Reflecting on different forms of performance documentation

What is performance conservation? Time-based media conservator and now art historian Emilie Magnin is thinking about the interlacing of performance, documentation and conservation from a conservator’s perspective.

Documentation, be it through written documents, photographs, videos or remaining objects, is how ephemeral performances from the past are still known to us today. For a long time, museums have also collected performance art in the form of its material leftovers and documents. Coming from the field of time-based media conservation, my first professional encounter with performance art was through preserving video recordings of past performances that entered the archives or museum collections where I worked. And indeed, when we conservators think about the preservation of performance art, we tend to think about preserving these material traces.

More recently, museums have also started to collect performance works as live acts that can be re-performed. It has thus become conservators’ responsibility to collect and produce extensive documentation to ensure the transmission of knowledge and to inform future performances. Performance art, its documentation and its conservation are thus becoming imbricated in so many ways that one could say that preserving performance is preserving its documentation. But what exactly can documentation retain about a performance, and what disappears? How do we best document an ephemeral action, its original context and intended affect for the audience?

As a conservator, my participation in this research project is a great opportunity for me to wonder about how practices of documentation contribute to the conservation of a performance. I am interested in exploring the role of conservators in producing documentation and their influence over the future of performance-based artworks collected within art institutions by looking at documentation as both a preservation action and product. Finally, I also want to envisage other forms of conservation beyond documentation, in order to fully grasp what it means to conserve a performance work.

Featured image: The audience documents Whitney Vangrin as she performs Tongue in Ice at WallRiss, August 10, 2013 © Nicolas Brodard

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