The art landscape in England is anything but predictable.
It might only be the end of September, but it’s already starting to feel like Winter here in Leeds…
I’ve made the journey up North to explore an Art scene that is employing dozens of ambitious millennials here in Leeds, whilst empowering many more with zero-experience in the realms of Art to create their own unique performances.
Performance art is by no means a new thing. It rose to prominence in the 1960s with artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Andy Warhol continually breaking the mould, challenging the concept of what art truly meant. Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable was a one-off, mixed media event that might have seemed like a gimmick at the time, but has no doubt influenced the way large scale television events are planned and executed today. Whereas Schneeman’s Interior Scroll broke more social boundaries than any modern artist could hope to do today.
Due to it’s subjective nature it’s very difficult to lock down a specific definition for what constitutes a piece of performance art. The difference between a piece of performance art and simple theatre is that performance art can occur anywhere at all, whereas theatre is generally restricted to a specific performance space. The radical artists of the 60s and 70s enjoyed nothing more than breaking the fourth wall and confronting their unsuspecting audience – but things have changed a little in today’s world.
Rebecca has been living in Leeds for the last 6 years, she’s 26 and has a habit of not finishing her sentences, preferring to tangentially flit to another subject altogether than get bogged down in specifics or deep analysis. It might sound like I’m judging her harshly, but after spending a day and a night in this young artist’s company I feel like I have the measure of her.
We’re sitting at the back of a Subway on Leeds main high street – hardly the hippest of places to get a cup of coffee, but that’s probably the idea. When I first meet Rebecca she’s buzzing with excitement and caffeine. Her mop of hair, a patchwork of mismatched dye jobs, is pulled up in a messy bun and big bags hang under eyes. “I’ve been up for three days now, only one more to go!”
No – she’s not an art student racing to meet her deadline, she’s an artist – working and living in Leeds. Tonight she performs a piece of performance art that she has been working on for half a year – it combines skills she learnt during her three year Fine Art degree with some of the more avant garde aspects of the performance art scene that has been quietly developing here over the past 10 years.
Although London is often hailed as the only place to truly commit to a career as a working artist, more and more young creatives are turning their back on the capital in favour of the ex-Northern power house. Thanks to it’s vast student population (the fourth largest in the country) there is plenty of cut-rate accommodation to choose from here, with rent coming as low as £38 per week for a double bedroom in a shared house. If the canny artist invokes their right to housing benefits and job seekers allowance, they can easily live off the £70 they receive from the government. Whilst many might view this lifestyle as cynical or exploitative, artist like Rebecca argue otherwise.
“I don’t see a place in the traditional working space for the skills that I developed during my degree. I’ve tried working for Foundations, Art Schools, Museums – they all bored me stiff, there’s simply no passion in a job like that. Here in Leeds, I can express myself and live well. I might not be making any money, but I’m happy”
Later that night I see Rebecca’s piece at a local performance space…it’s hard to describe in words. I’m enraptured, disgusted and confused for around 20 minutes, but by the end I understand her better as a person.
The young artist that I met in Leeds was no doubt influenced by the work of pioneers like Schneemann and Warhol, it remains to be seen if her work is noticed by the larger art community of today or even remembered in the future. Either way, she will no doubt continue to perform her work regardless.