What is a performance archive?

June 4, 2013 · Print This Article

As audiences, when we speak of performance we are speaking most often about the glimpses acquired in the act of witnessing. We are speaking to our experience as it lies bound up in the delineation of time and space that is the act of performance, the curve that captures us as we are moved through the phases of the work. Accompanying this journey is a kind of willful ignorance, a reliance on the media at hand, the phone, the body, the text, the document, to describe what has escaped us, the event as it captures our imagination in its unfolding or to mediate in the moment of witnessing so that we might better understand what’s happening. There is not one way to know a performance work, there are many, and it is for that reason that the quality of performance is brought to light through the normalizing tendency of the archive.

article00Performance documents provide us with the frozen instant, a single moment in the event of the performance. They are tools to help our critical faculties, providing us a moment to rest and to consider what it is that has happened. This perhaps makes the most sense in relationship to the lived experience. The relationship between what my body knows through the performer’s body, a knowledge acquired through an empathetic transference of meaning(s) from the performer’s body to the audience’s and the images my mind recognizes through the documentation. We would be hard pressed to understand either, the experience or the document, without the other. Without the accompanying bodily knowledge the performance document hangs in suspended animation.

Once collected these documents form a group of materials that more often than not speak more to the interruptions of the art context than to the actual work. It would be impossible to ask of the text, photograph, moving image, body and the like to preserve for us what we can only ever hint at. Audiences and performers will always be bested by the performance as it unfurls itself before both. What we know of performative acts after witnessing and enacting them is but a fleeting memory of having done so or if very lucky, a lingering sensation. One that may motivate us, as others have suggested, to go forth and act out what we have experienced in the performance space.

45156Archive are a technology of bureaucracy. They are way stations for data and accumulated temporality, flattened proofs of the “official” experience. The system of the archive itself is responsible for this kind of alienation. Categories, decimal numbers, and white gloves are methods of sanitation that work to preserve the individual’s experience/state requirement. Once cataloged, memories of childhood, legal forms, receipts, and other accouterments are neatly laid beneath layers of fabric and cardboard. So precious are these relics that the archive must continually migrate them from one outmoded media to the next. The performance relic, however, subverts the safety of the archive. Not all archival material functions in the same way. There is a difference between documents that prove our life/work and documents that preserve the performance event, even if they both document performative tasks whose symbolic functions make permanent an abstraction. The way a notary’s signature on a form makes official the binding language of the agreement. The difference between the two is a result of the social quality of the experience. Once placed within the archive the quotidian document does little to extend the life of the proceeding. This is due to the individual nature of what it documents. The experience of going through a live event within the collectivity of the art context is a social endeavor that expands the role of the document through the sensations and collective consciousness of the group.

It is the sociality of the performance experience that prevents the performance document from falling into the normalizing mechanisms of the archive. The experience of having been to a performance and then seeing the documentation of it, even if what one finds is outside of their memory of the event, finds its fulfillment in the muscular memory of the one handling the document. By this I mean that it is easier to imagine what might have happened in a particular performance after having gone to see one, even if the two are unrelated in image and form, it is the remaining sensation of the event that is rearticulated in the body of the audience upon resuscitation by the performance document. Having spent the entirety of my life involved in performance in one way or another it is difficult for me to imagine how the experience might play out to one who is naive of the ways of the performance event but I would like to suggest here that one of the things that performance does as an art form is to simultaneously imagine and enact living alternatives and to remediate the experience of such imaginings. To present documents of that process in an entirely new context, to potentially naive audiences, such as the library, school, or museum is to depoliticize them and reinscribe them with a whole new set of contextual politics. A process that imbues the document with a different set of concerns that surely tints the experience of the document.

The performance document is possessed by the audience. It is they who own the experience that it represents. To place it within the repository it to attempt to use someone else’s signature to write your name. It may be in your possession but it is not fully yours.