Sunday, 2 August 2009

Review: True Riches, curated by Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton

This article originally appeared in A-N Magazine, June 2009'

by Mary Paterson

True Riches is an exciting and ambitious programme of live art events inhabiting every space of the ICA throughout 2009. 25 artists were invited to take part, and across the works proposed there are exhibitions, lectures, discussions and residencies; ideas for shared meals, shared games and interactive experiences; work that touches on cinema, dance and theatre; art that is high concept and low concept, and even a piece that hopes to define the gap between the two. “There is an argument as to whether this event would be more accurately described as middlebrow or at best uppermiddlebrow,” says the programme about Shunt’s Highbrow event. “A brow height exit poll will be employed to resolve debate for future presentations.”

True Riches is also never going to happen. It is an imaginary programme, created in response to the closure of the ICA’s Live and Media Arts department, announced last year. For many who work in or around live art, this was difficult news to take. As Lois Keidan points out in her proposal for True Riches, Sixty to Nought, the ICA has a strong and vital history of supporting performance (not least because of Keidan’s own directorship of the organisation in the 1990s) and while the closure of the department prevents this relationship from growing, it also fails to acknowledge the significance of its past. What really stung for artists and others working in this field, however, was an email from the Director of the ICA, Ekow Eshun, explaining the decision. The ICA is facing financial strictures, he said, and Live and Media Arts can no longer justify its costs. This is because, “it’s my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks depth and cultural urgency.” The artists Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton clearly read this as a challenge, to which True Riches is a vigorous reply.

Some of the proposals engage directly with the situation at the ICA. Geraldine Pilgrim’s Black Box will flood the ICA theatre with water and oil, and set the oil alight. Viewers will watch from the fire exit recess – an audience for the “flood of ideas that have filled this black box space over the years” as well as a congregation in mourning for histories forgotten, and futures not lived. The Centre of Attention will gather a group of people to serenade the ICA like a bitter lover, singing Live don’t live here anymore at its entrance. And when Shunt/David Rosenberg suggests Moving In, a Real Time Property Happening, in which “a vast assortment of varied crap” is rolled through the ICA and into the lower gallery, is this a way of saying that live art has depth? Real depth if you want it – cases full of it, delivered right to the depths of your building.

Other proposals are simply suggestions for projects that could be housed at the gallery. Mobile Academy’s London Trading Zone, for example, is a version of the Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge – a system to facilitate and frustrate exchange which has taken place across Europe, including at the Bluecoat in Liverpool last November. True Riches’ artists have not only imagined that the ICA will invite them in, but also that the institution will throw all its resources behind each piece of work. Christine Peters’ The Living Archive hopes to invite over 70 artists to join a 6 month residency, to which “ICA has fully committed itself – financially, infrastructurally and staff-wise.” The result will be a method of ‘Slow Production’ whereby thought, knowledge and exchange can grow without all the familiar constraints that limit time and money. Indeed, many of the proposals reach out to other artists, artworks, speakers or participants to help create the work. Bill Aithchison will curate a series of discussions for ICA Conspiracy Week (charting various conspiracy theories), for example, and Goran Sergej Pristaš will show a season of performances, screenings and theory for Cinematic Modes of Choreography (exploring the relationship between dance and cinema).

This enthusiastic and varied approach eloquently describes the range of cultural activities that are spun, or spun into, by events that are called ‘live art’. It is also what stops True Riches from being a sulky reproach to the ICA. The context naturally illuminates all allusions to marginality and segregation in this work. Are the social outsiders in Gary Stevens’ The Sceneshifters versions of live artists, forced to work in the shadows of an institution? Is Shunt’s The Information, in which “big ideas get pounded into shit-sized nuggets that we can more successfully hide if hiding GOD FORBID should become necessary”, an allegory for the fate of live artists, pushed under the cloaks of other artforms in an attempt to survive? After all, part of Ekow Eshun’s defence has been that live art will continue to be programmed in other ICA departments – suggesting that artists must insinuate themselves into a different discipline in order to be seen or heard. But its pure exuberance means True Riches is not a petition to an ungrateful master. Instead, it is a book brimming with opportunities that lie just out of reach, a programme for a parallel universe in which only one thing is altered – the ICA’s willingness to be involved.

As such, True Riches is a quiet kind of manifesto, the kind that whispers into the audience’s ear and garners their support through an act of private collusion. Like all programmes, this one speaks in the future tense about something that hasn’t happened yet. But unlike other programmes, True Riches’ future lies in the reader’s imagination alone. In other words, the programme form is not only a strategic approach – an impersonation that has been successful enough to solicit real visitor enquiries; it also embodies a kind of engagement with the audience that is often associated with live art. In the book Programme Notes (published by the Live Art Development Agency in 2007), the only recurring theme in a collection of disparate essays on ‘experimental theatre’ (which, if not live art itself, is part of the same family) was the desire to get under an audience’s skin. And many of the projects inside True Riches also reflect this attitude – from a collaborative exhibition by Home Live Art, to an archive of memories by Janez Janša.

Has True Riches, then, achieved that most elusive of states – a definition of what live art might be? It is certainly strategic, cross-disciplinary, engaging and social. It is certainly political, experimental, mainstream and accessible. It is certainly, one might say, deep and culturally urgent. But of course its variety lets it slip away again, slithering off the page as you turn from a lecture programme to a dance piece, from a guided tour to a film screening, or from a protest outside the ICA to a dog guarding the building from live art.

Ironically, it is this diverse and often strategic approach – the readiness of live art to sit beside or between familiar disciplines and relationships – that gives Eshun his reason for closing the department: live art will live on in relation to other artforms. And of course, if True Riches constitutes one side of the argument with the ICA, then the artists have an advantage. With all the resources he could imagine, and no-one to please but his peers, let’s assume that Eshun could also create a programme of live art to inspire and delight on this scale. It’s also because live art is supported enthusiastically elsewhere – by organisations like the Live Art Development Agency and Live Art UK, at venues like Arnolfini, Bluecoat and Chelsea Theatre (to name but a few) – that the programme is so easy to imagine in the first place. Those pieces that have not already been produced feel so real because they really could be - coming to a non-ICA venue near you soon.

But imagine, for a moment, how barbaric is would seem if the ICA cut its film department, or decided to stop supporting visual art. It’s a tribute to a sector sometimes criticised for performing its own marginal position that True Riches is a positive and forward looking response to what would otherwise be a devastating blow. It’s also a testament to the fact that the ICA stopped being important to live art some time ago. And for this reason True Riches is best read not as a defensive response to bad news, but as a hopeful glimpse of a future that may well be. It sticks two fingers up at the ICA but, more effectively, it waves in a host of ideas to inspire makers and audience members alike. Good news, then, that “a second season,” as the programme promises, “is already in the planning stages.”

No comments:

Post a comment