Nicole Savoy on Claire Bishop

For this post, guest author Nicole Savoy, a master’s student at the Bern Academy of the Arts studying the conservation of modern materials and media, responds to the team’s recent conversation with the art historian and critic Claire Bishop. Bishop, a leading contributor to the critical discourse relating to contemporary art, responded to the question “Can performance art be conserved?” Bishop highlighted examples of performative artworks and suggested new creative approaches to their preservation that move away from traditional methods and instead focus on live, in-person experience.

Claire Bishop in conversation with the SNSF Performance Conservation team.

To answer if and how performance art can be conserved it is necessary to first address several preliminary questions, such as what is the core meaning of the work in question, what are its most important qualities and which of those can and should be conserved? Conservators often rely on the intent of an artist to get to a work’s meaning. Although artist intent is clearly vital to the core of a work of art, in the case of an artist’s intent changing over time, is their original intention more relevant or authentic than their current one? Who decides what is authentic when the artist is no longer around? Claire Bishop suggests that conservators should focus more on conceptual fidelity rather than the idea of reproducing authenticity.

Claire Bishop defines conservation, as applied to performance, as a means of support and transmission for its continuation.

Contemporary visual performance art – and especially what Bishop calls “delegated performance” – is often made with the museum context in mind, meaning that it is instruction-based and reproducible within an exhibition space. This institution-focused approach differs from the Fluxus and body art performances and happenings of the 1960s and ’70s in which museum acquisition was not intrinsic to their making. These early performances were typically not systematically documented, and many of their spatial, sensorial and temporal contexts are lost. Qualities such as space, background noise, smells, etc. may not be vital to the work and therefore not necessary to conserve, and other performative aspects like the energy of a crowd, improvisational actions or a personality are not possible to fully capture.

Artists today are aware of how their work can be replicated in a museum and are able to determine how it should be experienced within that context. Spatial and sensorial conditions are easier to control than the temporal. Bishop points to an example of a performance that holds its meaning in what the artist Tania Bruguera calls political-timing specificity. Bruguera’s work Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008) is a performance in which two uniformed policemen on horseback are hired to patrol a museum/exhibition space and command the viewers using crowd control techniques. The performance happens without warning, with the intention of disorienting the audience as it would in real life. The artist outlined conditions for showing the work which state that it “can be shown in places where abrupt social and political events have happened either in their recent history of in the significant history of the place or at the moment when such events are overwhelming presence in the media.” In this case, the audience’s reaction is contingent on the socio-political environment of the place where Tatlin’s Whisper #5 is shown, both of which become intrinsic to the work.

For performances in which a concept is central, spatial, sensorial and temporal contexts may not be as significant to their experience. For example, Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions (1961), acquired by the MoMA in 2015, are a series of nine written dance instructions that are carried out by performers who are trained in person. The museum acquired some documentation, such as the written instructions, instruction videos, and writing by Forti. While photographic documentation of the earliest performances is hard to find, the meaning of the work does not lay in its original manifestation, but rather in its interpersonal training and performing of the instructions. This experiential quality cannot be recreated with archival materials or through documentation. Forti trained performers and established future teaching strategies with collaborators at the MoMA for each of the performances. Each iteration of Dance Constructions is as significant as the last. As the work is transmitted from instructor to performer, it is conserved as a living archive.

Another example of what other forms conservation can take beyond traditional methods is illustrated by the performance exhibition “History as Rumor,” presented by the Malba art museum in Buenos Aires. The exhibition involved a collaboration with numerous international museums, institutions and curators, aimed to document and recontextualize several performances from the Americas and the Caribbean. The exhibition represented each work through records of the live performance, witness interviews, video testimonials of experts from various interdisciplinary fields, and extensive collections of materials including photos, film, storyboards, press clippings and documents. The goal was to address how rumor has historically functioned as a transmission of performance art and to create a recontextualized oral-historic archive for each work through action, witness, rumor and archive.

Claire Bishop defines conservation, as applied to performance, as a means of support and transmission for its continuation. The Dance Constructions‘ living archive, supported through teaching, and Malba’s oral-historic archive are two great examples of how performance art questions the meaning of conservation and pushes the boundaries of what forms it can take. Bishop reasons that live art needs live conservation. She urges museums to archive less and instead foster live, in-person experience as a mode of preservation.

Conserving performance art,the scope of which is too big for conservators alone to tackle, requires new methods that lean away from a focus on object-oriented archiving. Valuable insight can be gained through a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that embraces the reality that we cannot preserve everything in its original form, and by gleaning new creative practices of supporting and transmitting performance from performative artworks themselves. 

Nicole Savoy is a master’s student at the Bern Academy of the Arts where she is studying the conservation of modern materials and media. Nicole is from the United States, where she received an MFA in studio art. Her current area of focus is the conservation of participatory and performative qualities of net art.

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