" class="video-button fancybox-article-video">Play video " class="fancybox-article-video"> Using performance to communicate powerful ideas

An exploration of performance as a powerful way to communicate ideas in art, design and media project.

This project was produced by a Foundation Diploma Fine Art student called Trystan Bridge, but there are many aspects and methods of learning that could be applied to Level 3 qualifications.

One aspect to note when looking through the sketchbook is that it is only a three week project, so there may be areas that are slightly more underdeveloped than others, but as a whole it is a strong response for such a short time period.

Performance as a powerful art tool

This project was investigating mental and physical health, an area with a rich aesthetic to draw from. The student was happy to investigate pill packages and medical books, using print and scanning to create images during development.

What the student found more difficult was how to bridge the gap between the sketchbook they were used to and a new time and screen-based medium. This difficulty is a really common phenomenon for those that haven’t used video in the past and who have been taught to use sketchbooks in conventional ways.

There is a misnomer that all video should be compared to high budget Hollywood movies. This idea gives students false expectations of what a movie can be and should look like. It is easy to think that of movies in terms of actors, narrative, dialogue and drama.  Yet, there is no need for video to be like that at all. It is just that video artists don’t follow the conventions of cinema, and don’t get that much exposure.

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Using performance in art, design and media

Whenever I mention the topic of performance art to students their eyes always turn away and they try to ignore it as a subject. Yet some of the most powerful work that I have seen by students comes from them performing their ideas and using physical actions to communicate.

Many students don’t like to be in front of the camera and think being in the gaze of the lens means acting. They get self-conscious and reject the huge potential that performance can lend to their work. I am always surprised how students will so frequently engage with almost every medium except performance because of this fear.

Performance has its own very unique benefits and can be clearly distinguished from acting in a normal media sense. While performing, it isn’t necessary to tell a story, to pretend to be anyone or be ‘perfect’.

The body can become more like a sculpture. The combination of performance and video means work can be easily shared across different platforms and it can also combine a range of actions and events. The use of audio, lighting and editing effects can really enhance these.

A really powerful aspect of performance is its immediacy. Instead of wondering how to portray an emotion or behaviour, students can just perform it. It took almost until the end of this project for Trystan to realise this, but once he did, he was off and the final product demonstrates many of these “mini-performances” montaged together.

Another benefit that video gives to performance is it allows the application of video effects like slow motion or high speed. There is the opportunity to repeat sequences again and again for impact or to show actions for a very short period of time. However, there is a fine line between using these and making a movie look more like a selection of cheap filters from Photoshop.

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Bridging the gap between traditional media and video

Potentially the most interesting aspect of this portfolio is how the student was never interested in producing video before this project. His main interest is actually in more traditional media, yet he was able to engage with the medium so well.

It is possible to see from the sketchbook very little in terms of pre-production material that you would expect from a media student. No storyboards, script, treatment etc. yet the video looks competently made. In terms of assessment it may have been awarded a higher grade if there was more planning and development of the film. It is clear that the video was produced in a very short space of time and the student discussed how it was all recorded in one night.

In some respects there is evidence of this from the final product. It may have been possible to use further audio and to capture the images in higher quality for broadcast. Yet these are only minor details. So, what is the catch? Potentially, one saving grace and solution was to not have to create a story.

Developing a narrative is really complex and takes students a lot of time to refine. Yet this is a montage of images with no strict narrative. When I have tried to explain to media students that there doesn’t need to be a narrative, they find it really confusing, but art students find this liberating.

Ultimately, as a fine art student, he has seen the medium differently to the way a media student might. Without knowing too much about film theory, he has thrown out the conventions of movie making and treated the medium much more as a canvass. There is an attention to the image, texture, light and colour. But, overall, like a canvass, it doesn’t have to make sense. When we see a figurative painting we contextualise the image, but don’t have to have a suspension of disbelief in the same way as when we enter the cinema. In a way the film is like a moving sketchbook. The time-based quality of video breathing life into the images created through traditional media.

In that sense, the student can be more ruthless with the medium and that is evident in the intense montage of scenes and shots that make up the film. As soon as he discovered the power of performance he was off. Looking around him, he found that he could generate powerful situations and scenes by identifying the potential of his surroundings. His house has become a horror film of obsessive and compulsive actions. An asylum along the lines of some of the great movies on the topic.

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Referencing films from popular culture

I always talk to students that are making movies about references. One of our mottos becomes: “film is the most referential medium ever.” This doesn’t have to be true, but it helps them realise that they can borrow aspects from movies in the same way that they might borrow a colour from a painting or graphic technique from a magazine.

One of the ways that I get this across is to mention a director that most students will have seen. For example, Quentin Tarantino, who is the master of referencing movies from his own childhood. So this student thought about all of the classic horror scenes in films like REC, The Blair Witch Project, Seven, Jacobs Ladder and The Ring among others, combining these in his own personal way with artefacts from his sketchbook developed through media experiments. The camera and framing is able to generate a tension that is beginning to be visible in some of the drawings roughly half way through the sketchbook. But it is the performances in front of camera, with some creative post-production, create a fear factor in the work that is really difficult to generate in static media like painting.


In conclusion

It was fantastic to see this student go on a journey through experimenting with print media, drawing and mixed media, to being able to create a short movie and to make connections between these that can only be done through experimentation with both media.

More importantly, it was interesting to see the how initial frustration with the project disappeared after the liberating experience of taking risks with performance and the camera. Each scene, each shot is a small artwork in itself that combined generates a sense of horror and draws on the power of performance art and traditional experimentation.

Daniel Freaker Daniel Freaker Educational Consultant, Painter, Writer, Designer danfreaker@processfreaks.com