Cataloguing performance: Opening the kimono - how much to reveal and to whom?
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Cataloguing performance: Opening the kimono - how much to reveal and to whom?

As we move from topics of content to access, Trevor Carlson of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company introduces the question of restricting the flow of some information about a work, privileging the use of the archive of a performance work in its entirety for only a circumscribed field of researchers and objectives. He also suggests that as a group, museums clarify the important distinction between the work and its documentation, arguing that the relationship between them be articulated explicitly and managed consciously in consultation with the artist responsible for the piece, and from the beginning.

In response to talk from those working on the institutional side of things, about the desire for access to everything that goes into a work, about the need to catalogue as many aspects of its creation as possible for the sake of institutional and cultural posterity, Carlson demurs, “I hear something like, ‘we have to capture what we can’ from an institution, and I get more and more protective – of the dancers in the union, of our presenters, of the artists working on the production. When you’re commissioning a piece, there are opportunities for conversation with the living artist, to include them in the decision-making about what to include in the ‘catalogue’. If that conversation about documentation is in place before the actual event occurs, you’ll have a lot less push-back later, not to mention the opportunity to establish something greater than you’d have done without the artist’s insights.”

Joseph Beuys, Filz-TV (Felt TV), 1970. This multiple, a relic of Joseph Beuys' action Felt TV (1966), is composed of three props (the boxing gloves, felt pad, and sausage) and a film of the performance. (Courtesy of the Walker Art Center)

He goes on: “Let’s change the question about who sees the full archive, and direct it, generally, to the artist as the decision is being made. The artist as well as the institution needs to be involved in defining these terms: e.g. when we say something is needed ‘for archival purposes’ – what does that really mean? You need to ask the artist their position on how the information will be used and by whom. There’s a certain opportunity that exists in having that conversation, and in including all the artists responsible for a work — making those decisions about documentation on a case by case basis, rather than assuming there’s a certain formula applicable in every case, or a one-size fits all technique for preserving all work like this in the future. This has to be a two-way conversation. It’s just not something the institution can or should decide on its own.”

Besides, he says, “we’re putting the cart before the horse, talking about documenting something after the fact. Perhaps the artist could be asked the question about access at the time the commission is first made: ‘What do you want to capture and why?’ For instance, Beuys wanted to preserve the experience he created, and took steps to ensure that it was captured for posterity – but, even with all that documentation, we still don’t know what it was like to be in the gallery with him. With Merce, the relationship between [the work at the documentation] was very clear and comfortable: He was making performance, not film/dance [even if that performance was captured on film] until he was making film/dance. His performers wanted to work with him to perform, not to be documented. In fact, we have an agreement in place about such filming, because you go about performance in a different way when you’re being documented; the documentation piece is a separate work, an edited work that gives the illusion of capturing a discrete performance, but which takes place over the course of a whole day, maybe, in conversation with both a director of the film and the artist.”

He goes on: “And so many artists have bad video. How do you respect the artist’s art, what they’ve made, with the documentation that accompanies it? That’s an important question, too.”

Which raises another interesting concern: What is the status of the documentation as a work of art in its own right? Where does authorship come into play in this situation? How much weight does (and should) the mediated, historical documentation of a work have in relation to the temporal work itself in the archive?

Philip Bither offered this insight: “The reason for the tradition of single-camera documentation, a static video of a performance shot from the back of the house, is precisely to capture a temporal experience of the performance for archival purposes, to have something by way of a record, but where no one is telling you where to look, where no director’s vision is shaping the experience for the viewer, and no documentarian’s name is attached to it. It might be grainy, ‘bad video,’ but it’s as close as we can come to unmediated documentation. It’s never intended for public consumption, but it is something which is very useful for artists looking to recreate the performance later, or artists looking to glean insight into the process of creation.”

At this point, the workshop participants break into small groups, to brainstorm “user personas” for just who might end up using the information they and the artists gather for an institution’s collection catalogue. Who will access this historical data? What are their reasons for tapping the archive?

It’s interesting that, when all the small conversations are reported back to the group, everyone has imagined a user base for this 21st century “catalogue” that includes but goes far beyond the usual assortment of library patrons. They’ve allowed for use of the collection catalogue by documentarians, scholars, museum professionals and working artists, all of whom are accessing the archive for information about staging or re-mounting work, or for historical context or behind-the-scenes details. But in addition, with the prospect of an open-source, digital archive for such information, universal access (or something very near) to at least some of the information gathered in the cataloguing process becomes a real possibility. Each small group’s scenario allowed for new kinds of public interest – e.g. the casual “sporadically interested cultural consumers” who happen upon a digital museum performance archive through the caprice of a random Google key word search, by way of a moment’s whim.

All the presenters and curators in the room, of course, are interested in the possibility of engaging those happenstance users of the archive. Perhaps, they argue, we can leverage what’s available in our online catalogue to entice these happenstance dabblers into attending some of the live events, or entering further conversation about the ideas raised by the work, or accessing related materials and programming the museum offers. All agree: part of the benefit of a compelling performing arts “collections” catalogue would be engagement of that new user segment, those who come via alternate points of entry on the web, to cultivate a broader audience base.

Jasper Johns, A set of seven inflatalble plastic pillows that are painted wilth images taken from Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-1923 that were created for Merce Cunningham's "Walkaround Time" dance performance 1968. (Courtesy of the Walker Art Center)

Then Ben Harrison of the Warhol Museum puts a fine point on the question: “How much do we want to open our kimonos to casually interested members of the public? How do we invite these users of a web-based archive in, engage them and encourage them to seek out accessing more, but without giving away so much sensitive and detailed behind-the-scenes data about the work to just anyone who happens by. If we give access to too much, I think we risk not serving the best interest of the artist or the institution?”

Walker visual arts curator, Betsy Carpenter, followed up: “And who among the stakeholders has the privilege of providing both public access and stewardship of those materials in the catalogue? Who ultimately owns the documentation about work in the collection? What if the artist’s and institution’s needs and desires in that regard aren’t aligned?”

And that’s the big question: Who owns what here?


Related links:

Read the first post in this series on cataloguing performance – “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle.”

Read the second post in the series – “How Do You Keep Both History and Magic Alive?”

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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