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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Acts of faith
Animated, Winter 1999. As process based performance work engaging time as a formal medium is continually marginalised interdisciplinary artist Robert Pacitti explains why he makes...
As an activist utilising a range of performance strategies as my armoury of weapons I believe we are engaged in civil war. In a statement of intent recently issued by the Arts Council of England it became clear that the Combined Arts department is to be cut that funding the front line is about to shift dramatically.

Process based work in particular seems to be in trouble, the cynical logic being if it is not an object then you just cannot sell it, and if you cannot sell it then why, bother making it? Whilst those of us engaged in the production of ephemeral work do so by choice, things do not look good.

It is, however, unsurprising and yet another example of a shifting landscape creating a new geography of Lottery driven projects and an increase in divide and rule economics. Artists vie with artists for oversubscribed resources. The 'estate agents' of the art world may cut corners and protect their patch in a manner almost endemic of the sector of New Work. No smart, affordable, ongoing documentation strategies are being implemented to account for the diverse breadth of contemporary British practice currently taking place within the margins. The arts in Britain are in crisis, both formally and economically.

Whilst partial assessments of contemporary practice have been attempted I believe that a primary task for the next few years has to be the shared construction of a coherent, documented working history for the sector of New Work. I offer that whilst the roots of this reach as far back as cross-cultural ancient ritual, we may trace a clear line right through to the Triadic Ballets, Cabaret Voltaire, Dada and Fluxus.

A good contemporary starting point might then be the early performance or installation works of Pina Bausch and Joseph Beuys. The work of these two practitioners in particular, whilst occurring in different forms, began a series of experiments around pedestrian movement and social response which I believe many contemporary performers are still engaging in. Each artist worked from the inside of a very clear traditional discipline to arrive at a series of radical conclusions that fell outside of the (then) history of their respective forms.

Whilst Bausch re-evaluated the very notion of formal methodology and precision, Beuys worked with a coyote to explore terrains of the unknown and the chaotic. They both created hybrid spaces at a time when a broad span of burgeoning civil rights movements were also seeking out new social locations. The resulting relationship, although identifiable primarily in terms of era, is pivotal to much of the activity undertaken since in performance practice - a fusion of work occurring at the very edges of form and political discourse.

I have been making visual performance works since 1989. Although I have placed much of my work in theatre and performance spaces I have also produced static pieces for gallery and exhibition sites, sound based works in varying audio formats as well as text and visual work for a range of publications.

A central theme within my practice has been the ongoing investigation of the body as a political site. This automatically creates a context for me to explore issues around sexuality, race and gender. Because of my age and cultural location it is unavoidable that my work also often responds to the Aids crisis. For many years it was a clear political decision for me to identify as a queer artist. I now find this a redundant identification. In retrospect, by engaging this label, I was being both marginalised and self marginalising - to qualify, I am first and foremost a cultural worker. The focus of my ongoing experimentation is still the consolidation of form and content and often still explores issues around sex and death, but is also now more clearly about behaviour, language and response.

By engaging a methodology based on the fused principles of dance, theatre and static visual practices I am able to sew together those elements of each historical discipline which I find useful, and discard the rest. Whilst this upsets a great number of purists there are many of us who revel in the new spaces and possibilities this approach may create. With this formal search comes the intertwining of socio-political objectives - the primary motivation of many practitioners in this field - hence the prevalence of work investigating race, class, sex and gender. For my work to strike any political progression I often engage the use of symbols and semiotics that are understood by that section of society I wish to communicate with. In terms of a discourse around sexuality this means that I often utilise a visual vocabulary which represents aspects of queer culture. But these elements of language are only interesting or useful to me when they become about the extension of any given dialogue. Just as Marcel Duchamps 'ready mades', are pertinent because they exist as re contextualised 'givens', so we may apply the same logic to the framing of gestural sequences or pedestrian movement. This process allows me the freedom to investigate why we behave and respond in the ways that we do. What, for example, makes us our own worst enemies, and how come so many of us are travelling grand canyons of denial?

Alongside this ongoing evaluation of that which is partially known I am also interested in the 'wild cards', of our subconscious. Sometimes when I am making work I am compelled to execute an action or include a line of text that I am unclear about on any other level than one winch is instinctual. I used to really question these moments, as so much of my work is constructed around clear ideas of strategy. But after almost a decade of practice I am now far more inclined to trust these less known elements and, whilst it is still regular practice for me to repeatedly question every aspect of my work, I now believe in trusting my own professional judgements and decision making processes. In retrospect I find this often provides me with acute insights into not just my work, but also myself.

This I identify as the principle of the magic book; you open a volume on, for example trigonometry and after a couple of pages you may not know what is going on, but your desire to find out is not any less. If you can discipline yourself to stick with it, to read each page cover to cover, I am certain that something will go in. The logic may be different and the associations your own, but on some primal level you will have exposed yourself to the 'intention', of the text. It parallels ideas of divination, or indeed the roots of cut-up theory.

An example: my performance work Civil (New York and London, 1995-96) culminates in me pouring a bottle of wine over my head and across my body. For a variety of reasons this exists as a very formally economical, symbolic act in the lineation of the piece, but I can clearly recall the moment when the image was born. It made me laugh out loud when I first considered it my next move, and it took a huge leap of faith to try it before I could realise the relevance of the action and the conclusions it offered. But having performed the work many times, in both English and Spanish across Europe, North America and Central America, the image always provokes a similar response. I can feel a shift of energy in the audience every time I get to that point in the show. It works. Were it not for the magic book however, I may never have got there. I often apply this principle to the way in which I view work as well as to the way in which I make it. I can recall a couple of performance pieces that I have seen that I cannot really say I liked or was moved by at the time, but a few years on the images are here with me, burned onto my retina, still going strong.

Experimentation, as I understand it, is a process by which certain equations are constructed and tried. Sometimes they will work and sometimes they will not. This process of establishing ideas, objects or even gestural moments to then investigate further is at the very heart of my practice. It is the root from which all else grows, and I believe that it involves certain elements of risk. Yet I often witness an emergent culture of practice which relies heavily on formulaic systems of operation and reassessments of that which has gone before. This concerns me in three ways:

Firstly, it assumes a level of safety which I find genuinely alarming. Why is this reliance on the work of others occurring without significant commitment to formal progression? In a time where there is such a plethora of cross form convergence, some practitioners, particularly younger ones, seem perhaps unaware of that which has gone before. This creates a state of repetition and, whilst often innocent, it means that we, as viewers, are quite likely to find ourselves watching the reinvention of the wheel.

Secondly, I fear that practitioners are being contained by the structures which fund us - that, for example, because we have to commit ourselves to paper so early on in the applications procedure some artists then feel unable to truly experiment in new ways.

My third concern is that work which exists in this way is representative of a growing culture of conservatism within the arts, a return to times past when you were only as good as your last show. To qualify, it is an inherent element of performance practice that however much we consider, rehearse and discuss, the strengths and weaknesses of a new work will only truly come to light when it is presented to an audience. For me this has become an accepted part of my practice and a premiere of new images will always just be part of my ongoing working process. When teaching I try to instil in students the strength this position can allow. If we cams negotiate the part of our ego which makes its unwilling to 'fail', in public I believe that we can come to terms with the very, notions of 'succcss', and 'failure', in ways that are work centred, ways that can liberate our practices immensely.

Robert Pacitti, Interdisciplinary Artist.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001