Thursday, 6 November 2014

Introduction to my biography of ShortBread and Haggis - Scotland's lost Live Art Pioneers

their spirit lives on
It has been said of Propertius that there are as many versions of the Latin poet as there are academic trying to interpret him - or, more succinctly in the Latin, 'Quot editores, tot Propertii'. The same can be said of the performance duo Shortbread and Haggis. For some, including academic critic Dea Hebden, they are the reason that Live Art has been marginalised in Scotland. Others remember them as a mildly amusing comedy double act, an edgier version of the partnerships that dominated British light entertainment during the early 1980s - a recent survey ranked them next to Little and Large and Cannon and Ball. 

Marina Abramovic famously declared them the masters of ironic plagiarism, while Joseph Beuys accused them of failing to ever have an original thought. And even if their self-assessment of themselves - Shortbread insists that they are "the heralds of the electronic age, prophets of internet culture" - is rarely echoed, generations of experimental artists have acknowledged their rare determination and bravery in the face of impossible odds.

My first experience of Shortbread and Haggis creativity is buried deep within my childhood memories. For a short period, they found themselves on television, hosting their own teatime show. While they only lasted for six episodes - a libel suit put paid to their avowed ambition to "fuse vaudeville humour and abrasive satire in the fulcrum of Performance Art" - their catch-phrase "But do you still love me?' echoes through the playgrounds of my mind.

Starting out as beatniks in the early 1960s, guesting on records by Jack Kerouac and Lord Buckley, they evolved during the 1960s into politically determined performers, ready to set off any happening with a lively and bespoke turn. With the advent of Performance Art's higher profile towards the end of the decade, they settled into their trademark style, of imitating successful routines, events or plays, and giving them a Scottish twist. Their aesthetic, which claimed high-brow influences like Walter Benjamin and Derrida, was more than a little informed by kitsch. 

And despite public criticism, official condemnation and personal injury, Shortbread and Haggis refused to surrender their shared muse until 2011. Even prison and septicemia could not break up their partnership and that odd, brief brush with fame that delivered them into sitting-rooms across the nation was just another interesting diversion in a career that could not help but twist and turn around mainstream history.

The Contemporary Cavalcade - the BBC show that cast them as children's entertainers, and introduced me to their brand of high art and low comedy - was commissioned by mistake.

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