Sunday, November 18, 2007
Some Intentions of the Document
'You Didn’t Have to Be There' RoseLee Goldberg et al New School University Nov. 14th
What is the relationship between live performance and its documentation by photography, moving sound-images (film/video/DV), audio recording and writing? How does this relationship inflect questions of truth (what “actually” occurred) and mediation (what stands between the supposed truth of an event and what is known about the event retrospectively)? The panel that took place this past Wednesday at New School University, 'You Didn’t Have to be There: Photography, Performance and Contemporary Art', moderated by Performa director RoseLee Goldberg who was joined by artists Maria Abramovich, Vanessa Beecroft and Babette Mangolte, explored both of these questions extensively.
The panel began with opening remarks by Goldberg, who discussed the importance of documentation to her work as a scholar of live performance in visual arts. During these remarks Goldberg situated problems of historical reconstruction tracing them back to photographs and sound records of the Dadists and other early 20th century avant gardes. For Goldberg, the historian must bring all of her powers of imagination to understand an original event through traces, hearsay and artifacts of its occurrence. What’s more, the historian must create ways of ‘reading’ documents (Golberg’s term) specific to live performance. That so few were “there” at performances by Judson, Schneeman, Beuys, Kaprow, Acconci, Higgins and others in the 60’s and 70’s both intensifies and renders instable the importance of eye-witness accounts. That, as in the case of Beuys’ *How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare*, photo-documentation was not planned or even welcome for that matter raises yet another issue of intention.
Babette Mangolte, who was first to present after Goldberg, addressed early documentary intentions in relation to 60’s/70’s live art. Mangolte admitted when she began documenting performances by Richard Foreman and (most famously) Trisha Brown she did so out of a sense of urgency and experiment. To document in “those days” meant making decisions intuitively, having few if any examples to follow otherwise. The result of such intuitions are, as we now know, some of the most significant documents we have of performance-based art, period.
During Mangolte’s talk, she also spoke critically of her use of photography over Super 8 and early video technologies. That photography neither showed continuous movement nor could capture sound pointed to the inadequacies of the medium for documenting live performance, a sentiment seconded by Beecroft and Abramovich. Mangolte also expressed reservations about her own uses of photography, which she considered ‘interpretive’ as they often added significance to certain moments in performance those moments should not have had otherwise. In such photographs Mangolte said ‘insight’ triumphed over ‘artifact’. Where the historian is concerned, Mangolte and Goldberg agreed one must go back to the photographer’s contact sheets to get a better picture of live events as the singular photograph can only point to movement. Magolte added that contact sheets are especially important after the dances of Judson, who took the ‘deconstruction’ (Magolte’s term) of dance manners as one of their principle intentions.
Beecroft began by approaching the problem of documentary practices in performance by meditating on an “unofficial” performance she gave at the last Venice Biennale. This performance featured twenty or so Black women ‘refugees’ dressed head-to-toe in black tights and sprawled across a large, Pollock-esque canvas. The video showed Beecroft walking in and out of the canvas as she spread blood-red paint over the refugee-models. Beecroft’s reuse of the 70’s “street art” format (Beecroft set up her live painting event in a tent independently of the official Biennale organization) and of “action painting” radicalized both visual art formats as she brought to them the content of the ongoing genocide in Sudan.
Beyond the issues raised by such a work (the dramatization of spectatorship in regards to relationships of power; the obfuscation of living “subject” and art “object”; the complicity of object and subject, victim and persecutor-witness both), the work’s documentation allowed Beecroft to consider her own approaches to documentation in relation to the history of live performance documentary practices. Through an anecdote about being on a panel with Allan Kaprow and Paul McCarthy at MIT before Kaprow’s death, Beecroft marked three stages of live performance documentary history. Allan Kaprow was most ‘innocent’ in that he preferred not to document his performances. McCarthy was of a different generation (and level of ‘purity’) in that he decided to document his performances only after others would not ‘believe’ he had done them. Beecroft found herself at yet another generational remove (and considered herself most impure) inasmuch as she never thought twice about documenting her performances despite her admitted ‘guilt’ about documentation. At this point the panel became somewhat mystical as Beecroft and Ambramovich both articulated a melancholy about the loss of original presence through live performance doucumentation—the purity of events unrecorded, lost to representative history.
Beecroft’s longing for purity above both the commodity fetishism of the documentary object—a document’s salability in “the marketplace”— and the object’s ‘symbolic’ value—a document’s ability to communicate what occurred to a particular moment—led into Abramovich’s presentation, which involved an enthusiastic diatribe against photographic documentation as well as praise for Mangolte’s documentation of her 2005 performance at the Guggenheim, *Seven Easy Pieces*. In terms of her performance Abramovich discussed how she worked with documents to reconstruct well-known performances by Beuys, Acconci, Export, herself and others. She and Mangolte also considered Mangolte’s documentation of the reenactments as they were to supplement both the original performances and their reenactments by Abramovich. Here, a feedback loop between a documentary imagination “then” and “now” was curious as it seemed to point to a larger problem of live art in our present in relation to documentary practices. Is it a widespread nostalgia for original presences (“if I only could have been there”) or market-forces that are driving such reenactments as Ambromovich’s? Has a renewed historical consciousness not irrupted into our present marking an era of reenactment? That many works in the Performa07 biennial are involved in reenactment—Tony Conrad’s *Window Enactment*, Allan Kaprow’s Happenings “redo”*, Yvonne Rainer’s *Rite of Spring Indexical*, International Festival’s *On the Town*—seems evidence of a larger cultural trend….
To close Abramovich showed part of Guy Ben-Ner’s video *Stealing Beauty* and an infomercial for money laundering (that is, cleaning money) by an artist whose name I did not catch. Before showing the videos Ambramovitch left the audience and panel with the provocative question: ‘When do we have documents [of art], and when art in artifacts?’ In terms of a fine line between the artist “supporting” herself and feeding a marketplace hungry to fetishize aesthetic production by any means, Abramovich’s question fanned the flames of those in the audience who dominated the Q&A. In answer to Ambramovich’s original question, and a question asked by an audience member, Beecroft stated “the market is the market,” qualifying that it is a challenge for the artist to tarry with the marketplace as opposed to more comfortable and typical places for art. “Try to make art in a store full of bags,” Beecroft quipped in reference to a work of hers commissioned by Louis Vuitton. As earlier that night Golberg mentioned current anxieties about the U.S. economy Beecroft’s comment seemed a fitting, however ambivalent, close to the panel’s substantial offerings.
*thanks to Shamim Momim for this term.