Practice-Based: On Completion, Process and Planning

Unplanned (2018, Southbank Centre, London)

I chucked my sewing machine into a big box of random things gathered between the time I ordered an Uber and when it arrived to whisk me to the Southbank Centre in London. Fellow artist Katherine Araniello and I had committed to several days of unplanned performances at Southbank: no score, no rules, only the concept of blurring boundaries between audience and artists, subverting the idea of the well-rehearsed performance and putting our vulnerable and unvarnished selves out there. 

We asked: what if backstage is everything? If the rehearsal is the performance? If there is no moment of completion – how would art look then? 

As the show unfolded, Southbank’s producer had a screen hastily constructed (nudity occurred), a member of the audience spent hours onstage at my machine finishing the dress I had been making from a 1960’s duvet, and the entire messy, exhausting piece ended when time was called with a giant group rave to songs made up on the spot by participants who had become performers. 

Although Unplanned was infused with humour, it was a serious attempt to melt down the distinctions between process and results, background and foreground, high art and the everyday— employing the simple strategy of making the unseen seen. Unplanned illustrates three separate but interconnected ideas – which I consider fundamental to a process-based methodology:

  • Completion; the belief that nothing is ever ‘finished’ and messy imperfection has its place.
  • Process: the conscious effort to expose one’s process, practice and labour of creation.
  • Planning: the defiance of one’s tendency to overthink and plan.

The convention of ‘completion’ and the focus on the material, seem to be fundamental to our cognitive disposition, privileging the ‘finished object’ over the experience of making it (this seems to be particularly prevalent in European and North-American conceptions of art). Within this canon, process philosophy analyses becoming and what is occurring as well as ways of occurring, challenging the focus on substance in classical philosophy [1]. Beyond these constructs, there are alternative ways of negotiating the world.  For example, the concept of ‘Wabi-sabi’ (the difficult to translate traditional Japanese aesthetic) acknowledges three simple realities: ‘nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect’ [2]. 

Throwing off the shackles of seeking perfection and the dramatic finale is liberating. For some inexplicable reason it seems to open up the idea of working collectively, maybe because vulnerability is best shared. It also allows for a long sustained and mutating thought process— reworking not to ‘improve’ but to revisit and change projects as the context evolves.  

In 2015 I met Araniello via an East-London based workshop Between Menopause and Old Age, Alternative Beauty organised by the Live Art Development Agency (LADA). I was comfortable making mistakes in front of an audience and she was fearless in general.  We both believed in audience engagement, sarcasm and shared an appetite for subverting conventional performance paradigms. 

Drawing on my experiments with expositional performance and Araniello’s quick wit we began to make short pieces– we attempted to ‘Bake a Cake’ in front of an audience with comically disastrous results. This involved practice, a large set of props, costumes and a script. However, it also involved improvisation and, arguably, the best part of the work was the stuff we hadn’t planned. 

Araniello and I both needed to intensively plan many aspects of our lives. Profoundly physically disabled from an early age, every aspect of Araniello’s life required minute attention to logistical details. My life entails a complex mix of professional and family obligations. 

Commiserating on the burden of planning during a brainstorming session, it occurred to us that ‘not planning’ might be a new frontier.  This way we would eschew the idea of completion (our work would be over when it was over), our messy imperfect process would be on display, and we would liberate ourselves from the burden of planning. However, making our process our performance meant we had to consciously resist the temptation of over-thinking… lest we go into the immediacy of our work with some sort of a mental choreography to fall back on.  We wanted to make sure the creative process happened during the performance, not before it occurred. Participants would experience the free flow of how we put ideas together in real time, our response to how they engaged with us, and how we made use of what we had on hand.  This was harder than it sounds, as it goes against the received wisdom we had abided by our whole lives: ‘Failing to plan, is planning to fail.” We calmed our nerves by reminding ourselves: ‘It can’t not go to plan – there is no plan.’ We presented the idea to LADA, who brokered the deal with Southbank and, as part of LADA’s DIY programme, we invited artist participants who were told to ‘just show up’. (The performance was also open to the public, we had hundreds of ‘walk-in’ audience members, including the person who finished the dress onstage.) Here’s a selection of comments from participants: 

It totally revolutionalised my perception of what art is, can be or will be.

 We don’t have to be perfect. We can embrace failure.

I realised- quite genuinely- that I don’t have to plan quite so much. Job done.

 The limits of my practice have been completely shattered. Anything is possible.

It’s good to let go.

As Decorating Dissidence sets out: ‘the decorative is political and craft is powerful’. Process-based working also questions the notion that process is simply ‘necessary’ and ‘inevitable’, certainly not ‘important’ nor ‘glamorous’.  This might be part of the reason some forms of repetitious labour (such as stitching), are not considered ‘important’ enough to be called ‘art’ – instead they are called ‘craft’ and their affect: ‘decorative’.  

Not by coincidence, this sort of cultural production/creative labour is often the work of  those who identify as women and other marginalised people.  There are great examples of ‘craft’ being reclaimed and renamed, elevated and celebrated, especially by artists who identify as queer and/or identify as women. 

Therefore the unexpected on-stage sewing during Unplanned took on rich meaning.  It could easily be read as a metaphor for the ‘always-unfinished’ which are  aspects of domestic labour/craft as well as the never-to-be-resolved narrative playing out at Southbank.

So, in answer to our earlier questions: if backstage is everything, the rehearsal is the performance, and there is no moment of completion – art begins to resemble life. Perhaps the ultimate boundary blurred here is between performing and being. 

[1]  Johanna Seibt, ‘Process Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020  []
[2] Richard RPowell, Wabi sabi simple : create beauty, value imperfection, live deeply (Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2005).

Words by Teresa Albor