In this guest post, Nicole Savoy, a master’s student at the Bern Academy of the Arts studying the conservation of modern materials and media, reports on our second annual colloquium, “Performance Conservation: Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” and reflects on the role of change in keeping performance viable.
In this second annual colloquium presented by the Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge research team, the topic of conserving performance is examined through the multidisciplinary lens of artists and scholars of performance studies, anthropology, art history, musicology, and conservation. To add to the conversation, as a sequel to her performance In Strange Hands, (performed in the first Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge colloquium), the artist Gisela Hochuli revisits the work with a new performance titled In Strange Hands II where she interprets instructions, or event scores, she received from the live colloquium audience.
From an anthropological perspective, social anthropology professor Michaela Schäuble applies film and video as a research tool in her work investigating ritual re-enactments as instances of reinterpretation and reappropriation. Presenting images and footage of Tarantism rituals in Italy, Schäuble explores the layered complexity that media (and social media) add to the context of intangible cultural heritage and cultural identity. She also draws upon her own experience as a documentary filmmaker to assess the subjective role of the documenter(s) and their influence on subsequent re-enactments and reinterpretations.
Questioning if music can be conserved, musicologist and researcher Thomas Gartmann reviews examples of traditional classical, improvisational, and conceptual music performances to consider the effects recording them has on their meaning and further interpretations. He asks, if a score is thought of as a master, are all interpretations equal manifestations of it, is improvisation repeatable, and what status does a recorded improvisation have, and what is the role of the audience in a traditional, improvisational, or conceptual musical performance?
Curator Amelia Jones discusses how her approach to the exhibition Queer Communion: Ron Athey (2021) questions if and how shows relating to live art practices should be curated in the gallery/museum space? Jones challenges conventional institutional curation practices developed by the colonialist perspective and its model of collecting, organizing, and displaying objects as frozen in space and time.
The exhibition led Jones to ask if performance art can be curated in a way that instead of objectifying it conveys its real lived energy. She decided not to present the work in any definitive form by “curating” the artist’s individual performances, but to keep it alive by engaging in a collaborative process of preserving the context and community engagement surrounding the work. She argues that new ways of historicizing live art can be discovered through curatorial practice.
The multimedia performance artist Dread Scott speaks about the importance of public reaction in his work and why he chooses to exhibit still images as opposed to video recordings of his performances. Scott also discusses how community engagement was the key element in the life, documentation, and preservation of his collaborative performance Slave Rebellion Reenactment (2019) where hundreds of black and indigenous participants re-enacted the German Coast Uprising of 1811.
Through the deliberate use of anachronistic features juxtaposing the modern reality of the community and its landscape with the carefully reconstructed historical event, Scott uses performance to connect the present with the past and to regenerate the energy of the original event. The seven-year collaborative process of developing the re-enactment, the shared experience of the people involved, and their embodiment of the performance gave it an ongoing life that Scott describes as a means of preservation.
In conversation with the colloquium organizers, the author and actor Philip Auslander elaborates on his extensive research on performance, documentation and the effects of social media and livestreaming on our understanding of performance. Auslander challenges the assumption that a documentation of a performance gives us real information about it by separating the “ontological connection between document and performance” and “to see live performance and its documentation as different iterations from which an experience of the work can be had. ”
These discussions bring together the diverse perspectives of the speakers and touch on several common themes regarding the complexity of conserving performance. What is the distinction between documenting, preserving, and curating? The blurriness of these boundaries in the caring of performative works highlights the value in collaboration between the individuals carrying out these tasks. Exploring more subjective approaches that involve communities, and even participating in re-enactments themselves, can inform caretakers in the decision-making process when it comes to collecting, preserving, and curating these works.
How has the history of documenting performance through recording technology influenced the medium and our perception of it? What is the role of the audience and media transmission in the preservation of live events? How are they shaped by social media and further interpretations, reinterpretations, appropriations, and reappropriations? Can these added layers of context be seen as a form of documentation and preservation of the ongoing lives of performance?
The talks in this colloquium highlight that there are more questions than answers when it comes to the topic of conserving performance and how new insights can be gleaned through multidisciplinary discourse. The care of these intangible events benefits from interdisciplinary cooperation informed by the communities surrounding them. Cultivating contextual environments to facilitate the ongoing lives of performances and by accepting variability and change as part of their experience may be the key to preserving their authenticity.
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.