AGENCY: A Partial History of Live Art

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Edited by Theron Schmidt, Agency is a book which explores the last 20 years of Live Art through the lens of LADA – the Live Art Development Agency. Review by Julie McNamara

image of a woman pulling threads attached to her face

Rocio Boliver, Between Menopause and Old Age, Old Dears (2015). Image Alex Eisenberg

Brimming with ideas and research, deep interrogation of new possibilities in creating work, explorations of political conversations with activists and artists in the field, Agency presents some of the most exciting diverse voices from the sector.

Editor Theron Schmidt has assembled a collection of crafted conversations, streams of consciousness and radical musings from artists, thinkers and activists who are deeply embedded in Live Art practice. We get a front seat in some unique meanderings witnessing artists take apart the essence of the urge to create, the impulse to make, the urgency in the quest to make sense of our world, our bodies, our existential anxieties.

In the midst of these edited conversations, we get a comprehensive picture of the material circumstances LADA operates in, the social and cultural influences on the company’s practices and support structures it has employed, the passionate dedication to bringing excluded voices to the fore. LADA as a company is dedicated to fostering agency in artists whose identity or protected characteristics might limit their access to funds, might inhibit their freedom of speech or decision making, let alone their capacity to create art. LADA have undertaken their own critical assessment of who gets access to funds, whose voices are left out.

The company has been rigorous about examining its’ own structures of inclusion and exclusion, creating Restock, Rethink, Reflect attempting to redress the balance in their own practices and ensuring inclusion. They began with Live Art and Race (2006-2008), continued with Live Art and Disability (2009 -2012), then Live Art and Feminism (2013-2015) and more recently exploring Live Art and Privilege (2016-2018).

In Agency I expected to find artists who have emerged through Disability Arts in the section exploring bodies, not least because when we think about Live Art, we usually go straight to the body: “extravagant, fierce, wounded, proud… for many the body – and perhaps more specifically the body in pain or under some duress – will be their point of entry into Live art.” (Theron Schmidt, p.17) However the disabled artists presented in this collection are first and foremost artists. Disability is firmly perceived as an environmental and attitudinal structure that blocks agency for artists who live with impairment issues. I was excited then to see work from some of the most innovative thinkers from Disability Arts in protest, in provocative actions, framed in political conversations and creative musings that take us right away from the flawed body, the imperfect body, but lead us instead into revolution.

Dr Paul Darke once described Live Art as “the avant garde forum for Disability Arts … at the forefront of Disability Arts, practice, thinking and theory.” (Access All Areas, 2011). Some of our most provocative artists, uneasy in the mainstream and often frustrated with Disability Arts, found a home in the Live Art sector, amongst other radical voices screaming against the establishment. One of the most creative and anarchic minds among them was Katherine Araniello, who was a favourite among the artists commissioned and supported by Live Art Development Agency. She features alongside Aaron Williamson as The Disabled Avant Garde, daubed like a cubist painting, sporting some of her favourite Leigh Bowery influenced costumes.

The Disabled Avant-Garde, Image Richard Dedomenici

Agency includes some of the brightest sparks in our firmament who have vent their spleen or, some quite literally, have spilled their giblets in a wide range of creative actions, endurance pieces, provocative celebrations and fabulous displays.

One of my favourite conversations between Ron Athey and Cassils, recorded in 2016 in LA, reads like a primal roar, igniting that fire in the belly that activates every artist, driven by injustice, who must make work to survive the deeply unpalatable truths we are living alongside, to survive a rupture in the soul. Other works I enjoyed reading about were Nando Messias’ The Sissy’s Progress, Aine Phillips’ Red Weight, Noemi Lakmaier’s Cherophobia, Raimund Hoghe’s 36, Avenue George Mandel, Selina Thompson’s Chewing the Fat and her dismantling of Exhibit B and the Human Zoos closed down at The Barbican after protests. Then there’s Lois Weaver, one of the UK’s favourite Grande Dames of Live Art, theatre and academia presenting an overview of LADA’s work as a case study in four acts, reflecting on the four spaces they have inhabited, made work and nurtured new talent in Community: The Brewery, The Circus, The Wick and The Green.

Agency offers one of the clearest explanations in plain English of exactly what constitutes Live Art, what sets it apart from theatre or other practices in the creative industries and why that matters. As a reference book it offers an intelligent and rigorous interrogation of Live Art its guts and gore, its shock tactics and disruptions, its raw energy, risk taking and ingenuity.

My only whinge about this book is its’ institutional brown cover, with the serif block print that disturbs. It smacks of the medical file. Given that this is Live Art, maybe that’s the point. And this gem is published entirely in Times New Roman, an archaic printer’s font that leaves out so many visually impaired readers. (It’s the licks and tails…) but if you can, please set any reluctance to engage aside, grab the magnifier, it is so well worth the journey.


AGENCY: A Partial History of Live Art is published by Live Art Development Agency and Intellect Books, Spring 2019.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-990-3
223 mm x 170 mm, paperback. 320 pages.
Price: £25