Harriet: In your last piece, you consider the origin of liveness. Perhaps liveness is something that originates in childhood as a risk or danger that is more threatening than in adult life. Your mention of Read’s description of the child who smacks their head on a stone floor with a thudding crack ‘in a way that adults just don’t do’,[1] seems to hearken to this risk. I was particularly struck by your proposition that it is these surfaces, and their relationship to the body, that constitute liveness.

One question that continues to trouble me involves the cold, hard surface of a pavement and its relationship to the bodies of beggars who occupy the city streets. These bodies are often situated in close proximity to ratified theatrical sites, such as the West End theatres of London. I am intrigued by the relationship between the organised performances that take place inside these buildings and the sights and sounds created by those on the surfaces of streets outside. Is there a kind of liveness found in begging and busking that can’t be captured in other sorts of performances? Whilst the child in Read’s anecdote experiences a sudden point of contact with a hard surface, the bodies of beggars are in prolonged contact with a similarly unforgiving ground.

However, the space between sudden contact and prolonged presence in this case seems vast. The child at the ICA, although his head smack was accidental, was participating in an organised Tino Sehgal project. Marina Abramović’s act of thudding is similarly a brief moment of contact, performed as part of a public staging at the Guggenheim. Whether intentional or not, these moments force the body into sudden contact with the surface. Can we consider the body of a beggar, say, alongside these instances of live art? It is certainly troublesome to do so. However, there is a historical association between vagrancy and performance, which might allow us to push some sort of comparison.

Theatrical players were once regarded both socially and legally as vagrants, and early modern dramatists frequently portrayed beggars onstage, Edgar’s performance of Poor Tom in King Lear being a notable example. These associations between theatre and vagrancy might contribute to an uncomfortable sense of street begging as a kind of performance. Tehching Hsieh’s durational performance ‘Outdoor Piece’, which took place from 1981-2, brings into question the position of the vagrant by challenging out own conceptions of living in public space. The limitations of Hsieh’s piece are clear: he has a determined end date, an allowance on which to live so that he need not beg, and crucially, he is not really homeless. However, he does force us to reconsider public space and our encounters with it. He lives outside for a year, constantly in contact with the pavement. The piece is hardly documented and exists in the time it was performed, through his contact with the floor and his altercations with the police and other street-dwellers.

Hsieh’s ‘Outdoor Piece’ may constitute liveness through its demonstration of a body not just in space, but living, sleeping, breathing in public space. Hsieh’s decision to live outside, his position as an artist and the established rules for his performance separate Hsieh and all those who are not at liberty to make the same decisions. However, Hsieh’s life on the streets may have bridged the uncomfortable gulf between the sudden smack of a head in an organised performance, and the pavement, which carries the weight of so many bodies.

by Harriet Thompson

Harriet is a writer and theatre-maker interested in the strange itch and irritation produced by performance. She recently graduated from King’s College London with a degree in English Literature, where she supplemented three years of reading books with various theatre projects and freelance writing. Harriet is co-founder of collaborative theatre company, BrowBeat Theatre.

[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

In Response to: 14/07/14

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