Bryony: Reading your last piece of writing, I was struck by an idea that I too have been exploring for some time; can liveness have an origin? Can it is exist as a youthful exercise where we stand blindfolded at party, desperately trying to pinpoint the tail on the donkey, to try and locate, or isolate the exact moment of liveness? I want to take up your proposition to ruminate further on the origins of liveness, where it might lie, how it might sit or in fact what surfaces it might inhabit. I agree that it can originate in an exchange, in an interaction between people and I do think your ideas here talk to Erika Fischer Lichte’s work on the autopoetic feedback loop, where there is a sustained energy within the bodily co-presence between spectator and performer. Yet, I want to try and push further an idea of the surface, grounds or texture of liveness. To do this, I want to make recourse to a brief, yet mesmerizing anecdote in Alan Read’s recently published (2013) Theatre in the Expanded Field, in which Read takes his daughter to partake in Tino Sehgal’s 2007 work This Progress at the ICA.

Read describes how having left his daughter seven hours earlier with the rest of the children to take part in Sehgal’s work, he then returns to ‘an intense display of play […] with various degrees of faux theatricality and apparently innocent goodwill-brushing of girls’ hair.’[1] Read continues explaining how ‘amidst all this to-ing and fro-ing, what was inescapable was the floor, which was way too hard for its own good, or indeed for the children playing on it. At one point a boy fell and hit his head quite hard in that slightly sickening thud-like way that adults just don’t do.’[2] Imagining this moment, I envisage the ICA floor, a brutal sea of solid stone-slab concrete painstakingly in contrast with the infantile, innocent activities taking place around Read and the other parents. Read continues that the floor was the most ‘utterly trapdoor-less floor that you could imagine’, one which offered no ‘means nor hope to broach its impermeability’.[3] Read continues, putting forth that the ICA floor was the exact ‘inversion of Plato’s theatrical volume with its side-long excision opening it out to the world and sun above.’[4] That is, the ICA floor was opaquely, obliquely and monolithically solid and ‘in the case of the ICA it was the precise quarried density that threw up the resistances on offer that day.’[5]

Read suggests that the resistance thrown up was an inversion of the perhaps expected texture of the stage-theatre-performance set-up. According to Read, staging presumes a certain hollowness.[6] We expect a trap-door, we expect that below the stage there may be a world of props; we expect the hollowness of the ‘sub-stage’.[7] Indeed, in recollecting my actor training as an obedient child, I remember being taught how to walk across the stage so as not to make a sound, so that the hollowness of the stage didn’t reveal the sounding presence of my footsteps. My drama teacher seemed to be teaching me how to counteract or resist the hollowness that predicates stage action; she was teaching me to labour, or resist this by walking silently and slowly.

Yet, Jane Drew’s solid stone-slab floor at the ICA resisted the child’s head and in that thudding moment, Read suggests that what arises is the quite literal ‘grounding concepts’ that govern our expectations of performance.[8] If children are involved, perhaps we expect the floor to mould to the person or thing that uses it; perhaps the floor could have been covered in a non-slip cover resembling that of a bouncy castle. Perhaps we expected a safety net or at least we expect the participants not to get hurt, especially when working with children.

Reading the moment of a child hitting his head on the floor, I think to Marina Abramović’s restaging or re-enactment of Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure. As I watch Babette Mangolte’s film, Abramović approaches the transparent Perspex screen; she stands, lingers for a moment and then thrusts her body to the screen. She slams her face to screen and in a split-second, Abramović’s face distorts, her nose punished into an indistinguishable shape. The film cuts and Abramović assumes a horizontal position of the floor. Her cheek pushed against the screen, flattening, spreading, the pressure causing her cheek to fatten against the panel.


Abramović’s act of thudding against the Perspex screen is all that is intentional in distorting the body, which the boy in Read’s anecdote, is not. I am also here reminded of the transparency of the screen in Abramović’s Body Pressure where in opposition, Read places emphasis on the solid, impermeable opacity of the ICA floor. In Abramović’s performance, she reveals to us the distortion, this malleability and plasticity of the body through and on the screen. Whilst, also showing us that the body can’t quite push through; however much she may try, this panel too is impermeable. As Read perhaps may put it – Abramović’s body is recalcitrant to the screen. The sound of the child hitting the floor by accident highlights exactly the accidental nature of this action; that it could happen, and did and there were no boundaries or apparatuses in place to stopper this act from happening.

What I want to suggest is that perhaps these surfaces, this ground could be a space in which we can pinpoint liveness. The solid transparency of the screen in the Nauman re-enactment and in Read’s ICA narrative remind us of the obstinacy of material; that which we might hit up against, that which is ‘recalcitrant’ and that which slams against our expectations. In Abramović’s performance we can see through the screen and as she broaches its impermeability, her body is fleshed out, displayed and delivered to us and through this transparency. As an audience, we are shown the smudges, smears and residues of Abramović’s interaction with the surface. Perhaps then liveness can be this surface; it is that which reflects, shows, displays (or precisely doesn’t in Read’s case) the live act that is taking place. Perhaps liveness isn’t the moment of physically pinning the tail on the donkey; it is the very surface with which the tail has been pinned. Of course there is liveness in the sense of the live body, the body in space, but what about live materials? Materials, surfaces and grounds, which react against us, which carry the weight of our bodies and which display the residue of our breath.

This post is a response to 23/06

[1] Alan Read, ‘First Approach: Pre-Historical and Archaeological’ in Theatre in the Expanded Field Seven Approaches to Performance (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013) pp. 1-29, p. 20

[2] Ibid., p. 20

[3] Ibid., p. 20

[4] Ibid., p. 20

[5] Ibid., p. 21

[6] Ibid., p. 20

[7] Ibid., p. 21

[8] Ibid., p. 21

One thought on “14/07/14

  1. Pingback: 23/06/14 | Felt Acts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s