American video and performance artist Cradeaux Alexander presents a mid-career retrospective this month at Bow Arts, London. Jemima Walter met him to uncover how theatre inspires his art practice and how performance art still disrupts the art world to this day.
Cradeaux Alexander’s practice explores the intersection between theatre and art and is known for his production of Picasso’s play Desire Caught by the Tail (2016), as well as RHINO (2017), a multi-media conversation with Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959), which both also premiered at Bow Arts.
Entitled Scripted Bodies, this mid-career retrospective features both video works and documentation of performances which are displayed on HD screen and monitors including ‘PORN’ (2011), which sees the artist taking on the role of a lecturer, delivering a pseudo-academic lecture on the history of gay pornography. Alexander will also premiere as part of the exhibition his new performance ‘bluebeard’ (2018) in which he explores the French folklore character as an embodiment of corruption in a part theatre, part installation and part absurd spectacle.
How would you say theatre has had an influence on your practice as an artist?
Dramatic literature was my first art encounter and my first true engagement with my own theatrical practice. Later it became words and blueprints interpreted by bodies, placed in a ritualised environment for a brief period of time, and a certain kind of atmosphere that permeates live theatre encounters; all of this profoundly influenced my subsequent investigations in fine art practice. My own training and work as an actor in narrative film, TV and live media continues to be a skill and experience I draw from when I create my own works for camera or my own live solo works for a gallery. I write a lot, I explore existing text frequently, and I incorporate this directly into my works. My interest in pulling apart narratives and working with other humans as materials in works, and exploring how we know who we are through these means is a direct connection with my theatre roots.
Your new performance bluebeard (2018) inspired by Perrault’s fairytale has been preceded by multiple interpretations. How have these evolved in the lead up to this new performance?
Like a lot of my engagement with existing scripts or stories, I work in conversation with them; the same is true for bluebeard. I’m not keen to make another interpretation of the story. I want to look at its elements and see what is fascinating or wrong or worth working with in a contemporary context. The dynamics of power, thin-skinned vanity and privilege in Perrault’s original story sit in dialogue with current political figures (perhaps Trump) who hide their deep insecurity with bluster and pomp. Like Trump, Bluebeard has a noteworthy hair piece; there is some humour here of course, as well as a truly dark side to the beast who is found repellent but who desperately craves popularity and love. This is where the two characters meet, and it is one of the drivers that took me to this project. My bluebeard is ultimately a meditation on these ideas expressed through a range of media and collage performance styles.
Through your company LUXE, you often work collaboratively with other performers. How does this process influence the final work? Do you usually work with the same collaborators?
I actively seek new people to work with on new projects that are being developed, as it keeps me on my creative toes and introduces new ideas to the mix. There have been one or two longstanding partners I’ve worked with across a number of projects; we like to explore new ways of making and sometimes having an established few who I can work with in shorthand makes for a smoother ride. The finished work is decided by the mix of the collaborators to a large extent. I begin with some basic concepts, watch them develop organically and shape them with the performers. It is a sculptural process. I find what it is supposed to be often towards the end of the rehearsal process, which has been a dialogue between myself and my performers.
Having worked in both New York and London, what have you found to be the key challenges artists face working in both cities?
Downtown New York had a strong experimental theatre/performance scene when I was there in the 90s, which grew out of practitioners established there in the 70s. This was my natural home and I was able to make it work in that setting. London is its own ecosystem, and my initial attraction to going further into fine/visual art was when I moved here in the early 2000s and saw that that was the space where artists were making the most significant creative strides. In both places money for artists remains appalling. The art economy rarely trickles down to the artists who make the work. There are a lot of artists working largely under the radar, often with expensive degrees, and still very few establishments to take them in. It creates a competitive atmosphere which isn’t good for art.
How do you find performance art’s position in the art world has changed throughout your career?
It has become mainstream to an extent, though it remains challenging to the established setup for exhibition and dissemination. When I perform in galleries or museums there is always the sense that something has been irritated. Even performance in video form remains complicated. I think it’s become a bit more flexible in its conceptual negotiations as well, departing from the rigidly body-centric and exploring other philosophies and presentations of culture and aesthetics, including increased access to technology.
What exciting things do you have coming up?
BOXE is a space I am developing which will utilise streaming technology to distribute and record live performance. It will also include conversations and virtual residencies with artists via an online webcast. Artists talking to each other is the best thing, for art, for audiences, and for artists. My interest in online spaces is its global potential, and the camera as a holistic environment for art-making. We have repositories and archives of historical performances, but we do not have a dynamic space for their creation and dissemination, so here comes BOXE…
Scripted Bodies is open from 14 to 23 September 2018 at Bow Arts, London with performances of bluebeard taking place on 14, 15, 22 & 22 September at 7pm.
Find out more here.
Words by Harry McDougall
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