Performing Feminism: Kathy Battista on Feminist Performance Art in 1970s London

Article excerpt

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In the 1970s, the medium of performance, which shunned the traditional hierarchy of the plastic arts, became an increasingly important presence in the debates on gender. For many feminist artists in the UK, live art was an ideological tool, and an important vehicle to interpret and present their ideas to the public. It is imperative to acknowledge the futility of a universal approach to this art form. Some artists engaged in performances that featured their naked bodies or focused on the biological aspects of gender. This camp, including Catherine Elwes, the Manchester-based Linder and expat Carolee Schneemann, believed the use of the body--specifically that of the artist herself--elevated the female form from muse to master while exposing previously taboo topics. Others, including Rose Finn-Kelcey, Tina Keane, Hannah O'Shea, Silvia Ziranek and Anne Bean, refused to engage with nudity, fearing that artistic intention did not equate to reception, thus preferring to avoid a perceived dangerous interstitial space where performance could morph into titillation. Many of these artists focused on language or symbolic ritual as key elements in the live act.

One commonality between the disparate approaches to feminist performance art in the UK was the focus on alternative sites of production and presentation. Long before major museums would embrace performance, early practitioners sought spaces that would be amenable to their work. Alternative galleries in London such as Garage, SPACE and AIR supported such work by hosting live art by Keane, the Moodies, Finn-Kelcey and Bobby Baker. In certain instances the artists wanted venues outside the gallery context: alternative sites, from swimming pools to mobile homes and trains in transit, were often the host to these events. The spontaneous nature that these sites provided added to the allure of the performance. Finn-Kelcey's One for Sorrow Two for Joy, 1976, was performed in a window at street level, while Bean and Ziranek presented live acts beside and in the Thames. These highly visible and unexpected locations in the city rendered the scope of reception for these works to a wider and more generalised audience.

Domestic spaces, or situations in which feminist artists were obliged to harness their creativity in the home because of financial and familial constraints, were also important for the development of such practice. This work is typically inextricably connected with the domestic as a theme in the work produced. 'Feministo' and 'A Woman's Place' (both of which included a number of artists such as Su Richardson, Kate Walker, Monica Ross and Phil Goodall) at Radnor Terrace are paradigmatic of this type of work. Finally, journals and publications such as Red Rag, Shrew, W.I.R.E.S. and Spare Rib may also be considered as alternative sites where ideas could be exchanged. This article examines how feminist performance art thrived in alternative spaces and how these venues supported the ideology of a practice concerned with issues germane to the women's movement.

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One of the earliest practitioners of performance art in England was Schneemann, who fled New York after the dissolution of a marriage and her subsequent breakdown. Having made earlier trips to Europe--most importantly she performed Meat Joy in London as early as 1964--she returned to London where she created several pieces, on her own and with her then partner Anthony McCall, a longtime collaborator. Schneemann's ICESTRIP, 1972, also known as Isis Strip, was an intervention within the public infrastructure: Schneemann's performance took place on a British Rail train travelling between London and Edinburgh during the annual festival in August. It was part of a programme of films, videos, performance and other events called 'Ices-72', which began at the Roundhouse and took place in various unusual venues including a Channel ferry, an aeroplane traversing the Atlantic, swimming pools, fields, parks and other sites. …