Enacting the Text: Performing with Words, currently on view at the Center for Book Arts, uses performance art’s detritus as its starting point. Curated by Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful, the exhibition explores the ways these remains memorialize and re-perform for new audiences who may never have seen the original performance. The exhibition space is small and intimate, squeezed between workshop areas; the glass cases of materials create rows down the center of the single room, while larger posters and prints line the outer walls. The sheer time required to read all the invitations, notes, sketches, and scripts, flip open the books (yes, you can touch the books!), and watch all the video documentation, is vast. The viewer re-performs the texts, imagining the scenarios and activating the yellowing letters, while also participating in the very performance of art viewing, as people queue up behind lengthier texts and watch others read.

Beatrice Glow’s artist book Taparaco Myth (2009), displayed here, details her trip through Peru, following the Chinese migrant labor movement there. For a series of artist talks accompanying the exhibition, she traced the use of the word “Chino/a” and the people it’s used to describe throughout Latin America. Glow’s journey is both a physical and linguistic one, exploring the racial politics of naming — colors, places, and people. Beginning with the racialized coloring naming system of Pantone, she flipped through images on a projector at varying speeds, switching between languages — English and Spanish — as she guided the audience through her voyage. Showing existing photographs, maps, color swatches, birds, and various signage across Latin America featuring the word “Chino,” her sarcastic and humorous presentation became a satire about racism and migration.

The most animated performance perhaps came fromMartha Wilson, who, dressed in a suit and a bright orange wig, performed speeches, shouting and singing as “Donald Thump,” complete with hail salutes scattered throughout. Towards the middle of the performance, she broke character, putting on glasses to discuss her experience performing as various political figures and to outline what she saw as the relationship between art and politics, particularly during the culture wars, where government funding attempted to censor artwork and art served as a voice for minorities.

The scripts for Wilson’s “Just say No to Arms Control” (1987) and “Nancy Regen Beats Cancer” (1985), along with the lists of props used, document her performances of these speeches. The artist’s typewritten pages, covered in handwritten notes and edits are lined up in another case. Another script presented behind glass is Linda Mary Montano’s Mitchell’s Death, handwritten with notes, along with a video of its performance, allowing the viewer to experience both the documentation and a version of the intended viewing. The majority of the texts and videos on view are more documents than vestiges of past events, with the exception of a few items that were part of the performance, such as a scattering of Lesley Dill’s flyers and brochures, which are both recordings and parts of her performances. The brochure Tongues on Fire: Visions & Ecstasy (2000–2001), pinned open in a case, collects the stories of people’s dreams recounted to Dill.

But, as the scripts begin to suggest, there is no clear line between documenting object, prop, and art object. Further evidence of this is a section of one wall covered with defaced images of artist Billy X. Curmano, as part of the “Deface Billy Project.” These flyers, which look like coloring book pages with the artist’s face, were distributed with instructions to be colored on. Thus these objects are both documentation, prop, and performance art objects. But performance art is not precious. Leaving few remains, save the type of objects I’ve noted, the pieces that endure are more archive than art, as far as these distinctions are useful.

Enacting the Text is not the first exhibition to challenge the distinction between art and archive, but it smartly uses performance art ephemera to further question these boundaries, specifically with regard to the role of the document. Sketches and notes that precede a painting, for instance, are more easily categorized as “archive,” since the “art” is the finished painting; but when no completed work is left, the role of documents becomes more slippery. Though our reading of Glow’s artist book or Wilson’s scripts does not recreate the original performances, by reading the text we are given the agency of the artist, to interpret and enact the artwork ourselves. Rather than a static fixed history, the document is a living, malleable, continual performance, at once an archive and artwork.

Enacting the Text: Performing with Words continues through December 10 at the Center for Book Arts (28 West 27th St, 3rd Fl, Chelsea, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful.

Megan N. Liberty is the Art Books section editor at the Brooklyn Rail and co-founder of Book Art Review. Her writing on artist books, ephemera, and graphic novels also appears in, ArtReview,...