Nurturing Risk Forum: Live art and the risk spin

Niki Russell

Arriving a few minutes late having taken a gamble (or should I say risk) on my knowledge of Bristol geography, my first take of the Nurturing Risk forum was hearing the query “Why do we nurture risk?”, followed quickly by the answer that it was quite simple. But hang on a minute. What about the nurture/risk dyad, the antithetical relation between these terms that the introductory text for the forum highlighted?

The forum paired artists and producers, yielding examples from the array of possible couplings. Each focused on the nature of their relationship, the development of a bond coming across strongly throughout. Each was also asked to consider their relationship in light of the forum title, taking us back to adversarial terms: nurture—to encourage somebody to grow, develop, thrive, and be successful; and risk—the danger that injury, damage, or loss will occur. On the surface these definitions are glaringly contrary; and yet the introductory text suggests (and no one on the panel opposed the idea) that these terms “reflect the lifeblood of Live Art and experimental practice.” One would hope that any successful relationship has the potential to disrupt these limiting classifications.

The first 2 pairings concentrated on artist-to-artist relations facilitated by a producer. Nina Wyllie and Sophie Cameron discussed a mentoring process developed as part of eXpo 2003, while Fiona Winning and Robert Pacitti revealed a more laboratory style approach as part of Time_Place_Space initiated by Performance Space in Sydney. Wyllie termed eXpo as a safe space, of hand-holding and guidance. These are double-edged terms, both comforting and intrusively paternalistic, but Wyllie thought that her company, The Special Guests, “needed it” at the time, they “needed a leg up.”

A discussion of the inevitable limits that risk creates highlights our existence in an environment where it’s not the case that ‘anything goes.’ Risk is limited by what Wyllie described as its “less sexy partner, safety”, a point backed up by Gregg Whelan later when he asked of Live Art, “Is it dangerous?”, and answered himself, “No, because it is in a building that complies with health and safety [regulations].”

Wyllie described a creative situation with a certain level of openness that allowed her company to tinker with the world they are entering, but with the caveat that they knew they were fitting into an existing model. This was was like moving across stepping-stones, one step at a time, each with a validating function allowing entry into the world of promoters, organisations and funders in their role as ‘guardians’ (a term repeatedly used by numerous speakers). Can this model facilitate risk, or does each validation simply reduce the possibility of taking it? The role of the producer, as one who convinces others to promote or believe in work, certainly develops the artist’s career, but I would not wish to assume that this inherently fosters risk (without clarification of how or why it does). Clearly such relationships will at times do so, and at others not—and such belief will always be open to debate. In Robert Pacitti’s terms “risk is relative.”

We heard of various relationships: in Australia the Time_Place_Space laboratory process where participating artists sometimes decide to drop what they came to do and go for something else instead; David Weber-Kreb’s continued dialogue with Gasthuis (Netherlands) despite winning bronze in the Golden Tomato award for worst performance in a season; and Gregg Whelan informing his dramaturg that he would have to see the work when they did it, due to zero rehearsal. These examples display relative levels of belief and risk; the trouble however with a relative position is that it can continually defer actually pinning down what is happening. Fiona Winning applauded the opportunity for Martin del Amo to show his work again, to test it until the “the artist knows what works.” In terms of risk this appears contrary: if you continue once you know something works, where is the risk?

Risk has to exist in the work, in its content: Mark Timmer (Gasthuis) states that he can only understand “taking risks inside the work, otherwise it is not clear what is meant by the phrase in this sense.” In light of this, a late question asking if “risk was really being taken” seemed pertinent. Whelan responded, claiming that this approach to framing Live Art is spin, and that the “heart of practice is not trying to fetishize [it]…” This made me hope that the rhetoric of risk might not be necessary. When we take an act of what Whelan termed “professional bravery”, we don’t necessarily see it as a question of risk, simply that it would be a complete waste of time to not do so.

1 February 2006