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Writing performance

The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.

In an age of online-first, visually-driven content, what is the value of writing about art or performance? And is writing about art even necessary?
     For someone who enjoys writing about art and performance, those are a few of the questions that can gnaw at my mind each time I sit down to begin a new piece. I never used to think like this. Back when I first realised I loved writing about art, I was convinced that writing was more important than ever – that it was an entirely necessary medium that wouldn’t fade away no matter how smart they made our phones, or how cluttered our timelines became. And I still feel that way about writing, it’s just that these days I fight a little harder each time to remind myself of those feelings.

If art is just another way of making sense of the world and our places in it, then someone who writes about, documents and archives art, is ideally the conduit of these ideas to other people who are interested in creative forms of expression

     It was a few months back when I really struggled to reconcile these viewpoints. I had written a long-form piece on a performer and the interview had gone well. I took my time with the piece, polishing and re-reading it many times over, and before I was set to send the piece in for publishing, I sent it to the performer for a read-through. I do this whenever I write a particularly in-depth piece about a person, because I like to believe that whenever you’re tasked with handling someone’s personal story, there’s an agreement of trust that’s entered into, and by working through the final draft of that person’s story with them, you’re honouring that relationship.
     The piece came back to me filled with requests for changes. As I read through the edits, I realised that nothing about the form, the facts, or even the story itself was an issue for the performer, but that small things like the inclusion of slang words or phrases they used in direct quotes, were to be taken out. Other requested edits were that I include absolutely every piece of work they’ve done, and accolade they’d received named in full. In short, I had written a piece that spoke on the nature of their craft, why they did it, and what it meant to them and those who engaged with it, and to my mind, they had simply wanted an incredibly long-winded artist bio all along. Besides those ‘small changes’, they told me, they absolutely loved the piece.

Ultimately, if all the pains and processes that go into trying to write about art or performance end up playing some small part in making meaning out of the way we exist in the world, then I think that’s enough

     The whole experience made me want to quit banging around on keyboards for good. Afterwards, I called a friend for advice. ‘What’s the point of writing about someone’s practice if all they want is a new artist statement for their website?’ I asked. ‘And what’s the point of writing about someone’s process if everyone would sooner watch an Instagram story about it?’ A little dramatic, yes, but the call helped. As these things go, the friend had no quick-fix advice on the matter, but we did end up having a good conversation about the value of process, and the value of documenting and archiving outside of social media.
     To read more about what Dave Mann has to say about going to a talk by the arts writers Sean O’Toole and Ashraf Jamal or his chat with artist Chris Soal ahead of his debut solo exhibition, Orbits of Relating, purchase our July 2018 issue, or continue supporting the arts and culture sector by subscribing to our monthly Creative Feel magazine. 

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