Archives, Hindsight, and Change
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series!
Someone once said to me that resistance should feel like dancing on a muddy floor, somewhere in hell.
At the time, all I could think of was a pastiche of scenes from David Lynch’s Inland Empire.
Now, I know that hell is a pejorative expression for a political moment. Many here have already mentioned Trump or Brexit, but before their emergence, a deeply rooted crisis of representation, of the failure of democratic mechanisms in the face of rising neoliberalism, had already established itself. It established itself through seismic economic change, but also through the quiet, abrasive return of populism, but also colonialism, racism, xenophobia, on a governmental scale. The social fabric was already trying to exorcize these in disputes over communities, legislated, falsely constructed, self-identified, battling.
Now, time has passed, and I think to myself, I think this person was right. I think resistance, aside from being slippery, has an aesthetic that collapses into form.
Now, time has passed, and I think about echoes and mirrors, about how resistance is not only, necessarily collective – accidental, with foresight or hindsight- but also articulated through channels that are plural, and most certainly, not linear.
Now, time has passed, I think about what came before, and how it mirrored, falsely and with broken shards tied to the future, what is happening now.
Michel Foucault coined the term heterotopias to refer to spaces that are plural, and relational. They juxtapose in a real place several sites and spaces, different and incompatible with each other. They can be transitional, or hold multiple references. I wonder, how archives can be stages of resistance, and how they operate as heterotopias- and how in turn, this creates a process of historical diffraction.
A couple of days ago, I had the pleasure of co-running a workshop on the newly released archive of Performance Magazine, with a group of interested explorers, alongside colleagues Mary Paterson and Maddy Cost, to time with Live Art Development Agency’s collaboration with founder Rob La Frenais for the archive’s complete digitization.
Performance Archive ran between 1979 – 1992, funded by the Arts Council, concerned with and instrumental in developing the term live art as an umbrella for a range of maverick performance practices. This is unique in UK’s cultural landscape not only given the orientation of the publication, which crossed a range of fields, notably experimental theater and visual art, but maintained its increasingly distinct critical vantage point, identity and articulation of performance as discourse. It is also unique for the ways in which it enacted politics through, of, and in dialogue with performance work. In its pages, you find Laurie Anderson and Forced Entertainment, Rosemary Butcher and Bob Flanagan, Welfare State and Fiona Templeton. Aside from the journeys of many of these artists, you also find hidden histories, meta-texts, articles about feminist pornography, festivals dedicated to voice and the language of dance criticism , adverts about performances, services, universities, that later crumbled or transformed. This is in the background of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative politics and de-valorization of community, forms of labor and culture of false individualism.
The magazine, therefore, does not simply echo a political practice, it documents a shifting set of paradigms that position and delineate performance in its social, political, cultural resonance, resisting instrumentalization yet articulating engagement.
For our workshop, we wanted to think about collectives of readers, and how this might constitute a bridge into thinking about archives of the future. We spoke about contemporary gestures that codify our engagement with the magazine’s archive, almost choreographic in nature: the flick, the scroll, the pause, the search. We considered what kinds of attention shifts we might have noticed, about the distinct difference between the single-issue narratives, versus the rehierarchization of the digital realm; we spoke about inter-generational encounters, and paused on surprising discoveries. At one such moment, my colleague Mary uncovered an article from the nineties that spoke about Donald Trump and Jeff Koons, a constructed paradigm with uneasy references for the present.
It’s Donald Trump and Jeff Koons, who are are also on this dance floor, both with clean shoes, and I’m watching with a still body, in amazement.
It’s no false claim that resistance has a dual temporarily. Yet my re-encounter with Performance Magazine, which had been so constitutive of a particular cultural and political education in my transition from my home country, Romania, to the UK, seemed to echo beyond the implications and poetics of its digitization. It felt heterotopic, and telling of a mode of resistance that holds a different choreography with the political.
I wanted to leave you with an extract of the editorial note for the closing edition of Performance Magazine in 1992, telling of the archive in the manner in which I spoke of it here:
As from this issue, Performance will be suspending publication indefinitely .
We have come to the conclusion that, in order to maintain and improve the present quality of the magazine, both editorially and in terms of production, it would be necessary thoroughly to overhaul the company's institutional structure. While the Arts Council, in addition to giving us unstinting moral support, has always matched this with as much financial generosity as is possible within the inevitable constraints of public funding, it has become clear that the necessary overhaul would require an injection of capital on a quite different scale. At present, such funds are not available.
Nor is it clear that it is now a good time to look for them. Apart from the much invoked recession, the cultural climate is not one in which many people regard the search for radically new ways of seeing and re-shaping the world - which is Performance's principal raison d'etre - as a priority. At least in the short term, the predominant concern is with survival; and, beyond that, the relatively modest and practical aim of making existing structures work as well as possible.
It is our belief that this situation is bound to change; indeed, that recent developments in world history have already created the necessary preconditions for a more radical cultural climate to re-emerge. It will, however, take several years for this to happen and, more specifically, to express itself in a tangible rise in economic demand for publications such as Performance. In the meantime, therefore, the suspension of publication seems to us to be the most logical course of action.
CHRISSIE ILES, Chairman
GRAV WATSON, Secretary
Performance Magazine Ltd
Performance Magazine Online (2017)
A project by Rob La Frenais in collaboration with Live Art Development Agency, 2017.