Paul Hurley: on performance

Paul Hurley is a performance artist who has performed and exhibited both nationally and internationally since 2001. In this article he reflects on the challenge of working for free, explains why generosity with your peers is a good thing and reveals a multitude of ways to earn a living as an artist.

Despite having worked as a performance artist for around 10 years, I still find it difficult to define what performance art actually is. An art form? A discipline? A methodology? All of the above and more, no doubt. It’s a contestable term for a contestable set of practices, practices that have a relation to both visual art and the live, and often to a kind of work that emerged in the 1960s (the likes of Abramovic, Burden, Beuys, etc.). I came into performance after studying Drama and Theatre Studies and then doing an MA in Fine Art, specialising in time-based practice (performance, video and installation). Since then I’ve done a lot of solo work and collaborations, and have made work in galleries, theatres, city squares, woodlands, nightclubs, a bingo club, a community centre, a village hall and an outdoor tennis court on the banks of the Danube. Many of these have been in the UK, some have been in other countries, as part of residencies or performance art festivals.

Perhaps I should point out here that I consider and call myself both an artist and a performance artist, and that I also sometimes work with the term ‘live art’ (a kind of umbrella term for all sorts of cultural strategies experimenting with the live. ‘Performance art’ and ‘live art’ (like ‘artist’ and ‘performance artist’) can be usefully interchangeable, and I tend to use whichever term suits the context best (i.e. who’s asking or who’s paying). But there are differences: ‘live art’ is perhaps a more familiar and accessible term (emerging as a sector in the UK in the past 15 years or so, cultivated partly by arts policy and by academia), whilst ‘performance art’ might be more niche and conceptual (except for those who mistake it for street mime), yet also international. There’s no right or wrong term, but it’s important to be aware of the language one uses, of its context and its usefulness.

In thinking about ‘How to be a performance artist’, three main threads come to mind that have been key to my making it a sustainable thing to do: art; work; life. Their separation is, of course, arbitrary, but I hope useful.

1. Art

If you’re reading about being a performance artist, chances are you’re already doing it in one form or another. If you’ve studied art, if you have a studio practice, you already know what it is to make good art. You have to find your obsessions and mine them deeply – whether it’s other artists, theorists, ideas or physical materials, you have to immerse yourself in them, get to know them, and then they’ll become yours. I remember once talking to a tutor about not knowing what my next piece of work would be, and he suggested that the last piece I’d made wasn’t finished. That piece became a body of 15 or so performances over the next 5 years, performed across the UK, in Canada, Croatia, Iceland and Switzerland.

That said, you have to be mindful not to let yourself (or the people who see your work) get bored. After making one of the last becoming-animal performances (the 5-year series mentioned above), a curator warned me not to get stuck with being ‘the animal guy’. I stopped and my work moved somewhere else, into another series of work over a few years, which then also reached its natural conclusion leaving me doing something very different now. You know in your mind or your body when something no longer excites you. For me it’s when it becomes too familiar, when the risk is gone, when it feels easy, when I’m not scared. There’s something important about stepping outside of your comfort zone (whether doing so physically or emotionally, or by working with different media or different audiences). At points I’ve taken breaks from performance, and worked in other media (photography, video, book works) that might fit my ideas better at that moment.

2. Work

Performance art is a lot of fun, but it’s also work. Much as I’d love to say I spend my days either throwing buckets of paint around the studio or jetting off to exciting climes, these things make up only a tiny fraction of what I do. I spend most of my time writing emails, applications, proposals, articles, researching projects, doing my accounts, updating my blog, booking transport, and reading about other artists, events and organisations.

Some people can work in a vacuum, but most of us need a context and a network, and I think it’s important that you become as familiar as you can with the field in which you’re working. There is a lot of stuff you can find on your own – organisations like the Live Art Development Agency, venues like ] Performance S p a c e [, networks on Facebook and regional platforms and events like SPILL in Ipswich, Emergency in Manchester, IBT in Bristol, Experimentica in Cardiff and Buzzcut in Glasgow, amongst many others. Seeing work is important and so too can be making your face (and name) known. Look out for bursaries to attend events or training, and consider volunteering if it’s something you want to do – stewarding at an event, assisting another artist, helping paint a space, whatever works for you. Sharing experience and knowledge with other artists is vital to knowing about stuff that’s going on, and to finding other artists, books, ideas and ways of working. Your peers can provide useful feedback and support (emotional or practical, when you need a lift or a spare person to document your work), but can also be collaborators and allies (and your friends for many years). Reciprocity seems especially important in performance art networks – clearly, none of us are in it for the money, so generosity becomes a natural way of working!

Money’s a tricky subject for all artists, and I’ve come to consider it on a case-by-case basis. I’ll occasionally do work for free for other artists, if I know that they don’t have any budget and I’m in a position where I can (and want to) do so. Certainly, this was essential to me as a younger artist, when my need to meet other artists, see work and get my name about was greater than my experience. Nowadays, performance is how I make my living so I sometimes have to turn down unpaid gigs and to negotiate with larger organisations about reasonable fees.

Writing applications (for funding, for festivals and exhibitions, for commissions and residencies, etc.) is a big part of my work, and it’s taken me a long time to get used to doing it, to enjoying it and to accepting rejection. Having an idea for a piece of work is only the beginning – working with a context, with partners and with a budget is often what gives it form. When you’ve invested a lot in the development of a piece of work / a project  / a commission / a residency and don’t get it, it can be disheartening. But I’ve come to learn that: a) the decision is never personal (something else may have been selected because it fits the space / theme / budget better, not because you and your ideas are terrible): and b) the process is valuable in developing and distilling your own ideas, and to creating a connection with that organisation / curator / whoever. Feedback can be useful too.

I’ve learnt to better recognise what to apply for and what not – if I’m not appropriate for something (because of my experience or the type of work I make), if I don’t have the time to make the best application I can, or if it’s something that I don’t really want anyway. I get some of my work from existing contacts in performance art networks, but sometimes struggle to do so with more conventional visual art organisations. This is perhaps conservatism on their part, but also a gap in understanding and communication: a curator or commissioner is often more equipped to imagine and realise a sculpture than a conceptual performance – this is both their experience but also how their budgets and spaces run. Some are ready to take the leap, some might just take time and perseverance to come around to it, and some might never do.

There’s also an extent to which I’ve eschewed the mainstream contemporary art scene (having nothing to sell or put in a gallery, other than myself) so am kind of marginal to it, which can be both liberating and frustrating. It’s opened up other avenues and collaborators with whom I probably wouldn’t have otherwise worked.

I’ve certainly learnt how to make the best of resources and opportunities available – resources like Artquest and a-n, but also individuals who might be able to give me advice, mentoring or a reference, or organisations who can help me talk through an idea or look over a funding application.

3. Life

Artist Robert Filliou said that “Art is what makes life more interesting than art”, and that’s an idea that always stays with me (even if I’ve never completely understood it). Few of us can be performance artists all of the time, and it’s very uncommon for people to make a living purely from it. Over the last 10 years I’ve worked as a waiter, as an office temp, as a Community Service Supervisor, a drinks promoter, and as a lecturer in Performance Studies and in Musical Theatre. I’ve written articles for science journals and for art publications, I’ve done proofreading, I’ve given talks in art centres and colleges, done gallery tours, managed other people’s art projects, run workshops for artists and for young people, curated exhibitions and projects, and just recently helped a studio neighbour move a load of boxes and furniture for cash. Over time, my art practice has expanded from just doing performances to doing socially-engaged and community projects, and to doing academic research – I’ve always been interested in theory, and a few years ago did a funded PhD, as a way of developing my practice and of having a regular income for a few years.

I think that one has to cultivate a life practice, with one’s art practice a part of it. (I say ‘cultivate’, with the implication that you have to nourish and care and attend to it). My passions and values tie the two together very strongly, but there have been times when the balance has tipped, when I’ve been so driven in my art work that I’ve worn myself out, or when the rest of my life has taken over and my performance practice has been left neglected. But I know that’s part of it, and that balance is always there. You have to find your own way of sustaining things, of being (to quote a friend of mine) ready and resilient in dealing with what life and work throws at you.

It’s a constant cycle, a process of getting to know your limits and your wants (a paid gig? a solo show? a book deal? a new car? a Turner prize? recognition from someone you respect? collaboration with someone you admire?), and reviewing and negotiating them on a regular basis. It’s a question of recognising and learning from your successes and your mistakes. And of taking a long view, of being patient when something doesn’t happen immediately and remembering that there will always be artists who you aspire to be like, and artists who aspire to be like you.

© Paul Hurley, 2013

Since 2001, Paul Hurley has performed and exhibited in galleries, theatres, festivals and public spaces internationally. Whilst he is best known for his solo performance practice, his work has involved participatory projects and collaborations with other artists. He is interested in action, ritual, queerness and humour. In 2010, Paul was awarded a PhD for his thesis ‘Reconfiguring the human: the becoming-other of performance’ from the University of Bristol, as part of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with Arnolfini Gallery.

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