Out of bounds

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A nun, a scary marine and lots of nudity. ANDREW EATON finds his senses assailed by his first ever taste of the National Review of Live Art.

ON WEDNESDAY this week I had intimate encounters with two women in the space of an hour. The first, Katherine, stood naked in the middle of a room, brightly lit, while I watched her from the shadows, fully clothed. She stared at me. I stared at her. Then I left.

The second woman, Micol, lay on top of me on the floor while I sang a Cole Porter song in her ear. I hadn't planned this, exactly. Micol was up for doing all kinds of stuff. According to the notes on her wall she would have urinated in front of me if I'd asked, or confessed an intimate secret, or just told a joke. But I was intrigued by her offer of trying to synchronise our heartbeats. I asked her what this would involve. She said she hadn't really thought about it, but she could try lying on me. Ok, I said. In return I volunteered to sing to her.

Oddly, this second encounter, involving two fully clothed people, was much more intimate. Katherine was kind of cold and distant, and made me uncomfortable. Micol was great, though. Afterwards we hugged and agreed that it had been a lovely experience.

This was my first ever experience of the National Review of Live Art (NRLA), an annual festival in Glasgow. I did other things too. I watched a woman in a maid's outfit standing fully submerged in a water tank for 20 minutes. I watched a man dressed as a marine marching in circles carrying a placard that said "haunted". And I walked out of a dance performance before the end because it was so utterly tedious. Everything I saw, from the naked woman to the marine, was being done in the name of art.

So, what do you think about live art? In my ten years as an arts journalist, I've found that this question polarises people more than anything else you could ask them about "the arts". Some people will tell you live art is pretentious, self-indulgent and ridiculous, and possibly make a sarcastic remark about naked people smearing themselves with jam. And these people, often, are not what you would call philistines. In fact, some of them work in theatre.

Others will tell you live art is about breaking down boundaries and being open to new experiences. They will tell you it is important, and worth supporting, that it constantly influences popular culture, that if you go to the NRLA you're bound to see something that will really move you, even if some of it leaves you cold (a bit like T in the Park, maybe). Interestingly, though, a lot of these people don't watch much live art either. They're like consumers who evangelise about corner shops but go to Tesco.

Every year the NRLA makes a point of saying there is a growing audience for live art, that its audience doesn't simply consist – as some cynics will tell you – of live art performers, live art students and their tutors. Today's NRLA programme, the PR told me, is sold out. Then again, that's 400 tickets, for 26 events. If you staged a gig with 26 bands, say, and didn't manage to sell 400 tickets, you'd never work as a promoter again. Go figure.

I've always been curious about the NRLA, but never quite got round to attending. People kept telling me I should, if only to see what it's like. The descriptions in the hefty programme don't really help you in this regard. A fair amount of it is drivel, written in the kind of self-important, pseudo-intellectual or just clumsily phrased jargon at which George Orwell would have rolled his eyes. Here's some. Brace yourself.

"Installation and performance have often intersected, and spaces in between the two genres are vast. There have been explorations of all that lies between that have spawned an incredible multi-generational and international community of artists and educators mixing mediums to create new forms."

The first sentence consists of two contradictory statements. The second says more or less the same thing twice, using far more words than is necessary in order to look clever. Is this tosh really expected to attract new audiences?

I had mixed feelings about my first time, as friends from the live art world predicted I would (yes, I have friends in the live art world). Much of the NRLA seems to consist of people doing not very much, painfully slowly. Humour is often conspicuous by its absence.

A highlight of my day was when the marine, Andr Stitt – "one of Europe's foremost performance and interdisciplinary artists", it says here – had a tantrum with Micol Hebron (my second ladyfriend, an artist from LA) because she had the temerity to test her projector while he was marching. He actually threw his "haunted" placard on the ground like a toddler, disrupting the performance he was participating in more than she had. Bizarre. Just afterwards, a young woman put a box on her head. I felt like doing the same.

But here's the twist. Two or three times during the day I had a quite profound experience, or saw something terrific. A Dutch performance called Morphotope was a lot of fun, consisting of three performers doing eccentric things in silly costumes. The point seemed to be that their performance would be led entirely by the audience, but the audience just sat passively and watched (no-one, at the NRLA, wants to risk looking like a stupid philistine by doing the wrong thing) so it got a bit dull after that. But the bicycle-riding nun was a hoot.

Most rewarding, though, were the experiences that required you to invest something of yourself in them, that genuinely broke boundaries between audience and performer, like my two women. Micol Hebron, with her exchange of services, made me think about the value of creative acts. Katherine Hymers – whose five-minute naked encounters are about questioning "who is watching and who is being watched" – made me think afresh about what it means to look at nude images. For that, I'm grateful. I might even go again next year, if they'll still have me.

The NRLA continues at Tramway, Glasgow, until Sunday. Day tickets cost 12 (10 conc). More info at www.tramway.org

THE INSIDER'S VIEW

I BELIEVE the compulsion to question is the most powerful process we have as human beings. This will be my sixth year of coming to the National Review of Live Art and, as ever, it is full of brave attempts to interrogate the world we live in and our place in it.

I demand that art be life-affirming, and these five days are full of artists creating fearless acts. Each performance is singular, though recurring motifs often emerge.

Dealing with the effects of observation in two very different ways on Wednesday were up-and-coming artist Katherine Hymers and established Welsh art installation artists TRACE:. In residence this year, the TRACE: group has installed a plasterboard replica of their Cardiff workspace.

The work, TRACE: Displaced, asks whether the act of documenting performance has an effect on the event. Professor Heike Roms, in red lipstick and stylish black spectacles, represents a dominating force, photographing and questioning her own account of the evidence as she writes her journal. Choosing your own vantage point within the performance becomes a question of mediating the narrative within the unfolding work, and asks us to consider the effect of traces we leave.

In contrast, Hymers explores the relationship between observer and observed in a poignant piece about the relationship between pornography and art. Asking a sole audience member to consider her light-sculpted body, naked on a plinth, a simple act of sitting up and holding your gaze dramatically renegotiates the propriety of what you are doing.

Evoking classical perceptions of "the nude" and a strip-show, the interplay of power forces a re-evaluation of one's initial viewing of the work, making you question your own role in the construction of desire and notions of beauty.

LAURA CAMERON LEWIS, WRITER AND PERFORMER