This summer, I tried to go see a free David Byrne concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Not surprisingly, the line snaked around the park so long that we couldn’t even find the end. We were turned away. The next morning I looked up the concert online and immediately found masses of documentation — photos, videos, and blogging about each song, and each dance routine. Just twelve hours later, the concert had been reconstructed online so thoroughly that I didn’t really feel like I’d missed it.
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Missing David Byrne is just a way to start thinking about the role of documentation today. And while performance has always lived on through recordings or images, performance art, with its visual emphasis and one-time-only methodology, has long had to survive on the meager crumbs of documentation alone. (This can make for some very dry and dull exhibitions, but that’s for another post.)
Live art is fleeting, so you had to be there. If you weren’t, you rely on written narratives, photographs, or grainy video. I remember reading about Yoko Ono‘s “Cut Piece” (1965) and then the revelation of seeing the video a few years later. Then there were the images of Adrian Piper‘s “Catalysis III” (1970), Chris Burden‘s “Shoot Piece” (1971) with video and audio, Lorraine O’Grady‘s dress from her performance as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire on display, Ana Mendieta‘s photos, and Yves Klein‘s Anthropometries paintings, showing traces of the body in motion. These are just a few that come to mind — the list goes on.
All of these forms of documentation are different from each other, and contain different artistic intentions, but they are united by one thing: their limitations. They each only tell part of the story. We witness the subjectivity of one documenter, one camera angle, one second captured, or sound recorded from one vantage point, etc. Even famed collaborations between performer and documenter, like Babette Mangold with Trisha Brown, or Masato Okada and Min Tanaka, while visually stunning, remain controlled and limited.
Today though, the situation has changed. Now that an audience consists not just of passive spectators but of active documentors, a single performance might be recorded in still image, sound, and video by 100 cell phones or iPhones at once. Artists have long controlled the production of their documentation (which, when too controlled, threatened to nullify the urgency of their project–like Tehching Hseih‘s calculated PR to the artworld during his difficult durational performances). There is still “official” documentation approved and/or copyrighted by the artist, but no one has complete control over what gets recorded any more.
But artists can now use this panopticon of documentation for creative ends, such as Sven Goyvaert‘s “One Year Life” project, for which he’s documenting everything he does on a platform of about a dozen social networking sites. He writes:
Being present in the here and the now means something entirely different today, given the rise of social media. These networks can cause us to rethink where a work of art begins and where it ends, as we immediately share our creative processes with people and extend our work over the web around the world (afterwards, or in the actual moment of live performance). The ubiquitous surveillance and dataveillance technologies in the hands of global corporations form the shadow side to this evolution. These digital tools have become a source of inspiration to me and I am eager to learn more about how these have been (and are being) employed in live performance art.
Jill Magid‘s “Evidence Locker” (2004), takes on the “shadow side” for which she performed for surveillance cameras spread throughout the city of Liverpool (see an examination of Magid’s work here).
It’s a time of multi-faceted and multi-authored documentation. When Performa 09 posted videos of the previous days’ performances online every morning, and posted photographs taken by audience members on Facebook, one got a pretty clear picture of what they missed. So — do we still have to be there?
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