Michaela Schäuble, with and without a camera

While the conservation of performance art is a fledgling field, the attempt to preserve the ephemeral is nothing new. Immaterial culture has been transmitted from one generation to the next for countless eons, and our project benefits both from the scholars who have studied this transmission and from the people who give and receive culture in this way. Since art conservation still mostly revolves around the care of concrete objects, we look beyond our disciplinary boundaries to see how performance is documented, passed on, and preserved in other fields. We are especially keen to learn from cultural and social anthropology, which seek to understand human beings by observing, experiencing, and – sometimes – comparing their cultures. More than a century before the emergence of performance art, anthropologists already sought to understand and record dance, ritual, and other forms of performance – originally with drawings and texts, eventually with photographic and film media.

We were therefore very glad of the opportunity to speak with Michaela Schäuble, professor and director of the Institute for Social Anthropology at Bern University. In addition to her scholarly research, which specializes in media anthropology, Schäuble is also a documentary filmmaker and film curator. Especially considering the importance of moving image documentation to performance conservation, our group anticipated a scintillating and productive discussion when we met with her in April. That assumption proved entirely correct – but other assumptions we held about the contemporary practice of anthropology, and Schäuble’s own approach to documentation, were turned inside-out.

Professor Michaela Schäuble, bottom left, spoke with us about documentation, research, and experience.

We were surprised to learn that Schäuble sees film primarily as a “research method” – not necessarily as a way to document ephemeral culture. Any attempt to document inevitably becomes a new creation. For her, the notion of film as straightforward documentation conjures up anthropology’s colonial past. So-called “salvage ethnography,” practiced by scholars desperate to “save” threatened cultural practices, imposed destructive hierarchies of authenticity onto living cultures that they viewed as relics of a vanishing past, or “disappearing worlds.” As we learned in our conversation with Gabrielle Berlinger, the notion of rescuing fragile, ephemeral cultures from the brink of oblivion was also foundational to the discipline of folklore studies (unsurprisingly, given salvage theorist Franz Boas’s importance to both fields). Today, instead of producing static snapshots, folklorists emphasize living performance and fluidity, and anthropologists like Schäuble understand their work not as capturing knowledge, but rather as generating it. Our hope is to learn from anthropology’s problems as well as its solutions, its histories as well as its present.

Schäuble is wary of understanding film as a straightforward document of an “original” – partly because this view presumes the unmediated and uncontaminated state of what it records (as she notes, “every ritual is staged”), and also because any document is inevitably both a new creation and an intervention in what it seeks to capture. For Schäuble, film’s potential as an anthropological method lies not in its transparency, but rather in the features that define it as a medium: its play with time and memory, its potential to subvert linear narratives, its frame. Further, each particular situation demands its own approach. In each case, she asks herself: What kind of knowledge can be generated with a camera that would otherwise be out of reach? Anthropology today is “multi-modal” – much like the latest approaches to performance conservation, which incorporate as many different records, from as many different perspectives, as possible. And as Schäuble notes, filming today almost inescapably means that other cameras and their operators will enter the frame: with the smartphone’s ubiquity, the camera’s role as active agent, rather than passive witness, has never been more palpable.

For her project “Tarantism Revisited,” Schäuble – along with collaborator Anja Dreschke – investigated the contemporary “multi-media events” of this Apulian cult. Though its roots stretch back hundreds of years, Tarantism’s present popularity represents a multifaceted mediation of tradition, tourism, and performance. Photograph by Anja Dreschke, from: https://www.tarantism-revisited.net.

Schäuble values approaches to film that explore the camera’s agency, and its potential to create new ways of seeing and experiencing. In her forthcoming article on Maya Deren’s engagement with Voudoun dance and ritual in Haiti, Schäuble describes how the celebrated pioneer of avant-garde film refused to observe the practitioners at a cool distance, in the style of ethnographic films made by her friends Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson – even as she resisted the impulse to transform what she saw according to her own artistic vision.[1] Instead, Deren engaged as a participant – not only dancing along with her camera at Voudoun ceremonies, but also seeking initiation into them as a priestess, so that she might experience them from the inside. Her documentary practice involved allowing herself to be changed by what she observed. Though these experiments ultimately did not materialize into a film in Deren’s lifetime, they represent an attempt to create a film practice that might transcend hierarchies of viewer and viewed, document and experience.

Deren, who died in 1961 at the age of 44, never finished with – or even developed – the footage she shot in Haiti between 1947 and 1954. In 1981, her third husband Teiji Ito and his wife Cherel Winett Ito released a film based on Deren’s footage. Though film scholars are wary of considering this film as part of Deren’s oeuvre, it at least offers a glimpse of her methods and imagery.

Such a “documentary” practice could lead to many important insights about a performance – but what might it offer a conservator seeking to prolong the life of that performance? We asked Schäuble how she might approach a work of performance as an anthropologist – for example, Marina Abramović’s 2010 The Artist is Present, an example to which we continually return. Immediately, Schäuble responded that she would want to sit across from the artist, to experience the work from the inside – not unlike Deren in Haiti. Having participated herself, she would observe others’ participation, and try to understand the strength of their reactions to the work. Like Rivka Eisner, with whom we recently spoke, Schäuble stressed the importance of being physically present at the performance: “The stronger the impact is on me, the better I remember, and the better I can write about it later.” She also noted the contingency of one’s own body, which informs what one is told or not told, whether access is granted or denied. One individual’s engagement can never be authoritative, is always – like Deren’s dancing camera – a single, somatically-embedded perspective.

Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance The Artist is Present emphasized the significance of live “presence,” but with its complex lighting scheme, live stream, and ever-present professional photographer, it was staged with the care of a movie set. Michaela Schäuble, however, is less interested in capturing this work than exploring it.

Yet in describing how she would approach Abramović’s performance, Schäuble did not mention recording equipment. A camera, she felt, would not be the most appropriate or useful way of engaging with the performance. Documentation – at least, in the manner we normally understand it – is simply not her primary concern. Schäuble’s multifaceted practice proves that documentation is a form of knowledge generation; therefore, where her primary interest is in learning, observing, and experiencing, the camera might only get in the way. It is often remarked that documentation interferes with so-called direct experience: When we experience everything as always-already mediated, we are not fully present. Yet what Schäuble’s approach to performance also makes clear is that experience is an essential precursor to documentation – and might itself even be said to constitute a kind of document.


[1] Michaela Schäuble, “‘The Struggle between the Self and the God’: Maya Derens Haitianisches Filmmaterial (1947–1962),” Selbstverlust Und Welterfahrung. Erkundungen Einer Pathischen Moderne, edited by Björn Bertrams and Antonio Roselli, 226–53. Vienna: Turia and Kant, 2021 (forthcoming).

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