By David LaGaccia
So much of what we see goes unrecorded and undocumented, yet we know it exists. In performance documentation there’s always the conflict between the artistic aims and handling by the documenter and capturing the total experience of a performance. The two are distinctly separate creations and are looked at as complimenting each other in documenting an experience rather than existing as a single artistic work—unless, of course, documentation is a part of the performance.
Some notable collaborations by David Ian Griess, Elizabeth Lamb, and Andrew Braddock have created documentation as performance that looks at the discrepancy between our perception as a witness of a performance and what is recorded as documentation.
Recorded under their video label Human Trash Dump, the three created a video called MEATTRUCK, documenting the events of a nearly three hour drive in a truck from New Jersey to upstate New York. The video is split between two simultaneous cameras, one facing the passenger’s side-mirror (operated by Griess) recording events on the passing street, and the other suspended in the back recording the actions being created by Braddock, with Lamb driving the truck.
The clear street scenes are juxtaposed with the video of the camera in the back of the truck, which is lighted by a green strobe light, creating a dark image set against Braddock, who is performing actions wearing a helmet and is covered in green screen paint. As a viewer, you are forced to choose which side to pay attention to while watching the video. Despite their differences in terms of shot, the two cameras give viewers the singular experience of the truck ride: the side-mirror camera with its images of the street, and the camera in the back focusing on the performance. The group would later screen the film as an installation at Grace Exhibition Space on September 25th where a person could interact with the film by listening to its audio through a mounted phone.
While both shots differentiate in terms of clarity, and a lack of direct camera influence (Griess did state there was one edit due to the death of a camera battery) both videos seemingly obscure our ability to grasp the events: In the street view, the action passes too quickly to get a full sense and understanding of the action, place and time as the truck is driven. Street corners, pedestrians and cars pass by without central focus through the truck’s side-mirror giving us a view of events that are past and present, even though by watching the video, the events are firmly rooted in the past. And, in the back, because of the light source, we never get a full understanding of what Braddock’s actions are. We know these events happened, we can see the actions develop uninhabited as the occur, but even with documentation, there is still something preventing us from fully understanding the experience of this truck ride.
While MEATTUCK was created to be shown as a video (and later a interactive installation), a separate December 12th live performance by Griess and Braddock at the Gowanus Ballroom in New York for the 2015 Diverse Universe festival, again self-consciously used documentation as a topic in their performance. Over the course of about twenty minutes the two set up 5 cameras set-up at various spots in the performance space with TV screens directed to the audience. One camera was focused on a toaster oven cooking a Hot Pocket. The oven acted as “clock” during the performance with its timer that ticked representing an audible passage of time, as well as a physical passage of time with the Hot Pocket changing as it was being cooked. The two performer’s actions were minimal, consisting of moving through the performance space, including checking the cameras; their only sizable action consisted of them grabbing and pulling each other in a wrestling fashion for about a minute before ending the performance lying down side by side.
It’s interesting that the video being recorded on a main camera had a slight delay, and was projected on a screen, allowing viewers to witness the unfolding actions of the performance and the past actions of the performance at the same time, experiencing and re-experiencing both simultaneously. Here there was a significant difference between what was recorded and what we saw as viewers experiencing the performance and watching the video feed. Because the cameras were on tri-pods, they gave viewpoints of the performance that were unavailable to the audience, recording sections of the performance within the performance. Griess later stated that the video that was recorded would be used later as an edited video titled REINVEST IN TVS.
As the current usage implies, performance documentation is seen as a document of a performance, that is, it is a means to preserve the actions of an ephemeral moment. Henrick Vestergaard Friis in a lecture on documentation at Panoply Performance Laboratory this past November, stated that performance documentation, of any medium, should give the viewer a sense of experience, or understanding on how the performance was performed. Around this same time, Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg in a Q & A during Performa 15, talked briefly about documentation in capturing not just the performance itself, but also the time-frame it takes place, mentioning that in a photo besides the performance, you can also get an understanding of the performance space, aesthetic choices of performances at that time, clothing trends of the viewers, and so on–a sort of historical document that captures social trends of that era. She also stated that many artists through the 1960’s and 1970’s constructed their performances with the intention of their work being photographed or recorded; the image being presented became just as important as the actions.
From Joan Jonas, to Bruce Nauman, to Vito Acconci, to Matthew Barney to contemporary trends of using digital video and photography, documentation and its use alongside performance have evolved with the technology. Amelia Jones wrote in The Artist’s Body that “the period since 1960 has been characterized by an increasingly dominant recognition of the conditioning of the contemporary subject through the violent effects of new technologies of representation,” and, “artists have exploited and explored the capacity of new technologies to re- and de- form the embodied self.” In Eleanor Antin’s performance, Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1973), she used black and white photography as a method to document and create the work. In the performance Antin took 148 photographs of herself nude as she intentionally lost weight over a period of 37 days; the performance is said to parody the traditional Greek sculpting process, as well as a feminist work looking at the ideal female body. Jones wrote, “Antin presented her body as the object of her own sculpting activity, through a process that, unlike carving, worked from the inside out.” Antin’s body in this performance was simultaneously the subject, object and metaphor that creates the action in the performance, while the photographs (documentation) are the means she used to present her developing actions to create meaning for the viewer.
Documentation can be used in performance to create self-awareness in the viewer in their role in the creation of a performance. In talking about Vito Acconci’s Command Performance (1974), where through the use of cameras and video he had viewers become the subject of the installation piece, Paul Schimmel wrote in Out of Actions: Between Performance and Object, 1949-1979, that Acconci “insisted that the spectator take on the role of the artist.” RoseLee Goldberg wrote in Performance Art From Futurism to the Present that “Performance videos of the nineties were frequently enacted in private, exhibited as installations and considered extensions of live actions.” Andrea Fraser in her performances, consciously used writing, directing, wardrobe, and editing techniques in works such as The Public Life of Art: The Museum (1988-1989) and Welcome to the Wadsworth: A Museum Tour (1991) to create irony and criticism towards her subjects. When in these performances a person sees these images, they take on the role of a viewer, creating meaning from the recorded material used to document the work.
There are five types of performance documentation: documentation as document, where the intention is to capture an objective viewpoint of a performance; documentation as experience, where the document attempts to recreate the experience of a performance; documentation as performance, where the document is part of or a progenitor (such as an event score) of a performance; documentation as art, where the documenter’s own interests in how the aesthetics or narrative of the performance is presented to the viewer supersede the actual performance. These categories, however, can bleed into and share the characteristics of one another. The last form, which is entirely separate from the previous four, are traces/ephemera, direct physical remnants of a performance that don’t necessarily record the performance, but do record the effects, an impression of the actions of a performance, or as Amelia Jones wrote,“the imprint of a trace is redolent with memory, absence and the artist’s inner life, setting up a contrast between the body’s physical manifestation and the spiritual or unconscious.” Video, photography, sound recordings, and writing, are a more permanent means to capture the “physical presence” of a performance.
Ana Mendieta, Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks, 1974. Here is an example of documentation as document where the camera takes an objective viewpoint of the performance. Note that the camera is filming Mendieta creating traces, documentation of her physical actions.
While any one of these forms are valid in the own way as documentation, they should be seen as separate artistic works that records a limited view of the experience of a performance. Unlike a performance, documentation is not restricted to the limitations of time and space for its presentation, however, it is limited in how it can translate that experience to a person. Each form of media that can record is ultimately restricted to the technology used.
What’s the point of documentation when it is limited in its ability to re-create an experience? The strongest reading of a performance should always be the primary experience to the actions that occur. Documentation acts as a sort of physical, static intermediary between the viewer, the performance, and the metaphor or idea of the image being presented. Performance art is medium of art that is aware of its own existence and acknowledges it’s own experience of creation to the viewer whose spectatorship (whether physical or mental) contributes to the creation of the act. Documentation is a physical antecedent of experience and a construction that provides a meaning or a perspective to that past action. Works like MEATTRUCK and the performance at Gowanus Ballroom used this artistic device of self-awareness or self-consciousness to talk about the topic of documentation itself and its role in performance. The objects in the mirror are closer than they appear–looking back through documentation, the spectator reflects on their own experience to interpret and create the new.