Moving Image Archiving as Performance Art

by Caylin Smith

Contributing Writer


In her introduction to Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, Amelia Jones, an art historian, theorist, and curator who holds the Grierson Chair in Visual Culture at McGill University in Montreal, reminds her readers of an age-old consideration: A work of art can never be produced the same way twice. Scholars and artists are already familiar with this concern; however, it continues to provoke a multitude of questions and opinions regarding how works should be documented and re-created.

Jones and her co-editor, Adrian Heathfield, who is a writer, curator, and professor of performance and visual culture at the University of Roehampton, in London, address these concerns in relation to performance art, body art, and live art; simultaneously, they construct a history of these broad artistic fields. Perform also includes contributions from scholars of dance, theater, visual studies, and art history, as well as the editors’ own interviews with established performance artists.

Though Perform emphasizes the concerns of performance artists, and those working to help document and record their works, it also provokes discussion among scholars in other fields. My goal here is not to conflate Jones and Heathfield’s area of interest with moving image preservation and presentation, but to use performance theory and its perspectives to prompt new discussions among film preservationists and curators.

Interest in performance art has been growing since the 1960s, but it was during the late 1990s that artists engaged more with their viewers during performances. That created a demand for new theoretical lenses. Similarly, in the still relatively new field of moving image preservation and presentation, scholars from a variety of academic disciplines are adopting varied viewpoints. They are borrowing from film, archive, and museum studies. And they, too, are looking for fresh theoretical lenses as the field expands.

Both performance art and moving image preservation and presentation are interdisciplinary in nature. Though only the former takes the human body as its central subject, both involve a kind of performance. Performance theory might well be able to inform moving image archivists and curators.

One approach to this question is through Jones’s use of the term re-enactment: “the point made by re-enactments, whether this is the intention of the re-enactor or not, is that the past is impossible to retrieve as it existed in the past (that in fact the event is always already ‘over’).” The inability to re-create a past performance recalls our initial (and possibly most crucial) concern of how a performance can never be produced the same way twice. But how does this viewpoint relate to film?

During the silent era, prints for the European market were sometimes constructed from a second camera negative.

Film archivists can restore a film to a representation of its initial state, as they transfer an earlier copy from nitrate to polyester film stock or even digital form. They can repair tears and scratches, insert material manually or with the help of computer software, and liven faded colors. However, should archivists always strive for an original, exact aesthetic likeness? This question is further complicated when a restoration uses material from various versions, which was the case during the silent era, where prints for the European market were sometimes constructed from a second camera negative. This use of different prints would therefore result in a hybrid copy, and even a second restoration project undertaken by a different team of archivists would create another re-enactment.

Moreover, how do we address restorations that appropriate material from other artistic movements, or use footage, imagery, and music that reference something else besides the film? Some archivists, for example, shudder at the thought of Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 restoration of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis, which includes songs by Pat Benetar, Loverboy, and Freddie Mercury. Though Moroder’s version drew attention to the film, it also led film historian and preservationist Enno Patalas to restore Metropolis to a state that more closely referenced Lang’s 1927 version. Another example is Lobster Film’s recent rendition of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune, a color version that also included a score by the French electronic group Air. While the film was well received – especially since it gave audiences the opportunity to view Méliès’s hand-colored print – the film’s score was contentious among film scholars and preservationists.

Different interpretations can also be considered transformations. Heathfield explains the importance of this term: “the multiple lives of performance, dissected, represented, re-performed by this volume suggest that one of performance’s most consistent and recurring conditions is transformation. Perhaps then, one should search less for its ontology and more for its ontogeneses: the many natures of its becomings.” Transformation can also apply to how a film is restored and where it is shown. A film’s screening, for example, should place contemporary versions in dialog and not opposition with earlier releases. Screenings also situate newer versions within the larger historical framework from which the film initially emerged. Of course, history itself is constantly fluctuating and being revised. Subsequent filmic transformations call attention to the practice of restoration and curation, thus emphasizing that something different has been created. These transformations further influence a larger historical model.

Jones and Heathfield also address re-enactments, documentation, and reception in the interview section of Perform. Regarding their discussions, Heathfield writes, “The dialogue enables a space for the artists to examine and contest their critical and historical reception, to make interventions in the discourse upon their work, in ways other than those the work itself makes.” The inclusion of the interviews gives artists the opportunity to discuss their experience of creating, performing, and documenting their projects, a dialogue that is usually denied in texts that are solely theoretical in nature.

In her interview with Jones, Marina Abramović discusses Seven Easy Pieces, her 2005 performance piece for the Guggenheim Museum. Abramović performed new work, and re-created one of her earlier performances, along with ones originally by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, VALIE EXPORT, Gina Pane, and Joseph Beuys. Abramović’s account of working on Seven Easy Pieces sheds light on not only the possibilities but also the concerns that arise when re-creating another artist’s work. For example, she recalls performing Nauman’s Body Pressure – a piece for which Nauman wrote instructions on how it should be performed. While Abramović used Nauman’s instructions to help adapt the performance to suit the Guggenheim, she had to make greater structural, performative, and interpretive decisions when it came to re-creating this performance, as well as the other performances. For example, Abramović had only photographs and published text on the performance to guide her recreation of Acconci’s Seedbed, which originally consisted of Acconci masturbating underneath a wooden ramp as his voice could be heard over speakers at the Sonnabend Gallery.

A parallel can be drawn here between the efforts made to re-create a performance and restore a film: while scripts and extra-textual material might help inform a restorer’s project, this material is not always available, which means that greater interpretive decisions must be made. These are especially difficult when restoring early films and films of an experimental nature since textual material may be harder to find. These projects are even more difficult when the filmmaker has passed away, which can also lead to denied permission to re-create the work.

The concerns of performance artists and scholars is perhaps best summarized by Heathfield when he explains the anthology’s objectives:

[Perform] is concerned not just with the presentation of under- or un-narrated works, the revision of past narrations, but the opening of critical possibilities, connectivities, and trajectories of thought that will grow and be superseded by new histories of performance and live art. Our hope is, that like the performances it repeats, records, and re-performs, this volume prompts future acts and promises other scenarios.

While Heathfield’s summary applies to how his own field of study should be examined, his concerns also speak to other scholarly and practical disciplines that address issues of re-creation, documentation, and discourse. I believe that performance theory will continue to inform moving image archivists and curators as this field continues to evolve…or transform.

Categories: FeaturesOf Special Interest

Comment (1)

  1. Barbara Stanley on March 10, 2012

    Art…film, live performances, visual, literature…is the process of doing, transforming, and

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