Strength in numbers: a joint meeting with COLLECTING THE EPHEMERAL

Proof of the vitality and the growing interest for the performative arts in Switzerland, there are currently not one but two exciting SNSF research projects that are engaging with performance art from the perspective of its institutionalization. On April 20, 2021, our team had a fruitful and inspiring joint meeting with our colleagues from the research project COLLECTING THE EPHEMERAL, taking place at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts.

Conducted by Dr. Rachel Mader and Dr. Wolfgang Brückle, the interdisciplinary research team of COLLECTING THE EPHEMERAL aims to develop conceptual and practical guidelines for the acquisition and long-term care of performance art in the context of Swiss collections. Recently, the interest in performance art has led a few museums (mainly in the USA and England) to include such works in their acquisition policy and to promote re-performance as an exhibition strategy. Yet it is still very rare to see performance works entering collections ­– including in Switzerland, which counts many museums and private collections. COLLECTING THE EPHEMERAL intends to understand the reasons behind this fact: does it stem from the conception of performance art as something ephemeral that can only be experienced in the moment? Are there fears or misunderstandings between artists and collectors? Is there a lack of expertise and resources in collecting institutions? Should the current acquisition procedures be adapted?

To answer these questions, COLLECTING THE EPHEMERAL is leading action-based research in close collaboration with artists, representatives of public and private collections (including major Swiss museums), and international experts. For example, their team is cooperating with Swiss performance artists who will create performance works that could be acquired by partnering collections. Focusing on performance art’s collectability, the project actively engages with the art market actors and with the complex legal aspects of acquisition process in order to propose solutions for performance art to be better represented in Swiss collections. The final results of their research will be published online and in the form of a compendium, addressed to specialists in the field of performance art and collection care.

Our two research groups hold a joint meeting to discuss collecting and conserving performance art.

In their approach, performance is necessarily to be understood as a collectible and transferrable object. Similarly, our own research project is based on the perhaps controversial, certainly novel premise that performance art is conservable. Our two projects converge around a common understanding of performance as an art form that can be subject to the same institutional processes as more traditional types of art. Indeed, collecting and conserving often go together and have become increasingly intertwined activities at the core of institutional practices. No matter if we think of performance art from the perspective of its conservability or its collectability, in both cases we need to define what is acquired and what is to be preserved, and how the work can be exhibited and disseminated in the future. In other words, we need to define what constitutes the work, interweaving the ontological and the practical discussions about what is performance.

Our initial exchange revealed many affinities between our two projects, both in our respective approaches to performance art and around the need to encourage new collaborative care practices. We therefore all look forward to future collaborations and discussions on the institutional life and afterlife of performance art.

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