THE ART OF PER­FOR­MANCE

Creative Feel - - CONTENTS - DAVE MANN is an ed­i­tor and award-win­ning arts jour­nal­ist.

Dave Mann ques­tions the role of the arts writer.

In an age of on­line-first, visu­ally-driven con­tent, what is the value of writ­ing about art or per­for­mance? And is writ­ing about art even nec­es­sary? For some­one who en­joys writ­ing about art and per­for­mance, those are a few of the ques­tions that can gnaw at my mind each time I sit down to be­gin a new piece. I never used to think like this. Back when I first re­alised I loved writ­ing about art, I was con­vinced that writ­ing was more im­por­tant than ever – that it was an en­tirely nec­es­sary medium that wouldn’t fade away no mat­ter how smart they made our phones, or how clut­tered our time­lines be­came. And I still feel that way about writ­ing, it’s just that these days I fight a lit­tle harder each time to re­mind my­self of those feel­ings.

It was a few months back when I re­ally strug­gled to rec­on­cile these viewpoints. I had writ­ten a long-form piece on a per­former and the in­ter­view had gone well. I took my time with the piece, pol­ish­ing and re-read­ing it many times over, and be­fore I was set to send the piece in for pub­lish­ing, I sent it to the per­former for a readthrough. I do this when­ever I write a par­tic­u­larly in­depth piece about a per­son, be­cause I like to be­lieve that when­ever you’re tasked with han­dling some­one’s per­sonal story, there’s an agree­ment of trust that’s en­tered into, and by work­ing through the fi­nal draft of that per­son’s story with them, you’re hon­our­ing that re­la­tion­ship.

The piece came back to me filled with re­quests for changes. As I read through the ed­its, I re­alised that noth­ing about the form, the facts, or even the story it­self was an is­sue for the per­former, but that small things like the in­clu­sion of slang words or phrases they used in di­rect quotes, were to be taken out. Other re­quested ed­its were that I include ab­so­lutely ev­ery piece of work they’ve done, and ac­co­lades they’d re­ceived named in full. In short, I had writ­ten a piece that spoke on the na­ture of their craft, why they did it, and what it meant to them and those who en­gaged with it, and to my mind, they had sim­ply wanted an in­cred­i­bly long-winded artist bio all along. Be­sides those ‘small changes’, they told me, they ab­so­lutely loved the piece.

The whole experience made me want to quit bang­ing around on key­boards for good. Af­ter­wards, I called a friend for ad­vice. ‘What’s the point of writ­ing about some­one’s prac­tice if all they want is a new artist state­ment for their web­site?’ I asked. ‘And what’s the

“Writ­ing is per­for­ma­tive – it’s process-based. You go out and experience some­thing, gather the facts and the in­sights, run those things through your own ex­pe­ri­ences and knowl­edge, lay it out in a for­mat that’s read­able and un­der­stand­able, and then you let it go”

point of writ­ing about some­one’s process if ev­ery­one would sooner watch an Instagram story about it?’ A lit­tle dra­matic, yes, but the call helped. As these things go, the friend had no quick-fix ad­vice on the mat­ter, but we did end up hav­ing a good con­ver­sa­tion about the value of process, and the value of doc­u­ment­ing and ar­chiv­ing out­side of so­cial me­dia.

Writ­ing about art or per­for­mance is a tricky busi­ness for a num­ber of rea­sons, one of which is that the ma­jor­ity of

us have pre­con­ceived ideas about arts writ­ers as arts crit­ics – sharp, ruth­less folk, al­ways poised to take up their pens and make or break artists’ en­tire ca­reers. I am not an arts critic. I am some­one who writes about art, and I find it’s the medium that makes the most sense to me. And if we’re dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing an arts critic from an arts writer, I’d say that the lat­ter is sim­ply some­one who takes the words, works, and pro­cesses of an artist, and puts them into a story that’s com­pre­hen­si­ble. In this way, arts writ­ers are much like po­lit­i­cal re­porters who we rely on to sit in on things like SONA de­bates and par­lia­men­tary dis­cus­sions, tak­ing down all the bu­reau­cratic jargon and pre­sent­ing it to us in a way that makes sense – and if done well, makes us un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of large-scale is­sues to in­di­vid­ual people. And if art is just an­other way of mak­ing sense of the world and our places in it, then some­one who writes about, doc­u­ments and ar­chives art, is ide­ally the con­duit of these ideas to other people who are in­ter­ested in cre­ative forms of ex­pres­sion.

The other thing that makes writ­ing about art a tricky prac­tice is in­her­ent to the act of writ­ing it­self. I’ve been lucky enough to write about all kinds of art and artists over the years and I still have these small pangs of fear in my stom­ach when­ever I see my writ­ing out in the world.

I’m scared of mis­in­ter­pret­ing some­thing, com­ing across as too soft, too hard, too ar­ro­gant, or too ig­no­rant. Be­cause writ­ing is per­for­ma­tive – it’s process-based. You go out and experience some­thing, gather the facts and the in­sights, run those things through your own ex­pe­ri­ences and knowl­edge, lay it out in a for­mat that’s read­able and un­der­stand­able, and then you let it go.

I went to a talk by the arts writ­ers Sean O’Toole and Ashraf Ja­mal a while back. The talk, which fo­cussed loosely on Ja­mal’s new book, saw the two dis­cussing things like arts writ­ing in South Africa, the me­dia in­dus­try as a whole, and the var­i­ous pol­i­tics of writ­ing. At one point, O’Toole asked Ja­mal how he dealt with people en­gag­ing with his writ­ing, ei­ther pos­i­tively or neg­a­tively. While Ja­mal didn’t quite an­swer the ques­tion, he did state that he ‘wrote to be read’. I found that to be a strange stance, al­though nat­u­rally, I un­der­stand that pub­lic writ­ing will in­evitably be read by some­one.

The fol­low­ing day I had a chat with the artist Chris Soal ahead of his de­but solo ex­hi­bi­tion, Or­bits of Re­lat­ing. We spoke about his process, his ap­proach to art­mak­ing, and his own ex­pe­ri­ences of writ­ing about art. He ex­plained how, if you’re cre­at­ing art that’s only seen by a se­lect few – peers, ed­u­ca­tors, close friends – ‘then you’re es­sen­tially cre­at­ing work that ex­ists in a vac­uum.’ One of the aims of cre­at­ing

"Writ­ing about art or per­for­mance is a tricky busi­ness for a num­ber of rea­sons, one of which is that the ma­jor­ity of us have pre­con­ceived ideas about arts writ­ers as arts crit­ics – sharp, ruth­less folk, al­ways poised to take up their pens and make or break artists’ en­tire ca­reers"

work, he said, is to have it en­gaged with, and seen by as many people as pos­si­ble so that each per­son can draw their own mean­ing from the work, or leave their in­di­vid­ual im­pres­sions on it. Writ­ing about art, he said, was an­other way of do­ing that.

Later, while I tried to put Soal’s work and thoughts into words, I went through the same per­for­mance of writ­ing that I al­ways do. I gath­ered the in­for­ma­tion and the in­sights, I ran it through my own thoughts and im­pres­sions, typed it out into what I thought was a co­her­ent struc­ture, and then I let it go. I still felt the same fears and anx­i­eties, and I still won­dered what the value of my con­tri­bu­tion re­ally was. I thought back to the phone call I had with my friend, and I tried to re­mem­ber what we said about writ­ing be­ing a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion – an­other ver­sion of some­one’s prac­tice or process be­ing sent out into the world as a means of ref­er­ence.

Ul­ti­mately, if all the pains and pro­cesses that go into try­ing to write about art or per­for­mance end up play­ing some small part in mak­ing mean­ing out of the way we ex­ist in the world, then I think that’s enough.

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