This text is from the publication Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach, published in 2003 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology.
This text by Thomas Mulready from Performance Art Festival + Archives addresses the challenges of documenting and preserving performance art, and the subsequent challenges in preserving and accessing the documentation.
The fundamental challenge of preserving the Performance Art Festival+Archives—besides the normal physical challenges of preserving videotape and photos—is to accurately represent the original performance once it has been completed. Most performance artists and institutions presenting and producing performance art have sidestepped this issue by simply snapping a few photographs in the hopes of capturing one "representative" image that is then substituted for the work of art. Beginning in the 1980s with the advent of cheap and available video equipment, the solution became shooting (usually with one camera) excerpts or an entire performance.
Both photo and video, however, suffer debilitating shortcomings in their attempts to replace live performance work. Photos do not capture sound, are limited to one perspective, artificially frame perception of an act, and flatten the four dimensions of any time-based work into two. Video is a tremendous improvement because it captures, somewhat, the time-based nature of the work and the soundtrack, but still suffers from single perspective, an artificially imposed frame, and flattening. In addition, both photo and video documentation of performance, if well produced, look like other professional art photographs or video; the conventions of these mediums are imposed onto original performances.
Other solutions include the exhibition of objects that were present at the original performance, such as costumes or set pieces, the creation of stage sets or maquettes of the original stage scene, and, the most favored approach, the retelling of a performance by a critic or informed bystander via reviews or monographs. But these mediums cannot come close to the experience of a human body in the presence of an audience. The way a body lives, breathes, sweats, speaks, and moves, creates something new when witnessed in real time by other conscious beings. Yet there are no performance art pieces in the "repertory" of a dance company, as performance art lacks the notation, training, and institutionalization that exists around classical and modern dance. This is an issue of reproducibility, education, and access, not of documentation. We know that a painting can be stored and exhibited years after its creation, but given the shortcomings of current photo and video solutions, how can performance work ever be experienced again by students, researchers, artists, teachers, presenter/ producers, and the general arts public?
The artist that most clearly epitomizes our documentation, preservation, and archiving challenges is Julie Laffin. Her body of work highlights many of the issues that must be solved to more successfully archive performance art. Redress (1990), in which the artist sings and recites text about losing her virginity while wrapping herself from knees to shoulders with masking tape, which transforms into a dress complete with application of red paint, and Undoing (1999), a two-hour out- door performance that consists of suspending and stretching a 150-foot-long pink dress between trees, monuments, and markers as it shreds into smaller and smaller fragments, were both presented during a period of experimentation and development and involved critical aspects of improvisation and spontaneity. Rather than use one work as a test bed, we consider a continuum of eight works performed at the Cleveland Performance Art Festival between 1990 and 1999, of which Redress and Undoing serve as chronological bookends: Redress, May, 5, 1990; Dear Neth, March 29, 1991; Lying, April 16-17, 1993 (with Cheryl Noel); The Road To Womanhood, April 9, 1994;Various States of D(u)ress, March 7, 1995; Kiss Piece, March 24, 1995; Over, August 8, 1996; and Undoing, April 24, 1999. Each of these works was documented (with photography and one to two camera angles of video) and deal with issues of the body in space and time: the manner in which bodies are suspended by the infrastructure of fabric, the social and personal implications of dress, the ability of performance to define interior and exterior space, the relationship of architecture to the dressed and undressed body. Other factors making this body of work a suitable case study for our project include the absence of the theatrical (i.e., they represent the unique qualities of performance art), the impossibility of recreation, and the availability of the artist for consultation on intent, approach, and artistic decisions.
As research on this case study, we plan to bring Laffin back to Cleveland to perform related new work (with a five-story-high silk dress) and to speak on archiving a body of work developed over more than a decade.