On Performativity


Walker Living Collections Catalogue

Surrogate Performances

Performance Documentation and the New York Avant-garde, ca. 1964–74

Surrogate Performances

Performance Documentation and the New York Avant-garde, ca. 1964–74


Drawing on speech act theory, performance theorist Philip Auslander argues that documentation can do more than describe; rather it has the capacity to produce its own event. Focusing on the New York avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, he analyzes the documentary work of Michael Kirby, who advocated for straight documentation over interpretive criticism, as well as that of Peter Moore and Babette Mangolte, both of whom shared Kirby’s call.

Auslander, Philip. “Surrogate Performances: Performance Documentation and the New York Avant-garde, ca. 1964–74.” In On Performativity, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter. Vol. 1 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2014. http://walkerart.org/collections/publications/performativity/surrogate-performances.
Walker Art Center ©2014
Peter Moore, Charlotte Moorman Performing Nam June Paik’s “Concerto for TV Cello and Videotapes,” 1971, gelatin silver print, 10 ¼ x 16 ¼ in. (26 x 41.3 cm) framed. Collection Walker Art Center, Gift of Barbara Moore in memory of Peter Moore, Charlotte Moorman, and Frank Pileggi, 1994, 1994.152. Art ©Peter Moore Estate/VAGA, New York, NY.

In an earlier essay, I argued that performance documents in all media are not just records of performances that happened but are themselves performative “in J. L. Austin’s most basic sense”:

Speaking of language, Austin calls statements whose utterance constitutes action in itself performatives (e.g., saying “I do” in a marriage ceremony). Distinguishing performative utterances from constative utterances, Austin argues that “to utter [a performative sentence] is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it.” If I may analogize the images that document performances with verbal statements, the traditional view sees performance documents as constatives that describe performances and state that they occurred. I am suggesting that performance documents are not analogous to constatives, but to performatives: in other words, the act of documenting an event as a performance is what constitutes it as such. Documentation does not simply generate image/statements that describe an autonomous performance and state that it occurred: it produces an event as a performance.1

The documentation of Vito Acconci’s Trademarks (1970) exemplifies this effect. In Trademarks, Acconci produced works of visual art through a process that became a performance in itself by having been documented as such. The artist’s description of the performance states:

Biting as much of my body as I can reach: turning on myself, turning in on myself: performance as locomotion across a boundary: connecting a region: absorption, by one organization, of a neighbouring organization: self-absorption.—Bite: getting to a point, getting through a point: brand of performance.—Applying printers’ ink to each bite and making bite-prints: identity pegs: identifiers of a certain position I have taken at a certain time: TRADEMARKS (title of the piece; September 1970): performance as the shaping of an alibi.—The bite-prints can be stamped on various surfaces (paper, a stone, a possession, another body): performance as opening a system, sharing a secret.2

The documentation of this event includes photographs of the naked Acconci sitting on the floor and biting himself in hard-to-reach spots, as well as close-ups of the marks that he made on himself with his teeth. As the description indicates, he also used the bite marks to produce prints by inking and stamping them on paper and other surfaces. (A 1970 lithograph in the Walker Art Center’s collection, Trademarks, combines all these elements.) If viewed solely as a means of making prints, Acconci’s action could be seen simply as a highly eccentric studio practice, in which case it would be sufficient to identify the traces of his working methods in the resulting images (for example, the way the prints made from the bites clearly image the impression of teeth on skin). But when the action itself is recorded through written description (in which Acconci clearly frames what he was doing as a performance that raised issues he wished to explore about what can be achieved in and through performance) and photographs (as well as the prints of bites that are the action’s artifacts) and presented to an audience as an object of aesthetic appreciation in itself, the act of documentation performatively frames his actions as performance.

In order to better understand the performativity of performance documentation, we need to look more closely at what I originally called “the act of documenting an event as a performance.” This act does not consist simply of producing a description or an image of a performance. Photographers, for example, have been shooting theater, dance, and other performances in one way or another since the 1850s, but only a small and relatively recent subset of this vast store of images is understood to be “performance documentation.” The identity of a description or image as a performance document depends not simply on its subject matter but on the circumstances and context of its production and what it is seen as doing (its performativity, in short).

Performance documentation has a history: the idea of documenting performances, the thought that it was necessary to do so, and specific techniques of performance documentation all arose at specific moments. One of the archaeological sites on which to trace the emergence of performance documentation as a self-conscious practice is the New York art and performance scene of the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. This scene encompassed a wide range of emergent art forms and styles, including Pop art, Happenings, the beginnings of Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Process art, and so on. It also included the Judson Dance Theater and the countercultural underground theater identified with the Living Theatre (whose members returned from self-imposed “exile” in Europe in 1968), the Open Theater, the Performance Group, and others devoted to collective creation. From this artistic ferment developed a particular way of thinking about the relationship between performances and their documentation.

In choosing New York as the site of my excavation, I am not in any way implying that the particular evolution of performance documentation that I discuss is definitive. The decade that I have identified was crucial to both performance and its documentation not only in North America but also in the United Kingdom, throughout continental Europe, and in parts of Asia and Latin America. The story might be significantly different if it were to focus on a different scene. Nevertheless, it is particularly productive to pursue the question of performance documentation by looking at the New York art world in this period. This is partly because of the extraordinary amount of innovative and internationally influential artistic work in a broad range of forms that took place there. But it is also because of the presence on the scene of Michael Kirby, a sculptor, theater maker, editor, and academic who saw the New York scene as akin to the European avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century and felt that the ephemeral work happening there needed to be preserved through documentation. Kirby was one of the first to practice performance documentation, beginning in the late 1950s with written accounts of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings. For Kirby, the performativity of performance documentation lay in its ability to capture the disparate performance practices that made up the New York avant-garde and thus to lend coherence to the scene. He also was one of the first to theorize performance documentation as a distinct and self-conscious discursive practice. In the discussion that follows, I will examine Kirby’s ideas on performance documentation as an early theorization of the practice and look at how his ideas resonated with those of others involved in the documentation of performance on the New York scene, including the photographers Peter Moore and Babette Mangolte, the artist and anthologist Ursula Meyer, and the scholar Ronald Argelander. I will also discuss the relationship of performance documentation as conceived by Kirby to its most important historical antecedent, the practice of theater photography. In conclusion, I will return to the question of the performativity of performance documentation.

Performance Documentation and the New York Avant-garde

Michael Kirby came to New York in 1957 and saw firsthand all the new aesthetic alternatives that opened up in reaction to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. He was a vociferous chronicler and theorist of contemporary and historical avant-gardes3 who maintained a staunch commitment to the value of the new in art. He often compared artistic creation to scientific discovery and insisted, “in art, as in science, it is the new that gives the field its significance.”4 Kirby’s book Happenings, published in 1965, is perhaps the first example of performance documentation per se, although he did not identify it as such. Kirby devotes his introduction to identifying some generic characteristics of the Happening as a form and providing it with a complex genealogy in the historical avant-garde and the work of more proximate figures such as the composer John Cage and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. There is no direct discussion of the premises behind Kirby’s approach and the book’s form, but it is important that the book is subtitled An Illustrated Anthology. It is presented as a collection of Happenings rather than a book about Happenings. Included in the anthology are scripts for Happenings, statements and other texts by the artists responsible for them, textual descriptions of the performances (presumably by Kirby himself, who is credited as writer and editor), and photographs of performances and rehearsals.

Although Kirby’s anthology of Happenings was an early exemplar of performance documentation and his particular approach to it—as were some of the essays in his second book, The Art of Time, published in 1968—he did not theorize the practice in either book. This came a bit later, in a series of overlapping essays published largely in the Drama Review (known as TDR and later renamed TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies), a journal with editorial offices at New York University, where Kirby was teaching when he assumed the editorship in 1971. In these essays, Kirby grounds the necessity for performance documentation in both the ephemerality of live performances and the often very limited access to avant-garde performance work: “Some important pieces are performed only once or twice to small audiences; even those presentations that tour internationally cannot hope to have the attendance of the average commercial film.”5 Although Kirby was editing a journal with a long history of addressing contemporary drama and theater, he redefined its brief more broadly to encompass the kinds of performance that would be regarded as early examples of performance art. In an introductory statement that outlined his editorial intentions, Kirby specifically identified “TDR‘s interest in performances done by artists primarily involved in other fields. The investigations of these inter-connections and influences among the arts is another way to expand our view from drama to performance in general.”6 He further states, in another text, “Notice that our concern is with performance as fine art. This means that we are dealing with only a relatively small area of theatre [the term Kirby often used for performance]. Most theatre is commercial art, involving a mass appeal to general popular standards.”7 Kirby implies that because avant-garde performance occupies so little space in a cultural landscape dominated by “commercial art” it needs to be documented in order to have greater cultural presence. Mainstream performance does not require documentation—it can take care of itself, so to speak. But avant-garde, experimental performance must be documented in order to be known beyond its negligible initial audience. In effect, it must be documented to exist.

Kirby’s characterization of fine art performance as essentially a coterie phenomenon that could have greater reach only through documentation apparently was shared by some of the artists involved in the production of the performances, including Happenings, that he covered as a documentarian and editor. Claes Oldenburg, for one, engaged a photographer, Robert McElroy, to shoot his performances. McElroy’s photographs appear both in Kirby’s Happenings anthology and Oldenburg’s own book Store Days, published in 1967, which documents Oldenburg’s environmental installation The Store and the Ray Gun Theater performances that took place there, performances that were also filmed by Raymond Saroff. McElroy’s photographs are joined in the book by scripts, texts, and drawings by Oldenburg related to the production of the five performances that made up Ray Gun Theater. Oldenburg includes the program for these events, reproduced in facsimile, which makes it clear that each one was performed only twice, and by a different group of people each time. In a text titled “Budget for Theater,” which follows the program in the book and may be a proposal or a funding request (or perhaps just a statement of purpose by the artist), Oldenburg stresses the small scale of his operation: “These performances would occur one time only” with “about 35 spectators” each time. He also indicates that these performances were “not so much directed at the general public as at other artists and connoisseurs interested in developments along this line.”8 Nevertheless, it seems that he sought a larger audience for these coterie performances by documenting them in the book that contains this text.

In arguing for the need to document performances, Kirby looked both to the present and the future: documentation makes current work accessible to a larger audience and “establishes a record for study in future times.”9 Moreover, he stated: “A concern for tomorrow’s past is one reason for documentation of contemporary performances. … All current presentations will soon pass into history where they will be completely unavailable to direct experience. Anyone interested in theatre history should recognize the importance of documenting significant contemporary works as completely as possible.”10 It is noteworthy that Kirby refers here to the present as “tomorrow’s past.” This makes it clear that performance documentation was to be addressed primarily to the future, not the present: it was to be directed to posterity and the historical record more than to current audiences and publicity. It was a means of making performances available to future audiences who would have no other access to them. From Kirby’s perspective, the crucial task for performance documentation is to allow the reader of the performance document to experience the performance itself. Acknowledging that “no information about an experience is the same as the experience itself,” he nevertheless refers at one point to performance documents as creating “surrogate performance[s].”11 The document, as surrogate, stands in for the original event for an audience to whom that event is no longer available. In Kirby’s version of surrogacy, it is the responsibility of the document to provide its audience with an experience as close as possible to that of the original event. This can be accomplished only if the performance documentarian recognizes that “a concern with history demands an accurate and objective record of the performance.”12 Kirby readily admits that complete objectivity is impossible, not least because of the inevitable selectivity of any account or image, but insists that it remains a worthwhile objective: “To the extent that a writer consciously attempts to record rather than to evaluate or interpret, the performance will retain its own identity” and “the reader will respond to the documentation in much the same way as he would have responded to the performance.”13

Kirby’s notion that documentation can deliver something like the same experience as the original performance goes against the grain of current ways of thinking about performance documentation, which tend to emphasize the futility of producing an adequate representation of an original live event. Nevertheless, his claim should be taken seriously despite its lack of qualification. There is no question but that the performance document becomes a surrogate for the original performance: we rely on documentation to provide us with information about performances that we have not seen, and we take the information to be about the performance, not the document. Many more recent commentators feel, along with Caroline Rye, that one danger of documenting ephemeral performances is that “the record can all too quickly become a substitute for the live event it re-presents, a substitute that cannot provide evidence of exactly the thing it purports to record.”14 As Matthew Reason points out, however, this position is grounded in a paradox: the evanescence that is said to be the defining characteristic of live performance is the very thing that prompts performance makers and others to want to preserve it through documentation.15 The result is that we demand that performances be documented while simultaneously disavowing the connection between the document and the original performance. Although Kirby’s approach may be reductive, it avoids this paradox. Kirby treats performance’s ephemerality not as its essential defining characteristic but, rather, as a limiting condition that prevents avant-garde performance from having larger audiences and greater historical and cultural presence. He implies that the value of preserving performance for future audiences trumps the value of respecting its ephemerality.

Kirby’s faith in objectivity is also controversial from the current perspective, since we are now used to thinking of documentary objectivity as chimerical and recordings or documents as necessarily reflective of their creators’ biases, if only in terms of what they include and exclude. It is important, however, to understand that the crucial opposition for Kirby is not that between objectivity and bias. Rather, it is the dichotomy between two discursive practices that he sees as opposed: documentation and criticism. In a passage I quoted above, Kirby contrasts recording performances to evaluating or interpreting them and strongly favors the former approach over the latter two. As Martin Puchner has shown, Kirby imposed his desire for “a precise, descriptive, and analytical style” on TDR during the period in which he edited it.16 Indeed, Kirby’s call for objectivity in performance documentation is one manifestation of an implacable hostility toward criticism, which he identified with evaluation or interpretation, that recurs throughout his writing—in one essay, he refers to “theatrical criticism as a kind of intellectual and emotional fascism that imposes opinions and value judgments on its subjects and victims.”17 In “Criticism: Four Faults,” his most sustained statement on the subject, Kirby dismisses theater criticism as “unnecessary, as well as being naïve and primitive, arrogant, and immoral. It should be eliminated.”18 Although Kirby offers detailed arguments in support of this claim, they need not concern us here. What is important is that he explicitly contrasts criticism with performance documentation, which he sees as embracing positive values that are antithetical to those of the critic.

Performance is ephemeral. It disappears from history unless it is recorded and preserved somehow. Thus, a concern with history demands an accurate and objective record of the performance. To the extent that the record is complete and detailed, the performance can be reconstructed mentally. Values will take care of themselves. Since everyone has values, they will evaluate the historical reconstruction. If they have accurate and exhaustive information, their evaluation will approximate the evaluation they would have made of the actual performance if they had been in the audience. But history does not care whether its data is liked or disliked; it is built only upon the quality and accuracy of the data itself.

Thus, a fifth and final claim can be made against evaluative criticism: it tends to work against and obscure vital historical documentation.19

Kirby’s hostility toward criticism finds support in Susan Sontag’s well-known essay “Against Interpretation” (1964), in which she characterizes criticism as “poison[ing] our sensibilities” with an “effusion of interpretations.”20 Sontag focuses more on literary criticism than on the visual arts or performance, but a number of her points anticipate Kirby’s. One of Sontag’s objections to interpretation is that “it makes art into an article for use” rather than something to be appreciated in and for itself.21 Kirby’s definition of art includes the stipulation that works of art have “no objective or functional purpose.”22

As we have already seen, Kirby shared Sontag’s distaste for critics who would seek to impose their views on the work and its audiences. In practice, both favored description over interpretation or evaluation.23 Sontag first proposed that critical writing needs to switch its object of attention from the content of works (which is subject to interpretation) to their form, for which we need “a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary.” Still better, she suggests, would be “acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of works of art.”24 Although it seems unlikely that Kirby, who often wrote in the detached style of an analytical observer, would have embraced Sontag’s call for “an erotics of art,” it is apparent that both strongly favored a descriptive approach to writing about art over an interpretive one.25

Although Kirby’s position on performance documentation is tendentious and his expression of it frequently intemperate, he was not alone in believing that art should be presented as objectively as possible rather than critically. For example, Ursula Meyer’s well-known anthology Conceptual Art (1972)—which overlaps Kirby’s field of interest through the inclusion of documentation of performances by Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, and Dennis Oppenheim—reflects similar assumptions about the nature and purpose of such a book. Meyer’s claims regarding her approach to assembling the book parallel Kirby’s call for using the printed page to make the artwork itself as directly accessible as possible.26 She argues that “Conceptual Art … is best explained through itself” and goes on to say that “this book is not a ‘critical anthology’ but a documentation of Conceptual Art and Statements. ‘Critical Interpretation’ tends to frame propositions different from the artist’s intention, thus prejudicing information.”27 The book’s design reflects the effort at direct and objective presentation of information. The index consists of an alphabetized list of artists, last name only, in block capitals, and the pages on which their work appears. Each artist’s work is represented by texts written by the artist and photographs where appropriate. Although Meyer offers some definitional generalizations about the nature of conceptual art and its historical placement in her introduction, much the way Kirby does in the introduction to Happenings, the rest of the book is given over to artwork unadorned by further commentary. Although presenting unadorned information about art in the context of conceptual art, which itself often takes the form of unadorned information about art,28 is arguably different from doing so in the context of Happenings and other performances, the intention to use text and photographs as much as possible to give the reader a direct experience of the artwork, documented with as little critical intervention as possible, underwrites Meyer’s project as much as it does Kirby’s.


Kirby’s quest for objectivity determined not only the way that he felt descriptions of performances should be written but also how he felt they should be illustrated. In Kirby’s view, performance photography should rely on the “mechanical—and therefore objective” aspects of photography rather than its potential for expressing the subjectivity of the photographer.29 In this respect, he clearly participated in the long history of understanding photography as primarily a mechanical process rather than an artistic medium. Roland Barthes’s oft-quoted description of the photograph as a denotative “message without a code” (from “The Photographic Message,” first published in 1961) is another significant point along this trajectory (though arguably this is a reductive reading of Barthes).30

The work of two prominent performance photographers active in New York during the period under consideration, Peter Moore and Babette Mangolte, constitutes a documentary practice that aligns with Kirby’s project. Beginning in the early 1960s, Moore captured images of Happenings, Judson Dance Theater performances, Fluxus events, and many other kinds of avant-garde performance. Excerpts from an interview with Moore were included in an essay by Ronald Argelander that was published in TDR in 1974, under Kirby’s editorship. Theorizing the use of photography to produce performance “photo-documentation,”31 Argelander echoes Kirby in many regards. Two of the purposes that Argelander ascribes to photo-documentation are to allow those who did not see the performance to experience it and to serve as a record for historians.32 Also like Kirby, he opposes documentation to criticism by contrasting photo-documentation to the work of photographers whose selection of moments to capture from a performance “is based primarily on [their] taste or esthetic judgment,” accusing such photographers of adopting “a critical attitude toward the performance.” These photographers are “photo-critics” rather than photo-documentarians. 33

The idea that the photo-documentarian’s purpose is to produce a record of the event as untainted as possible by personal biases or preferences is taken up by Moore: “I have always dissociated myself completely from making any critical comment, conspicuously, in a photograph.”34 He and Argelander further emphasize that a photo-document of a performance is a record of the performer’s work, not an artwork by the photographer. Moore compares performance documentation to reproducing static artworks: “There is a similarity in approach to documenting sculpture and documenting performance. What you’re trying to do is to do justice, as much as you are able to, to the intent of the artist, rather than impose your own point of view on it.”35 Much of his conversation with Argelander, as well as Argelander’s own ruminations, concerns technical issues that the photo-documentarian must address, including what kind of cameras, lenses, and shots to use. Argelander asserts that “photographers who shoot only close-ups and medium views are not photo-documentors” since the idea is to capture as much of the performance as possible and to remain faithful to a spectator’s visual perspective.36 This perspective is necessary to produce images to function as the “surrogate performances” for which Kirby calls.

The idea of documenting performances in photographs does not emerge from Argelander’s article as purely unproblematic, however. One of the issues that comes up can be called the problem of the iconic image. In the interview, Moore and his wife, Barbara, point to the way performances come to be represented by a very small number of published images, or even a single image, which Barbara Moore describes as a self-perpetuating misrepresentation since the publication of certain images increases interest only in those particular images, which become divorced from the performance as a whole while simultaneously representing it.37 Barbara Moore mentions Yvonne Rainer in this context; two of the many other performance artists whose work has suffered this fate are Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann. Their collaborative performance Site (1964), which was photographed by Moore and also by Hans Namuth, is generally represented in print by only two images, one of which has been repeated so often that it has become the iconic sign for the whole performance. The same is true of Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), which has long been represented by a single photograph by Anthony McCall.38

Although Babette Mangolte—who came to New York in the early 1970s and photographed avant-garde theater, dance (especially Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer), and performance art—belongs to the artistic generation that came of age in the 1970s rather than the 1960s, she retrospectively describes her work as a performance photo-documentarian in terms that closely parallel Kirby’s and Moore’s. She writes of going to one of Richard Foreman’s theatrical productions in 1970: “What I saw was extraordinary but only four other people were there to see it. Therefore recording it was an absolute necessity. Somebody had to preserve [it] for posterity.”39 For Mangolte at this time: “photography was not about passing judgment, on the contrary, it was about absolute objectivity. … The justification for shooting the photographs was solely that they should exist. How the photographs would be used was left vague because they were made for others who would make sense of them, if not now then sometime in the future. Making the work visible for my contemporaries was not my primary impulse.”40 To these ends, she developed an approach to shooting performances meant to foster “automatism”—shooting very quickly and giving as little consideration to choice of shot and camera setup as possible. “Getting it was better than missing it even if technically it wasn’t a ‘good photograph.’”41 Kirby’s sense of urgency around the need to document the performances happening on New York’s art scene and his emphasis on objectivity and the preservation of performances for future audiences find sympathetic resonance in Moore’s and Mangolte’s descriptions of their respective photographic practices.

Writing about the need to document performances, Kirby once remarked, “We have not yet reached the point where all—or even the most significant—theatrical presentations are recorded on film or videotape,” implying that audiovisual records would be the ideal means of preserving performances.42 He nevertheless devoted most of his attention to the written word, supplemented by photographs, as the primary medium of performance documentation.43 Following its introduction in 1967, the Sony Portapak, the first consumer-level portable video-recording system, was quickly adopted by artists. Although this eventually led to the widespread practice of documenting performances on video, the fact that Kirby does not discuss audiovisual documentation is understandable given his context. He wrote about documentation primarily as the editor of a print journal and addressed the forms of documentation that he was in a position to produce and publish. Also, he began documenting performances with Happenings in the late 1950s, when writing and photography were the most practical means available. In fact, photography, not video, continues to be the most important and accessible visual medium for documenting performances. As Adrian George puts it, “the photograph, above all other media, has become crucial in the historicisation of performance,” while Reason points to “the enduring importance of still photography, which remains the most frequently used and seen representation of performance.”44

Additionally, Mangolte, who was trained as a cinematographer in France before coming to the United States, points out that the early video technology available to artists was somewhat useful as a rehearsal tool, recalling that the choreographer Twyla Tharp was one of the first to use video this way in the early 1970s. Its quality, however, “was not good enough to show fully what had gone on to an audience that hadn’t been there.”45 More interesting is her discussion of why she documented performances in still photographs and chose (with very few exceptions) not to use film or video, despite her background in film and lack of training as a still photographer. Her argument is that photography could be more automatic and spontaneous (and therefore more objective) than filmmaking: “Photography was immediate and reactive. Film had to be pre-conceptualized before shooting.”46 Whereas Mangolte felt that a reasonable degree of objectivity in documentation was attainable through photography, she also felt that to render a performance in an audiovisual medium was inevitably to produce an adaptation of it rather than a record of it:

A series of photographs could provide a chronology of the iconography of the piece, some sense of the maker’s intentions and aesthetics, and therefore be informative and worthwhile. Film was almost doomed to fail if you couldn’t restage the action for the film camera, and that was needed to make an interesting film work. … If I had to summarize the essential differences between film and photography in documenting performance, I would say that, for better or worse, the motion picture camera can mislead while the still camera can be mute.47

Mangolte explicates her resistance to the idea of using film or video as means of documentation in ways that align with the values that Kirby espoused. As we have seen, Kirby’s concept of performance documentation is grounded in a straightforward ontology: performances happen, and documentation preserves them in forms that will allow future audiences to experience them. Because these documents present the performance as objectively as possible, future audiences will be in a position to arrive at their own interpretations and assessments, much as they would have had they seen the original event. From Kirby’s perspective as an early theorist of performance documentation, the relationships between the performance and its documentation and between the document and its future audience are clearly defined and uncomplicated. Over time, however, it has become clear that the reality of performance documentation is considerably messier than Kirby’s fairly cut-and-dried approach suggests.

Mangolte, in some of her recent work as an artist (rather than a documentarian), addresses the complexity and untidiness of performance documentation. One of her contributions to the exhibition Art, Lies and Videotape: Exposing Performance (a title that in itself suggests how far away we now are from Kirby’s confidence in the objectivity and surrogacy of performance documentation) at the Tate Liverpool (2003–2004) was an installation juxtaposing her well-known photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece (1973) with the contact sheet showing all the black-and-white shots that she took of the performance. Facing the photographs were video monitors showing the three reels of color motion picture film that she also shot that day (which were originally projected as three images side by side).48 In the installation at the Tate, the glow of the monitors, reflected in the glass over the photographs, created a forced contrast between still and moving image, color and black-and-white, isolated moment and more complete record. Mangolte raises questions but provides no answers: she leaves the viewer of her installation to sort out the relationship of these multiple modes of representation to the absent event and the question of how (or if) a single static image documents an event that unfolds in time.

Theater Photography

It is important in this context to contrast the approach to the visual documentation of performance represented by photo-documentation to other practices, particularly those of conventional theater and dance photographers. This is partly because theater photography is the most significant historical antecedent to early performance documentation and is the practice in relation to which performance photo-documentarians implicitly or explicitly defined their own. It also returns us to the premise that performance documents can be understood as performative utterances. To paraphrase Austin, this is a matter of “doing things with pictures.” As I suggested in the introduction, to make an image of a performance is not simply to record its occurrence: it is to bring the event into being in a particular way. It is therefore necessary to consider what theater and dance photography does and to compare and contrast these doings with those of performance documentation.

As David Mayer has shown, theater photography became a regular practice from the late 1850s on. However, these early photographs were “not intended as … image[s] of performance”; rather, they were images of performers that participated in the tradition of photographic portraiture.49 If these portraits appeared to depict scenes from plays, the scenes were simulated in the photographer’s studio. The primary function of these photographs was promotional, but because the photographs themselves were considered collectible commodities, their marketing function was complex: “the portrait photograph marketed the play and the performer, and the play and the performer marketed both the performer and the photograph.”50 The photos were thus intended exclusively for consumption by a contemporary audience, with no view to preserving the events for future generations. After 1901 photographs of actors were taken on the stages on which they performed but generally during specially arranged sessions for which the actors would strike poses from specific moments in the play rather than at actual performances, a practice that continues to this day and that Argelander decries as “misleading.”51 Early photographs of stage plays were themselves theatrical (in the sense of being staged and simulated) rather than documentary in ambition.52 These images would be posted in theaters to serve as advertisements and previews for the performances on offer.

It is worth noting that the founding procedures of theater photography that Mayer describes have remained firmly in place in a variety of contexts, although not always for the same purposes, for more than a century. For example, Martha Graham collaborated with the photographer Barbara Morgan between 1935 and 1941 on a series of images eventually published in 1941 as a book titled Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs. The photographs in the book reproduce moments in Graham’s dancing; however, they were not taken during performances but were shot in Morgan’s studio under exacting technical conditions “designed to capture ‘the most profound and most crucial moment’ of the dance.”53 Morgan did not photograph full performances; rather, Graham repeated specific movements until Morgan felt that she had achieved the images she wanted. Asked many years later about whether her photographs were intended to re-create performances, Morgan retorted: “Hell, no! I paid no attention to the stage. I wanted to show that Martha had her own vision. That what she was conveying was deeper than ego, deeper than baloney. Dance has to go beyond theatre. … I was trying to connect her spirit with the viewer—to show pictures of spiritual energy.”54 Morgan conceived of her images not as a means by which a viewer might experience Graham’s performance but as distilling the truth of Graham’s dancing, implicitly (and interestingly) suggesting that her carefully posed images could get closer to that truth than photographs of actual performances, which are inevitably compromised by the “baloney” that surrounds performances as social interactions. Morgan suggests, in fact, that her carefully staged studio images convey the underlying spiritual truth of Graham’s dancing in a way that no photograph of an actual performance could.

The early 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in theater photography on the heels of the notoriety of an underground theater scene populated by groups engaged in forms of collective creation that resisted or eschewed the theater’s traditional relationship between text and performance. Books documenting such productions in photographs and text that appeared around this time include Dionysus in 69: The Performance Group (1970), with photographs by Max Waldman and Frederick Eberstadt; Waldman on Theatre (1971), a collection of Waldman’s work; Paradise Now: Collective Creation of the Living Theatre (1971), with photographs by Gianfranco Mantegna; and Alice in Wonderland: The Forming of a Company and the Making of a Play (1973), with photographs by Richard Avedon and text by Doon Arbus.

As Natalie Crohn Schmitt observes about this work in an essay published in 1976, this renaissance of theater photography reflected an emerging theater aesthetic in which the essence of the production was thought to lie not in the script being performed but in the performance itself: “Theatre reveals an increased concern with process rather than product. The plays may have no ongoing life apart from their performance. … The dramas existed in their processes, the momentary personal interactions of actor, role, and audience, which the script does not express but which the photographer can capture.”55 For an increasingly visually oriented theatrical avant-garde, photography seemed to provide a more meaningful record than could the written word, for “the photograph records the language of silence.”56

Although Schmitt makes a compelling case for seeing these photographs as participating in the new theatrical aesthetic that they also record, it is equally important to emphasize that they maintain continuity with the tradition of theater and dance photography sketched here. For one thing, both Avedon and Waldman shot the performers in their respective studios, not in performance, seeking to re-create striking images from the productions in a manner akin to Morgan’s work with Graham. Avedon and Waldman were also portraitists, some of whose subjects were actors (sometimes in character, in Waldman’s case). Both worked largely in close-up or medium shot, the shots Argelander consigns to the photo critic rather than the photo-documentarian. In these respects, their work is completely continuous with the history of theater photography and at odds with the ambitions of performance documentarians like Moore and Mangolte, with whom they were contemporary. As Mayer says of the earliest examples of theater photography, these are images of performers, not performances.

Avedon’s and Waldman’s images are of performers as seen by a particular photographer at a particular moment. Schmitt defines the aesthetic of the 1960s theatrical avant-garde as emphasizing “momentary personal interactions” and argues that Waldman’s photographs do the same: “He interacts as audience member and the photo can express that interaction and provide, then, one spectator’s experience of the performance, that person’s sense of what it was like to be there. … Waldman’s photograph, then, is a record of an interaction, not of the play in itself.”57 Waldman’s emphasis on his own subjectivity rather than the performance itself runs directly counter to Moore’s and Mangolte’s respective efforts to avoid subjectivity in their performance work, marking the difference between his theater photography and the kind of performance documentation that Kirby, Argelander, and others were conceptualizing at the same time.

Discussing the role of spontaneity in Waldman’s carefully composed shots, Schmitt notes that the photographs make us “aware that Waldman might not be able to get a picture quite like that again.”58 In other words, the spontaneity at issue is not the performers’ but the photographer’s, and the theater photographs of the early 1970s often say more about the photographer than they do about the performance, capturing the photographer’s engagement with the event rather than the event itself. Morgan’s earlier images of Graham were not as directly about the photographer’s subjective experience of the performance, but they are about photography as a means of accessing an aspect of Graham’s dancing that ostensibly could not be accessed through the theatrical experience or its direct representation. Although these photographers certainly produced images of performers and performances, sometimes performers from the same avant-garde circles as those photographed by Moore and Mangolte, their work is quite distant from the self-conscious aspiration of performance documentarians to produce objective, self-effacing records in words and images that could serve as means by which future audiences might access the ephemeral performance itself.

Conclusion: The Performativity of Performance Documentation, Revisited

Having presented a brief but, I hope, fairly full picture of the efflorescence of the idea and practice of performance documentation on New York’s experimental art scene from about 1964 through 1974, I return to speech act theory to propose a more refined concept of the performativity of performance documentation than I suggested at the outset. To enrich my analogy between documentation and speech acts, I will enlist John R. Searle, one of Austin’s successors, who made the salient point that while all utterances, in their performative aspect, exert force on the world, they do not all do so in the same way or with the same type of force. He therefore proposed a taxonomy of illocutionary acts. Searle distinguishes declarations from other performative speech acts primarily in terms of what he calls the “direction of fit between words and the world. Some illocutions have as part of their illocutionary point to get the words … to match the world, others to get the world to match the words. Assertions are in the former category, promises and requests are in the latter.”59 Declarations are distinguished by their “dual direction of fit”: “While the words of a [declaration] do in some sense ‘fit’ the world … they also constitute it, so that by their very utterance the world is also made to fit the words.”60

Searle’s “dual direction of fit” provides a valuable heuristic for thinking about the world-making abilities of performance documentation as envisioned and practiced by Kirby, Moore, Mangolte, and others. With respect to performance documentation as a discourse, Kirby clearly wanted “the words … to match the world” (literally in written documentation, metaphorically in photo-documentation) in that he wanted documentation to produce as objective, literal, and accurate a record of the performance (an event in the world) as possible.

But the practice of performance documentation that Kirby envisioned was also world-making. Searle points out that declarations require the authority of an “extra-linguistic institution” (not just linguistic competence) to be successfully performed.61 Kirby’s status not only as an artist active in both the visual art and performance scenes in New York but also as editor of TDR, a well-established and respected journal, and as a professor at New York University provided the institutional authority that endowed the documentation that he published there with illocutionary force. Discussing Kirby’s editorship of TDR, Puchner defines his “project” as that of “creating a contemporary avant-garde in New York.”62 By documenting disparate performance practices by visual artists, dancers, theater makers, and others in the same pages, the journal brought the New York–based avant-garde that it sought to describe objectively into being as a coherent scene. Simultaneously, it helped to create a discursive category of “performance” that transcended individual genres and art forms but implied an overall experimental attitude and membership in an avant-garde. As both Kirby’s focus on “tomorrow’s past” and Mangolte’s statement that she was photographing so that an unknown future audience might better understand the work documented suggest, performance documentarians created an archive of “significant” work whose significance was asserted through the act of documentation rather than established prior to documentation: these works were not documented because they were significant but became significant because they were documented.

Certainly Kirby and those who participated in his project considered the performances that they documented to be significant. But as we have seen, they undertook to document them largely for a future audience and could not have claimed to know what that audience would find to be significant. Whereas Kirby believed that the availability of objective records of these performances would allow later audiences to make their own determinations about them, the reality is that the availability of these performances in documentary form is a major reason that later audiences have found them to be significant. In these respects, performance documentation brought the world it described into being through its own declarations.

Philip Auslander, a professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication of the Georgia Institute of Technology, writes frequently on performance, music, media, and visual art. His books include Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance (University of Michigan Press, 1992); Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (Routledge, 1999; second edition 2008); and Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2006). Auslander has been a regular contributor to Artforum and other publications, and edits The Art Section: An Online Journal of Art and Cultural Commentary (www.theartsection.com).