Catherine Wood — Live

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Catherine Wood

Catherine Wood is senior curator of international art (performance) at Tate Modern, London.

Live as an adjective that used to describe a certain kind of art practice should be distinguished from the verb relating straightforwardly to the process of living. The adjective live connotes, variously, “burning, glowing”; “containing unspent energy or power” (alluding to ammunition or electrical current). It can characterize something taking place “in person” (the term was first used regarding performance in 1934); an unrehearsed radio or television broadcast; and, with the Internet, instantaneous video streaming. It has been used since 1903 to describe an active person; and also—significantly for performance art—something being in actual use, i.e., operational, rather than in a process of testing.

The term live for event or performance art has been used by writers and curators since the late 1970s. RoseLee Goldberg’s influential book Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present (1979) is one of the first important points of reference. Although most of the artists making work that can be described as live were using the terms performance, action, or happening between the late 1950s and the 1970s, the term live has nevertheless come to be strongly associated with a certain kind of body-art practice during that period, perhaps through its institutionalization in art-historical writing and museum programming.

Art that is “live” can be distinguished from art that is part of an idea of the “practice of everyday life” in terms of ordinary actions or interventions that are pedestrian and sometimes participatory. The latter approach has what might be described as a softer tone than that sense of charge implied by the “live.” While a number of artists make work that embeds performance within daily life—for example, Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s Celebration? Realife (1972), in which the artist drank coffee with visitors to his installation; Jiri Kovanda’s micro-interventions into the activity of Prague streets in the late 1970s, as forms of invisible theater, or Roman Ondak’s Good Feelings in Good Times, 2004, which comprises an artificially staged “queue” leading nowhere, to name but a few. “Liveness,” in sharp contrast, carries an intensity of being in the moment, a mutual presentness, even an element of physical risk.

Works by artists including Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović, and Gina Pane might be seen as key examples of this tendency. For example, in Rhythm O (1974), Abramović invited viewers to choose an object from a large arrangement on a table to give her either pleasure or pain: ranging from a feather and a bunch of grapes to a spiked chain and even a loaded gun. The piece ended soon after a viewer held the gun to Abramović’s head and other audience members intervened. This form of “liveness” draws upon the term’s association with risk as well as the suggestion of electricity or ammunition. Indeed, both Burden and Abramović’s work included the use of actual loaded guns; Burden’s famous Shoot (1971) was one of a number of works involving injury to himself that, like Abramovic’s work, dramatized the fallibility of live presence by invoking the danger of live ammunition and carried real risk. Such work has a quality of unpredictability in its unfolding and outcome and is to be distinguished from “theater,” which is assumed to be the results of scripted repetition via rehearsal.

In the UK there is a specific and strong history attached to the concept of “live art,” pioneered by Lois Keidan and the Live Art Development Agency since the late 1980s. LADA has had an agenda related to risk and what they describe as “marginalized” body-art practices. According to Keidan, “The term Live Art is not a description of an artform or discipline, but a cultural strategy to include experimental processes and experiential practices that might otherwise be excluded from established curatorial, cultural and critical frameworks. . . . For many artists Live Art is a generative force: to destroy pretense, to create sensory immersion, to shock, to break apart traditions of representation, to open different kinds of engagement with meaning.”1 Artists associated with this approach include Franko B, La Ribot, and Forced Entertainment. The term live art has similarly been applied, in large part retrospectively, to body-art performance from Eastern Europe, Russia and South Korea from the 1970s onwards, and, more recently, China, where extreme forms of risk-taking and physical endurance emerged in performance in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Younger artists today are less likely to use the term live art and more to label what they do as performance or event. While many still explore the intimacy of “being there,” less emphasis is placed on the excitement or charge of a one-off moment, and broadly speaking the work of this generation is less concerned with physical risk. Furthermore, since performance work has, to a large extent, shifted from being an underground activity toward a more mainstream art medium, it is increasingly being made not only for artist-run spaces or clubs but for institutions, and being collected by museums. Tate has had a program titled Tate Live since 2003, and institutions around the world use the notion of “live” projects (though not necessarily “live art” per se) as an important part of their programming. Museums use the term to both distinguish the work from the unchanging formats of exhibitions and displays and to suggest an accelerated area of change or instability, as well as the necessity of showing up at a particular place and time.

In contemporary art practice, the notion of the “live” has been complicated in the past decade by the capacity of the Internet. While live television, used for to-the-minute news reportage and broadcasting of events such as sports games or coronations, conveyed a certain authenticity that may have appealed to artists, it was rarely available as usable technology. However, artists now are free to explore commonly available media such as webcam, Skype, live online chat, and streaming in various ways, fracturing and elaborating upon the notion that “live art” necessitates immediate physical presence. The Internet opens up the possibility of a “live” audience that is separated geographically but nonetheless actively engaged in the same communal conversation or experience. Arguably, as Philip Auslander has explored, boundaries between the “live” and the recorded lie become ever harder to pinpoint given the ubiquity of CCTV, Skype, and other forms of immediate image capture and relay, via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat on smartphones.2 In this sense, lived life itself is frequently being transmitted “live.” For this reason, perhaps, many artists are—in what may seem like a contradictory choice—drawn strongly to the old-fashioned idea of the “live” event in real time and space: where one sees one’s audience concretely, just as many people are drawn to attend live “gigs” to see bands.

At the same time, the primary event (say, a concert or performance) is often considered only truly visible or experienced when it is simultaneously transmitted via instant messaging and online video platforms. The act of witnessing live-ness requires a form of relay that is also “to the moment.” This perhaps takes us right back to early forms of expressive fiction such as Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1748), written in epistolary style, the narrator reporting on the events of her life minute-to-minute through a series of letters.

Similarly, forms of live performance are often, now, explored as sculpture or choreography. Artists such as Tino Sehgal, Roman Ondak, and Tania Bruguera have led the way for the subsequent generation by making work that can be reproduced via scripts, scores, rehearsals, and repetitions. Many live works are “available” via documentation, after the event, and indeed, since the Vienna Actionists, many were in fact staged for photography or film and video. The live is, arguably, no longer understood as a radical or urgent quality, but more as a medium description that is at the center of a constellation of formats including photography, video, object-prompts, and written instructions. The current generation of artists have pushed this question further by establishing “liveness” as a potential quality of the state of things rather than something attributed only to human presence. Cally Spooner describes her interest in live action as a way of representing art’s “refusal to settle”: a quality that can be embodied by sound and video—for example in her Stedelijk Museum exhibition of 2015—as much as by the presence of performers in the gallery. Phillippe Parreno and Ian Cheng are both contemporary artists who have experimented with the generative potential of digital algo-rhythms: the idea that a computer coded animation might develop a sustained and shifting life of its own, so long as it is fed by electricity (a live current). Questions of artificial intelligence, then, increasingly haunt the status of liveness previously imagined to mark our unique human presence.


  1. Live Art Development Agency, “What is Live Art?” www.thisisliveart.co.uk. 

  2. See, for example, Philip Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art vol. 28 no. 3 (September 2006): 1–10. 

See Also

Act — Catherine Wood

Duration — Ralph Lemon

Choreography — Sabine Breitwieser

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971. © Chris Burden Studio. Courtesy of The Burden/Rubins Revocable Trust and Gagosian Gallery.

Dora García, Instant Narrative, 2006. Part of "Double Agent," curated by Claire Bishop and Mark Sladen at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 2008. © Dora García. Photo: James Royall.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin. berlinberlin.be.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / bildbuehne.de / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.