Performance Art has always appealed to my sense of austerity. While gallery goers pursue white cube spaces at their own pace and are permitted to feel disinterested and walk away when work is not to their taste, performance traditionally demands that viewers are committed for the duration, with the typical theatrical configuration (rows of seating looking forward to the stage) making mutineers conspicuous should they loose concentration and wish to leave before the artists work is fully complete.
I needed no convincing then, when Marina Abramović opened her four hour production for Manchester International Festival with ‘The Drill’, an hour long instruction on how to engage with performance art. Asking us to spend 10 minutes drinking a tiny glass of water and 5 minutes making direct eye contact with the person next to us, these simple exercises were intended to induct us into the meditative, contemplative and committed approach needed to truly understand the performances that we were about to witness.
After the induction we were given freedom to navigate The Whitworth’s expansive galleries and enjoy the work of 14 artists. Being impatient I visited all of the rooms in around ten minutes, relishing the sense of discovery that arose out of encountering a new live performer in every empty room. I lay down next to Jamie Isenstein and her pile of sheep skin and animal rugs and was charmed by Eunhye Hwang’s engaging communications with members of her audience using only the movements of her body and the static from a badly tuned radio. Following the call of a heavy pounding that resonated from the lower floor of the building, I headed finally to Nico Vascellari’s performance at the end of a long stairwell. Gradually turning a rock into powder by hitting it with a piece of metal, Vascellari created a roar that was carried up through the height of the building by the dynamics of the space and a vibration that shook my internal organs so much that I felt physically connected to the performative act.
Yet this was an uncomfortable and demanding experience and I didn’t stay long, preferring to hang out next to the long tables that had been laid out with refreshments on one of the upper floors. The whole production ran on until 11pm, but by 9.30pm I have to confess that I had run out of steam and I left with a new awareness of how little my durational commitment had actually impacted on my engagement with each of the pieces. Marina Abramović proposal for this production, while admirable, is perhaps a little anachronistic in terms of the expectation that it places on the viewer. While the vanguard of 1960’s and 1970’s performance art often depended on duration to express its political stance in opposition to a developing culture of mass media distraction, performance in the present often successfully exists as a hybrid art form that incorporates a whole spectrum of technologies, contexts and approaches.
This was an interesting commission for an exciting festival, but perhaps not the first point of reference for the lowdown on what is cutting edge about contemporary performance!