4. You Are Here (“you had to be there…”): Experience and Representation

While the live situation may enable the phenomenological relations of flesh-to-flesh engagement, the documentary exchange (viewer/reader <—> document) is equally intersubjective.
(Jones 1997: 12)

Art historian and theorist Amelia Jones has written extensively about the uneasy relationship between live, body-based art practices and the documents such practices produce. Despite the heavy investment of both performance scholars and artists (myself included) in a notion of liveness that privileges an original, ephemeral event, she rightly observes how “[h]istories of performance art […] have tended to devolve around a handful of iconic photographs and textual descriptions, or in some cases film or video footage” (2011: 21). Jones’s argument extends beyond the reliance on the residues of performance art to retroactively secure the genre’s historical place in art history, however. In her critical evaluation of Marina Abramović’s 2010 durational event at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Artist is Present, Jones asserts that the very concept of presence as a guarantee of authenticity or truth is a fiction:

there cannot be a definitively “truthful” or “authentic” form of the live event even at the moment of its enactment—not even (if this could be imagined) as lodged within the body that originally performed or experienced it. There cannot, therefore, be a re-enactment that faithfully renders the truth of this original event. Where would such a version of the live event reside at any rate? In the minds/bodies of the “original” performer(s) or spectator(s)? In the documents that seem indexically to fix in time and space what “really” happened? In the spaces where it took place?
When one puts the questions this way, it becomes painfully clear that there is no original event—or that there was, but it was never “present” (19).[1]

Jones rejects the tendency to consider participation in the live experience as providing the best and most authentic access to an understanding of what a performance ultimately is or means. In her article “‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation,” she asserts,

Although I am respectful of the specificity of knowledges gained from participating in a live performance situation, […] this specificity should not be privileged over the specificity of knowledges that develop in relation to the documentary traces of such an event (1997: 12).

This is, of course, the perspective of a performance scholar whose professional concerns are to develop “a deep grasp of the historical, political, social, and personal contexts for a particular performance” and “to comprehend the histories/narratives/processes she is experiencing” (12). For Jones, to value performances and body-based practices as instances of art demands that one focus above all on how they function as representations. Even when writing about performances for which she was a live audience member, Jones finds documentation—particularly still and moving images, and textual descriptions—to be important access points to the performance and its possible meanings. They are not only sources of information and and prompts for reflection about the work; they are also a means of experiencing the work. Indeed, as Jones makes explicit (particularly in her 1998 book Body Art: Performing the Subject), one of the key impulses that led twentieth century artists to employ their own bodies in their work was precisely to interrogate how bodies—in their (gendered, racialized, [dis]abled, etc.) specificity and otherness—are read, i.e. are understood as representational. Whether apprehended live or in a document, she writes, “the meaning that accrues to […] action, and the body-in-performance, is fully dependent on the ways in which the image is contextualized and interpreted” (1997: 14).

Even so, Jones’s well-articulated claims do not always fully accord with the vivid persuasiveness of her first-person, eyewitness accounts. In writing about The Artist is Present, for example, it is her description of her personal experience as a participant that reinforces her insight about the alienating nature of Abramović’s performance as an experience of “presence”:

as someone who sat across from Abramović in the atrium of MoMA, surrounded by a barrier like a boxing ring, itself surrounded by dozens of staring visitors, cameras, and lit by klieg lights, I can say personally I found the exchange to be anything but energizing, personal, or transformative. Though I felt aware that the person I have met and whom I respect as an artist and cultural force was sitting there before me, I primarily felt myself the object of myriad individual and photographic gazes (including hers), and the experience overall was very strongly one of participating in a spectacle—not an emotionally or energetically charged interpersonal relation, but a simulation of relational exchange with others (not just the artist, but the other spectators, the guards, the “managers” of the event) (2011: 18).

In this description, it is Jones’s lived experience of the event that puts the lie to Abramović’s claim to offer a special moment of shared intimacy and energy between her as performing artist and Jones as privileged audience. The “presence” Jones feels is not the charismatic force of Abramović’s proximal physicality, but the claustrophobic art world apparatus of barriers, lights, and bodies, and the attendant, oppressive stares of camera, audience and even the performer herself. Would Jones have been able to experience and report this particular affect of the performance so viscerally without the tactile-kinesthetic bodily experience of being a participant? Would the carefully crafted documentation produced from this event have led Jones to focus on this aspect of the work?

Similarly, in a text entitled “Performing the Wounded Body: Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning,” Jones describes her experience attending a Ron Athey performance:

as I watched Athey reenact Solar Anus  at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2006 crouching on the front row of spectators, the drops of liquid flying through the air from his anus as he slowly drew the string of pearls out flew into my face . . .  In spite of my professional and intellectual embrace of the bodily vicissitudes of wounding, I am embarrassed to admit I found myself repelled on a gut level, afraid of his supposedly infectious blood . . .  but also deeply concerned about the imminent health of the Ron I know as a friend, as he enacted his permeability in such a fearless and visceral way (2009: 50).

Surprisingly, despite this description that points to the way in which the nuanced bodily circumstances of her participation as an audience member generated specific affective reactions and meanings “on a gut level”—the closeness of the performer, the uninvited contact with his bodily fluids; one can almost imagine her skin and muscles at work securing the meaningfulness of her experience, though of course, one must admit, she is evoking this for her readers only through words—Jones’s point in describing this scene is that meaning is ultimately something read and observed in a representational manner, as an image:

Even touched by drops of excrement and blood, one experiences the wounding of the other through a representational screen: the wound is in fact precisely a mode of signifying that makes the body of the other available as meaningful through identification. It makes pain readable as inscribed in and on the body.
While the experience of wounding first hand is ontologically distinct from experiencing it through a picture, film or video (after all, there is no fluid erupting from a photograph), I argue here that a ‘live’ wound is not necessarily more affective (or for that matter politically effective) than a representational one. In fact, as Athey’s work makes clear, because the wound is a mode ofsignification, it renders the body as always already representational, complicating our attempt to make a firm division between the ‘real’ and the ‘image’ (50).

Jones is working hard to understand and articulate not so much how meanings are generated within individual bodies, but rather how they are transmitted or communicated to witnesses, with a particular emphasis on modes of representation that can inspire not only private sentiment, but investment in a more public sense of responsibility and action. How is it that we can often be more affected and even called to action by a photograph than by something we see unfolding before us? Her consideration of public displays of wounding turns away from the wounding itself as a consequential experience for the one wounded to reflect more carefully on how, within the experience of the witness, the visible wound can act as an expressive signifier for those detached from the immediate experience. Crucially, however, the paragraph cited above concludes with the assertion, “At the same time, the wound affects us if and only if we interpret and experience it as ‘real’, that is, on some level as a violation of bodily coherence that we feel could happen to us” (50).

Here, Jones acknowledges that meaning is tied to one’s own body, always turning on what is “real”; that is, what one has experienced. What is striking from my point of view, however, is her seeming unwillingness to fully account for the particular meaningfulness that humans as thinking bodies accrue precisely from the way their animate, physical bodies participate in an experience. Her arguments seem to imply that the visual display of a performance carries all of the substance of its intelligibility, as if the experience of a performance were a purely spectatorial event. Yet representation flows from experience, and experience exceeds representation as display—whether visual or aural. If one gets hit by a bus, that impact is likely to be felt as more than a visual event; its physical intelligibility as a wounding force capable of breaking bones and piercing skin can substantially transform what one is as a body. Knowledge is not only a psychic understanding developed and expressed through (visual, aural, textual) representation; it also manifests as animate physicality, as experience that is both apprehended and expressed through movement and touch as well as eyes and ears, as marks on bodies as well as appeals to the intellect.

Not all experience is articulable or transmissible as representation; the ineffable is what cannot be translated, only felt. As the expression “you had to be there” suggests, meanings are situated; they can often only be apprehended under unique circumstances. The wrong build-up can kill a joke. Knowing too much can take away the surprise that may be the very texture of an insight. Physical details—the order in which things occur, the temperature of the room, the harmonics of a space, the constellation of participants in a particular time and place—may be essential to some knowings. Certain information may only be transmissible between bodies mimetically, kinetically, or tactilely—through movement, positioning, and touch. Lived experience is instructive, after all, precisely for the way it deviates from what one might have imagined—and for all that it provides that the imagination cannot.

In fairness, Jones’s emphasis on the representationality of performance—conveyed through visual, aural and textual information and apprehended symbolically according to a mental or psychic correspondence—is in keeping with the way a “performance” is generally understood to take place, and reflects how such an event is usually (at least consciously) constructed. This is evident from the expectations of audiences, who often come to witness events as “passive” spectators—their bodies quietened, stilled, and darkened while the artist “performs” for them. Audience bodies are understood as neutralized receivers of a knowledge that originates or comes from elsewhere. Many details that affect one’s bodily experience of the event—a bad sightline or an uncomfortable chair, what one had for dinner, or the weather that day—are forgotten, sublimated, or consigned to irrelevance in the framing and remembering of the performance, even though they almost certainly colour or inform one’s perception and reception of the work in various ways.

Yet a performance is never only what the artist does or what happens to the artist’s body; a gesture is always incomplete as a performance without the contribution of the audiences’ or witnesses’ experience, however that audience is defined. (A gesture may have a nonhuman audience, for example, or a performer might identify themself as the audience for their gesture.) Such experience brings into play past, present, and future: the storehouse of experiences that have shaped individual audience members as the thinking bodies they are when they come upon a performance; the particular physicality of their individual and collective participation as an audience (live or otherwise); and the way what happens sits with audience members, informed by and informing new or ongoing trajectories of their activity. This is what makes meanings fluid; presence manifests continually as the bodies we are, but it endures only as a continual becoming, in resonance, repetition, and evolution. Meaning is not so much received as generated.

For Jones, “[t]he live act marks the body, understood as an expression of the self, as representational” (2011:18). This equation is based on an understanding of the artist-as-performer whose doing is received as an act of display, a dynamic that she suggests becomes even more acute in the reenactment of a performance, in which

the re-enactment actually establishes itself from the get-go as simultaneously representational and live (it is a live re-doing of something already done in the past—it is a reiteration, a performative re-doing — and one that itself becomes instantaneously “past,” raising questions about its own existence in time and in history) (20).

But what does this mean for performances that from the beginning locate themselves in the bodies of audience participants, and how might this affect the way the documents of those events are understood?

I am framing the documents assembled here, including this text, not as an archive nor even as a curatorial essay, but as a “digital toolkit.” This is in keeping with the way the works in KinesTHESES were developed as performative experiences. The artists were encouraged to create works as more-than-spectatorial displays, as experiences that would generate their meaningfulness by the way their audiences engaged with them: as events apprehended and expressed through the audiences’ proprioceptive, kinetic, and tactile participation. The artists were also asked to think about what kinds of documents might extend beyond the published times of the performances or exhibitions in ways that could facilitate re-animating the works as opposed to simply recording them. If the live witnessing of these performances necessarily involved the audience’s active, tactile-kinesthetic experience, then this is no less true of the documentation. Of course it is possible to approach these documents as if they were end products, viewing them as remnants, as finished representations. By labelling them as a toolkit, however, I invite you to treat them otherwise: to use them to faciliate or attenuate tactile kinesthetic experiences that can only ever be located in your body. You are reader, viewer, and listener, yes—but also, at least potentially, mover, toucher, and doer. As performative possibilities, the meanings of the KinesTHESES works await you, their richness and complexity tied not to how well these documents record what has already happened, but to how you as an audience choose to perform or enact them.


[1] I do not agree with Jones’s assertion that an “original event […] was never ‘present.'” In the occurrence of an event marked as a performance, presence enacts for each participant, though it is neither identical for all nor eternally fixed in its meaning. Rather, one might say that what comes into presence is what one experiences for and as oneself, whether as an artist-maker, as someone attending the live event, or as a viewer of the resulting documentation. The question of which type of presencing should be privileged—whether one type of experience provides a “truer” or more complete access to the overall meaning of the event—is an entirely different matter.


Jones, Amelia. “‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation.” Art Journal vol. 56, no. 4, Winter 1997, 11-18.
—————–. “Performing the Wounded Body: Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning.” Parallax vol. 15, no. 4, 2009, 45-67.
—————–. “‘The Artist is Present’: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence.” TDR: The Drama Review 209 (vol 55, no. 1), Spring 2011, 16-45.

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