The conservability of performance: Two events and their afterlives

Our research project aims to chart new territory in the emerging field of performance conservation. Part of this, however, involves learning from and corresponding with the diverse experts whose work has already contributed to these efforts. This spring, we organized two public events – a two-day colloquium and an evening conversation between two collaborators – to gather and discuss these different directions.

The group discussion at the end of the first day of our recent colloquium.

“Performance: The Ethics and the Politics of Care —  # 1. Mapping the Field” was a two-day colloquium—and the first of what is planned to become a series of annual events— that took place online on May 29 and 30, 2021. The event aimed at surveying the current state of performance conservation, gathering multiple perspectives rather than focusing on any one of the many topics that compose the field. The speakers included scholars, conservators, curators, archivists, artists – both emerging and established. They examined institutional practice and proposed theoretical frameworks. Each talk and performance – for the colloquium also included two artistic interventions by artists Frieder Butzmann and Gisela Hochuli – was recorded, and once the recording has been edited, we will share it with you on the event page.

Together with a group of performers – “theallstarszoomensemble” – Frieder Butzmann performed [<zooms‘n‘spells‘n’lights>– recharged], an enigmatic performance of light and sound that took advantage of Zoom’s features as well as its bugs.

Still, as we and our impressive roster of speakers know well, the recording is no substitute for having been there. But there are many ways to preserve, archive, and extend the life of this colloquium. Our first keynote speaker, Pip Laurenson – a pioneer of contemporary art conservation at Tate, and professor at Maastricht University – might ask us to not only to engage the perspective of each speaker, but also to consider the needs and ideas of other individuals who form the presentation’s “network”: the audience, for example, or the organizers. Taking a cue from Karolina Wilczyńska, who spoke about Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “maintenance art,” we might recall all the physical, intellectual, and emotional labor that was required to bring the colloquium together. For example, the recording preserves no trace of our highly competent and organized technical assistant, HKB student Charles Wrapner, who seamlessly orchestrated the Zoom webinar and its livestream on YouTube.

Conservators Louise Lawson and Ana Ribeiro would perhaps ask us to consider what it could mean to activate (or re-activate?) the colloquium – and I shall propose the present text as a form of reactivation. After all, conservation is – as was frequently emphasized – a distributed activity. Performance artist Gisela Hochuli solicited performance instructions in advance of the colloquium, which she combined into a live(streamed) performance. Two of these instructions – “Rain” and “Conserve this performance” – came together in a single action: Opening a window, Hochuli scattered (rained) hundreds of little slips of paper bearing the second phrase down onto the street below, thus distributing the responsibility for conservation on the passersby who might encounter them. And in her presentation, art historian Sooyoung Leam reminded us of the important role that artists like Hochuli play in documenting, remembering, and maintaining performance.

The afterlife of Gisela Hochuli’s performance In Strange Hands: slips of paper with the phrase “conserve this performance” rained down from an open window. Photograph by Gisela Hochuli.

Our final keynote speaker, Rebecca Schneider of Brown University, might insist that, even without the recording, the colloquium remains – leaving manifold echoes in our lives. In fact, we are planning an edited volume of essays that will include some of the talks presented at the colloquium, so its traces will not only remain, but transform into something new.

These are just a few examples of the ideas that the colloquium brought to life. Other thought-provoking contributions were provided by Gabriella Giannachi, Barbara Büscher, Hélia Marçal, Kate Lewis, Lizzie Gorfaine, Ana Janevski, Martha Joseph, Erin Brannigan, Brian Castriota, Farris Wahbeh, Louise Lawson, Rachel Mader, Siri Peyer, Iona Goldie-Scot, and Claire Walsh.

If you’d like to learn more about any of these talks, I gladly direct you to the recordings – with the caveat that they only tell part of the story. And for another discussion of the colloquium, I recommend this interesting post by artist and curator Paul Couillard.


Megan Metcalf (left) and Cori Olinghouse (right) discussed the challenges and opportunities of conserving, institutionalizing, and re-presenting dance works.

On June 10, we presented another event: “Living Materials: Ethics and Principles for Embodied Stewardship” was an in-depth conversation between Cori Olinghouse and Megan Metcalf centered around the conservation and transmission of dance, particularly within art contexts. Olinghouse, who both danced and archived for Trisha Brown’s company, has a unique perspective on these subjects: her work melds archival with curatorial and artistic practice, creating new ways of presenting and re-presenting movement. Metcalf, who has extensively researched the presence of dance and performance in art spaces, was an ideal interlocutor. Their discussion shed light on many particularly delicate and confounding aspects of performance conservation, such as the weight of individual personalities and relationships. Among their examples was the open, distributed way in which Simone Forti’s influential Dance Constructions are being learned, performed, and taught. (The acquisition of these works by MoMA in New York was discussed at the colloquium by Ana Janevski, Kate Lewis, Martha Joseph, and Lizzie Gorfaine.) This event, too, was recorded – and will be made available on our website soon.

Simone Forti, preparing for “Simone Forti: Thinking With the Body” at the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, July 2014. Photograph by Megan Metcalf. Melinda Ring, Impossible Dance #2 still life (1999/2015), improvisation by Kai Kleinbard.

We are looking forward to building our knowledge and our network through future events. If you would like to take part, we invite you to sign up for our mailing list to be informed about our activities (and their afterlives).


Featured image: Documentation of In Strange Hands by Gisela Hochuli, 2021. Photograph by Gisela Hochuli.

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