How Do You Teach Performance Art?

A new workshop responds to hierarchies in arts education 

How to teach performance art, and whether the practice can even be taught, have long been subjects of debate within the performance-art community. ‘Performance art is like stage-diving,’ Tero Nauha observed in his essay ‘Performance Art Can’t Be Taught’ (2017), ‘you have to do it to learn it. You may find a manual on Wikihow or YouTube, but it is not sufficient until you have a physical memory and a few bruises.’

As an artistic medium predicated on physical experience, performance art has often struggled to integrate within mainstream educational contexts, where hierarchy, mimetic learning and the roles of ‘active, knowledgeable teacher’ and ‘passive pupil’ are deeply entrenched. While some universities and art schools (including London’s Goldsmiths and Royal College of Art) have, over the past decade or so, sought to address this situation, those of us who have passed through these programmes know that establishing a strong performance-art pedagogy within the academy is not always straightforward. Under pressure to measure their success in terms of results rather than process, universities – whose course fees are particularly crippling for low-earning graduates such as art students and whose investment in arts facilities is perennially diminishing – offer an unfriendly home for performance art, one of the most process-driven and politically provocative artistic forms.

Nicholas Tee, Léann Herlihy, Ro Hardaker, Alicia Radage, Jasper Llewellyn, Jade Blackstock, Nika Lopez, Assembly #2, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artists 

Nicholas Tee, Léann Herlihy, Ro Hardaker, Alicia Radage, Jasper Llewellyn, Jade Blackstock, Nika Lopez, Assembly #2, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artists  

Last year, with this in mind, fellow artist Alicia Radage and I decided to create a new teaching/learning environment for artists committed to working in performance art. This educational context would be rooted in a few core principles: firstly, it would be totally autonomous; secondly, it would bring together an international group of artists; thirdly, no artist would have to pay tuition fees; and, lastly, the participants would effectively be both teachers and students. So far, we have facilitated two residential gatherings in the south of France, Assemblies #1 and #2, both of which were funded by Kickstarter. This summer’s Assembly #2 brought together seven artists from Spain, Singapore, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. In this leaderless environment – where artists cook, sleep and work together – learning happens laterally and each member of the group has a responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of their fellow participants.

On the first day of this summer’s Assembly #2, each artist was asked to reflect on their own methodology and to write down exercises they wanted to try out. Every activity culminated in a group reflection on our individual experiences and considered the exercise in relation to broader issues around performance-art education, creating a constant back-and-forth between doing and reflecting on doing. For example, one participant wanted to explore a concept (the preformance, the performance and the postformance) raised by seminal performance artist Nigel Rolfe in his classes on the Performance Pathway at the Royal College of Art. A key element of the preformance is preparing the space in which you are going to perform. Having decided that we wanted to perform outside, we began clearing an area of scrubby ground in the surrounding forest with spades and rakes. As the ecological implications of our activity began to emerge, however, we soon realized how, positive intentions notwithstanding, we were demonstrating the same human-centric attitudes towards our environment that had, coincidentally, been raised in that morning’s reading group.

Jade Blackstock, Assembly #2, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist

Jade Blackstock, Assembly #2, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist

The workshop culminated in an evening of public performances. After a communal meal with people from the local village, we migrated to the basement, where Singapore-born, London-based artist Nicholas Tee presented an hour-long piece combining elements of his training in Butoh with gestures he had been developing over the course of Assembly #2. Disturbing a family of fruit bats, Tee filled the space with mist from a bee smoker and blasted static from a CD player suspended from the ceiling. Dressed in overalls and covered in ashes, he cut through the haze with sharp movements, generating discussions around performance art’s relationship to violence and an artist’s responsibility to the wellbeing of their audience.

In the words of one of the participating artists: ‘Assembly is an exercise in cohabitation […] It is a durational performance of sorts.’ This living-working dynamic is integral to the Assembly model: we recognize that performance art is more than just polishing and presenting a finished work inside a studio. We also acknowledge that performance art needs to successfully create a space for itself within the existing education system. The Assembly series is an opportunity to imagine what these spaces could look like.

Main image: Léann Herlihy, Assembly #2, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist

Jasper Llewellyn is an artist, workshop facilitator and PhD student, based in London, UK. His current research at Northumbria University, UK, revolves around how performance-art methodology can assist in understanding the role of improvisation in everyday life.

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