Thursday, 15 April 2010

Launch of In Time, and thoughts on the definitions of art

written by Mary Paterson

The London launch of In Time (a series of commissioned essays on live art and it’s effects, published by Live Art UK) was held last Tuesday, 13th April. The book is an advocacy tool and study resource for funders, programmers and artists within and without the sector. As such, it’s faced with the problematic task of actually describing that thing we are all engaged with – what is it? This stuff we keep doing, which seems so popular, so urgent, and yet so fragile?

I’ve always thought of art as a type of politics. My current working definition of art is a cultural space that stands beside utility. Sometimes I think of the space of art as a series of alcoves along a corridor. It is not the journey from A to B, nor a birds-eye view, but it is a position. Meanwhile, the definition of live art that I have been carrying round for some time is that live art is strategically interdisciplinary. (This definition is lifted, and quite possibly twisted, from a sentence that has since been replaced on the ‘What is Live Art’ page of the Live Art Development Agency’s website.)

It’s easy to see that live art is a politics, because it’s not tied to any form. Like painting, for example, but without the baggage. That’s not the same as saying that live art is always my politics, although I’d certainly like to identify with the culture of generosity that Sonya Dyer, speaking on Tuesday night, said pervades the sector as a whole.

And while politics may be expressed through an open relation with form, the equation does not work in the opposite direction. Formlessness might be a tool, but it can never be the material manifestation of a political stance. Think of Richard Wright's work which won the Turner Prize last year. Temporal, temporary and responsive to its environment, Wright’s mural for the exhibition was tinged by its context in a way that was little acknowledged at the time. I lost count of the number of people who asked me if I had seen the Turner Prize work, ‘which is going to disappear.’ The hype did not focus on the time of the mural, but on the fact that the time for viewing it was nearly up. In the context of this prestigious prize, it seems, witnessing a temporary act can slide dangerously close to receiving an exclusive privilege.

Despite its slipperiness, I have recently heard a few definitions of art, and particularly live art, that are appealing. At the In Time launch Andy Field from Forest Fringe said that live art is defined, ‘not by what it is, but by what it could be.’ And at the lecture he gave to mark the launch of his book, ‘The Many Headed Monster’ last week, Joshua Sofaer suggested that a determining principle of art, as opposed to craft, could be that its effects are not only felt at the time; they also grown on reflection. I like both of these definitions, and I am going to use them to build one of my own:

(live) art is an attitude, and it grows

The artist Rajni Shah put it even better when she compared live art to a vehicle (which she proposed as one, partial, metaphor). ‘It keeps moving.’ She said, ‘And it can change direction.’

Seeing as we’re on a theme of formlessness, I would also like to suggest another (partial, certainly temporal and quite possibly temporary) word to describe art. The word is ‘yet.’ Yet, is it art? Is it art, yet? Yet is a word that anticipates the future and builds on the past. (I explored this theme for my piece for the Oxhouse Alphabet). Is it a coincidence that one of the synonyms my computer finds for ‘yet’ is ‘in time’?

In Time features essays on Infrastructure, Public Engagement, and Legacies, commissioned by members of Live Art UK. (My essay on critical writing was commissioned by the Live Art Development Agency.) It is available to buy here, or to download as a pdf for free here. For more information on In Time, go here.

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