Live Art Network, an introduction

The Live Art Network Africa colloquium runs from February 17 to 20 at the University of Cape Town’s Hiddingh Campus, 31-37 Orange Street, Gardens. The programme is available at ica.uct.ac.za

It is probably easier to talk about what live art is not.

For starters, it is not a broad term for all or any of the conventional performing arts — although live art certainly blends disciplines such as dance, music and theatre. But its roots are much more diverse and radical.

In Europe at the turn of the 20th century, visual artists, writers, musicians and architects responded to the rise of fascism with disruptive actions and enigmatic, illogical, often shocking constructions — forming a kind of non sequitur movement which became known as performance art.

Live art is uncomfortable. These works are transient, difficult to sustain, often surprising and, at times, shocking and hard to categorise in terms of discipline. As acts of innovation and rupture, these actions by definition have few recognisable points of reference. But the power and compulsion when one witnesses an unexpected assembly of divergent aesthetics and an idiosyncratic voice are unmistakable and linger in the memory.

The Live Art Network Africa programme comprises a symposium, networking sessions and performances. The symposium, open to the public from February 17 to Februrary 20, will explore the basic tenets of live art and its conceptual underpinnings. Some speakers will navigate the plethora of forms that live art takes; others consider ways in which artists probe memorialisations of history and visions of the future.

As artists of all disciplines transgress disciplinary boundaries in new and ever-changing ways, the definition of performance art broadened to include not only body art but also digitised works whose “liveness” might exclude the living body altogether. So it was that the more contemporaneous and inclusive term “live art” came into being.

Today it is not uncommon to experience the work of a sociologist, a political scientist or an architect on the same platform as a choreographer or an installation artist.

Another way to look at the character of live art is to consider the interdisciplinary nature of much of the ceremony and ritual performances on the African continent. The presence of hybridity, improvisation, audience immersion and involvement and the rupture and rapture in classical African performance predates the term “live art”.

This essential embodiment in aspects of ritual, worship and celebration finds its way in contemporary displays of public culture on the African continent. Hence too, the predominance of performative actions that accompanies protest marches and demonstrations. These cultural, social and political contexts provided fertile ground for the growth of the form on this continent over centuries.

Live art is also a response to the commercialising of art, eschewing notions of market value by its ephemeral, disruptive nature. And yet, works and interventions that are transient and difficult to repeat are also difficult to sustain. This question of sustainability is a crucial impetus for the formation of the Live Art Network Africa. The inherent fragility of live art — and lack of infrastructure to support it — point to the need for a network of practitioners, writers and thinkers to consider live art’s longevity and potential for growth, as well as afford a range of publics opportunities to interact with this valuable art form.

Several presentations will read transgressive works of live art against our political contexts — volatile times that seem to demand complex, risky and provocative responses. Networking sessions will grapple with the intentions for the formation of Live Art Network Africa. These deliberations, involving delegates from 12 African countries, will focus on ways in which a live art work may live beyond the few minutes of its performance, while acknowledging that the form is disruptive by its nature.

Would attempts at its longevity pervert its form, dull its effect and compromise original intentions? Another networking session considers education, dealing with a further paradox: How does one teach anarchy? How does one hold and evaluate the disruptive principles of live art inside of a university curriculum?

Other sessions will explore festivals and platforms throughout the continent for the consistent presentation of these works. Many African artists present their work outside the continent but not at home.

How can the few opportunities that exist on the continent be developed to serve local audiences? Discussions about the dissemination of live art will also delve into journalistic and academic writing and publications.

The event is punctuated by a selection of performances that will be staged in various spaces around the city. The closing work by Jelili Atiku in St George’s Mall, in front of Brett Murray’s sculpture “Africa”, encapsulates the immediacy and possibility of live art.

Atiku’s work captured by his title, Jangbala Jubu or How to Explain History to American President — like much of the live art that will be discussed at the Live Art Network Africa — gets to the heart of some of the most pressing issues of our time.

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