Festival & Project

The Festival

“The National Review of Live Art is one of those necessary places that is summoned from the efforts of dedicated people, a special place on the borders of the world.” (Tim Etchells, Forced Entertainment)


The National Review of Live Art (NRLA) Archive is primarily a video archive that documents performances from the prestigious NRLA festival. Presented in over 1900 files, the audio-visual documents cover the period from 1986 (when the festival was first recorded on film) to its final year 2010. As well as the recordings of performances, there are also tapes of installations, discussions, and interviews with participating artists. The NRLA Archive was donated to The Nottingham Trent University in the 1990s by Nikki Milican (OBE), artistic director of the NRLA, as a key addition to the Live Art Archives, and subsequently transferred to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection in 2006.


The National Review of Live Art originated from a one-day event in 1979 called the Performance Platform. Growing into a large annual festival of live art, it was directed by Nikki Milican from 1984. As well as performance, the festival included installation and video art, and a platform for new performers to show their work alongside more experienced and well-known artists. It was peripatetic from the mid-1980s, taking place at the Riverside Studios, London (1987); Glasgow's Third Eye Centre (1988 to 1990); the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (1993); The Arches in Glasgow (1994 to 2005); and Tramway, Glasgow (2006 to 2010).


Although in more recent years it was joined by other festivals of performance, the NRLA, described by critic Naseem Khan as "one of the chanciest and most extraordinary events in the experimental arts", played a significant pioneering role in the growth of live art activities in Britain throughout its 30-year life. It brought together established and emerging live artists, both national and international performers and performance groups, to present and debate their work in a hectic atmosphere of experiment and adventure.


The NRLA also enabled young graduates of the various live arts courses which appeared during this period to present their work in a supportive atmosphere, where they could make vital initial contacts with programmers and curators from arts centres which were interested in commissioning and presenting new, experimental work. Artists and groups who obtained such opportunities early on included: Anne Seagrave, Marty St James & Anne Wilson, Forced Entertainment, Annie Griffin, Dogs in Honey, Mayhew and Edmunds, Fiona Wright, Bodies in Flight, David Izod, Pants Performance and many more. They appeared alongside the work of artists and performers such as Alastair MacLennan, Geraldine Pilgrim, Stephen Taylor Woodrow, Mona Hatoum, Ian Hinchcliffe, Station House Opera, Forkbeard Fantasy, DV8, Bobby Baker, Derek Jarman, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Akademia Ruchu and Scena Plastyzcna.


From the programmes documented in the NRLA Archive, one is reminded forcefully of how it was the very diversity of challenging work which contributed to the excitement of the festivals: where else, in a few days and under one roof, might one find, as in you could in 1989, a large-scale Derek Jarman installation focused around Clause 28 and AIDS, the expressionistic dance and performance of companies such as Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and Scena Plastyczna, Peter Zegveld's bizarre 'sound theatre', the sparseness of installation works such as those by Alison Inkpen and Sebastiane and of Robin Blackledge's outdoor durational performance, alongside the mix of multi-media and physical theatre found in Fast Food Zoo's work, the zany surrealism of the Brittonioni Brothers' film-based performance, and the powerful multi-media installation/performance of Daniel Reeves and Sean Kilcoyne which drew on their experiences of the Vietnam War?


Documenting the festival

The festival was first documented in 1986 by a team led by Stephen Littman of Maidstone College and Tony Judge of Projects UK. The team used U-Matic videotape, an analogue format used in the broadcast industry, and experimented with live video mixing while beginning the practice of using multiple cameras to capture different angles on a performance. The following year, Littman was joined by Stephen Partridge and Doug Aubrey with students from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Arts, and this team continued until 1990. When the festival returned in 1993, documentation was resumed on VHS, and the following year the work was carried out by teams of students from Glasgow University, directed by Patrick Brennan and Greg Giesekam (1994), and by Greg Giesekam and Lalitha Rajan (1996). In 1998 the documentation was taken over by a Scottish video production company, Left & Right, who were the first to use digital Mini DV tape for recording the 2001 festival. From 2003 the work was carried out on Mini DV by a team under the direction of Paul Hough, first out of Nottingham Trent University, then from 2006 under the auspices of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.


Digitising the archive

Analogue video is a fragile medium, with a limited lifespan. In order to preserve it for the future, the entire collection up to the 2006 festival was digitised by a project entitled Capturing the Past, Preserving the Future, with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project was begun by Prof Barry Smith and completed by Prof Simon Jones, with Dr Barry Parsons as Research Associate, Stephen Gray as Technical Officer and Clare Thornton as Project Assistant. The project adopted an innovative approach based on high-quality uncompressed digital capture of the video, which ensured that there was no loss of data from the original analogue materials. This data is stored on Linear Tape Open (LTO), a digital tape medium, enabling long-term preservation of the complete data, before being output as compressed versions on disc and hard drive for access in the Theatre Collection. Further information is available on the Capturing the Past Project website.


In 2010, a second AHRC-funded project – Into the Future: Sustainable Access to the National Review of Live Art Digital Archive, led by Prof Jones and co-investigators Drs Paul Clarke and Angela Piccini with Amanda Egbe (Research Assistant) and Nick Earle (Project Assistant), completed the digitization of the definitive NRLA archive adding new data covering the final years of the festival (2007-2010), and making this accessible online. The new website integrates developments from the JISC-funded Semantic Tool for Arts Research (STARS) project, which arose out of the AHRC-funded Practice As Research In Performance (PARIP) project (2000-2005); as well as three new case studies which explore different approaches to online archiving of live art.


Given that it is in the nature of art, especially recent experimental performance practices, to challenge convention, morality and the established boundaries of society, some of these records of performances from the NRLA may provoke contention and strongly held opinions, as they contain material of a sexual and violent nature and deal openly with contentious issues. We have adopted a principle that this documentation of art-works and related events, however contentious and challenging the material contained in their representations, should be made available online, placed clearly within the context of both a record of an arts festival and as resource for research and private study. If you are likely to be disturbed or offended by such material, you are advised not to proceed further to access this site.

In addition, an age restriction, to users 18 years or over, is applied as a condition of accessing this site. You should not access this site if you are under the age of 18. Researchers under the age of 18 can view the archive in person in the Theatre Collection Viewing Facility by prior arrangement and with the express written approval of a parent or guardian.



For the first years of the festival (1979-1983), then called variously the Performance Platform, Performance Art Platform and 4 Days of Performance Art, the archive has neither catalogues nor documentation. For 1984, 1985 and 2002, there are catalogues but no documentation. In 1991, 1992, 1997, 1999 and 2000 the festival did not run.