“Somebody felt that too!” Discussing Performance Legacies with Paul Couillard

During our recent conversation with Canadian artist and curator Paul Couillard, we discussed the preservation of performance through the lens of the various curatorial and artistic projects that he has been engaged with. How should a performance work be remembered, what about it is to be preserved? And how to foster and renew relationships between audiences, artists and artworks? These are some of the questions that have nurtured Paul’s thoughts in caring for his own work as well as the work of others over the years.

Artist and curator Paul Couillard.

As he likes to recall, Paul’s first contact, and hereby vocation for performance art originates in his life-changing encounter with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal and her work Gaia, Mon Amour in 1984 in Ottawa. Soon after that, he left his job with Canada Post and started working within Canada’s artist-run network and undertook a form of “apprenticeship” to develop his own artistic practice. A self-educated performance artist and curator, Paul is also a founding member of the artist-driven Toronto Performance Art Collective (TPAC), which organizes the biennial 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art in Toronto since 1997. It is through his curatorial work, first with FADO, an artist-run center for performance art that he co-founded in 1993, and then with 7a*11d, that Paul first started collecting, preserving and engaging with documents related to other performance artists: currently the 7a*11d public web archive – a project he initiated – holds about 1000 hours of video material about many Canadian performance artists and is open to all publics, schools, artists and researchers wishing to engage with Canada’s performance history.

Faced with the difficult task of deciding what to archive and what to discard amongst the materials remaining from the performances shown during the 7a*11d festival, Paul had developed his own understanding and strategies to document and revive past performances. Recently, these reflections took the form of the project KinesTHESES that Paul started in 2019 during the year off between two biennials. He invited ten artists “to develop works that would engage an audience of participants and witnesses not simply as eyes and ears but as tactile-kinesthetic creatures: bodies for whom movement, positioning in space and touch are central to discovering, developing, and expressing their identities.”[1] In this project, artists were also encouraged to think early in the creative process about the afterlives of their performances, and their reminiscence in the audience’s bodies. The remnants of the project – curatorial notes, videos and other narrative documents – form a kind of “digital toolkit” accessible online that could be used to reanimate the performance works presented during the KinesTHESES series. In his own words, these materials constitute:

 not an archive meant to faithfully preserve what has already happened. Instead, these narrations, observations, recordings, fragments, residues, and reflections are proposed in the form of a toolkit. As tools, they certainly carry with them the history of their making, but they are also devices for the continued iteration of works with leaky borders that are always becoming, events that have no absolute beginning or end. Assembled here are instruments for apprenticing, practicing, and performing what these works might be; attenuating aids for sensitizing participants to these works’ ongoing resonance; catalysts embedded into the works’ ongoing animation; and flints for igniting the works’ latent potentials.[2]

The thinking behind this ambitious project intersects in many ways with our own questioning on how performance can be preserved and reactivated, as Paul already pointed out in this very interesting blog post that he wrote in response to our online colloquium Performance: The Ethics and the Politics of Care – 1. Mapping the Field. So we were keen to discuss with him many fascinating aspects of this project, and to find out how in practice this digital toolbox differs from an online archive. Particularly interesting for our own ongoing thinking about preserving live performance in all its multisensory aspects were the kinesthetic approach and the underlying understanding of the audience members as receivers but also as responders. The relationship with the audience and the shared embodied experience appears central for Paul (and more generally for the artists who participated in the KinesTHESES series), so that over mere documentary objects and verifiable facts, they would shift their focus on preserving narrative, multisensorial accounts. For Paul, “the documentation that still interests me the most is how other people retain it. Stories that they end up telling about it, no matter how false they are because […] this is the way they remember it, what combination of experiences they’ve had, where they were and in their bodies at that moment.” While this emphasis on the emotions, embodied responses, and memories of the audience might challenge the sacrosanct intent of the artist – a notion fundamental to the conservation approach for understanding the “essence” of the work – it has the advantage of recognizing the audience as a constitutive part of the performance moment. And if we agree that no live event is exactly predictable, describable or repeatable then there is no wrong or invalid experience, just like there is not one objective, correct point of view.

Our research group in conversation with Paul Couillard (bottom left).

When asked what new or different strategies of preservation had emerged from the KinesTHESES project, Paul could not give us one right answer, or one right tool. To him performance art is all about time, space, the performer’s body and the relationship between performer and audience, while new decisions are being made as the performance unfolds. How to collect, document and revive these aspects remains a subjective endeavor, but in the end it is not so much about coming up with new formats, but about what we do with this material. Paul approaches performance as a story-making process, a process that can only be completed through (and as) the experiences of the audience. Thus the toolkit aims to offer various documents as catalysts for continuing the gestures inherent in a performance – access points for reanimating the kinesthetic propositions of the performance. But multiplying the perspectives and registering many different narratives always comes with the risk of producing superfluous documentation that in its turn must be archived and cared for – what has become an almost inevitable stumbling block in the conservation of contemporary art. In practice, we have to make choices about what to keep and what to discard, yet we never know if they are right.

Paul Couillard, Skins, performed at ReciproCity/RéciproCité, Toronto 2001. Photograph by Andrew Pommier. Image from: https://7a-11d.ca/festival_artist/couillard-paul/

Reversing the question, Hanna asked Paul how he would like to be remembered as an artist, what would constitute the best legacy for his artistic practice. Not so surprisingly, he was not concerned with the amount of hours of video, or the diversity of documents, but with preserving the intrinsic ability of his work to impact a future audience in a cross-temporal experience of shared feeling, of embodied lineage. To him, a true legacy would be that, in front of the images or the stories that might remain from his work in a hundred years, somebody could say: “Somebody felt that too, somebody had that experience too!” Moving away from the traditional notion of the archive, it is the remembrance of the bodily and emotional knowledge, of “knowing how it feels” that ought to be transmitted, in a true understanding of the work as “always becoming” rather than a static, past event. And indeed we can wonder, what is conservation for without the capacity to revive emotion?

Paul Couillard, Encounters, performed at 7a*11d, 1997. “For this 24-hour performance, Couillard invited audience members to join him in a storefront to have an encounter. He socialized with audience members and offered them foot-baths; asking in return that they leave something in the space—either from their pockets, or created on-site, where a Polaroid camera, Walkman, paper, pens and basic art supplies were available. When he was not washing feet, the performer could be found baking bread.” Photograph by Johanna Householder. Image from: https://7a-11d.ca/festival_artist/couillard-paul/

[1] https://7a-11d.ca/1-kinestheses-project-background-introducing-the-digital-toolkit-idea/ (08.12.2021).

[2] Ibid.

Featured image: Still from video documentation of Paul Couillard’s Skins, performed at ReciproCity/RéciproCité, Toronto 2001. Video available at https://7a-11d.ca/festival_artist/couillard-paul/. All images of Paul Couillard’s work are copyright the artist and/or the photographer.

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