National Review of Live Art

Gareth K Vile consideres the complexity of this year's performance extravaganza

Article by Gareth K Vile | 26 Feb 2009

Since my first National Review in 2001, there has been a clear shift in the nature of the work presented. The fascination with blood and self-harm has slowly given way to gentler meditations on a broader range of issues: even Franco B, once the master of the cutters, has retired his surgical implements and begun to examine more pastoral themes. Overall, the self is gradually being replaced by community as an inspiration, and although many pieces are either obscure or angular, they grapple with accessible and urgent content.

At the same time, the festival itself has become more hermetic. Now sold out on most days, it no longer needs media coverage: this year's return to The Arches has reduced the potential audience, and the number of performance students who attend gives the five days an academic atmosphere. Now, more than ever, the NRLA is exclusive. The language used to describe the performers is esoteric (and frequently awkward). The most difficult explorations are greeted by audience decorum. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It allows Live Artists a safe environment to push the boundaries and take huge risks.

That said, the most engaging works remain those that manipulate traditional strategies. Relevant content, the consistency of form and function, sincerity and a firm connection with the audience and stagecraft all triumph over outré presentation and self-consciously challenging ideas. If some works confuse it is because they are attempting to grasp ideas that are original and perhaps even beyond language, but others sink into indulgence and instinctive live art mannerisms.

The Paper Birds are a fine example. In a Thousand Pieces takes a generic story of a Polish woman who has been trafficked into prostitution. Using the tactics of contemporary performance, such as bursts of almost-dance and a constant shifting of perspective, they bring depth and emotion to a tragic tale, turning brute statistics into empathy. In a Thousand Pieces is didactic and educational, yet the live art trickery lends both emotive resonance and a lightness of touch.

Less convincing is Franco B. One of the big names of live art, Franco has given up his blood-letting to sit naked on a swing to a sweet pianola melody. While the themes are obvious – childhood against maturity, the contrast of Franco's tattooed, scarred flesh against the innocence of the scene – the very circumstance of the show undermines any real connection. It is very clear what the audience is supposed to think – even the gold paint of the swing emphasises the celebrity status Franco enjoys. Caught in the corner of the eye or emerging suddenly from an unexpected quarter, this image would have the dreamlike quality and unsettling compassion that it is meant to invoke. Given hushed attention, it sacrifices impact for another genuflection to mighty Franco, King of the Performance Artists.

Very often though, great ideas are given solid performances. Aine Phillips has ingeniously translated The Art of War into a love manual, yet merely reads it out and opens her top to reveal camouflaged breasts as a token finale. The brilliant idea, identifying love as a battlefield, is performed effectively, but this is more lecture than performance. On the other hand, it is thoughtful and witty, since the concept is ingenious and her wry delivery offers humour and compassion.

Mundo Perfecto suffers from the same limitation. A teasing postmodern narrative, perhaps in the thrall of Paul Auster or Borges, it is spoken and accompanied by illustrations. It is good stuff, entertaining and provocative, but expands on some simple techniques known by most secondary school teachers. The interest for this and The Art of War is in the content, not the delivery.  

What makes the NRLA outstanding is the range of material and styles. To criticise any particular piece is almost redundant, since work in this area is so subjective and personal. And the overall impact of five days can be overwhelming. Yet it exposes young performers to the infinite possibilities of performance.

Milllican’s programme is, this year, shrewd. A final day focuses on sound – Phil Minton’s Breathing Out is a tour de force of vocal effects, while Alexis O’Hara leads the audience through the profound meaning of the sigh over a funny and poignant half-hour. John Giorno, one of the last beat poets, has that fluid way with language that can’t help but impress. If his Buddhist-inspired verse is clearly now in the tradition of Jack Kerouac, Bill Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg, it is wonderful to see such a confident poet with evident compassion still taking on the mundane.

Tagaq, who worked with Bjork, is almost conventional in this context. She takes Inuit throat singing and gives it a passionate, romantic twist. Obviously based in a folk form, her singing is terrifying and gentle, and immediately comprehensible despite the language barrier. The choice of programming here is clever, bringing a contemporary folk artist into the performance fold.

Ultimately, the NRLA is far more than just the programming or the acts. It is the conversations, the annual moans and applause and the ongoing resonance of having the festival in Glasgow. It flies the flag for adventure, communication and technique, setting new artists alongside the big names. Moving, inspiring, frustrating, educating and confusing, the National Review braves criticism and defies categorisation, becoming in a performance in itself.