New Adventures in Live Art Publishing and Distribution
By Lois Keidan
Originally published in Contemporary Theatre Review, 20:2, (2010)
1. “because Live Art is ‘difficult’ to write about”- the context for Live Art publishing
… it is because Live Art is ‘difficult’ to write about that critical writing is so important as document and as profile. This means that critical writing on Live Art is prompted by artists and by publishers to step away from tradition, and into the path of the work itself.
Given that Live Art is an itinerant and interdisciplinary area of practice that often seems to neither fit nor belong within received cultural frameworks, it is not surprising that it has always had a somewhat challenging relationship with both critical writing and publishing.
For many years Live Art has, on the one hand, figured as the subject of scholarly study and discourse, and on the other as an object of derision by more mainstream artform-bound critics. Of course there have always been exceptional exceptions to these extremes, but it is only in the last decade or so that Live Art has found a broader recognition, that different kinds of critical dialogues about and around Live Art practices have emerged, and that Live Art publishing and distribution has come into its own.
In a recent Case Study on the relationship between Live Art and critical writing commissioned by Live Art UK, Mary Paterson writes, “it is perhaps because there is no long history of critical writing … that live artists and writers can think outside the normal constraints of a critical text.” It is this kind of thinking, alongside the advent of online platforms and new technologies, new forms of funding support, the development of new curatorial approaches, the interdisciplinary and fluid nature of many artists’ practices, and the proliferation of Performance Studies and its investigations into the relationship between practice and discourse, that have revolutionised the possibilities of Live Art writing, publishing and distribution.
The inter-related publishing and distribution initiatives of the Live Art Development Agency have broadly responded to, and hopefully enhanced, this burgeoning field of activities.
2. “we could do it ourselves” - the Live Art Development Agency‘s approach to publishing and distribution
The Live Art Development Agency was founded in 1999 to support the explosion of Live Art practices and critical discourses in the UK. The Agency has responded to the innovative, challenging and diverse nature of Live Art by developing a portfolio of resources, professional development initiatives and projects. In recent years the Agency has been focusing on critical writing, documentation, publishing and distribution. This has included setting up Unbound, a carefully curated online shop for Live Art books, dvds and limited edition artworks, and developing new ways of increasing popular and critical awareness of Live Art through a diverse range of publishing projects. The Agency’s publishing policy involves partnering major publishers on key critical titles; publishing our own books and dvds; and co-publishing artists’ books and dvds, including works on-demand.
Take Unbound. That Unbound exists at all is testament to recent revolutions in Live Art publishing and distribution, whilst a quick look at its titles reinforces this. Stocking set texts like RoseLee Goldberg’s Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (Thames & Hudson) and Tim Etchells’ Certain Fragments (Routledge) through to Wrights and Sites A Misguide to Anywhere, Heike Rom’s What’s Welsh for Performance? and Live Art UK’s The Live Art Almanac, Unbound acts as a mechanism to draw a critical relationship between the texts published by major publishing houses and hard to find, independently published practitioners’ works. But it is with these latter kinds of materials that Unbound comes into its own and reflects the dynamism of Live Art publishing.
Amongst the many independent book titles on Unbound (33% of titles are independently published) are the Agency’s own co-publications with Joshua Sofaer, Aaron Williamson, Oreet Ashery, Marcia Farquhar, Live Art UK and others - titles that have been made possible by new sources of funding, new approaches to practices, new forms of writing, and new possibilities in publishing and distribution. And the kinds of independently published titles represented on Unbound are not only selling well, but also influencing practice, research and discourse. As the writer Deborah Levy said of Marcia Farquhar’s 12 Shooters
Entertaining and scholarly, 12 Shooters dismantles the form of most publications that document a distinguished artist's practice and elucidates the ways in which a once only conceptual performance might haunt and possess an entirely new body of work. In this sense 12 Shooters is also a conceptual biography, an intimate conversation between the artist and those who have been invited to reimagine the secrets and pleasures of her performing persona. Most dazzling of all, 12 Shooters succeeds in being a critically engaging archive that is on side with the stray thoughts and unexpected philosophical conundrums of every day lived experience that have always been Marcia Farquhar’s subject.
Live Art UK’s The Live Art Almanac (2008) is one of Unbound’s top sellers and illustrates many of the recent developments in Live Art writing and publishing. The Almanac is a collection of ‘found writing’ compiled and edited from an international open call for recommendations. Composed of articles, interviews, blogs, emails, letters, and obituaries from 2006 to 2008, the Almanac reflects an incredibly broad range of writing by artists, journalists, scholars, curators and thinkers about and around Live Art, and was designed, printed and distributed on a cheap and cheerful on-demand basis. Because of the massive technological advances of recent years the Almanac was cheap to produce and print, and is cheap to buy. It’s an easy to purchase resource for those artists and students on low incomes, enabling them to investigate new approaches to practice, research and discourse.
It’s a similar story at the other end of the production scale. Documenting Live is an Agency published resource reflecting the work of key UK based artists working in the 1990s and 2000s, and placing Live Art practices that are informed by questions of cultural identity within critical and historical frameworks. With carefully commissioned content and high quality production values, Documenting Live is made up of a booklet with an essay by David A Bailey; a series of artists’ cards; and a dvd featuring artists' commentaries, excerpts from key works, and documentation of a series of roundtable discussions. For all kinds of commercial and cultural reasons the concept and form of Documenting Live wouldn’t have been given a first, let alone second, look by any commercial or academic publisher or by any ‘department’ of any museum, library or archive: a complicated fold out pack with booklets, cards and dvds featuring not just ‘art’ but people talking in depth about serious and complex things, it just didn’t fit in any traditional context or mode of production. But with the new technologies and resources now available, this was no longer a barrier but simply a hurdle – we could do it ourselves. The print run and distribution of Documenting Live may be small scale relative to many commercial publishing initiatives, but at least this vital archival and critical document that maps a history and marks a territory is out there, meeting an important set of current and future needs.
It is clear we have to write our own history, draft our own map and document projects in our own terms. This epic documentation project functions as a very comprehensive map detailing the practice of UK-based experimental artists whose cultural roots span several continents and artistic languages… Ultimately, the compilation provides the reader/viewer an incredible insight into one of the most vibrant Live Art scenes in the world. (Guillermo Gomez-Peña on Documenting Live)
3. “cheap to produce and cheap to buy” - technological developments and future possibilities
Technological advances have also ushered in a mini revolution in the publication and distribution of Live Art on camera – including both performance documentation and screen based practices. A few decades ago, artists could only dream of making a performance for camera for Channel 4’s Afterimage or being featured on BBC2’s Late Review for their non ‘live’ work to be seen by the public anywhere other than the backroom of a gallery on a wet Wednesday night. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Innovations such as Arts Council/BBC2 Expanding Pictures, Illuminations FX and the commissioning of performance to camera by Film & Video Umbrella amongst others raised the profile of Live Art on camera in meaningful ways, and, more importantly, artists’ experiments with the camera were easily accommodated within the expanding field of video art in the 1980s and 1990s. But it wasn’t until more recently, and the advent of new technologies, that artists were no longer dependent on the permission or resources of others but were able to, if necessary, act independently to document, display and distribute their work.
Now, if they don’t care much about quality any artist can capture their work on a mobile phone and instantaneously publish it on YouTube (and YouTube has opened up countless new audiences for countless artists who use it wisely). When they do care about quality and context, most artists can easily access high quality recording and editing facilities, print their own dvds and distribute them online. As well as print on demand, for the last few years the Live Art Development Agency has also been co-publishing dvds on-demand with artists, where the artists author a dvd of documents of their work in their own style and approach, and the Agency prints and dispatches them to order through Unbound. Cheap to produce and cheap to buy, titles by Howard Matthew, Richard Dedomenici, have again flown off the shelves.
Artists, thinkers, writers and producers working with Live Art are pioneering new ways to critically engage with artistic practice and developing new platforms to disseminate such thinking and writing. The critical dialogues surrounding Live Art are provoking exciting questions about the nature and role of cultural commentary and critical discourse, and online platforms and the capacity to produce on-demand are freeing up all kinds of curators and artists from the old, often exclusive and expensive, models of publishing and distribution.