For this year’s annual conference of the College Art Association, Hanna Hölling and Jules Pelta Feldman organized an online session called “Conserving Performance, Performing Conservation.” Presenters are Denise Petzold, Megan Metcalf, Lauren Rosati, and Limor Tomer, Paul Couillard, Ian Wallace.
A video of Paul Couillard’s talk can be viewed online here.
See below for the abstracts of these four fascinating talks.
Conservation as transcorporeal labour and play: An ethnographic study on calibrating classical musical works in bodies
In the last decades, contemporary art has become increasingly diverse and thus challenging to conservators. In performance art, bodies – human as well as nonhuman ones – have come to play a key role in processes of conservation, for example through practicing, rehearsing, and re-performing artworks. One place in which bodies have been trained for centuries and still are trained to conserve artworks is the music conservatoire. By understanding the conservatoire as a place where musicians become expert maintainers of musical heritage, this paper turns to classical music to explore what insights contemporary art conservators might gain from how musicians learn to perform works. I show how students and teachers – rather than being mere ‘transmitters’ of artworks – actively engage in a conservation practice in which human bodies and nonhuman instruments intertwine in processes of transcorporeal labour and play. Drawing on a year of ethnographic research (observations and qualitative interviews) of three violoncello classes at the Conservatorium Maastricht, I examine how in bodies and cellos together the ambivalences and boundaries of the works’ identities are negotiated. Thereby, musical works become engrained into bodies as sets of individually choreographed, fine-calibrated motions, turning the musicians’ bodies and instruments into material archives through which musical memory and history are actualised. From this, I draw conclusions for contemporary art conservation about the role of human and nonhuman bodies in processes of conservation, conservation as a transcorporeal effort, and the idea of who or what a conservator can be.
The Future is Now: Digital Archives as Performance Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Megan Metcalf, Lauren Rosati, and Limor Tomer, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Last year, when the majority of live events around the world were put on hold due to the coronavirus, producers adapted quickly to organize performances for virtual spaces. What will be their legacy once this time of crisis is over? This presentation uses examples from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to explore the role of digital documentation in producing performances for virtual audiences and to speculate on what the future holds for preserving these experiences. It argues that, as these performances incorporate distribution and documentation into their conception, they disrupt conventional thinking about conservation that characterizes it as something after or outside the artwork—and places it at the heart of a work’s creation. As such, these projects extend ideas about documentation as critical to a performance’s ontology, introduced in the performance art of the 1960s and 70s, and give them new expression today in the digital sphere. The demand for virtual events at the Met prompted its curators, artists, and digital producers to experiment with new ways of thinking about “liveness,” which has implications for the collection and preservation of time-based media at the Met. This not only pressures the distinction between an artwork and its documentation, the museum and the archive, but also distinctions between curatorial departments, museum protocols, and professional competencies. Finally, lost performances from the Met’s history—both recent and in the distant past—provide insights into the stakes of conserving the productions of this unusual time.
Conserving performance art: The materiality of the gesture
Paul Couillard, Toronto Performance Art Collective
Performing arts traditions tend to treat works as texts—scores, scripts, and choreographies—that endure by being reinterpreted by new performers. Visual art traditions seek to preserve objects crafted by their creators. Contemporary performance art practices, however, tend to view the unique temporal, spatial, material and relational conditions of a performance’s production as the very “flesh” of the work. Consequently, historical exhibitions of performance art tend to focus on material remains: objects, recordings and other documentation that both come out of and stand in for a body of work. While Jones (1997, 2011), Auslander (2006) and others have argued that such documents are a vital part of performance art practice, and, indeed, are likely to transmit an artist’s ideas to a much wider audience than any actual performance, it is little wonder that Phelan (1993) has argued that the ontology of a performance is to be found in its disappearance. Exhibitions of remains often have a feeling of deadness or void despite the vitality of the performances they document. Yet performance art is rooted in action. I propose an alternate strategy for reanimating historical performance art works that focuses on their underlying gestures. This paper will focus on my current research project, Manifest Gestures—a retrospective of the work of Canadian performance art duo Randy and Berenicci, who created an internationally recognized body of time-based live and digital performative works between 1975 and 2005. This project offers both a theoretical and methodological framework for reanimating the “gestural” in performance art.
An Ecology of Worth: The “Rediscovery” of Charlotte Posenenske, 2007–2019
Ian Wallace, Graduate Center, City University of New York
The questions raised by the acquisition and conservation of Charlotte Posenenske’s Reliefs, Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes), and Drehflügel (Revolving Vane)— all of which were conceived in the mid-1960s to be sold, in unlimited series, at the cost of their production—lie at the center of a greater shift in museum acquisition policies whereby diverse materials have displaced the concept of an auratic, original object. While many museums have acquired Posenenske’s work in the past decade, there is wide variation in the material collected, from sketches and early studies (MoMA, New York) to aged particleboard prototypes (Tate Modern, London) and new re- fabrications (MMK, Frankfurt). This paper tracks recent curatorial approaches to Posenenske’s work through three key exhibitions that established what I call an “ecology of worth” around her work. 2007’s Documenta 12 situated her among a coterie of roughly-contemporaneous, international practices and paving the way for its reintroduction to the market. A few years later, a 2010 exhibition at New York’s Artists Space invited three contemporary artists to reconfigure Posenenske’s sculptures, retooling her emphasis on cooperation for the production of social capital. Most recently, Dia Beacon’s 2019 exhibition “Work in Progress” applied new standards of dating to demarcate new categorical hierarchizations within Posenenske’s oeuvre and to emphasize her works’ historical value. Through analyses of these exhibitions, I argue that the variable treatment of Posenenske’s work indicates a conflict between the artist’s intention of devaluation, the historical value of the performance “relic,” and art’s economic value as cultural property.