2. Assembling a Toolkit vs. the Logic of the Archive

If we consider performance as ‘of’ disappearance, if we think of the ephemeral as that which ‘vanishes,’ and if we think of performance as the antithesis of preservation, do we limit ourselves to an understanding of performance predetermined by a cultural habituation to the patrilineal, West-identified (arguably white-cultural) logic of the archive?
(Schneider, 65)

Much has been made—at least by performance studies scholars—of performance as a medium of disappearance. Performers and audiences come together at a time and place where a series of actions occur and a constellation of relations are enacted. Then, once those actions end, the relationships change, the bodies disperse, and the performance as an event is over—gone forever. In most performing arts genres, there are methods for ensuring that “works” can nevertheless persevere even as the event of a particular performance vanishes. Performers memorize their lines, gestures and actions so that they can be repeated for multiple audiences; scripts, scores, and choreographies provide maps or instructions for fresh stagings with new bodies. Beginning in the nineteenth century with the advent of photography and audio recording, it also became possible to make ever more sophisticated recordings of events. None of these means of capture, however—whether a script or a recording—can contain the particular time, space, bodies, actions, or relations of a live performance. As instructions, approximations, or translations into different media, these remains with their shortcomings determine what, of a performance, is transmissible to a new situation. Their limitations end up dictating what is considered “essential” to the authenticity of a particular performance as a recognizable and repeatable “work.”

My own approach as a performance artist has long been based on an understanding that what I am doing as an artist is, at its most basic level, creating a situation.[1] This is different from, say, the theatrical notion of telling a story. It is also different from the sculptural or painterly idea of creating an object. A situation implies a situated—specific and unrepeatable—time, place, and set of relations. When performance is understood in this way, then a document of a performance may be interesting and useful; it may even become a work of art in its own right, but it is not the same as the performance. As a document, its concerns, and even its artfulness, may overlap with those of the performance, but they are not identical; and for me, documentation has generally been secondary and even at cross purposes to the aims of creating a situation.[2] For a long time, perhaps the only forms of “documentation” of performance that interested me were the unreliable traces left among the participants: how those who had attended the event remembered or misremembered or forgot the details of what had occurred, what stories they told about it, what emotions they carried from it, and how these details and feelings changed and circulated over time. Most of my early performances were not recorded, and it was primarily my work as an organizer and curator taking responsibility for producing others’ performances that sensitized me to the importance most artists place on having photo, video, audio and other recorded documentation of their work.[3] For a performance artist, having documentation of past work is an essential economic tool for applying for grants and exhibitions, but it is also likely the only way a large portion of their potential audiences will ever experience their work.[4]

Recordings or documents of events fall into the realm and logic of the archive, in which one’s role as an audience can no longer be understood to be that of a participant in the ways understood to be available to a live witness. Much has been written about how archives have been used to exercise and maintain particular power structures and to privilege some histories and viewpoints while actively suppressing or even erasing others. Rebecca Schneider has written cogently in “Performance remains again” about this issue, noting that under colonialism, “The archive became a mode of governance against memory” (68).[5] Schneider challenges the logic that awards objects capable of being housed in an archive a privileged status as offering access to authentic, verifiable history while body-to-body transmissions—”orature, storytelling, visitation, improvisation, or embodied ritual practice as history”—are marked as ephemeral and faulty. In her dissenting analysis, “the place of residue is arguably flesh in a network of body-to-body transmission of affect and enactment—evidence, across generations, of impact” (69).

Schneider offers two key arguments in relation to the archiving that takes place around live or lived events. First, she notes that any manifestation of liveness always already entails an interactive process of impact and ricochet rather than engaging in the conveyance of a secure object or perfect, singular representation. Meaning passes from body to body as reaction felt and performed, where “performance plays the ‘sedimented acts’ and spectral meanings that haunt material in constant collective interaction, in constellation, in transmutation” (72). This reconfigures performance “as both the act of remaining and a means of re-appearance and ‘reparticipation'” (71). Second, she argues, archives no less than so-called originary events can only ever be apprehended or received through acts of performance:

the site of any knowing of history [is] body-to-body transmission. Whether that ritual repetition is the attendance to documents in the library (the physical acts of acquisition, the physical acts of reading, writing, educating) or the oral tales of family lineage […], or the myriad traumatic reenactments engaged in both consciously and unconsciously, we refigure ‘history’ onto bodies, the affective transmissions of showing and telling (74).

When we consult an archive, just as when we recall an event in memory or retell a story to a friend, we “perform a mode of access” that scripts both what has already occurred and what parts of occurrence are transmissible in particular ways (75). Paradoxically, archives stage performance as disappearing: “The archive itself becomes a social performance space, a theatre of retroaction. The archive performs the ritual of disappearance, with object remains as indices of disappearance and with performance as given to disappear” (74). Schneider invites us to understand performance otherwise, as a medium in which “disappearance is passed through. As is materiality” (76). The idea that disppearance is only a stage that is passed through, an interval in a larger spectrum of recurrence and reiteration, offers a change of emphasis from inevitable difference to insistent, if nonlinear, connectedness, remembering the liveness that secures a common ground across bodies marked as distinct.

Those who choose to view the remains assembled here simply as archival records might also wish to consider Schneider’s arguments in relation to the performance of access that they will inevitably engage in as they peruse these documents. At the same time, my hope is that these documents might also be approached in an entirely different way. Their incompleteness and non-neutrality as records need not be understood as a marker of either disappearance or of faithlessness to the original. Their as-yet unrealized element is not an inadequate rendering of what has been. Offered up as points of access and activation for the works’ ongoing generativity, these digital documents are not so much records as tools—faithful carriers of a nonlinear continuity of kinesthetic potential. What they open onto is the enduring potential of direct experience that can only ever be found in the animate bodies of those who take them up and find ways to work with and use them. They are invitations, calls to action across a temporality, spatiality and materiality configured not as insurmountable obstacles, but as an enabling bridge.


[1] Here I am writing only about my own practice, not making a claim for all events that might be labeled as belonging to the genre of performance art. If there are any characteristics that might be said to be genre-defining in relation to performance art, one of them would surely be that there are many, contested ideas of what is or isn’t performance art.

[2] One could argue here that by valuing the situational aspects of performance—what Philip Auslander in his article “The Performativity of Performance Documentation”describes as the “interactional accomplishment” (6) of a performance—I fail to recognize the totality of what constitutes a “work.” For more on this debate, see my article “Why Performance?” in Total Art Journal, particularly footnote 18.

[3] For more on my fraught relationship with documenting performance, see my essay “Performance Art Documents: An Apologia” in the exhibition catalogue Two-Way Mirror, edited by Daniela Beltrani.

[4] It is this sensitivity to the importance of documentation for performance artists that prompted TPAC to develop our particular practices around documenting our biennial 7a*11d festival. As a standard contract item, we arrange for works to be digitally photo and video documented, maintaining copies for archival purposes but not asserting any copyright interest as the organizers. Video recordings of works are only made publicly accessible by permission of the artist, and we pay an additional exhibition fee to those artists who agree to allow us to include the documentation on our website.

[5] I cite this particular text for its succinct and pointed exploration of the topic, but a more expansive consideration of Schneider’s concerns around archives can be found in her book, Performing Remains.


Auslander, Philip. “The Performativity of Performance Documentation.” PAJ 84, (vol. 28, no. 3), September 2006, 1-10.
Couillard, Paul. “Why Performance?” Total Art Journal, vol. no. 1, summer 2011. totalartjournal.com/archives/1572/why-performance/
——————-. “Performance Art Documents: An Apologia.” Two-Way Mirror, edited by Daniela Beltrani. Daniela Beltrani, 2016, 13-22. e-artexte.ca/id/eprint/29538/1/Two-Way_Mirror%20Catalogue.pdf
Schneider, Rebecca. “Performance remains again.” Archaeologies of Presence, edited by Gabriella Giannachi, Nick Kaye and Micahel Shanks,Routledge, 2012, 64-81.

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