Cataloguing performance: How to catch lightning in a bottle
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Cataloguing performance: How to catch lightning in a bottle

Performance is by nature fleeting. It’s also an inherently interactive thing, both experiential and situational. The congeniality of the venue and its relation to the set design, the  mood of the performers, the vibe and make-up of the audience, even the weather outside that day – all are variables which affect the tenor and character of a given show, rendering each iteration of a performance work as unique and ephemeral as a proverbial snowflake.

If you’re a museum which “collects” performing arts, where does this leave you?

One can capture something enduring, and representative about a performed work. There are the surrounding accoutrements, of course: set pieces and design elements, costumes, rehearsal and staging notes, musical scores, installation instructions, marketing and promotional materials, programs and playbills. And then you have documentary records: production photographs, video, and sometimes even extensive, interactive digital archives juxtaposing several re-creations of a given “piece” or a single artist’s body of work, evolving over time.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Antic Meet (1958), with costumes and décor by Robert Rauschenberg Courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation

In addition to these, there are critical and audience responses to the work – the public discourse performance generates, which makes its own, auxiliary and enduring cultural contribution. Those responses include the criticism published by traditional media outlets (e.g. magazines, newspapers, online arts magazines, and alt-weeklies), but also less formal but increasingly influential platforms – the sort of audience response one finds shared on blogs or among “friends” and “followers” in social media circles.

Up until now, it’s been that larger conversation about the transient experience that has given a performance work its own brand of cultural immortality, providing both context for and narrative about that shared moment in time which may linger long past a show’s run time. Those stories we tell each other about performed works, whatever newfangled media we use to do so, are how we’ve stored those passing experiences.

Memory and shared conversation – those have really been the tried and true ways to catch that lightning in a bottle.


When we think about institutional collections, the very language of “acquisition” centers on the object – things you can tag, box up, and keep in storage until such time as they’re brought out and installed for display, good as new and virtually unchanged. But in the last 50 years, museums the world over have broadened their collections to include performance, numbering works by the likes of Tino Seghal, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Marina Abramovic, or Eiko & Koma among their acquisitions.

Eiko & Koma, "Studies for Naked ", 2010 Photo: Anna Lee Campbell. "Naked" is a Walker Art Center commission and was developed in part during a creative residency at the Park Avenue Armory in New York during the summer and fall of 2010.

Unlike the straightforward, transactional nature of object acquisition, when a museum commissions a performance work from an artist, “it’s more like seed money, an investment in an artist’s career; in exchange they promise that they’ll use those funds to make something” which the institution, upon the work’s completion, has an enduring stake in, says Michele Steinwald, assistant curator for performing arts at the Walker Art Center.

So, how might an institution like Walker Art Center catalogue and archive its performing arts acquisitions? What does it even mean to “catalogue performance”? What sort of information do you gather, how do you frame it, and in what format do you keep it?  Who’s going to use it and for what purpose? Where does re-creation of performance fit into the discussion? To what extent is the artist brought in to determine the archive’s constituent or narrative elements? What sorts of tools and software might be helpful in creating such a thing?

For the institution grappling with these questions, it really boils down to a simple but thorny issue: If you’re in the business of acquiring performance work what, exactly, is being collected? What do you keep as its token, and to what end?

This week, the Walker is hosting a conference tackling just these questions: the center has invited twenty-some people in the field who are immediately invested in their resolution – archivists, curators, presenters, art historians – to spend the day ginning up some ideas together, both practical and philosophical, that might offer some new ways to think about “cataloguing” performance and other multidisciplinary, ephemeral works. Robin Dowden, Director of Mew Media Initiatives at the Walker and one of the organizers of the conference, says, “We really don’t know what all this means yet. We’re hoping to learn from the experts in the room and from the insights that emerge from their conversations  in tomorrow’s workshop.”

Big Dance Theater, "Supernatural Wife", commissioned by the Walker Art Center. Photo by Mike Van Sleen

Sarah Schultz, from the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department, observes, “It comes down to a question of how to document and hold on to an inherently temporal event; it’s the difference between a collection of facts about a performance and the experience itself. You can’t collect an experience, but maybe with multiple sources and perspectives on it, you can document a performance thoroughly enough to offer a kind of approximation after the fact.”

The topic of “cataloguing performance” is especially timely for the Walker, given this year’s Merce Cunningham acquisition and opening of the related exhibition (a vast collection of sets, props, costumes, and selected documentation of the visionary choreographer, who was known for his collaborations with numerous leading visual and musical artists and designers of the past 60 years). In addition, as part of the Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue project, with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, the Walker is working to develop and manage replicable catalogue software for its performing arts collection within CollectionSpace. The hope is that the observations and insights from the gathered, shared expertise offered by those participating in this week’s conference might help inform the museum’s efforts in those endeavors as well.

Check back here over the next few days — I’ll be reporting from the workshop Friday to share some of the big themes and nuts-and-bolts ideas alike that come out of the group’s sessions throughout the day. Then afterward, I’ll do my best to synthesize what I’ve learned from them, and distill any big-picture themes one could take away from the day’s confab.

Art’s a slippery thing — increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative, rich with experience-based cross-pollinations. The issues of cataloguing performance and other ephemeral art aren’t going away any time soon. And these questions aren’t just pertinent for museum professionals. With the move to digitize museum collections and archives, to make them universally accessible, what was once the privileged and insular domain of specialists, curators, and presenters is becoming ever more democratic. Soon enough, we’ll all have access to much of the information in these records. So, the priorities and boundary lines set by institutions about, say, performance — the definitions of terms and the narratives that will give museums a way to classify performing arts, as their shared institutional taxonomy toolkits are developed — will surely become the intellectual seeds that grow to shape the way we think and talk about such work in the larger cultural conversation, too.


Related link: For a thoughtful perspective on the issue, and a window into the day-to-day practice and decision-making involved in such cataloguing work, read Brooke Kellaway’s recent interview on the Walker Blogs with Coventry University professor Sarah Whatley, about the development of the digital dance archive Siobhan Davies Replay.

Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for the weekly updated arts writing and criticism published on, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She has also written for a number of outlets, including Ruminator magazine,, City Pages, The Rake, Minneapolis Observer, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts blog.

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