At Friday’s workshop, with independent scholars and writers, videographers, and representatives on hand from the Andy Warhol Museum, the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York Public Library, Wexner Center for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, University Musical Society, the University of Minnesota, and of course the Walker – it was a full room and a diverse representation of voices on the issues connected with archiving and documenting the performing arts.
The day began with a deceptively simple question: What does it mean to catalogue performing arts? The query has as many layers as an onion. Try to answer it, and you find yourself immediately confronted with several more questions to tackle first:
- What do we mean when we say an institution is “collecting” performance?
- Who owns the work?
- Who owns the documentation of the work?
- Who decides what should be archived and for whom it will be accessible?
- What happens if the artist’s needs and desires, vis a vis these performance holdings and documentation materials, don’t align with those of the institution?
- What’s primary to the historical record, the archive: the performance itself, its process of creation, or the context of public and critical response to the work?
Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator of performing arts, starts the discussion off: “How does our history of presenting and commissioning works get captured and collected?” In response, both Robin Dowden, of the Walker, and Jim Leija, of Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society, spoke in terms of regularly updated, “living archives,” which would be digitized and, to some extent anyway, available for public use online. For their parts, Peter Taub (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago) and Bonnie Brooks (Legacy plan fellow for the Cunningham Dance Foundation) both called attention to the “valuable texture” given to an archive through somehow capturing ephemeral response: anecdotal, eyewitness accounts of experience with the work of the sort that used to be available in letters and collectible correspondence, but which, as such media has gone by the wayside in favor of less tangible, digital modes of communication, has become increasingly hard to get hold of.
It becomes clear as participants talk that, for them, “capturing” a history means digitization of information, as well as assembling news and interviews about a work, collecting the sets and props and costumes. A thorough, useful archive requires a broad spectrum of material and information – something beyond just a recording of the performance, including also performance notes, scores, script readings, workshops, open rehearsals – all the steps that go into the making of a thing, long before you get to the premiere. The historical record could be process-oriented – including details about the development process, creative process, work process. But all seem to agree that documentation of performing arts needs to include at least some behind-the-scenes context in order to facilitate a more complete understanding a work; you need that information about the makers of it.
Jacqueline Davis, of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts summed up what many seemed to get at: “Capturing the history of a performance means the collecting information on the whole thing, beginning to end; gathering what makes that performance real, putting everything ‘in the box’.”
Ben Harrison, of the Andy Warhol Museum, raised an important and fundamental related question, another layer on the onion: “Why do we capture it at all? Warhol captured everything – on audio, film, video. It was his practice, to try to document his scene, everything around him, thinking of his Factory and studio as a performance space. Carrying on his spirit, we do a single-camera static shot of just about everything we can. But we ask the question, too: what role is this documentation going to have? Why are we doing it? Is it just a time capsule?”
Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, shifts the focus of the conversation away from institutional concerns to those of the artists themselves, emphasizing the practical and pressing motivations behind such information-gathering efforts: “For us, the question is: how do we continue to serve Merce Cunningham’s legacy through the licensing of his work, and for scholarly and educational study, when our lighting director, stage manager, wardrobe supervisor, development staff, general manager, visual artist, etc are no longer available? The ‘dance capsules’ we put together, for example – which collect some of Merce’s notes, all the costumes, set designs, the musical scores, everything that goes into a performance – were simply a practical solution to that problem, not a self-consciously revolutionary way to ‘archive’ the material. Our interest is in making that information accessible and reliable, and on our terms, for the sake of paying respect to Merce’s legacy. I should be clear: we’re not putting absolutely everything in there. Not all of Merce’s notes about a given work, or the process by which it was created, ends up in those dance capsules. Just what’s essential to ensuring they’ll be rendered later accurately and in accordance with the artists’ wishes.”
Judith Brin, a dancer and scholar, interjected, “All this talk about ‘capturing’ information has such a negative connotation to me, a terrifying connotation even – what do we put in the box that’s going to help us? On a practical level, how on earth are you going to store all this if you save everything? How do we hold on to enough mystery about the work to keep the magic alive?”
On that note, despite expressed wishes for a complete and total history, everyone soon agrees that an exhaustive archive simply isn’t feasible. Ultimately, you can’t just ‘put everything in the box.” At that point, the question of editing down the contents of the information you gather somehow becomes another layer of the onion to contend with: Deciding what to leave out of the archive turns out to be almost as important as deciding what to put in.
Bonnie Brooks, of the Cunningham Foundation asks, “That question: ‘Why are we collecting this information in the first place?’ is a central one. So much of the heart of performing arts centers on an individual’s encounter and experience with the work. What we’re talking about here then should be ‘what kinds of content surrounding a performance can have a life of their own, beyond the work on stage? Maybe we start by gathering contextual material and media, along with eyewitness narratives that might provide a way to interact in some way with the work, providing a kind of experience for newcomers to it over time, even if they never see the actual performance on stage. That’s valuable: It won’t be an experience of the performance work itself, but even the documentation, the archival record, should still be something with real life and artistry.”
Next up: “Opening the kimono” – How much do you want to let the public see?
Related link: Read the first post in this series on cataloguing performance – “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle”.
Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for the weekly updated arts writing and criticism published on mnartists.org, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She has also written for a number of outlets, including Ruminator magazine, MinnPost.com, City Pages, The Rake, Minneapolis Observer, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts blog.