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A Few Questions for Alastair MacLennan on durational performance. By Jason Lim

During the 1970's and '80s, Alastair MacLennan made some long, non-stop durational performances in Britain, America and Canada, of up to 144 hours each. Currently he travels in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, North America and Canada presenting Actuations (performance/installations). Since 1989 he has been a member of the internationally regarded performance art entity, Black Market International, which performs globally. He is currently an Emeritus Professor of Fine Art from the University of Ulster, Belfast, Northern Ireland, an Honorary Associate of the former National Review of Live Art, Glasgow, Scotland and a founding member of Belfast's Bbeyond performance art.

In our email exchanges leading to FOI 9, I had posted a few questions to Alastair on durational performance. These questions were meant to clarify some questions younger performance artists may have on durational works and/or are interested to embark on this journey of discovery.

Jason Lim (JL): How do you prepare for a long durational performance?

Alastair MacLennan (AM): I'd take into consideration how long the performance would be and whether it would take place indoor or outdoor...and whether it would be a private or public affair. Where possible and if appropriate, I'd site-situate the work, in terms of the 'how' and 'what' of it, bearing in mind subject/object interlinks, regarding political, social and cultural issues.

JL: What's your advice to artists keen to embark on long durational works?

AM: Firstly, it is worth considering how necessary it is for the work to be long and durational. Depending on the intended work, it could involve the participant having to navigate mental and physical 'states' he/she's never consciously experienced before. It could be wise for the intending participant to work his/her way up to doing long durational performances. Prior experience of meditational or mindful practices could be of real benefit in this instance, as dietary awareness would be...and direct, perceptual/conceptual experience of strengths and weaknesses of one's own body/mind.

JL: What goes through your head during such performances?

AM: One tries to focus 'inwardly' on what's going on, inwardly and outwardly, in body and mind, in the 'here and now', during performance. If the mind wanders off into distraction, one notices this...and brings it back, to the 'moment' and the job in hand. This process may happen, repeatedly, throughout the performance. Being 'present' is crucial. JL: Do you agree that a performance has to be of a certain length of time in order to be considered a durational performance?

AM: Not necessarily. Just as a 'small' artwork may convey a sense of immensity, so can a 'short' performance seem to last an eternity (bearing in mind 'time' can be experienced perceptually/conceptually...but also psychologically).

What are the differences, if there are any, for you, performing in a public space, as opposed to an indoor space?

AM: In how this question is phrased, I'm assuming a 'public' space implies an outdoor space? If outdoor space could be rural or urban, in a field, an open park, on a seashore, up a mountain, a city centre, on the street, a public square, in a cemetery, a shopping centre, bus station, etc., etc. I'd treat these all as having specific variables to consider in formulating a performance...and I'd (personally) employ philosophically pre-selected so-called 'chance' operations in deciding the final inter-combination of elements to use in the performance.

An indoor space can also be public or private...and a similar, or parallel range of considerations would (to me) pertain.

JL: What makes you choose performance art as an art form to express your ideas in?

AM: Performance art, in 'essence', is beyond the control of the 'cultural real estate' machine. Other 'fixed form' aspects of art can be bought and sold, through hierarchical structures of dealers, critics, curators, collectors, etc. To me, art's a 'spiritual' mind/body practice, not motivated by materialistic commodification, or celebrity culture, trafficking trash.

JL: How important is documentation to you? Is there a preference for you to have your work documented in video or photography?

AM: Documentation is useful for passing on information about performance art, but is no viable substitute for the 'actuality' of performance itself. Unless a video documentor is particularly 'attuned' to specific working methods and the range of movements of a performer, I'd prefer to have performances documented by a good photographer, even though subtlety of movement, or stasis, is 'frozen' in stills.

JL: What, in your opinion, are the essential elements of performance art?

AM: There are many different approaches to (and styles of) performance art. A crucial element, to me, is to what extent the performer gives him-or-herself 'over', one hundred percent, to it, while performing... whereby one can't tell whether the performer is 'performing' the performance, or whether the performance is 'performing' the performer... through complete interfusion of subject/object inter-links.

JL: When is a performance good (successful)?

AM: It's successful (to me) if convincingly transformative, in which all sensory and visual languaging cohere completely, whatever the subject/object matter of the work may be.

In durational performance, time is an objective element for the audience to measure. How do you view time as a performer?

AM: In planning a performance, decisions re 'actual' time are crucial. Time is a primary aspect to consider, but not separately from other elements. One doesn't want the overall 'effect' of a performance to be experienced as 'too long', or 'too short'. Sometimes it's best if a performance simply takes the time it takes...though this can make difficulties for an organizer, in programming events for a public. Being aware of a 'happy (time) medium' is useful, re self and others.

JL: How does time change for you during a performance?

AM: If one 'thinks' about time, during a performance, it can seem 'endless', taking forever to pass...and one forgets to BE present... so it can become psychologically tortuous. If, on the other hand, one allows time to 'take' itself, it 'disappears' as an obstacle, no longer to be endured (needlessly).

JL: What would you like to say (advice) to a practitioner of performance art venturing into durational works?

AM: I'd suggest working up to it, gradually. If one's never done durational performance before... and is, consequently, not mentally and physically 'prepared' for unforeseen difficulties which can develop during it, the new practitioner may develop a sense of frustration, or dismay...and be put off from pursuing it further. For anyone thinking of taking up durational performance, I'd recommend the benefits of an accompanying meditational practice, too, as this helps one navigate all kinds of mind/body issues, which surface in durational performance.

'Bbeyond Monthly Meeting September 2013', Botanic Park, Belfast, Ireland. Photo by Jordan Hutchings