Consenting to fall: on ethics and responsibility in live art
This is a review, by way of direct interview with the artist, on a performance that happened upon mistake and injury, and whether this means the artwork failed or just failed to complete:
Kimbal Bumstead's practice has evolved from painting and drawing in to a wider exploration of live art that uses people as a working material. The following interview focuses on a recent instalment of a series of performances called Together in which, Kimbal straps himself with tape to a consenting participant (insofar being his father, a guest who was staying at his house, and a close friend). The idea being that the two bodies find a mutual balance, until their combined movement causes them to loose stability and fall. The two bodies then work together to try to stand up again. The fall caused controversy at a recent showing of the performance when Kimbal and his participant unexpectedly fell against a wall and a radiator, landing them both in hospital with concussion and a ligament-torn shoulder. Notwithstanding the physical affect of this fall on both consenting participant and the artist, it is important to consider how the audience, as a non-participating body present through their own free choice at the event, was also affected.
Here we explore notions of mistake and the repercussions of this in relation to ethics and responsibility in live art:
RT: Being a live artist you must allow for mistake in your work, and this must move you on to improvisation. How do you deal with the next level - when mistake becomes disturbance / disaster - do you feel responsible for the audience and the affect it has on them, even when they're not physically knocked to the floor?
KQB: An audience walk into a space where they know an action will happen, but they don’t know what the action will entail. They commit themselves to the situation in the knowledge that they may (hopefully) be affected. In everyday life we take a risk that we might encounter a dangerous or violent situation but the question of responsibility is incredibly complex when people have gathered together with the intention of witnessing something when they do not know what it is that they are going to witness. The performance 'Together' creates a dangerous situation where it is inevitable that the audience will be witness to a physical struggle with the risk of injury. The affect of this action has on the audience is less about the injury itself and more about the potential of it being much worse, even fatal: responsibility then is about framing or controlling a situation.
RT: Is there something animalistic here that allows you to offer the legibility and acuteness of your live work before any responsibility you have for an audience? By animalistic I mean something that comes before reason – something that debases responsibility for the onlooker.
KQB: I have not understood the complexity of some of my performances it until after their completion. But that’s the point of doing live performance in the first place: to confront unexpected challenges. I have an idea, and I want to do it, so I do. Yes I suppose that’s animalistic, but that is not to say I was unaware that this work would have a potentially traumatic affect on its onlookers. The impact that this ‘mistake’ had on me, and the way I see my work, is connected more so to the dangerous position I put my friend and co-performer in. In some ways, that element of ‘animalism’ you mention, could be applied more so to my sense of responsibility towards him, and also to myself.
RT: Will this affect how you approach your responsibility as an artist now, and how will you compromise your ideas before they come to fruition?
KQB: Of course it’s always important to acknowledge risk, as it’s important to work towards understanding the dynamic of who or what is in control of a situation. I think that’s where an intervention can hold political or personal significance – when the issue of a power dynamic is brought into question.
I do not willingly want to put people into unnecessarily dangerous situations, but I think that to a certain extent it is interesting to challenge people (participants or spectators) in terms of their ethical position, their responsibility and their level of trust in a particular situation.
I am working at the moment on a piece where I will live on a deserted beach for one week, I will rely each day on the presence of invited strangers to provide me with food and water. This is a challenge on their part just as much as it is for me.
RT: So the responsibility is then passed over to them, by way of them experiencing the situation? How much of your work is about challenge in this respect, some audiences may feel more passive - do you let them get away with this or do you want to challenge everyone?
KQB: There’s a difference - discussed by scholars Hans Theis Lehmann and Rachel Zerihan - between responsibility and response-ability. On the one hand an audience is responsible in certain performances to uphold a certain type of behaviour to go along with the structure of the performance. In other situations the role of the audience may not be so clear, they may have to ‘work’ harder to discover their role, or what it is that they can and cannot do. Response-ability – someone’s ability to respond in a certain way – depends on that person’s recognition of themselves, their perceived role in that situation.
Physical passivity does not necessarily mean mental passivity. I hope that all audiences are actively and mentally engaged with performance. ‘Together’ did not require the audiences’ physical participation, but it did cause some people to stand up and consider intervening, as they were concerned for our safety. Direct participation has been very important in other performances; in this case a participant - usually one - must consent in some way to what will happen. A consenting participant’s responsibility however, should not be purely for the success of completing an action, but an ethical relationship between a human and another human. In this situation they also have more agency to resist or be autonomous.
RT: I want to ask you more about the notion of consent and the connection this has with artistic failure. You talk about autonomy and agency to resist - I suppose ‘Together’ is directly about the physicality of such concepts – but how much is this about consent rather than the performance as an experiment in seeing how far you can push yourself, and confronting the possibility that injury might mean the work has failed?
KQB: I often find myself compromising my ideas because of limitations of health and safety and lack of public liability insurance. Its possible then to say that certain challenges can never be reached, and that the work fails before it even begins.
In the case of Together, the falling over was planned but the injury was not. Personally I would not go so far as to say that this really was a ‘mistake’, but an unpleasant side effect of an action. The action finished when we managed to help each other to stand up – which was the intention.
Together is up to now the most dangerous performance I have done, and I would not have done it if the action and intention had not been explained in full to my participant/ co-performer. This also goes for any of the interactive one on one performance work that I have done – I would not intentionally jeopardise the safety of a participant. But, I would invite participants to share a mutual risk of something unexpected taking place – whether this is within or beyond either of our control.
(image copyright: Martin LeSanto-Smith)