was strange that Vito Acconci , who is an artist and live performer, now works as a kind of architect, and I said that it made total sense and they got surprised of my answer. But he himself has said that he was interested in behavior and from how we behaved with our body in every day life he went to look at how we behaved in space around ourselves. There are all these relationships with strangers on the street, at dinner table with your family, everywhere with everybody.

What is tonight’s exhibition about?


So tonight’s show is part of a series. It is more a sound performance which is not so usual as it is in Cork and in the South of the country; so tonight we have got two artists from Cork, James has fairly recently graduated, he comes from a visual art background and he did an MA in the Royal College of Art in London but he works with sound, video, multimedia. McCann , i think, comes from a music background. McCann also studied chemistry and he used that knowledge in his performing acts to show the effects of other substances put together.


Sound has been a very important element for a number of artists in Ireland, currently and historically, and so we thought to base a show very loosely on this theme of sound. So we have got another artist Alex Conway who is based in Dublin but originally comes from county Clare. He mostly works with the body but also incorporates sound. These artists are from slightly different generations and we thought it would have been interesting to see them in one show and wether they will use more actions-based things with the body or image-based things, or sound is a surprise.

I have experienced that live performance gives the possibility to artists to work together even if they are very different ages, which is unusual in art because it is usually very hierarchical; while in live performance I have seen very famous artists working with people who just came out from college, and that’s what I like about this form of art. And we want to celebrate that it is not just about studying, we want to celebrate that this is happening, you can find this connection in traditional music around the world, or in Ireland in sports events at least you see young people besides very old people. When it comes to contemporary culture it is not that common: we all tend to listen to different bands, go to different clubs, but something happens in performing arts when people from different generations can sit together and create something. I think it’s really exciting and we want to celebrate that.

That evening, after the interview the exhibition took place in the spacious dining-room. The event had a good attendance; mostly artists who came to be inspired for their works.

The performances of  James McCann, Mick O’Shea and Alex Conway were very different from each other: from projecting clips on the wall, producing sounds, to make a melody out the artist’s own body movements. 


As different the performances had been, they all conveyed some feelings and they did affect my mood just like a painting or a sculpture could. Good or bad these emotions can be, these performances are about life and life is not always beautiful, happy or fun. I personally think that the only bad form of art is the one that makes you feel like it was a complete waste of time and the one that does not communicate you any sort of feelings; in that case the artist failed in his work.

In fairness, the best things in life are temporary and we usually cannot even see them. To love and to be loved , for example, is not something you can photograph or you can admire in a gallery, it is something coming from the inside, your perception, something that is in continuos change and movement in the free space of feelings and doubts of human nature.

If you truly think of what really makes you happy you are not going to say : your laptop or your phone (well hopefully not, otherwise let me tell you that you are not happy but a really sad person), you are rather going to picture your source of happiness as: a sunny day, a walk on the beach, or dinner with your dear ones.

Life is made of emotions and feelings, emotions express themselves through gestures and gestures give birth to a performance. We all are performers in disguise in our own life, some just decide to break the routine of our daily performance. 

One can judge live performance as madness, but life is mad at times and this form of art is purely a celebration of liveness.

Now, what do you think of Live Performance? It doesn’t seem that odd and different from other kind of arts, don’t you think so?!


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