Next week there will be more 'happening' in London than you might have thought. The launch of the city’s first-ever performance art festival means artists will be speaking, mugging and writhing from the ICA to Somerset House. Titled 'Block Universe', the event will be a return to midcentury performance values with a decidedly contemporary spin.
In an era when Marina Abramovic is referenced in rock-star terms, it’s remarkable that performance art has remained so firmly in the margins in London. Awareness is as high as it’s been since Allan Kaprow’s '18 Happenings in 6 Parts' changed the game in 1959; art students can study it at colleges like Goldsmiths. And yet if it does get an airing, performance is usually tangential to the main event.
'We’re seeing an increasing interest in it, despite the way it’s being programmed in London,' says Louise O’Kelly, the festival’s director and a Goldsmiths grad, 'but a lot of artists working in performance find they don’t have a home.'
A devotee of the artform since a stint working with Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive years ago, O’Kelly was roused when Tate Tanks opened in 2012 with a 15-week festival heavy in performance art. Then… nothing. New York has a dedicated performance art space called the Kitchen and a biennial called Performa. In London, though, there is nothing like that explains O’Kelly.
With help from the Kitchen, Arts Council England and a Kickstarter campaign, O’Kelly has assembled a programme of marquee names like choreographer Joe Moran and sculptor Eva Rothschild, who will collaborate in a show at Fig-2 / ICA. Jenny Moore will perform a feminist manifesto at the Art Worker’s Guild, surrounded by portraits of the Guild’s forefathers. Nicola Conibere will wrap two bodies in swathes of fabric and send them rolling around the Royal Academy courtyard alongside Conrad Shawcross’s installation 'The Dappled Light of the Sun'.
The intersection with contemporary art is what gives Block Universe contemporary freshness. 'Performance art in the Sixties was very much about moving away from an object-space practice to something more intangible,' says O’Kelly. 'Now there’s a lot of crossover between dance, painting and sculpture. Those conversations are opening again.'