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Performance artist Joseph Morgan Schofield: “One of the special magics of performance art is the vibrant possibility of the live encounter”

Image credit: Photo of Joseph Morgan Schofield.

]performance s p a c e[, the UK’s only dedicated venue for performance art, is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a 10-hour live commission and paired exhibition.

Nine performance artists will present new work. They include the legendary Anne Bean, a performance artist for over 50 years, and Joseph Morgan Schofield, assistant director of ]performance s p a c e[, whose latest work these teeming forms is a rumination on grief and alienation through a deep connection with nature.
“One of the special magics of performance art is the vibrant possibility of the live encounter,” explains Joseph, speaking to Run-Riot ahead of the exhibition launch and ten-hour-long live performance which goes without breaking.
Coming together to celebrate the success of ]performance s p a c e[, the artists share the performance space, but will not be collaborating. Instead, each performance will be separate to the next, although as Joseph puts it: “The meaning and relations they experience in one work will cross-pollinate with the other works.”
Ahead of the anniversary, Joseph explains in our interview how they believe performance art deserves a wider audience. They explain that a key difference between the lesser-understood medium and traditional theatre is that performance art is more closely tied to the space it’s performed within, and the objects in the room.
“It’s all about relations,” Joseph explains, “between artist, material, site and audience".
How does Joesph feel about that day-long live performance? Working for ten hours “allows me to give much more space and time to my impulses,” they say. “Ideas and processes accumulate and expand over the duration.”
Although Joseph admits “it would be a generous audience who would stay with one artist for ten hours,” Joseph says it “does happen..."

Image credit: these teeming forms, Joseph Morgan Schofield, 2021. Photo by Zack McGuinness.
Adam Bloodworth: Hi Joseph, lovely to chat.  ]performance s p a c e[ is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Can you put into words how significant it feels to you that the UK's only dedicated performance art space is celebrating such a milestone?
Joseph Morgan Schofield:
The achievement of (co-founders) Benjamin Sebastian (aka Benjx) and Bean - and the extraordinary constellation of artists who have orbited ]ps[ - is remarkable. With relatively few resources and an enormous amount of labour, Benjx and Bean have created a nourishing and supportive space for practices which, for the most part, continue to exist outside of institutional support and mainstream recognition. ]ps[ is a vital organisation which has always seemed to me to exist far more in relation to international artist-led initiatives, far more than UK organisations. The outwards looking attitude of ]ps[, with its special commitment to centring care in all its hosting, feels more critical now than ever. The PSX programme feels like a proper and meaningful celebration of that.
At the same time, emerging from the isolation and alienation of the last 18 months, these celebrations feel timely and necessary, a way of coming home and learning to be together again. One of the special magics of performance art is the vibrant possibility of the live encounter. The pandemic has made this vastly less accessible, so I’m feeling various forms of nervous and feverish anticipation at meeting audiences and artists again. I’m glad that this programme involves one of the first major gatherings of performance artists (in the flesh) in the UK since lockdown. It feels vital and life-giving.
Adam: Can you give us an idea of your thoughts and plans ahead of your live performance on August 21st?
I’m preoccupied with the moorland, which formed the horizon of my childhood and to which I have returned again and again as a site for processing, mourning and communing. In recent performance and video work, such as these teeming forms, I’ve worked with the landscape as an active collaborator. I’m interested in processes of ‘wilding’, which I understand as the de-centring of my subjectivity in my relationship with the world at large, and this land in particular. I have foraged, carefully, for materials like bone, heather, branches, and in the performance I will be listening to them and working with them. One of the problems with traditional landscape painting is that it proposes a mythical universal subjectivity, which is usually imagined as white, male, cis etc. In some ways this performance will be like a living landscape painting but rather than representing or capturing the land, I hope to work with it, live with it, and discover new relations.

The key question of the performance is how one can work with the land as active collaborator: how can we communicate with it or listen to it, even though it is so different to us? This question of communication across the gulf of difference has literal implications in terms of the climate crisis, notions of global-stewardship and ecological politics, but also functions as metaphor for all-to-human social relations.
Adam: The performance itself lasts 10 hours. What are the benefits of such long performances, do you think, and do you presume the majority of audience members will only catch a small part of the performance as a whole? If so, will there be an effort to make the performances collide into one broader story so everyone gets a piece of the same pie?

I think one of the things performance art does is to promote a certain kind of attention, focus or contemplation which is quite unique. Durational performances like this offer an alternative experience of time - one which is quite different from the typical pace of London life.

It would be a generous audience who would stay with one artist for ten hours, though it does happen. In the event, our audience will be able to drift between performers, and to step in and out of the space. There won’t be a personal (or collective) narrative, but I think each audience member will have a unique experience as the meaning and relations they experience in one work will cross-pollinate with the other works. This will be different for everyone, whether they stay for one hour or ten. All experiences of art are partial and totally subjective, so it doesn’t seem to be necessary to try and give everyone the same experience.

For me, working durationally like this is a privilege. I won’t rehearse for my work (though I do prepare with experiments in my studio) and nothing is definitely decided upon when I begin the performance. What I’m trying to do is to allow images, desires, gestures, words, and actions to arise in the moment. This is one of the things which makes performance art different from theatre. It’s all about relations - between artist, material, site and audience. Working for ten hours is different to working for a short time because it allows me to give much more space and time to my impulses. Ideas and processes accumulate and expand over the duration, and there’s greater time for pause or quiet work. Exhaustion also becomes a factor, which is always interesting to watch and experience.

Image credit: with bare feet touching the sky I yearn, Joseph Morgan Schofield, 2020. Photo by Jemima Yong.
Adam: In broad terms, would you like performance art to reach wider audiences, and be offered more mainstream platforms, or might it lose its D.N.A as protest art?
In broad terms I think performance art deserves a wider audience. I think it has the potential to be a very accessible form of art as it is about the relationship between bodies - my body and yours - and the world around us. It is immediate and alive. Much of the most exciting work at ]performance s p a c e[ has been that which takes place in the public domain, because of the conversations it has prompted with accidental audiences.
That being said, much is lost in the process of passing into ‘the mainstream’. Performance art is often understood as provocative or explicit and if the cost of ‘mainstream’ acceptance is greater censorship or artistic timidity then I would refuse that. My hope would be that art institutions and those who work there became braver in the kinds of work they programme and advocate for.
Adam: Some of the artists on the bill for the live event have been working 50 years - an incredible achievement. Do you still hope to be performing in that amount of time, and what is it, do you think, that draws some performance artists to such long careers?
I wouldn’t presume to speak for any other artist, particularly those with such artistic longevity as Alastair MacLennan, and Anne Bean. They are legends within our field and I’m thrilled (and a little nervous) to be working in proximity to them. Certainly that longevity is incredible and speaks to both the commitment and curiosity at the heart of their practices. I suspect, when an artist has worked for so many years, performance art becomes less an artistic medium and more of a way of life and a way of thinking about the world. It’s a life practice and probably not so easy to give up. I can’t imagine what the world will be like in 50 years, but I hope to remain as committed and curious as Anne and Alastair.
Adam: Which is it particularly important audiences see non-binary bodies as a part of performance art?
I’m not so interested in questions of visibility. My practice isn’t activism. I’m more interested in the way that my gender identity informs my way of thinking and seeing, and vice versa. The reality of life is that it is nonbinary - fluid, multiplicitious, a bit chaotic and ever changing. These are qualities which I work with.
Adam: Why is performance art such fertile ground for examining queer themes?
Performance art is often concerned with the body, so there’s a proximity to queerness there (as well as other identity markers such as race and disability). It is a place where different ways of inhabiting a body or having desires can be enacted and made visible. My own understanding of queerness is that it is a fluid way of inhabiting the world - something which is in keeping with life itself. Queer performance art is a place to perhaps turn up the dial on those fluid relations and make them more apparent or more intense. It allows for new relations to emerge, in the moment, which might serve as inspiration for the act of living and being.

Image credit: devotion, Joseph Morgan Schofield, 2020. Venice International Performance Art Week. Photo by Fenia Kotsopoulou.
Adam: Where do you look for inspiration, and is there a tipping point where relying too heavily on your own non-binary or queer experiences can be challenging for yourself?
I’ve sometimes used my practice as a site of personal excavation and processing, particularly relating to experiences of grief and alienation. My recent work, these teeming forms, is just that - a way of understanding and working through these feelings and particular relationships. This has typically been beneficial - performance ritual has unlocked things which normal daily life could not. I’m always conscious of the audience though - it's important to me to leave lots of room for them. I’m not interested in narrativising my life, so the personal work is always quite oblique and never the most visible or even crucial thing. One of the ways this happens is through the selection of materials which have personal significance. They become totems and I have a relationship with them, but I don’t explain that, I just allow them to be and for the audience to develop their own interpretations. I also incorporate other materials which resonate with me but aren’t from my personal archeology, so there’s plenty of room for things other than my life.
Mostly I take inspiration from conversations with kin, readings, materials, the site of the performance, the landscape, the weather - and also from the audience. The different energies different audiences give off can radically alter a work.
Adam: A lot of your work is concerned with nature. I'm wondering in which ways your own relationship with nature changed during such a testing time?
Working on these teeming forms, a video work exploring the porosity of the moorland and the body, was a blessing - a way of staying in touch with a place even though it was very far away. Shooting the film, between lockdowns, was a gorgeous and sensate experience. The weather was really fierce - the wind and the rain - and it felt so good and life-giving to be out on the land. I want to keep those experiences close at hand. Watching the land, the weather and the seasons moves me in a way which is difficult to articulate, and if anything the pandemic has reminded me to better cultivate that habit.
Adam: All the while, there's talk of audiences wanting to be entertained, wanting light relief more than ever. Does this factor into your storytelling on stage ahead of the live event or the exhibition?
I understand the desire for relief and entertainment, which is something I feel too. However, in my own work, I’m more interested in opening up a space for something more contemplative. A vast amount has happened, very quickly. There has been so much loss, anxiety and separation. It is an awareness of this which factors into my decision making. My work is concerned with the land, and the performances often seem soaked with climate grief too. This is life, and art might be a way of processing it. Rather than offering light relief, my invitation is for audiences to sit with these experiences, paying attention to them, treating them gently. In this way there’s room for mourning, but also celebration and euphoria.

The 10hr Live Event will take place at The Ugly Duck (Tanner St. London) on Saturday 21st August, 11am - 9pm. Book here.
Photographic Exhibition, A Decade of Performance Art, at the VSSL Studio in Deptford, London, 12-19 August. Fridays: 12 - 6pm Saturdays: 12 - 6pm Sundays 12 -6pm (+ by appointment).


Image credit: Nicholas Tee, 2018. Photo by Manuel Vason. Work shown as part of Photographic Exhibition, A Decade of Performance Art, at the VSSL Studio in Deptford, London, 12-19 August.

Image credit: Hancock & Kelly, 2017. Photo by Paul Samuel White. Work shown as part of Photographic Exhibition, A Decade of Performance Art, at the VSSL Studio in Deptford, London, 12-19 August.

Image credit: Keijaun Thomas, 2019. Photo by Andrea Abbatangelo. Work shown as part of Photographic Exhibition, A Decade of Performance Art, at the VSSL Studio in Deptford, London, 12-19 August.


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