Caring for Performance – Recent Debates

When we ask about how to conserve performance-based art, what are we asking? If we think of performance as itself a mode of conservation, what are we thinking? What is at stake in conserving changeability?

Rebecca Schneider [1]


Contemporary discourses of care emergent from recent art and material culture have long left behind both the stasis of objects and the physical stabilisation of artefacts as dominant forces in conservation. Not only is the way we care considered in the larger picture of how we as humans relate to the world—of biological and non-biological bodies—but also how conservation is entangled in larger issues of ethical responsibility toward the Other.2 The “Other” might signify the alterity, objects that differ from us and our expectations, but also those “others” who have long been excluded from, or denied access to, the prevalent Western practices of care. In the times of permanent state of emergency, systemic racial violence, global climate crisis and efforts to come to terms with colonial and imperial legacies in Western cultural institutions, conservation, too, ought to account for its situatedness in the world and how it is shaped by individual and collective knowledges, skills, techniques and factors such as education and cultural background.

This short philosophical digression into the conservation and its entanglement with the world is followed by a review of recent debates that took place in the context of two scholarly events devoted to the extended field of the performance conservation at Bern University of the Arts.

Every act of conservation involves the preservation and perpetuation of certain values generating axiological processes linked with acts of inclusion and exclusion. Conservation decisions are no doubt political. If we decide to keep a Picasso or a historic chair, we enter a lineage of production and distribution of this object and its world or an assemblage of actors and actants entangled in a network of mutual co-dependencies of objects and humans.3 To put it straightforwardly, an artwork is never an artwork only, but rather a world constituted by multiple objects and actions that are in the process of continuous creation and recreation and constitution and reconstitution of relations—a vibrant entanglement in the making. It is the work of this artwork in the world; or it is a work and its con-text (if we treat a work as a text).4 And the presence of this contextual world-involving swarm is perhaps the most challenging realisation of contemporary conservation.

The working of the artwork in the world has been most prominently put forward in the recent debates about the conservability of performance. As a non-discrete object, performance by its very nature explicates and makes apparent the many co-determinant factors that need to be considered when we think about care. Not only does it manifest in multiple materialisations, manifolds “re-s” (reperformance, reenactment, restaging, reactivation), documents, residues, records and memories, but it also cannot be separated from its surroundings—people and their institutions, things, situations and the political, cultural and temporal circumstances (socially engaged and activist performance being prime examples of the latter). It might be said that by extension, performance, as a creature of its context, offers us a palette of concerns that inhere in all works of art, but that are most prominently articulated in performance.5

Performance also prompts us to think about what conservation is and what it does. Artworks are “strange tools,” a sort of useless, rather than merely functional, technology, according to the philosopher Alva Noë.6 They are, following Noë, modes of research and a method of investigating what makes us human. The conservation of performance—and by extension of all material and immaterial culture—offers us a methodology and an enticing way to enter the world of artworks as strange tools—as technologies repurposed under the impact of acts of care. But there is more: Conservation participates in the world of artmaking—in the entanglement in motion— through the conscious acts of maintenance and care. No longer confined to the backstage mending of precious pictures and to erasing the traces of its deeds, conservation bears authorial and creative power when it actualizes and interprets works using skill, memory, tacit and embodied knowledge (or what I call the virtual archive) as well as documents, residues and objects (the physical archive).7 Here, performance helps to redefine conservation—one that choreographs us as practitioners and theorists and prompts us to reorganize ourselves.8 To put it differently yet, we find ourselves as theorists of practice, and practitioners of theory, in a process of an ongoing reorganization. Because the conservation of performance disorganizes our habitual acts of care (such as the condition check, plan for consolidation, and physical mending of structural instabilities, among many others), it is a reorganizational act—it prompts practical and philosophical reorientations. These reorientations are productive by nature because they change the way we think and who we are as carers, and as human beings.9 To care for works never means to stay outside the carer and the cared-for relation. Rather, to care signifies to enter a transindividualizing relationship between the career and the cared-for, a relational ethic of response-ability and a context-bound approach toward morality and decision-making.

This reformulation of the identity of carers—conservators’ and custodians’ and other participants in conservation as cultural practice—became evident during the colloquium Performance: The Ethics and the Politics of Care, organized at Bern University of the Arts on May 29-30, 2021 within the research project Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge (SNSF 2020-24).10 Two days of lectures and discussions, enhanced by an additional panel on June 10, made apparent the conservators’ entanglement with the world and the way in which the conservation’s cultural-technical practice is embedded in larger institutional and social systems. While re-enacting some motifs of performance conservation as an act of keeping the discourse alive while passing it on (in the sense of Rebecca Schneider’s proposition that re-enactment is an act of survival), the colloquium combined emic and etic approaches to the studies of the field (emic and etic are notions adapted from anthropology). Learning from the culture through the lens of the culture in the case of the emic approach and applying an observer perspective in the case of the etic approach, the colloquium demonstrated an unquestionable urgency of the topic in the times when cultural institutions increasingly collect performance, appreciating it not only for its momentary, short durational characteristics, but also for its ability to remain, differently, in collections. The voices represented in the colloquium and the panel also manifested how, through the lens of conservation, new light might be shed on the discourses of the actualizations, or afterlife, of performance.11

This is an excerpt from the article “Caring for Performance: Recent Debates,” which has been recently published by the journal CeRoArt (https://doi.org/10.4000/ceroart.8119). Enhanced by philosophical reflections surrounding conservation and its entanglement with the world, this essay reviews the debates that took place on the occasion of the international colloquium devoted to the conservation of performance, Performance: The Ethics and the Politics of Care. The colloquium was organized at Bern University of the Arts on May 29-30, 2021 within our research project, Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge (Swiss National Science Foundation, 2020-24). The essay investigates the notion of performance through the lens of its conserveability and through a multidisciplinary perspective represented by a diversity of voices during the colloquium. It ultimately presents both performance and conservation as inherently unstable categories that require a careful and reflective approach.

To access the full version of the essay, follow this link.

NOTES

1 Rebecca Schneider, “Not, Yet: When Our Art is in our Hands. With Antiphonal Interludes by Hanna Hölling.” Concluding keynote at the colloquium Performance: The Ethics and the Politics of Care, Bern, May 30, 2021.

2 Otherness in philosophy has been associated with the existence of the concept of the Self, thus requiring a constitutive Other to define the counterpart existence of the Self.

3 From Alfred Gell through Bruno Latour to Graham Harman and Jane Bennett, an understanding of the agency or animacy of objects has attempted to dissolve the human-thing boundary and position objects not as subordinate to humans but as equal partners in the collective of human and nonhumans.

4 In the folklore studies, context is a part of tripartite structure consisting of text, context, and texture. Context, however, is difficult to describe and can only be investigated from a variety of perspectives. For instance, when an item is investigated, the context is provided by the situation in which it is displayed or used. In conservation, context appears uncountable times in relation to our accounts about artworks, but its use is rarely explanatory.

5 My reflections do not seek to offer a comprehensive overview of significant scholarly work that has been done in the conservation of contemporary art and performance. For such overview, see Hélia Marçal, “Contemporary Art Conservation” published as part of the research project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum, Tate, 2019,  https://www.tate.org.uk/research/reshaping-the-collectible/research-approach-conservation; moreover, I acknowledge the important body of scholarship on this topic authored by the presenters quoted on the following pages.

6 For the notions of strange tools and art as a creature of its context, see Alva Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (New York: Hill and Wang, 2016).

7 For the notions of the virtual and physical archive, see: Hanna B. Hölling, Paik’s Virtual Archive: Time, Change and Materiality in Media Art (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017), 141-153.

8 Noë, Strange Tools.

9 Inspired by a conversation with Alva Noë. See Hölling, Hanna B. “Conserving Ourselves, Creating Ourselves: Thinking with the Philosopher Alva Noë,” Writings—Performance: Conservation, Materiality Knowledge (December 2021), https://performanceconservationmaterialityknowledge.com/2021/12/21/alva-noe/.

10 Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge is a four-year collaborative research project funded by the Swiss National Foundation at the Bern University of the Arts. The project core members are Hanna B. Hölling (project lead), Valerian Maly (artistic collaborator), Julia Pelta Feldman (postdoctoral fellow), Emilie Magnin (doctoral candidate) and Electra D’Emilio (project assistant). https://performanceconservationmaterialityknowledge.com/

11 For the colloquium’s program, see https://performanceconservationmaterialityknowledgeart.files.wordpress.com/2021/04/

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