Performance documentation


When asked, regarding performance art, whether one finds the live act or the documentation of the act to be more significant the automatic reaction or answer seems to be the performance piece itself. And it is sometimes hard to see why this might not, one hundred percent, be the case. Although the act itself ultimately holds the meaning and power, without documentation does this power not diminish and the meaning risk being forgotten? Many people still believe that performance “becomes itself through disappearance.” [1] Personally, I cannot contemplate why such meaningful and important pieces of work should only be left to live on through a means, as flimsy, as word of mouth. In this essay I will discuss, with reference to relevant critical literature, documentation and the role it plays/ should play in the art world today.

Peggy Phelan suggests that, “Performance honors the idea that a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace afterwards.” [1] However, leaving no visible trace may not always be positive or have a positive outcome. As long as one understands that any documentation of an artwork is not to be viewed as the artwork itself, but instead as a means to allow the piece, and its overall meaning, to be remembered correctly and in detail, then we should unquestionably still document it. Chris Burden mentions in an introductory statement, to a short documentary style film, about some of his works that he has “been hesitant to release these due to the arbitrary nature of how they’ve come about.  Film and tape are taken as reality while the viewer is watching them […] try to remember as you are watching that you are not seeing the actual experience.“ [1] However, with many of the reasons behind the making these performative works still occurring in the present there should certainly be an overwhelming want for these significant works to be documented. Works such as ‘Shoot’ by Burden are still massively referred to today with the artist stating, “People still call me up and are furious about Shoot. I point out to them that they are still talking about it twenty five years later, and they are still getting angry.”[2] We could argue that a piece this shocking and influential is being remembered solely through word of mouth, but one believes that it is more likely to be through people viewing the shocking yet simple video documentation years after the actual event took place. With most perfomative pieces only being performed once, unless otherwise stated, the raw emotion visible within these artworks will never be captured again, allowing documentation to exist without damaging the vulnerability and singularity of the works. Although I believe that performance should be documented, due to the reasons mentioned above, I also understand the difficulty in making sure that the line, which distinguishes the differences between the documentation of the artwork and the artwork its self, is not crossed.

Performance forces the viewers to fully engulf themselves in the work, taking in as much as possible, over the short duration of the piece. Since these works are not repeated there is not the option to view again. Phelan argues that, “The document of a performance then is only a spur to memory, an encouragement of memory to become present.”[1] There is no returning for a second glance, you blink and you miss it. However with the development of photography and film documentation, people are falsely led to believe that the work continues after the piece concludes. It is due to this that I believe a lot of artists are wary about archiving their works, fearing the original will become less important and less engaged with. Nevertheless, is it not important for the work to remain remembered and available to those who will learn from it, and understand what it was and still is trying to say? The works of Vanessa Beecroft , for example, are often bypassed as performative artworks, even when seen in the flesh. Usually because the audience does not stay long enough to experience the aura of the artwork, abstaining them from discovering the true meanings behind them.

Vanessa Beecroft -VB35

In cases like these, I believe, documentation becomes even more important, as it allows the real importance of the work to be discovered, remembered, and most importantly, discussed. Discussion often, if not always, completes all pieces “For only rarely in this culture is the ‘now’ to which performance addresses its deepest questions valued.”[1] After all, without it the work will never really be able to reach its full potential. Performance pieces are made in order to cause discussion and debate. If there is a means which allows the artworks to be talked about and deliberated over years after the initial pieces are completed, it seems odd that they be disregarded and seen to be inferior and this poses yet another question. If documentation is not inferior, but instead just different from the work, is it not possible for it to become an artwork in its own right?

Paul McCarthy considers “[his] photographs of performances [to be] more about painting than performance; they are images in rectangles to be placed on the wall or in a book.  They are not the performance.”[3] To me this seems like a healthy attitude to have regarding documentation of artworks. By allowing the documentation to have freedom and a life of its own, the works are able to live, inspire and relate to the public audience for longer, all be it on a different and much less intimate level. I consider this similar to the idea behind reproductive artworks. Leaving behind detailed and precise instructions (See Fig 3) enabling others to recreate pieces over and over again could be interpreted as a clever and diverse means of documentation. Recreation, to a point, allows the artist to avoid documentation by ‘documenting’. These strict formulaic instructions remove the need for the artist to be present when the work is being created/recreated and in my opinion, visually documented.

Sol LeWitt - Instructions


When it comes to art education, documentation is key. Without its existence many, if not most, students would no longer be able to engage with learning about these artists, and their works, to the same level of interest. If art is to continue to expand and grow, which undoubtedly it will, documentation regarding performative art especially should become second nature to the practicing artists of today. The students and apparent ‘youth’ of this culture cannot be expected to fully learn from and understand their predecessors if they are not granted as much access as could be possible to their artworks and ideas. In all other areas in the overall subject of art, the need for documentation is drastically reduced as the final product becomes and remains available for viewing the instant it is completed. Performance art, on the other hand, once completed, if not documented, only remains available for revisitation firstly through the eyes and mouths of the audience, and secondly via word of mouth. From an educational perspective this is not a strong enough means to enable a well-balanced instruction on this extremely interesting and important art form. Speaking from experience, the course I have just completed would not have interested me to the same extent had visual documentation not been available throughout. Websites such as Ubu web play a vital part in art education allowing anyone who requires it access to artistic archives, including video footage of performative artworks, including Shoot by Chris Burden and Art must be beautiful, Artist must be beautiful by Marina Abramovic, and without it learning or teaching others about performative art would only become increasingly more difficult. Those who chose to embark on an artistic education, especially, are aware that these artistic documentations should not be viewed as the artwork and as Plato said, “even the best painting of a bed would be only an ‘imitation of an imitation’”[4]

In conclusion performative art, in my opinion, cannot really exist and fully thrive without the aid of audio and especially visual documentation. When artwork so thought provoking and rich in meaning risks being forgotten documentation becomes key to keeping it alive. In order for art to develop and allow the current youth of it’s practice to take the reigns, the use of documentation during performative art pieces only needs to escalate. The idea that performance art respects the fact that only “a limited number of people in a specific space/time frame can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace afterward,”[1] needs to become a thought of the past. In the art world boundaries are not seen to exist and where they do exist they are forever expanded. Perhaps the reason for the resistance towards documentation is because archives and physical evidence are seen to be concrete, uninteresting and sometimes lifeless. Something ‘art’, and performance art in particular, strives to remain distanced from.

[1] Peggy Phelan, ‘Unmarked: The politics of performance’, P.146 Routledge, London and New York, 1993

[2] Hoffman, Fred, “Chris Burden”, Thames & Hudson/Museum of Modern Art, London and New York, 2007

[3] Rugoff, Ralph, Styles, Kristine and Di Pietrantonio, Giacinto, ed.s, Paul McCarthy, Phaidon, London, 1996

[4] Sontag, Susan, “Against Interpretation”, p.3, London: Vintage Books 2001


2 responses »

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