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Dalya Alberege on the Housewatch performance Contra-Flow in the Independent, 12th May 1992

Lois Keidan watches up to 2O performance art shows a month. And not just because she is paid to. Dalya Alberge accompanied the next Director of Live Arts at the ICA as she searched for talent.

If you saw six people pushing two Morris Minors around London's Broadgate Centre last week, you may have assumed the battered vintage cars were bound for the breaker's yard. You may also have wondered why a crowd of around 40 people was standing idly by. In fact, what you and they were watching was art, not a breakdown.

Housewatch, a group of performance artists, devised the work specially for the "live arts" programme at Broadgate, the office development in the City of London. The "performance" involved lining up 18 Morris Minors on the pedestrian ares of Exchange Square. The wing mirrors and bumpers of each car were linked by streamers, some lOOft long, to the seventh floor of an adjacent office block. Looking up, you noticed images of Morris Minors projected on to its seventh-floor windows.

After one of the artists had taken a pair of scissors to each streamer, the rest began shoving two cars around the complex. The performance ended after 30 minutes when the artists gently bumped the two cars into one another and wound hazard tape around them. All this was accompanied by the amplified sound of an Andy Williams hit ("Almost There") delivered by two singers wandering among the audience.

And that was that. Some spectators left with perplexed looks on their faces. They might have looked even more puzzled had they known this was one of two Housewatch works commissioned by the Arts Council for £20,000 (it might have been more had the cars not been loaned by the Morris Minor Centre in Bath). Much of the audience lost interest long before the finale. Few watched with the concentration of Lois Keidan, who declared the performance "slick" and the concept "extraordinarily strong". Since she is a member of the Arts Council committee which awarded the grant to Housewatch, you might have expected her to say this. Since she is also about to become director of Live Arts at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, you would also expect her to know what she is talking about.

Which is just as well, since the point of the piece was somewhat lost on me. I turned to Keidan for guidance. "Morris Minors are so beautiful," she said. I put it to her that Mr Morris should probably take the credit for that. In live art, she countered, it is the ideas that are as important as the aeshetic quality — ideas best communicated by something that produces "weird juxtapositions", defying audience expectations, crossing boundaries between forms and cultures.

"In this work you have to ask yourself what decrepit Morris Minors are doing in Broadgate, this pristine environment," she said. "It's the juxtaposition of battered cars against the bastion of capitalism and commerce. You do a doubletake. And it's the surprise, too, of seeing cars projected on to the seventh floor of Exchange House.

In making a "site-specific" work, she felt Housewatch had therefore responded well to the space. They had also broken down barriers between artforms. She is excited by a work that provokes audiences into thinking "What is it?" — live arts, she says, should be unlike anything else.

Housewatch, she thought, had matched a strong idea with a strong delivery. She was impressed by the quality of the projections. "Often, the gap between the idea and the realisation is wide. Sometimes you can see the joins in a piece of film." If she had any criticism of the piece, it was its focus - "Was the wrapping of tape round the two cars the culmination?" she wondered. While, in an ideal world, she would have liked to see cars projected on to all the windows, not just one floor. But evens grant of £20,000 (a large one by Arts Council standards) does not project far, and is primarily consumed by technical costs and rehearsal fees.

Keidan, who initially worked in the independent music scene as a manager and producer, has spent the past 10 years in live arts, travelling the country in search of talent like Housewatch. She takes in an average of 10 to 20 shows a month. When The Edge, the month-long international "biennale of innovative' visual art", opens on 16 May, she will be seeing a lot more. From that programme, she is particularly looking forward to seeing Marina Abramovic, a Yugoslav artist who wrapped five pythons round her head for her last Edge performance, and Stellarc, an Australian artist who specialises in suspending himself 200ft in the air from hooks piercing his body.

Most performances she sees are only "promising' or "interesting" and some "do not quite work". But she feels she has lto make allowances: "If you're exploring new ways of realising new idea artists are inevitably going to fall down and make mistakes. Promoters and funders must recognise the right to fail when dealing with exploratory work."

So how does she distinguish the good from the bad? Really bad work, she says, is easy to recognise. "It could be something purely pretentious, or a work whose ideas are inaccessible." Without naming names, she cites one recent piece that involved pure movement, without saying anything or "connecting" with the audience. In her report, she jotted down that it was "inaccessible, dated, devoid of content..." Performances that bombard an audience with a barrage of images and obscure texts could also rule out a booking at the ICA.

While she believes that the live arts tradition is derived from fine art, notably Marcel Duchamp and Dadaism, Keidan argues that artistic standards cannot be judged in the traditional sense. In her eyes, talent in live art does not lie in craftsmanship, but in ideas, in technical expertise and in delivery. While she would not go so far as to say that Housewatch's Morris Minor piece was "beautiful", she does see a beauty in its ephemeral nature. in the fact that you cannot buy it or hang it. But ultimately, she agrees, it is a beauty lodged firmly in eye of the beholder.

The Broadgate Live programme takes place at Exchange Sqare, EC2 (071-5886565),
'The Edge' takes place at various sites in east London (071-37772676)
16 May-14 June

Housewatch, the performance art group (above left), pushing a MorrIs Minor car around London's Broadgate Centre for the sake of art. And (above) some of the 18 cars they 'attached' by streamers to a nearby office block.

Dalya Alberge
The Independent, 12th May
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