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  • Practice for the People
  • Claire MacDonald (bio)
Book Reviewed: Agency: A Partial History of Live Art, edited by Theron Schmidt. London: Live Art Development Agency and Intellect Books, 2019.

Agency” has a checkered history of modern usage. In the 1950s it was inflected with the secrets and lies of the Cold War. Agents and agency evoked images of covert ops and spies coming in from the cold. To me as a child in the 1960s and 1970s, it evoked images of smart pre-digital secretaries bringing order to the world of work. Secretarial agencies were modernity personified: calm, efficient, dull. Later, in the emerging world of professional mediation, agents of all kinds became figures stalking the in-between, contracting and managing connections between clients. Skills for hire. No profession is bereft of agents and agencies now—politics and football, celebrity cooking, and entertainment. In the 1990s we personalized it. Agency as advocacy, as empowerment, as the human right to act effectively in the world. In choosing agency as a term in 1999, Lois Keidan and Catherine Ugwu, London-based co-founders of LADA, the Live Art Development Agency, insightfully brought into play one of the cardinal terms of the post-war period. In LADA’s own words, this new book uses “agency” to consider what Live Art is for, what it stands for, and on whose behalf it takes a stand, and through the multiple strands of meaning that agency generates, to consider further “how Live Art has enabled the possibility for new kinds of thoughts, actions and alliances for diverse individuals and groups.”

Schmidt has judiciously assembled a congregation of voices, among them critics, curators, and historians, including Dominic Johnson, John E. McGrath, and Amelia Jones, and artists who have worked with LADA, both recently and over time, such as Anne Bean, Hayley Newman, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Ron Athey, Joshua Sofaer, Alastair MacLennan, Selina Thompson, and the late Katherine Araniello. It is a multifarious conversation that has no central argument, but instead places itself in the mid-stream of engaged public discourse about what matters for artists (and indeed for all of us) in cultural/political life, through the manifestations of art-making across borders that Live Art includes. For what makes this book meaningful at the twenty-year mark of LADA’s life is the way in [End Page 104] which this agency has effected change. Not by directing an emergent form along ideological or aesthetically rigid lines, but by acting as a medium, advocate, and guide for artists drawn to forms of expression made in live contexts and in real time, and that question and shape lived experience.

The book is designed around dialogue. Exchanges and reflective essays are divided into five sections: Bodies, Spaces, Institutions, Communities, Actions. Prefaced by LADA’s continuing Director Lois Keidan and introduced by Schmidt himself, the book proceeds, through a series of contributions entitled “Conversations and Provocations,” to trace a broad history of a deceptively marginal arena of art practice. Like agency, “deceptive” is an interesting word: it too has associations of going under cover, of not being what it seems to be. LADA’s intention is not to deceive, but its cultural place is deceptive. We continue to live in a mainstream art and media culture in which inherent value attaches to art forms with long histories that produce material outcomes. In a ruthlessly acquisitive neoliberal art culture, art’s material values continue to soar. Yet in the past twenty years, some of the art that has mattered most has emerged from the convergence of ephemeral, process-based practices and challenges to authorship from radical community, co-operative, and collective groups. Within this context, Schmidt has gathered powerful conversations.

Barby Asante and David A. Bailey, for example, trace the back and forth between moments in their lives and practices that touch on black identities. Barby wonders where her art has come from. David responds that he imagines she grew up going “to blues parties, and sound system events, and church,” further stating that “we should not always look at the gallery or white cube spaces for traces of the emergence of a Live Art genre, but also...


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pp. 104-106
Launched on MUSE
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