Sally J Morgan, Jess Richards, Mark Jeffery, Rona Lee, Roger Bourke, Emma Butchart, Gillian Wylde.
This is a composite article, prompted by Mark Jeffery in a callout to past staff and students of the Dartington College of Arts Visual Performance degree (VP). Mark provided a set of questions that contributors could choose to respond to. The resulting commentaries have been edited by Jess Richards and Sally J Morgan and constructed into a single text that attempts to combine the memories of many. What we have here is by no means the whole story of Visual Performance at Dartington. Many later voices are not present, so this is only half a story. This is the tale of intentions and impacts, one that can, and should, be added to. If you would like to add your part of the story through word, images, or other audio-visual content, please contact Bryan Brown at B.Brown@exeter.ac.uk.
(Sally J Morgan and Jess Richards)
“Broken Bits of Time” handmade slate clocks (2014) by Jess Richards
0. How to do it
(Gillian Wylde, VP student 1997- 99, VP Lecturer 2000 – 2010)
#Feel the fear and do it anyway. Eliminate all forms of self-expression. Make un-training your instruction and don’t make any art. Take up post-colonial theory and fuck up imperialist narratives and colonial impulses. Take up queer theory it’s your job, and opt for alternative world making activities, anti-fascist counter culture desires. Tune in to voices of all women. Seek out low budget mysticism in everything. Try a new position for example: read more Gertrude Stein. The rules are that there are no rules. We are thinking about thinking. Do it more wrong. Make it worse.
(Sally J Morgan, Lecturer, Art and Social Context 1984-1990, foundational Head of Visual Performance 1990 -1992)
Very good things sometimes come out of very bad things. The bad thing in this case was when Dartington College of Arts decided to close its cutting-edge art degree, Art and Social Context in response to a financial crisis. The good thing was that the continuation of a unique approach to creative arts education was enabled at Dartington College of Arts when Visual Performance came into existence.
Laced through Dartington’s DNA was the conviction that the arts had a function beyond the ‘self-criticism’ that the modernist critic, Clement Greenberg propounded in the 1960’s (Greenberg 1961).
There is a symbolic moment that sums up the turn of the tide that became the wave that Dartington surfed like no other. In 1966, British artist John Latham held an event at St Martins College of Art, London, in which he and his students ripped up a copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture. Chewing it page by page until it became liquid, they spat it into glass vials to produce the artwork Chew and Spit: Art and Culture. During the same year, Barbara Steveni, then married to Latham, set up the Artist Placement Group (APG), with the aim of placing artists in ‘non-art locations’ to make art in response to them. In contrast to Greenberg’s position, the motto of the APG was the context is half the work, and its major tenet was, to quote Graham Stevens, that ‘an artwork changes fundamentally in where, who with, and how it is made’.
These two events were powerful markers of change. Chew and Spit might be seen as the symbolic moment of rebellion; a visceral spurning of Greenberg’s modernism and an embracing of the things it forbade: those being politics, the ephemeral, transdisciplinarity, the theatrical, the ‘now’. The Artist Placement Group was the practical response, the ‘blue-print’ for a different way of understanding art; for no longer seeing it as a product or commodity, but as a process in which anything might be possible. Political and socially engaged art was emerging in this period as a form of art-world revolution. For British visual artists in the late sixties, such as Albert Hunt, John Fox and Stuart Brisley, the line between art and political action was mutable. New, process-orientated works became a possibility. Variously described as Happenings, Environments, Actions and Performances, and typified by Joseph Beuys’s Social Sculpture projects, these are artworks in a constant state of process. They cannot find, and do not desire, stasis. They emphasise the lived-experience of the perceiver and emphasise affect over form and materiality.
This then is the place from which Visual Performance developed; moulded by a particular historical moment in which traditional boundaries were dissolved and new boundaries established. The legacy of that time, for me, is that like Vito Acconci artists like me saw art as ‘doing’. Like Stuart Brisley we allowed that art may be political and social. Like John Latham we saw art as being a ‘state of radiant energy’. Like Yoko Ono we believed that art may exist as an experience in the mind of the participant. Like all those artists, our approach at Dartington was open-minded and curious. We were not confined to form or medium, our practices were unified by a conceptual approach and a search for affectivity at the point of connection with an audience, where there is, as Julia Kristeva noted in relation to the visual works of the sculptor and theatre-maker, Robert Wilson, ‘an intrication of the roles of the artist and the spectator, erasing the borders between the self and the other’ where ‘the traditional categories – painting, sculpture, stagecraft, etc. – no longer correspond to reality’ (Kristeva 1994, 64-65).
The timing for the inception of Visual Performance is an important part of this story. The College’s financial crisis of 1990 was the catalyst, and Sam Richards has covered this very well in his book Dartington College of Arts, Learning by Doing: A Biography of a College (Richards 2015). However, there were other important factors that made this the right initiative in the right place and time, and I’d like to expand on that a little here. As one of the annual DCA prospectuses stated, Art and Social Context staff and students had, ‘persistently chosen to make performance and installation art … and to collaborate with specialists in music or theatre’ (Dartington College of Arts 1992, 8).
This was certainly the case during my time there. I had arrived in 1984 to be a lecturer in painting on the Art and Social Context course, and I was particularly interested in political community action and cross-media collaboration. I had done a lot of this on the streets of Newcastle, Salford and London. I was used to working with theatre-makers and musicians and trying to find the hybrid spaces in-between.
I wasn’t the only one who was excited by this approach. There was a lot of two-way traffic between the Art and Theatre departments in particular. My colleague Rose Garrard ran fine art-based performance art projects in which she introduced gallery-based performance approaches to art and theatre students alike. Rose was an established art-based performance artist with an international profile. She came from an art school background and, like most artists of her ilk, she saw performance art and theatre as different disciplines. Whilst there isn’t enough space in this article to fully explain the distinctions between the two art-forms, they are important to this discussion, so I’ll try to convey the facts succinctly. Performance art, as understood in the art world at that time, vehemently disassociated itself from theatre. The form developed from a position best explained by the art critic, Lucy Lippard in her influential book ‘Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object’ (Lippard, 1973), in which she observed that visual art had moved away from objects as its end, and towards the enactment of concepts. The manifestation of this was that, beginning in the 1960s, Events, Happenings and Environments took the place of sculptures and paintings, and the active body of the artist became a vehicle of artistic expression. Early exponents included Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, Joseph Beuys and, in Britain, Stuart Brisley.
Brisley was particularly opposed to the ‘theatrical’ in performance art. He defined performance art as real-time action. This term was a signpost to what differentiated performance art from theatre: that being the enactment of actual risk through an unscripted process of what I would describe as ‘controlled unpredictability’. A performance art work of this kind might be described as an event for which resolution must be found, but cannot be fully anticipated. In this scenario, no performance could ever be repeated, was normally shown in an art world context, and was to be judged as ‘art’ rather than ‘theatre’. Most of what I would describe as ‘hard-core’ performance artists of the time would have agreed with Northern Irish artist, Nick Stewart, when he complained that too many people conflated performance art with theatre, saying, ‘there is a difference (…) theatrical-based work tends to undermine the philosophical basis of visual arts ideas’ (Stewart 1995, 166).
Rose Garrard was certainly of the same view as Stewart, and she had a great influence on the development of art-based performance at Dartington. She was well-established in this field, with a practice going back to the mid-seventies. At that time, she was considered the UK’s leading female performance artist, and if Stuart Brisley was the Godfather of British performance art, then Garrard was certainly its Godmother. She had been a visiting lecturer at many of Britain’s leading art schools and had taught many of its practitioners. Her approach was intense and challenging, and I learned a lot from it.
I too ran cross-departmental projects in that period. After having been invited by theatre students to run ‘installation for performance’ projects, I began to work more closely with some of them who were interested in taking a visual approach to their work. I had been ‘outside-eye’ or examiner for a number of them, including Christine Malloy and Jo Lawlor who went on to be successful theatre and film-makers as Desperate Optimists (their name being based on my one-time description of them). I had also collaborated on a huge outdoor project with Theatre of Public Works Director, Pete Kiddle. I worked with art students Jules Dorey, Lizzie Coleman and Margie Fortune and with theatre students who included Andrea Phillips, Dave Izod and David Richmond. The collaborative partnership that had the biggest impact on me, however, was with Melanie Thompson.
Thompson was a Dartington graduate who had specialised in dance and had gone on to form the company Intimate Strangers. Her show Chine was described as having ‘a kind of irresistible logic and fascination yet remains inexplicable’ (Performance Magazine 1988). We started to work together when the then Head of Theatre, Roger Sell, teamed us up to run a cross-departmental project in Utrecht. The two of us went on to have a series of collaborations. The most significant of these for me, was a 1989 site-specific work entitled Frontiers. The participants were a group of second year students drawn from the theatre and art departments. The site was a decayed, brick cattle-shed in a paddock full of waist-high grass, lost in the woods on the Dartington Estate. I began by walking the site with the students looking at its visual and spatial possibilities. We decided that the audience would be drawn from point to point by encountering incidents on the way to the Cattle Shed. The students constructed installations, from which they developed the performance element. This was exciting to me because it was the first time that I had experienced the possibilities of performance that began from the visual rather than the dramatic, and I completely fell in love with it as a form that fell between fine art and theatre.
On the evening of the performance, the audience were met at dusk by a solitary guide and led through a gap in a dense hedge, down an overgrown bank, into a series of ‘accidental’ encounters with the student performers. At this point the separation of audience from performer dissolved. No longer safe in the seats of a theatre, the viewer had the sensation of accidentally witnessing a partial narrative for which they had to provide their own conclusions. It was akin to coming across a fleeting incident in the street, where you must imagine where the story has been and where it will go based on this moment in front of you.
Like Alice, they had slipped through a hole into a magical dimension. Here installation art and performance transformed the ‘now’ and the ‘real’ to produce Freud’s unheimlich. Literally translated as the un-home-like, the audience was offered the chance to experience Freud’s ‘uncanny’, where what we thought we knew was transformed in subtle and disquieting ways. This is where spillage from dreams, fears or longings, infects us, calling all reality into question.
The extraordinary and beautiful sensation of the unstitching of perception that this project produced in me was to turn into a passion for this way of working through discipline-hybridity. Students who did that project with us included Kirsten Lavers, John Bunker and Diana Collins. They, together with theatre students such as Christine Malloy, Jo Lawlor and others, formed a cross-departmental cohort exploring this uncharted state between art and theatre in remarkable and breath-taking ways, thus laying the foundations for what was to come.
Of course, this approach had not sprung up at the College out of nowhere. It built on a history of experimentation across artforms at Dartington. In 1964 John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg’s interdisciplinary collaboration Story was presented on the Estate. Painter and experimental artist, Robert Rauschenberg recognised something familiar in Dartington’s ambience, noticing that the people there had ‘that Black Mountain beatnik kind of look’ (Kostelanetz 1970, 81).
The comparison was not unfounded, like Black Mountain, the Dartington experience was intense, incestuous and tumultuous. There was nothing there other than studios, a bar, acres of woodland, and a river that people drowned in. You could get as obsessed as you wanted and make weird stuff in ruined outhouses half-hidden in the woods. Frankly, there was nothing else to do but make art. The community was no more than three hundred people. In this environment where there was no boundary between art-life, social-life and home-life, interdisciplinary experimentation in wild and undisciplined ways was an almost inevitable outcome. The College was an isolated artistic hothouse. The Theatre Department brought the most current alternative theatre and dance companies, such as Forced Entertainment, Goat Island and Theatre de Complicite, to Dartington. Most of the students and staff attended these events. Practicing artists were invited to run intensive projects, including Dartington alumna Debra Levy (who was later short-listed for the Man Booker prize twice for her novels Swimming Home  and Hot Milk ) and Irish performance artist Nick Stewart. New York Wooster Group member, Nancy Reilly ran a cross-departmental project with first year students using the unconventional theatre methods she’d developed when working with Wooster Group. Influential avant-garde dancer/choreographers were also a part of our experience. Mary Fulkerson worked with students to use ‘real’ movements drawn from the banal moments of their own lives. These were repeated, condensed, exaggerated and minimised with an intensity that made the work seem auto-ethnographic.
As intimated earlier, this way of being an artist exploring the edges across disciplines and between art and life, had found its time. Live Art was coming into being in Britain, and it was a way of working that chimed with the Dartington approach. Originally coined by RoseLee Goldberg, the term was reclaimed and redefined by the Arts Council’s Performance Art Advisory Group under the leadership of Lois Keidan (Heddon and Klein 2012). Keidan was, and still remains, a very active and generous supporter of Live Art as an ‘area of practice that cuts across and subverts traditional art form boundaries’ (Keidan 1991, i). She twice commissioned works of mine to be shown at the ICA in London, and she had a passionate vision for the building of an inclusive, cross-artform approach to performance works. Along with Nikki Milican, the Director of the National Review of Live Art, she facilitated a range of practices that might otherwise have died in the UK for want of care. In a 1991 Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) discussion paper, she reported that the ACGB had effectively renamed performance art by proposing ‘that we in Britain change our terminology from the “restrictive practice” of Performance Art to the flexibility and responsiveness of the term Live Art’ (Keidan 1991, 2). Her position was that, ‘Performance/Live Art … came from across a range of disciplines, producing ‘works based on image and concept that are not bound by traditional contexts’ (Keidan 1991, 2).
All of these factors primed the environment for the establishment of Visual Performance, but as I intimated earlier, the catalyst for its inception was the cataclysmic effect of the financial crisis that hit the College in 1990. The senseless closure of Art and Social Context annoyed me immensely, and I joined the small group that had been put together to design a ‘performance oriented’ curriculum, bringing with me the none-too-secret intention of ensuring that a visual approach to performance would be firmly knitted into all future offerings. Ric Allsopp suggested the name ‘Visual Performance’ and I proposed that we should capitalise on Dartington’s long history of experimental collaboration.
Once I got the curriculum-design group and the College management, in the person of the Principal, Dr Janet Ritterman, to agree that Visual Performance was going to be a ‘thing’, I set about constructing a course that would span art-based performance art through to performance design and scenography. I turned to Rose Garrard to help me develop the performance art modules, and Roger Bourke to work on the scenography elements. Garrard was the perfect person to do this with. As noted earlier, Rose was well-established in this field, with a record of performance art practice going back to the mid-seventies. She was a charismatic artist who had a great influence on the development of performance art as a subject in the Art Department. Her approach was intense and challenging, and I learned a lot from it. Roger Bourke had a background in experimental performance design and installation. Like me, he had trained as a painter and he had an intensely visual approach to experimental theatre-making. Later he turned to complex, beautifully performative installation, which threw up the kinds of questions that became a hallmark of his approach. In 2018, he wrote of his practice:
In conceiving installed and performative spaces as ‘intermediary spaces for the spectator’s intrusion’, the question becomes – how to make this space manifest the materiality of its own construction and thus draw the spectator into processing their own act of ‘spectation’? Both artist and spectator have to live with, and within, the knowledge that ‘somebody began it’ – in the ‘in-between’ – in the middle of their own production as agent – in the interstices of intention and interpretation. A Polish artist once asked me “what my problem was.” Temporarily a little put out, I finally realised that, for him, defining “the problem” was the key to developing an artwork. Specific strategies, procedures, exercises, etc., must derive from ‘knowing the problem’. In this case, strategies and procedures might include: exploring tactile, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive experiencing of defined spaces; testing the proximal, distal and panoptic; exploiting presence and absence in physical (hard) material and in the fluid materialities of light and sonic resonance; and construction that reveals construction. It might also include: working in the liminal through perceptual changes of orientation – strategies of detachment/ disorientation – what Husserl called ‘epoche’; building dialogues between the immediacy of the experienced moment and the past and future horizons of memory and speculation. Finally, it might engage in an exploration of ‘slippage’ – conflating perception and knowledge creation by, what I might call, ‘frame dragging’ imagery through processes of association and displacement.
We were all three different, but all three of us had worked on cross-departmental projects before. It all made sense to us.
Would there have been Visual Performance at Dartington if they hadn’t closed Art and Social Context? Yes, I think there would have been, because it was already there, but it wouldn’t have been a different degree, it wouldn’t have had that name, and it might not have attracted the kind of student who chose Visual Performance as a specialist degree. It would simply have been another way that we did things across and between the existing departments. As it was, the need to save the things I loved about Dartington, in some way or other, gave me an imperative to make a place for the things we’d been doing: a space for a way of being. The word ‘training’ was an anathema to us. The only training we imagined was the ‘un-picking’ of training. We were training them to be.
I was always surprised when people said they didn’t know what Visual Performance was. I never understood why they seemed to want it to be a thing – one thing – a penned-animal-of-a-thing, a neat answer that you could pin on the wall. The vision we had was for an inclusive approach to all things visual in performance. We imagined it producing performance designers, performance artists, video-makers, costume-designers and lighting designers as well as hard-core performance artists. It was meant for people who thought in images, and wanted to make them concrete through performance, whatever form that performance took (and we had a very fluid notion of what that might be). It would be a way of being, not a defined form. The thought of its first graduates becoming, as they did, highly successful stand-up comics (Chris Dangerfield), live-artists (Mark Jeffery), novelists (Jess Richards), production managers (Dave Baxter), video-artists (Karolyn Hatton), costume designers for film (Julie Butterworth) or community artists (Emma Butchart), as well as art-based performance artists (Francesca Goldsworthy), was a joyful prospect.
In the spring of 1991 we were ready to recruit our first students. I was the course leader and Roger Bourke my deputy, Rose Garrard was employed half-time, and ex-Art and Social Context student Diana Collins was offered part-time work. Later that academic year we appointed Tim Brennan and Gillian Dyson to the team. All of us were ‘out there doing it’. All of us made performance works that were witnessed by our students. The sense of an artist’s colony was very real. We were all in this together.
On a warm day as spring turned towards summer, I waited for my first interviewees, Jess Richards and Dave Baxter to arrive. Jess didn’t like to talk, but she had a portfolio of beautiful drawings and screeds of writing. She frowned at me in a young and serious way. She wanted to be somewhere where people were interested she told me. Dave wanted to build things like sets and installations, and he was political like the Art and Social Context students I’d had before. I liked them both and accepted them on the spot. The next interview was with a slender young man with ginger hair and loads of nervous intensity, Mark Jeffery. When I told him that he was ‘in’, he leapt up and down squealing and hugged me, apologising immediately afterwards. Later a blonde girl from Sunderland, who knew what to do with the colour red, looked surprised when we said we liked her work. Her name was Emma Bluett (later Emma Butchart).
(Jess Richards, first recruit to Visual Performance)
I was the first student to be offered a place on the Visual Performance course at Dartington. I was very silent when I was there, preferring to ‘speak’ by ‘writing’. This method of communicating was encouraged there, just as those who spoke visually or musically or through the movements of bodies were also encouraged. We were young artists working within and across creative disciplines who were being trained (and constantly questioning that ‘training’) to express ourselves in wild, noisy, silent, still, dangerous, simple and complex ways. The materials we worked with were as varied as fire, liquid, power tools, photocopiers, glass, gravy, razorblades, white fabric, light…
My song is a spell, and is something I learned. Not what to sing, but how to sing. The risk and magic of words, written on clothing, pegged on lines or caught by the spine of a book. A song can be spoken or heard or sung. Shouted or chanted or told as a story. It can create a picture. It can be completely silent. Each iteration takes a risk as small as an egg or as wild as an illusion of flight.
Can you hear the song of your body, all blood, bones and heartbeat? There’s a song inside you, the one that tells you the sky will fall or the oceans will rise or the whole world is fighting or it’s just you who’s fighting. If it is, fight well.
Consider the height and the breadth of the sky between this light and dark forest, and that place of the past: a tilt-yard with no horses, a ploughed field under rain. Remember silently shouting that anger is evil and anger is good, and let the sky fall, if it dares.
The whole ethos of Visual Performance was experimental – partly because of how the course had been designed, and partly because it was new and passionately led, and we were new and passionately driven. It was all right ‘not to know’ what we were doing, as long as we were actively ‘not doing’ or ‘doing’ something. We learned from mistakes, discomfort and problems as much as we learned from breakthroughs. Learning by creative practice intermingled with learning by observing, participating, developing skills, discussing theories and methods. Objects and text, sound, light and bodies ‘performed’ as we imbued all things ‘visual’ with meanings or opinions and ideas – all tested out on critical audiences of other students and faculty members within muddy fields, up trees, in derelict buildings, domestic environments, music rooms, rooftops, rivers, corridors and studio spaces.
On the Visual Performance course, any notion of ‘training’ could also be argued as a process of ‘untraining.’ As students, we unlearned what we believed that we knew – a process which often resulted in the realisation that in life as much as in ‘art’ no one really ‘knows’ anything at all. From this place of ‘not-knowing’, we discovered what we cared about, as artists. These passions drove us to individually and collectively, find our ‘voices’.
Twenty seven years later, I still prefer to ‘talk’ by ‘writing’. I am the author of three literary fiction novels which are published by Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton. These novels were written in response to questions which I explored within the content of each narrative, and I still use artistic and performative processes within my creative writing practice.
What if… there was an undiscovered island, just off the edge of a map? (Snake Ropes, 2012)
What if… an old woman was several people and not just one? (Cooking with Bones, 2014)
What if… love was a substance? (City of Circles, 2017)
I can trace this ‘questioning’ or ‘speculating’ – asking ‘what if…’ and the use of artistic and performative processes within creative writing back to my early experiments with written, printed, spoken and recorded texts which were used within durational performances and installations at Dartington. My education in Visual Performance trained me to ‘learn’ or ‘explore’ by ‘doing’ – to write texts using performative methods, and constantly ask the ‘art’ or ‘writing’ object that was emerging as a ‘product’ what it wants to become. Unlike most ‘creative writing’ training, where ‘product’ (e.g. the short story, the poem, the novel, etc) is more important than the ‘process’, in my creative practice, both ‘process’ and ‘product’ are of equal importance.
(Mark Jeffery, first cohort Visual Performance)
I now write this at the dining room table, 27 years later, in my Chicago home. When I till and turn over my art making as if it’s a field, the roots and soil from the Dartington Estate are still present, still present in how I remember and connect my making now, to my making then.
Over the three years on the Visual Performance course, and being part of the first cohort to go through the degree, you embody your teachers: Sally Morgan, Roger Bourke, Rona Lee, Tim Brennan, Sally Tallant, Nancy Reilly and Rose Garrard. In moments of ghosts that pass through you, practice is present, practice is allowing the anxiety of making to run through and past you in ways of multiple accidents and towards the unexpected.
I frequently think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice who would often take over my young queer body. In my Alice-self I would grow large and small. Heartbeats that take over a working-class farm labourer’s body. What was I doing in this art school? How were the instructions, the lectures, the workshops alerting each day my performing body? How was I taking on the instructions I was given, how now as an associate professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago do I understand the instructions I give from my training with my performing visual performance, Dartington body?
Back then, I would look at myself in the mirror and see an artist often unsure, not knowing what I was doing or why I was doing the things I did. A young adult would shake his hands in shivering and my hands would turn themselves as if they were birds trying to escape and fly from my performing body.
As a 19 year old queer artist, I tilled the field in the studio by looking at the words fear and control that my life-long mentor, Lin Hixson (Director at that time of Goat Island Performance Company from Chicago) told me to explore when I first met her. Sally Tallant told me to take a workshop in Bristol with Lin and fellow co-founder of Goat Island, Matthew Goulish in 1993 when I was a second-year student.
If this Chicago field had not been tilled, if this Alice hole had not been opened up, if this meeting of jumping high from the ground with my knees to my chest, shaking my hands and falling onto concrete had not happened, where would I be today?
I remember what it felt like, back then…
On the ground, in your studio you learnt to pick up concrete cinder blocks and turn them over, drill holes in them and ask people to enter your studio and take a sip of wine, spit into another glass and mix this wine with the blood from your hands, from cuts and sores from your sissy hands, mixing it with milk and taking a sip insert the fluid from your mouth into the hole you had drilled into the cement block. Lick and kiss the hole with your mouth and tongue. Lick and kiss the concrete blocks over and over. Blood and scars around your lips, your nose, your cheek bones, until the blocks form a makeshift pool, that you fill with powered calves’ milk and it becomes a resting place you slowly let your performing body enter into. Your performing body, queer, red hair, entering the cold of the milk and scar and blood and kisses and fear. Parts of your body submerged, parts of your body remembering the loss of your mother when she left you at 3 years old, parts of your body recalling and hovering over the milking parlour where your father milked the cows morning and night.
The young adult performing body quivers and shakes not knowing the visual, not knowing the ground he is performing on, not knowing what he is learning and learnt, not knowing 27 years and tears later that the ground was also shaking and that the ground of Visual Performance would last. On a Visual Performance field, the training is in always asking questions, of always moving forwards, of always finding what is new, current, what happened before you, what happens now and what strikes you as questions, as research. What is the performing body you left behind, submerged in milk, but forever seeing the milk drip, the blood drip, keeping the head now upwards, asking, always trying and never quite completing what needs to be asked.
(Emma Butchart, first cohort Visual Performance)
Throughout my time at Dartington, undertaking the newly formed Visual Performance course, I think I carried all the ghosts of my grandparents, but more particularly, the Nanas: the women of the family with me. Not consciously at first perhaps, but they were there, as protection, comfort, guides.
An early group activity in the first few days, performed to the new cohort found me clinging to my ghosts for fear of losing who I was, forgetting myself. Being pulled along by strangely dressed and dyed creatures into some kind of self-expression, that could take any form, there were no specific rules. What if I got sucked into some alternative sphere or realm and misplaced my increasingly important identity?
I could hear my ghosts asking, ‘What are these kids doing?’
‘Where do you think this will get you?’
My vocal contribution to the performance was something along the lines of, ‘Why will they like me? I’m from Sunderland.’
Never before had I been so acutely aware of my voice, my North-Eastern English accent setting me apart from the more softly spoken southerners around me. It seemed so loud, so harsh, it felt like it ran around the room, looking for somewhere to hide… muttering, ‘stop listening to me!’
The ghosts just laughed, that’s ‘laugh’ with a flat, Sunderland ‘a’ sound! ‘Don’t be so bloody daft!’
Later… ‘Why is your work always about, well, you… stuff about you?’
At the time this comment from another student stung. It felt dismissive and critical. I suppose my Dartington world continued to feel alien to me with my background in the industrial North, all green, countryside, cows, sheep and farms and so I looked inside myself, asked the ghosts for inspiration, for their stories.
Finding out about them, asking questions, listening to the tales, collecting images. Exploring and celebrating the everyday, repetitive actions, the tasks and daily rituals performed by these women in my past. Why shouldn’t the work be about them, about me?
New ghosts, Nancy Reilly, Rose Garrard, Alison Marchant, Cindy Sherman joined my noisy crowd, often arguing, pulling, dancing, questioning and laughing with the Nanas. Bold, inventive, committed, imaginative, challenging ghosts that helped me see things differently.
Some keep asking, ‘Why are you doing that?’
Others reply, ‘Why not?’ in that great, big flat-vowelled voice.
“I’m Wearing my Dead Father’s clothes’. Excerpt: ‘A Life in Diagrams 1” (1993, Dartington) Sally J Morgan
(Sally J Morgan)
In the midst of all this my father died. My grief was a flood that broke everything in front of it and my life fell apart. I felt badly treated by the College management in this period, and I left, not because I’d lost any faith or excitement about Visual Performance, but because the Principal had called me in to discuss the amount of time I was spending with my father who was rapidly dying from a brain tumour. Roger Bourke took over the leadership of the course, and Rona Lee joined the team along with Sally Tallant.
(Rona Lee, core team-member Visual Performance 1993-2000)
It is interesting to consider ideas of training and legacy with respect to Visual Performance, as these are concepts that are in some ways at odds with the fluidity and discursivity that was key to its success. I remember talking with other staff once about the idea that the course should be deliberately disbanded every seven years to sustain a sense of immediacy and avoid institutionalisation; we imagined of course that reinvention would follow. Little did we anticipate the corporatisation of higher education that would follow and the pressures of resource rationalisation, auditing and bureaucracy to which the sector would be subject.
I joined the teaching team for Visual Performance in 1993, at a point where several of the staff that had piloted the course were moving on, and left in 2000. A period during which the identity and ethos of the course was subject to constant energetic, antagonistic, creative and intellectual debate, generating a climate of discussion and experimentation, in which students and staff alike participated.
Identity politics and ideas of performativity formed a central tenant within many of those exchanges: gender, sexuality, race and the body operating as both informing discourses and areas of study in themselves:
The body as sign, the body as material, the abject body, the hybrid body, the queer body, the female body, the uncanny, post-colonialism, feminism, queer theory, the carnivalesque, homovestism, gender trespass, subject / object, binaries, self / other / otherness, presence / absence, performativity, live presence, task-based action, duration, voyeurism, the gaze, the phallus, psychoanalysis…
Another important area of enquiry was site and context based work, along with related forms of participatory, situated and socially engaged practices; seeded through staff-led, local, offsite work in the first year and culminating in a semester long period off campus in the third year, where students pursued self-designed and directed projects (the assessment of which was based on their capacity to reflect on the experience and find appropriate forms to represent it). Activities which along with the teaching that supported them gave rise to ways of working, which understood art making as a social practice, audiences as constituted around different subjectivities and the artwork as a permeable entity. Fostering in turn work with objects and materials, technology, space and time working with ideas of immersion, the haptic and the sensory:
Audience as reader, performance/artwork as text, view and viewed, spectator / collaborator / participant / witness, absorption, locus, palimpsest, dialogic, the everyday, art / life, place, phenomenology, space, object / objecthood, time, immersive experience, materials, metonymy, inter-action/ activity, event…
Common to all of these different enquiries was a pedagogic approach that encouraged independence of thought along with reflexive interrogation of form, content and process.
Strategies, juxtaposition, deconstruction, pastiche, authorship, montage, collage, text/textual, inter / cross / disciplinarity, modern / post-modern, rules, logic, rogue element, agency…
Another dimension of this nexus was something that might be termed an ethos of practice, rooted in questions of social change, power and community which for some became a lived politics of making, teaching and working together. Dartington was, in my experience, unique in terms of the amount of work that staff, faculty and visiting, made and showed there, using it as a production and testing space in collaboration with and alongside students; sharing resources, giving assistance, exchanging skills, attending to the work and each other.
Messy, bloody, milky, muddy, funny, sexy, loud, dangerous, obscene, gentle, careful, tender, quiet, ugly, fractious, rhythmic, atonal, macho, ritualistic, empowered, queer, feminist, intimate, kitsch, green, detailed, subversive, disruptive, uncanny.
“Anteroom” (2005) by Mark Jeffrey, Judith Leemann and Judd Morrissey.
Sally J Morgan is Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts at Massey University, New Zealand. She has a long career as a conceptual artist who has shown internationally in galleries such as the ICA, Arnolfini, and venues across the USA, Germany, France and Japan.
Jess Richards is a writer, whose three literary fiction novels are published by Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton. She is a Senior Tutor in Creative Writing at Massey University, New Zealand. Since 2015, she has performed in collaboration with Sally J Morgan as Morgan+Richards in galleries/venues in the USA, New Zealand and Ireland.
Gillian Wylde was a student on the Visual Performance course at Dartington between 1997 and 1999 and went on to teach on that course from 2000 to 2010. She is currently Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Falmouth University. Her work has been shown at the ICA and Glasgow Film Festival and at international venues in Baltimore, Hong Kong, Lithuania, and Norway.
Roger Bourke spent many years at Dartington in the role of Field Director for Visual Performance and then Fine Art – Time Based Practices. His installation, video and sonic media works have been exhibited in the UK, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, France, Romania, Canada, China, Japan and Ireland.
Mark Jeffery is a Chicago based performance/installation artist, curator of the biannual In>Time Performance series and Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. He was a member of the internationally renowned Goat Island Performance group from 1996-2008.
Emma Butchart worked in Community Arts in the north east of England after graduating from Dartington, then from 2004-2015 she worked in pre-school and primary school education. She now works at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park as the Grounds Learning Programmer, developing engagement with a wide range of audiences.
Rona Lee is Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, UK. Her performative work has been widely exhibited in national and international organisations, including the Amsterdam Light Festival, Gallerie Nord, Cerritos Art Gallery, and many venues across Europe and in the USA and Canada.
Examples of Sally J Morgan’s work can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/sallyjmorgan
Jess Richards’s website can be found here: http://jessrichards.com/
Gillian Wylde’s work can be viewed here https://www.instagram.com/gillianwylde/ and here: http://15minuteswithyou.org.uk
Roger Bourke’s website can be found here: https://rogerbourke.org.uk/work
Mark Jeffery’s website can be found here: http://www.markjefferyartist.org/
The organisation Emma Butchart works for can be found here: http://www.comptonverney.org.uk/art/
Rona Lee’s work can be found here: http://www.ronalee.org/ and http://florencetrust.org/
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