The “Art” formerly known as “Performance _”

Posted by: Laura Milnes on Oct 11, 2011
One of the reasons I wanted to work where I work is because of the range of art created in the name of Artsadmin. From theatre and dance in studios and auditoriums to one-on-one performances on stairwells, sculptural installations, sound art, glass art, live art, body art, online art, protests, actions and record-breaking attempts – Artsadmin’s got it covered. Very rarely in my office do I hear an artist referred to in specific terms, such as “she’s a visual artist” or “he’s a dancer”. While we may discuss what medium an artist tends to work in, the attitude is that any artist working with us may choose to create in any form they wish, a prerogative that would never be questioned or challenged in a negative way. The word ‘interdisciplinary’ was one that popped up throughout my studies and while it is apparently an adjective for artists that use mixed media to express themselves or combine several art forms through collaborations, I’ve come to view the word as a euphemism for ‘artist’. Surely any artist is free to express through any medium necessary? Recently, in two very different places, I have come across two such artists who I wouldn’t wish to give a label to but whose varied and complex work I will happily elaborate on.

The first experience took place at Dilston Grove, where Brian Catling presented QUILL TWO. Described by commissioners Matt’s Gallery as a three-day manifestation – and not much else – I understandably walked in with no idea of what to expect. I love this building, so any invitation to hang out there I’ll gladly accept. I opened the heavy wooden door and crept up the centre of the dimly lit room towards the balcony that once was the pulpit. A cluster of audience were looking up at a creature perched backwards on the balcony – somewhere between bird and insect, it was sculpturally constructed from a bundle of abstract objects and materials including scored wood which moved like a wing, corrugated cardboard in indecipherable shapes, twigs, plastic and fishing rods. A large white tail, curled like the nib of a fountain pen extended from the wooden railings.

I stood for an hour or more in the twilight of a bizarre summer’s day in October as this creature threw discarded spoils (gold watches) out of its nest like a petulant magpie. The air was delicate and tense, as a sense of suspense and concentration surrounded the pulpit. We uneasily awaited the next movement, ritual, reaction. The creature was sometimes still, often considered, always cautious but never dormant. It responded to its environment and its captivated audience. The sounds it made echoed, mimicked and amplified the sounds of Dilston Grove, its creaks and moans, the sound of its ageing, the wind in battle with the frail but resilient windows. For three days and nights, this was the unnatural habitat of the Birdman. The Birdman claimed Dilston Grove as its own. I was a mere visitor, an observer of its strange behaviours, a twitcher.

The second artist to whom I refer is the inimitable Chilly Gonzales, known widely as a contemporary pianist, composer and remixer. The following words come to mind when attempting to describe his set: improv, cabaret, lounge, ipad, silk dressing gown, bullying, audience participation and a middle class white man rapping. All things that make me cringe in varying degrees. All things that collided to make up Chilly’s act, which concluded his 2-week run at Soho Theatre.

Chilly took his seat at the piano, be-robed in green and black satin and polka dot pyjamas before launching straight into his unashamed lounge-lite piano jazz. I walked in with no ‘live art’ expectations and I walked out with utter respect for this performer, his stage presence and his unerring ability to shock his audience. His smooth and easy going introduction gave me no clue as to how much he would offend me and how much I’d enjoy it! I was unaware I’d witness him bullying a defiant audience member to the point of almost forcing her to leave (and that I’d encourage it…) and I definitely wasn’t expecting him to take a chaotic encore situation involving defiant and troublesome audience, bongos and sexual advances into a near the knuckle piece of live-art-via-light entertainment. It left me asking the question – why call yourself ‘live art’ when you can call yourself ‘Chilly Gonzales’?

Now, neither Gonzales nor Catling are Artsadmin artists. They are just two examples of people who make art/music/performance/whatever in the way that takes their fancy. They create, I absorb. An organisation like Artsadmin doesn’t have the capacity to personally support every single artist who doesn’t want to stick to a discipline, however hard it tries. It’s up to us, the audience to be more willing to invest our time and ticket money in artists who don’t want to limit themselves to one field of practice. So roll on the next artist I encounter with no labels to bear. I’m willing to take a chance on the indescribable.

You can read Laura's more in depth reviews of the two performances mentioned at

Laura is trainee producer at Artsadmin, supported by the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries Scheme.

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