The documentation, acquisition and conservation of live art practice is of increasing interest to art museums and has been the focus of an AHRC funded research network at Tate (Collecting the Performative). During a series of discussions as part of this programme, the issue of what constitutes the ‘work’ in relation to live art was repeatedly addressed. What can be legitimately re-presented when the original practice is ephemeral, transitory, at times relational? What ‘relics’ are left behind from an original performance and what is the status of this ephemera when it is brought into an archive or collection, for example? To what extent do these objects become the ‘work’ and, if so, how much is our understanding of the meaning of the work dependant on such material and our ability to interpret it after the event? These and other questions shaped a series of rich discussions between curators, researchers, conservators and gallery educators.
As a participant in the Collecting the Performative discussions I was struck by how easily these questions could be applied to the learning experience in the gallery (itself an ephemeral, transitory and relational practice). It made me reflect on how challenging it is to represent a live event, be it a unique performance or a moment where learning happens. And, in the case of learning, how often we rely on the object, or relic of the process (a young person’s drawing, for example, or an evaluation questionnaire) to ‘explain’, or give meaning to what happened. Specifically in the case of an artistic output such as a drawing, we can see it as embodying the learning and knowledge of whoever has created it.
In many respects the film produced by the young people in this project is a key relic. The film is expressly intended to communicate the experience of the young people who took part; it is supposed to make visible the value of being involved in this creative learning process, hence it helps us to understand what happened. Other relics from the project include participants’ evaluative drawings, emails between the artist, film makers, project organisers and researchers, researchers notes, film footage of the seminar and so on. All of this material tells a story and assists us in developing an understanding of the experience of taking part in the dance choreography workshops.
As researchers we are tasked with examining these relics (or data as they can also be described) in relation to the original research questions in order to discover and articulate research findings. This in itself is an interpretive process, in some ways not unlike that of someone attempting to construct a coherent sense of a live art event some time after it took place by looking at the documentation.
Yet as became apparent during the discussions during the Collecting the Performative programme and the Live Art and Film making seminar we held on May 12th, the relics from a live art or learning event can take on a life of their own and function as art objects in their own right. In doing so they both give insights into a particular experience whilst simultaneously provoking further questions that require additional interpretation. They move beyond documenting and explaining the event or experience and need explaining themselves.
With this in mind it seems all the more important to preserve the relics from this project and bring them together in such a way that others can interpret them with us. In doing this we hope to build a rich and detailed picture of the experience, whilst acknowledging the challenges (if not impossibility) of re-presenting it.