Presence at a distance: Alastair MacLennan and performing drawing in lockdown

In: Performance in a Pandemic Routledge. Bissel, L. & Weir, L. (eds.). Berlin: Transcript Verlag, pp. 111-123.

How can the liveness of performance be sustained through mediated presence? How can artists engage with audiences at times of physical isolation? These questions have come to the fore for performance artists, archivists, curators, and audiences during the global pandemic. They have been no less impactful for a collaborative curatorial project I initiated around the Alastair MacLennan Archive at Duncan Jordanstone School of Art & Design, University of Dundee. In this project, the experience of ‘presence at a distance’, whether in space or time, was explored to create a ‘living archive’ of performative engagement with the body, context and legacy of MacLennan’s practice. MacLennan’s ‘actuations’ have defined a specific mode of performance art that is engaged with the durational unfolding of images and actions ‘in-situ’ in response to a range of sites and contexts, and most often with a sense of live encounter, or co-presence, at the heart of the work’s aesthetic experience. His live work is typically presented in performance art festivals and so dependent on international mobility, which has ceased due to COVID-19 related restrictions. Conceiving a curatorial project engaging with the artist’s physical archive became increasingly difficult in logistical terms during the pandemic due to restrictions on physical exhibition making and public assembly. We found the eventual solution to this and broader questions of overcoming the gap between performance and its reception in time and space in the artist’s redevelopment of practice within lockdown conditions. Unable to travel and confined to either his home or studio in Belfast, MacLennan’s daily drawing practice became a prolific and multi-faceted approach to performance that enabled him, through working with Jordan Hutchings, to produce new photographic and video-based work VIAL AVAIL.

This single-authored peer-reviewed article explores how this new body of work was made in response to the adjusted curatorial formats of performance art festivals in Poland, England, China, and Hong Kong. It also outlines and evaluates in comparison Bodor’s role as a companion to this process in co-curating, with Adam Lockhart, the event IN AND EASE and exhibition LIM(I)NAL to rethink curating performance, liveness and engagement with audiences online in the times of a pandemic.

The essay offers a case study in curatorial practice-as-research addressing how liveness might function on a digital platform, and how it might be possible to open a way to develop an archive as an active, performative curatorial project especially at times when physical archives might be inaccessible. Published in Performance in a Pandemic, a Routledge collection that gathers leading UK and international artists, academics, and practitioners in the fields of contemporary performance, dance, and live art to offer creative-critical responses to the impact of COVID-19 on their work.

Alastair MacLennan’s VIAL AVAIL was one of the examples of artworks discussed also in the workshop ‘Curating as Expanded Conservation’ on 18 November 2021.

#4 Resisting Recuperation: Articulating the unruly politics of artists’ archives through open-source practices

Date: 16th December 2021, 2-6 pm, Zoom

About this workshop

This workshop explored how can open-source peer-to-peer archival and curatorial practices articulate the unruly politics of artists’ archives?

With much focus on conservation challenges of the so-called ‘dematerialisation’ of contemporary art practice, there is arguably less consideration of how archiving and curating can articulate, through practice, artists’ critical and radical politics in circumventing and critiquing institutional discourses and structures.

Taking The Attic Archive (1980-2010) as a starting point the workshop speculated upon experimental and generative curatorial approaches to articulating pre-internet, peer-to-peer networked art practice in a post-digital context. Participants heard presentations and were guided through practical activities and discussion by Curating Living Archives Principal Investigator, Dr Judit Bodor, workshop co-convenor Dr Roddy Hunter, and guest experts Theresa Kneppers and Artemis Gryllaki (The Borough Road Collection Archive), Ruth Catlow (Furtherfield) sharing first-hand insights of post-custodial and open-source models as alternatives to hegemonic systems of contemporary art. Participants then worked in groups directly with material from The Attic Archive to discuss possible collaborative and open-source curatorial approaches to a networked archive that is currently dispersed across collections in Scotland, Hungary and Ireland.

Presentations of case-studies on open-source curatorial models

Ruth Catlow

Ruth introduced Furtherfield’s work in participatory online collaboration and co-creation with a focus on Do It With Others (DIWO) and the Blockchain Art History Timeline. The former drew on the Mail Art tradition proposing to bypass curatorial restrictions to promote imaginative exchange between artists and audiences on their own terms, the latter is the world’s first timeline to chart the rise and influence of Blockchain Art and Crypto Art using blockchain’s new decentralised curation tools.

Theresa Kneppers & Artemis Gryllaki

Theresa and Artemis presented their online multi-vocal curatorial approach to the Borough Road Collection Archive, an online wiki-based platform for research exploring A David Bomberg Legacy – The Sarah Rose Collection through collaborative writing, annotating and recording, in response to archival material and digital artworks.

Bibliography and relevant resources


Roddy Hunter

Dr Roddy Hunter is an artist, curator, educator and writer. Known for performance art interventions in wide-ranging sites and spaces internationally over 30 years, he has shown work across Europe, North America and Asia. He was included in Phaidon’s 2007 ‘Ice Cream: Contemporary Art in Culture’, a survey of significant emerging artists selected by world-leading curators. He became involved with curatorial practice while a member of Hull Time Based Arts in the mid-1990s. His writing on histories, theories and practices of contemporary art has been published internationally, and he regularly speaks at conferences, symposia and workshops. His most recent practice engages with art, curating, networks and performance after the internet, such as the research project ‘Networked Art Practice After Digital Preservation‘. He has an MA in Contemporary Arts from Nottingham Trent University and a PhD from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee. A senior academic with over 20 years of experience in art and design higher education, he will take up a new post as Head of Sculpture and Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art in October 2021.

Ruth Catlow

Ruth Catlow is co-founding artistic director of Furtherfield and networked cultures expert. Furtherfield is London’s longest-running (de)centre for art and technology whose mission is to disrupt and democratise through deep exploration, open tools and free-thinking. Catlow has spent 20 years exploring games as a way of engaging people’s imaginations and expertise across silos, around emerging technologies and the wicked social and political problems they give rise to or intensify. Her artistic practice and curatorial work at Furtherfield has focused on critical investigations of digital and networked technologies and their emancipatory potential. Catlow is the founder of DECAL Decentralised Arts Lab crowdsourcing R&D by leading artists, using blockchain and web 3.0 technologies for fairer, more dynamic and connected cultural ecologies and economies. She is also PI at the Blockchain Lab at the Serpentine Galleries R&D Platform.

Theresa Kneppers

Theresa Kneppers is the curator of the Borough Road Collection Archive (A David Bomberg Legacy – The Sarah Rose Collection) at London South Bank University. She is currently a PhD researcher with the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image. Her research focuses on the online curation of digital collections and archives, exploring playful, speculative modes of co-production and co-interpretation. In addition to her work at LSBU she was the curator of a recent show of new work by contemporary artist Benjamin Deakin at the William Morris Society. She was selected as the international guest curator at the HOW Museum in Shanghai in 2019 and presented a talk on “Creative Collaboration: From Artist Collectives to Co-Curation ”. Themes of public engagement with digital archives and collections run through her practice.

Artemis Gryllaki

Artemis Gryllaki is a media artist and researcher based in Rotterdam. She holds a Master of Arts from the Experimental Publishing course of the Piet Zwart Institute and has professional experience in web development. She is a member of Varia, Center of everyday technology, and is co-initiator of the Feminist Hack Meetings in Rotterdam. Her current work explores the potentials of feminist technological practices and the development of playful digital archives, using mainly FLOSS tools.