Cath Lambert: The value of live art: experience, politics and affect

The Value of Live Art?

At mac birmingham, a popular arts complex just south of Birmingham City Centre, recent visitors could not help but see at least some of artist Brian Lobel’s public exhibition Fun with Cancer Patients (exhibited 12 September – 6 October as part of Fierce Festival). The title, bold in black on white, was visible from the busy café, and evoked curiosity, concern, disapproval and a whole host of other different emotions and responses that led many people to explore the exhibition in more depth. The exhibition documented six creative ‘actions’ based on the ideas and experiences of a group of teenaged cancer patients who have been working with Brian Lobel over a number of months. My research, ‘The Value of Live Art: Experience, Politics and Affect’ has been embedded in the Fun with Cancer Patients art project in order to try to access, explore and understand the cultural, political, social and emotional work live art can do. The value of the artistic experiences and outputs to the teenagers and their families, to medical professionals and support workers, as well as to a wider public audience, is subject to critical examination using a mixed and at times experimental bag of ethnographic and ‘live’ methods (see Back and Puwar 2012). In order to research audience’s experiences of the exhibition, this took the form of a ‘live art hub’ alongside the installation space. From this physical space we observed, chatted, listened, carried out interviews, ran workshops, and gathered responses articulated in writing, speech, gesture, image or a combination of forms. The hub was a ‘space of affect’ where long conversations and brief, speechless encounters alike were articulated and documented as sociological research.

In the introductory text for the exhibition Brian Lobel writes, ‘Instead of asking for your sympathy or pity, Fun with Cancer Patients asks for your intellectual and critical engagement around cancer’. The documentation challenges audiences to listen, watch, read or feel what the young cancer patients themselves have to communicate about their experiences of being stared at, becoming disabled, having chemo, having a hickman line hanging from their body, losing hair, losing friends, making friends, being asked endless questions, eating hospital food, facing death, having fun. These opinions and experiences may or may not resonate with visitors, many of whom have cancer stories of their own. The research has involved a good deal of story-telling and a lot of listening. I have felt keenly that sociology is, as Les Back (2007) puts it, ‘ the art of listening’. One of my hopes for the research hub is that the data it has generated will acknowledge and amplify the ‘intellectual and critical engagement around cancer’ that Brian called for whilst also perhaps helping us to understand some of the challenges around such engagements.

Sociologists do not often attend to live art, but live art is becoming more mainstream, more talked about, and increasingly likely to touch the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, even those who do not seek it out. I have a hunch that there may be something special about some live art practices, making them incredibly valuable as a mechanism for social and political change. Of course the materials of live art are simply the materials of life: bodies, emotions, objects, social and material relations, conversations, stories, memories and so on. What may put live art in a powerful position is its ability to generate aesthetic experiences from these materials, to re/order them in such a way as to create what Jacques Rancière (2004) refers to as a ‘redistribution of the sensible’, shifting the usual ordering of the sensory world we inhabit so that we may see, hear, feel, acknowledge and understand different things, and that different people and their knowledges can in turn be seen, heard, acknowledged and understood.

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