As an art historian, I am used to thinking of memory as something that must be preserved, captured, whether through an audio or video recording or as a written account. Since my work focuses on art made in the last half century, living memory is an important source for my research, and I regularly conduct interviews. But memories are fleeting, mercurial, easily lost. They may change each time they are called forth by the one remembering them. As a result, my impulse is to record and fix them. This understanding of memory is not so different from conventional approaches to performance: that it must be transferred to another medium – recorded, fixed – if it is to be saved.
Rivka Eisner understands that memory can be more than the object of preservation: It can be a form of it. Eisner, who spoke with our team recently, is part of the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zürich. A scholar trained in performance studies and ethnography, her work addresses reenactment, oral history, cultural heritage, performance, and other embodied forms of memory in Vietnam. For Eisner, performance is a way of understanding the body’s role in the production and transmission of culture.
Our conversation led me to reflect on a series of interviews I conducted with an artist a few years ago. This artist’s work is not well represented in archives, and the published literature is modest, so I viewed these interviews as crucial sources of information. But to my dismay, he forbid me from recording our conversations, even when I offered to write up a contract specifying exactly how the recordings would be used. Attempting to compensate for what I saw as a lamentable loss of precision, I scribbled furiously in my notebook as he spoke, which resulted not only in indecipherability on my part, but also irritability on his. He felt that I was too busy writing to pay attention to what he was sharing with me.
My frustration and anxiety stemmed from my conviction that, without recordings and notes, I wouldn’t be able to register and save what he was telling me. But his concern was the opposite: how could I retain anything if I were preoccupied with my notes and recordings? Why was I so sure that my (illegible) notes would preserve more than my memory could?
In her discussion of artist/choreographer Ea Sola’s work Forgotten Fields (2010), a three-part installation with both live and recorded elements, Eisner engages with Sola’s notion of the “archive-body.” The body absorbs and records pleasure and trauma, shared and personal histories; performance can be understood as recovering and working through those records. When such records live in an archive, we call them documents; when they live in a body, they are memories. As Eisner eloquently puts it, “The body as archive is the material location where memory actively lives, where it is played and re-played—synchronically and diachronically—within and across individual lives and larger social fields.” As a scholar and witness of Sola’s work, Eisner understands her own memory as part of this process.
This notion rewired my understanding of how memory relates to conservation. In my ill-fated interviews with the artist mentioned above, I had hoped to record his memories as a digital audio file, a medium I could later play back on my computer. But what if memory itself were the medium, the body its playback equipment? Of course, the analogy is imperfect in many ways – for one, I can’t press “eject,” pop out someone else’s memory, and replay it in my own mind. But if I had grasped the connection before, I might have better understood that the artist I spoke with was not just reciting facts, but “playing” his memories back for me, treating me to a live performance of them. I might have been more attentive to the manifold aspects of that process – and realized my own body’s role in preserving what I learned.
Recordings and written accounts of performance works are valuable sources of information, just as recorded and printed interviews are. But overreliance on such media can obscure or disregard the body’s own capacities for preservation. Eisner’s approach to performing history – and Ea Sola’s “archive body” – might point the way to revaluing memory as conservation.
Featured image: Still from video documentation of Ea Sola, Drought and Rain (1995/2011). Taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GudbmDqtb0.