3. Performing Access: A Video Conversation on (Artist) Archives with Paul Couillard and Margaret Dragu (August 30, 2019)

For me [performance has] always been about breathing the same air, and being in the same room, and feeling your pheromones and your cells and your energy vibrations and all of that very corporeal, very tactile-kinesthetic kind of stuff. Archives are […] remains that […] the actual bodies aren’t there any more. To me that’s always been “dead.”

(Paul Couillard—transcription from the video conversation)

While Margaret Dragu was in Toronto for her KinesTHESES residency in 2019, Shannon Cochrane, the director of FADO, asked Margaret if she could find time to go through a box of folders pertaining to some of the projects she had done with FADO when I was that organization’s Performance Art Curator.[1] The bulk of these files came out of two interrelated projects: (1) the staging of Cleaning and Loving (It), an interactive walk ‘n’ roll performance parade, held on July 16, 2000, that began on the steps of the Ontario Legislative Building (Queen’s Park) and ended at Vtape in the 401 Richmond Building, and (2) documents accumulated in producing the first book in FADO’s Performance Art Legends publication series, La Dragu: The Living Art of Margaret Dragu (© 2002). These folders were among a large pile of materials I had passed on to Shannon when I left FADO in 2007.

In 2019, FADO was going through a process of evaluating its archives. An intern had done an initial sorting, and identified a number of questions around some of the materials—what they actually were, what should be retained, how they should be organized, and so forth. As the originators of these materials, Margaret and I could presumably provide answers to many of these questions.

Because we were in the midst of KinesTHESES, and I was actively conceptualizing how to create this digital toolkit, I proposed to Margaret that we record our encounter with these documents, using it as an opportunity to talk about the archives that accrete around performance art practices.

As two people performing a mode of access to an archive, we were obviously a somewhat specialized set of users. We had been responsible for generating these materials, and so we already had a shared, lived history with them. We knew their origins, could trace how they had ended up at FADO, and could quickly discern what information they contained. Revisiting them evoked our own memories and experiences in ways that would not likely be true for others who might encounter them. And we had no particular personal purpose for accessing them, other than a request to identify them and remove anything that was clearly extraneous or misfit.

I have excerpted three sections from our rambling, two-hour conversation, laid out below in a chronological fashion.

In the first of these, Margaret and I talk about the growing institutional and professional interest in performance archives, particularly within the contemporary dance world that, beginning in 1969, provided Margaret her entry point to what has become a groundbreaking performance art practice. As performance artists who have been focused on creating ephemeral events, Margaret and I are both sensitive to the contradictions inherent in addressing the documentary remains that have accumulated around our practices. We consider current creative approaches to accessing archives, and how this connects to my desire with this project to create not an archive, but a digital toolkit. I also muse on the potential virality (and, I suppose, virility) of archives as potential sites of reanimation.

What kind of documents can I create that can give people access to the work […], not necessarily as a documentary record of what happened, but as a spark, as […] an “in” to generating a new life for that work?

(Paul Couillard—transcription from the video conversation)

Two explanatory notes relating to the first excerpt:

1. Near the beginning of our conversation, I mention More Cleaning and Loving (It), which was the second of two videos documenting Margaret’s Cleaning and Loving (It) performance. Both of these videos were featured in a DVD insert to the La Dragu book.

2. At one point in our conversation, Margaret refers to NEW NORMAL: an embodied novel, her work for KinesTHESES, as “the Stuttgart performance.” Margaret explains:

Me and Justine [A. Chambers, Margaret’s collaborator who helped choreograph the gestures used in the Toronto NEW NORMAL performance] confessed to each other that we are really just working on one thing, and when we get invited out of town or to participate in a group exhibition we generally just keep working on what we are doing and adapt it to the needs/parameters of the invitation.
“Pulling a Stuttgart” is kind of our version of opening in New Haven—a road show—and a delightful and very necessary distraction to our process. Having the opportunity to pull a Stuttgart is an injection of fresh energy, new people, a clean canvas.
Me and Justine are entering our fourth year of working on NEW NORMAL: an embodied novel. There are 13 chapters and we have completed 7 of them.
Oddly, “pulling a Stuttgart” is ALSO called “making another chapter 4.” We have three chapter 4s: KinesTHESES in Toronto, The Pandemic is a Portal at Audain Gallery Vancouver, and another version for a digital festival. We call them chapter 4s as a kind of nod to the USA’s chapter 11 [bankruptcy legislation].
Is this complicated enough? Nomenclature is so important… (email to Paul Couillard, January 2020).

(ARTIST) ARCHIVES: Paul Couillard in conversation with Margaret Dragu, Part 1

“Archive” is perhaps a rather fancy word for the box of files that Margaret and I were perusing. For the 14 years that I was FADO’s Performance Art Curator—a job title that obscures the fact that, as its only employee, I was also its administrative manager, publicity director, webmaster, chief documenter, archivist, etc.—the organization had no designated office. Its only bureaucratic infrastructure was a web address and a cell phone. What I handed off to Shannon in 2007 was an iMac and a bunch of “boxes of stuff” that I was happy to clear out of my living space: mostly paper files, but also video and photo documentation, performance props and ephemera, and lo-tech, pragmatic production equipment (i.e. extension cords and the like). This jumbled assortment of assets reflected FADO’s humble, ad hoc roots, coming as it did out of a self-taught production practice aimed at generating new, live events rather than any conscientious attention to what should be saved for the future. But then, I suppose most “archives” are first discovered and only later consciously shaped.

The second video excerpt finds Margaret and me actively sifting through materials and trying to organize them into meaningful categories. As we confront the residues of our professional and personal interactions that have found their way into these folders, we also consider some of the chance circumstances and absurd serendipity that can determine what ends up being saved for posterity. Now that Margaret has achieved the status of successful senior artist, traces of her practice undoubtedly appear in multiple institutional archives, perhaps even in places she is unaware of. Seldom is the artist invited to play an active role in determining what is worth keeping.

This shot has come back to haunt me!

(Margaret Dragu—transcription from the video conversation)

We note how these materials—the detritus of lived experiences—reflect the ways our friendship and professional relationship are bound up with one another. The business end of supporting each other’s practices blurs with personal correspondence and familiar exchanges. Sometimes it is not even clear whether items were given as personal gifts, intended as specific research materials for the publication project, or meant to contribute to an imagined institutional library (or, as it transpires, a potential artist archive).

Do people want that crap?

(Paul Couillard—transcription from the video conversation)

(ARTIST) ARCHIVES: Paul Couillard in conversation with Margaret Dragu, Part 2

In the third video excerpt, Margaret and I have finished going through FADO’s files. We take a moment to consider the intersection of archives and memory, and how what remains—however unplanned or haphazardly—can inevitably and inexorably shape our collective history. Margaret relates how the struggle between privileging the live moment and documenting events for history became a consciously political battle, and we muse on living bodies’ uncertain ability to store and retrieve memories. This leads to a discussion about intra-activity, a theoretical stance that suggests that time, space and matter are bound together, mutually determining what becomes and is recognizable as an entity; none of us are islands unto ourselves, and, as I haltingly suggest, “the relations and the actions are more primordial, in a way, than the entities we turn out to have been.” Margaret has an intense moment of “quantum déjà-vu,” and we wonder what, of what we have just experienced, has been evident to the eye of the camera and captured on tape. This is left as an open question for the viewer.

Rewind. We were having a kind of “intra-” moment…

(Margaret Dragu—transcription from the video conversation)

(ARTIST) ARCHIVES: Paul Couillard in conversation with Margaret Dragu, Part 3


[1] Perhaps because I was initially involved with both FADO and the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art, which have worked synergistically to develop local platforms for performance art, there has frequently been confusion about the distinction between the two organizations. They are completely independent of each other, although FADO was one of several artist collectives that contributed to the development and programming of the first 7a*11d festival in 1997. FADO is an artist-run centre with year-round programming, a paid staff, and operational funding from federal, provincial and municipal sources. It began as an ad-hoc artist collective in 1993, and officially incorporated as a Canadian non-profit corporation in January 2001. TPAC, which organizes 7a*11d, is a collective of artists with no staff and no ongoing funding. We first formed in 1997, loosely coming to call ourselves the 7a*11d collective. We officially incorporated under the name Toronto Performance Art Collective as an Ontario corporation without share capital in 2012. We currently produce all of our activities on a project basis.

Scroll to Top