An Inquiry into the Effect of Re-performing the Performative Space By Marcus Encel

What is the performative space that exists between an artwork, its audience, its materiality and its location physically and temporally? How does it, (the performative space), affect the work? If location is part of the work, is each new location a new version? What exists beyond the original and the copy? The difficulty in examining this space, that which exists between the various forms of performative space, is that it constantly shifts with each new iteration. It is not possible to solve this question but rather I will attempt to raise a set of propositions, ideas and questions about how this space might be defined it terms of its operations, functions and affects. In this paper I will create a sketch of this landscape.

All modes of art making are subject to change when the context of their viewing is altered. As they are transcribed into different media and transferred into subsequent iterations, the idea of the original artwork depicted is often distorted. Location, time and the reiteration affect the reading of a work, both the original and subsequent re-performances. Location here refers to a location not only in space but also in time, intellectually and in terms of the categorization of the artwork and its materials. For example Citizen Kane 1941 was intended (at least by its financiers) for general cinematic release. For many reasons it was not seen by the general public for many years. It became known as an art film even though it had very high production values and was produced by a major studio. It was and is notorious in art and critical circles. How did this change of viewing location, and intended audience, change the films reception and aura? This change of context, performative space and type of audience has consequences for the way this film has been understood and received. A change in performative space also affects the reading of the work. The artist Yves Klein’s famous “Leap into the void” 1960 is now (arguably), known mostly by the image photographed by Harry Shunk.

“Yves Klein’s leap from the second story of a building was restaged for photographer Harry Shunk ten months after the first undocumented leap” (Goldberg 1998; p. 33).

The original artwork was a performance art piece yet it is now known by its documentation (the photograph). This documentation is not only photographic, and a long way from the ideals of performance, but it is a recreation done at a later date. It is a photomontage, which further removes it from the original work. As Walter Benjamin observes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” “Part II -Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin 1936; part II).

Another example of the re-imaging of performance into photography or film is Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy”, 1964 which was first performed as part of the First Festival of Free Expression at the American Center in Paris, and later at Judson Memorial Church in NYC in which it was filmed. While the artist at Meat Joy’s inception, considered it a performance, it is arguably now known most widely as a film due to the documentation of the work. Does a performative work become film once it is transcribed and documented to later be remembered in that form, or do at least two distinct forms exist simultaneously? What do these forms do to the perception and aura of the original? In “More than Meat Joy” (Morgan) 1997 states:

“When Schneemann first performed ‘Meat Joy’ with her Kinetic Theater at Judson Memorial Church in 1964, she realized that documenting it was a necessary and important part of the event. Both film and photography were used to communicate the work’s expressionist quality and to reveal its structure” (Morgan 1997; p. 97).

What is the effect of these copies or versions on the original performance? Are they new works or copies? Does this recreation expand the work of the original or merely document it, or are these recreations part of the one work? How is an artwork affected if the viewer only sees one aspect of it? In the example of Meat Joy, if one only knows the artwork through its filmic version how does this impact on the totality of the performance in the mind of the viewer? A gap exists in the void between the original intension of the artist, the materiality of the artwork, its location spatially and temporally, the viewer and successive views that diverge from the original in time, materiality, space, and audience. How can we quantify this performative space, this gap that exists between an artwork and its iterations or can we merely pinpoint its effects? Santone in ‘Marina Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces: Critical Documentation Strategies or Preserving Art’s History’ an article exploring the gap between the original and the copy states:

“What is at stake is whether a performance produced solely for an electronic recording medium can be evaluated in the same way as a live event, we can only know historical performance through documentation—-and, more importantly, “there is no possibility of an unmediated relationship to any kind of cultural product,” including performance art. Whether one understands performance as always disappearing, endlessly mediated (technologically or socially), or perpetually repeating scenes of loss, the question of interpreting not the performance itself but its documentation continually comes to the fore. With this reliance on documentation come attendant questions on the media of those documents” (Santone 2008; p. 147).

Just as the way an artwork is documented and mediated impacts on its reading, can a films meaning change when it is viewed in either a theatre or in a gallery, its interface with the viewing public? If so how does location and temporality change that meaning? In the article ‘Better Viewed on the Wall of an Art Gallery, Institution, Aesthetics and Experimental Film’ K Knowles says;

“The subject of duration and temporality is central to discussions of the difference between the cinema and gallery spaces” (Knowles 2012; p. 41).

Just as Yves Klein and Carolee Schneemann’s work changes when transcribed into new media, the location of the screening of a film alters its meaning, or the viewers reading of that meaning. With regard to context K. Knowles says in ‘Better Viewed OnThe Wall Of An Art Gallery? Institution, Aesthetics And Experimental Film’:

“The work of art is in a deep sense “contextual.” It necessarily incorporates some projected sense of its conditions of reception into the logic of its production” (Knowles 2012; p. 42).

As the view of the artwork changed, be it film or any other, in medium, location and temporality, was the exact nature of it lost and new meaning created? Is it still the same artwork, image or performance as it migrates and transforms? Does it represent the same thing? If not, what does it now represent or does meaning run along a continuum between intention, states of being, locations and temporality? Could it be said to have no fixed meaning rather a scope of meaning?

How does the scope of meaning manifest? The performance is transitory yet the documentation may last forever. This is how the artwork is remembered. It could be a long way from what the artwork represented in its original form. How do artworks and their original intentions change as they are transported between varied spaces such as cinema, gallery and stage? How does the meaning and the reading alter in these differing environments? What is the performative space that resides between these modes of viewing and the effect of re-performing an original performance in film, photography, or various other performance practices.

There are many films, video artworks and performances and even documentaries that defy clear definition. The space they are viewed in and the way the information is classified, creates the reading of the work. As the location of the viewing is changed for example between the theatre screen and the television or the Internet and the gallery, the perception of the work changes also. Similarly the changing and mixing of a genre modifies how work is read.

An example of a traditional genre being transformed and tampered with is the recent documentary “The act of Killing” by (Oppenheimer) 2012. It contains sequences of fantasy interspersed with interviews and narration. The usual paradigm of interview and historical research is flipped by interviewing the perpetrators, (in this case), and interspersing reality (so called), with fantasy sequences. While broadly adhering to the genre of the documentary, fantasy is used to create contrasts and analogies within the work. This is the transformative effect of cross genre transmogrification. This tells a story in a different way the construct of objective fact is used to create a reality within the documentary genre. It allows the work to exist as an artwork and a documentary simultaneously while allowing it to migrate between the various screens of cinema, television or arthouse without challenging its own internal structure, (because its genre is so vague). In an interview with the director Joshua Oppenheimer, (Behlil) 2013 states:

“The film opens with the highly surreal image of young female dancers gracefully emerging from the mouth of a giant rusty fish. Evoking a Technicolor spectacle from the heyday of Hollywood musicals, the scene continues, as the dancers are joined by an elderly man and a hefty, almost grotesque drag queen in front of a waterfall. All the while, an off-screen voice, presumably belonging to the director, shouts instructions, urging the participants to smile and feel “real joy.” Not your usual introduction to a documentary film about the unspeakable horrors of genocide. But The Act of Killing is not like other documentaries. Rather than giving a voice to the victims, it chooses to talk to the perpetrators instead. Employing a style he terms “documentary of the imagination,” Oppenheimer has not only interviewed the killers but also asked them to re-create scenes of their murders in whatever way they wished. The result is not bland reenactments, but wildly imaginative scenes that on occasion have nothing to do with the actual events” (Behlil 2013; p. 26).

The film uses ideas and contrasts that might normally be seen in an art movie or even a fantasy and welds them together in a vague narrative structure to become an almost surreal documentary that alludes to fact, instead of describing it. It tells a story by inference rather than editorial. This complex situation is situated by Mathew John Perkins in the article ‘Documentary Codes and Contemporary Video Art’’:

“In the last ten years there has been a return to documentary in contemporary video art with artists responding to the effects of globalization and cultural imperialism. The documentary art works’ relationship to the real also points to a reaction against the relentless flow of reality through communication networks and the inability of these networks to respond in meaningful ways” (Perkins 2010; p. 1).

Just as an artwork can move between physical locations which affects the reading, classification and genre of the work, so too can the shifting of the genre and the inclusion of divergent themes change the performative space. While documentary is not usually thought of as fantasy or performance the inclusion of the idea of the “documentary of the imagination” (Behlil 2013) in this case, creates a documentary that is simultaneously operating as performance, documentary and fantasy. In this manner any trope can be utilized and by the utilization of performative and theatrical tropes the documentary can stray and migrate away from the traditional factual approach to information, which is nevertheless arguably, an illusion. The migration of this documentary structure changes its meaning or at least its reading especially when motifs from other genre are utilized.

New classifications can arise when a films audience and place in history changes. For instance its classification could change from Film to art movie. This new appellation of art with regard to a film, could be said to be reserved for films of great stature when they are not originally intended to be of the arthouse genre. The inclusion of the word art in the description of a film is often reserved for films that achieve the highest level recognition and status. In this context art is a status related categorization. This addition of the word ‘art’ to the way in which the film is discussed hints at something more, that it (the film), has achieved greatness.

What is the difference between the idea of Film/cinema and experimental film is it merely that the Film is commercial art and Experimental film and video art seek to extend the boundaries of the possible in the filmic medium and to extend their modes of display and materiality? How does the immersive nature of the cinema relate to the hanging space on a gallery wall? Film is largely passive. The viewer receives information whereas in video art the viewer is asked to participate. This is one of the defining aspects between mediums. In a gallery the viewers seldom have the ability or inclination in that environment, to immerse themselves in a feature length artwork. In Better Viewed on the Wall of an Art Gallery? Institution, Aesthetics and Experimental Film’, (Knowles) 2012 speaks of a:

“sardonic commentary on contemporary art audiences’ limited willingness to engage with long-form works of film art in which duration is the central medium and a material experience of consciousness” (Knowles 2012; p. 42).

Experimental/Art film is not necessarily so narrative in structure as a studio film. A video artwork in a gallery requires participation of the viewer. In some sense the viewer teases out the meaning through this participation whereas the audience of a film in a cinema is fed information, it is a passive process. The way a film, (be it experimental or commercial), is absorbed, either passively or interactively, in a theatre or gallery changes the artwork/ viewer dynamic regardless of its designation or genre. Audiences react differently in these different spaces.

The boundaries between these forms are liquid and open to debate, they are non-existent in fact as a film can be a work of art and Video art can be narrative. One thing that video art does not suffer is an expectation on narrative or materiality. It can be sculptural in form and use mixed media. Its occupation of a gallery space means that it often (if it is of any significant length) will not be viewed in its entirety as the majority of gallery viewers will only watch enough to (get an idea) and move on to new artworks. The investment in time is usually much greater for a film than a video artwork. So are the definitions largely temporal?

If Citizen Kane had achieved immediate release at the time of its creation would it have achieved its high art status? Was the change of location from immediate cinema screening to art-house and small screen viewing instrumental in adding to the aura of the work? It could be said that the addition of the narrative that surround the circumstances of the film created a coexistent narrative structure to the film that allowed it to morph into a different genre. In its most basic form, location can be seen to affect the meaning of an artwork or film as in the case of Citizen Kane’s, famous table scene. In this scenario the growing emotional distance between Kane and his wife is illustrated by a dinner they have together at a huge table. The original cut is panoramic showing the couple both in frame with a huge distance separating them but, when it was first edited for TV it was put into 4.3 ratio so that Kane’s wife was missing entirely from the long shot, totally changing the reading of the scene, the performative space and the relationship of the viewer to the original reading of the space in the previous edit and location in theatre.

In contemporary art, the way in which performative space is being presented is changing. Contemporary art galleries are devoting more time and space to performance art. They are becoming less of a collection/museum and being reconfigured to be more like the theatre or stage. It is becoming more of a “living” space where events happen rather than being statically presented. This “aliveness” is very different from the documentation of performance with photography and video that has been used previously in galleries. Dissatisfaction with the old gallery paradigm has been expressed in Heuer’s ‘Digital effects- Five artists discuss their creative encounters with new technologies and digital culture’:

“The shopping mall mentality of the museum means that we don’t physically absorb anything fully, it just passes through us, through our eyes” (Heuer 2013; p. 42).

How does the performance artist, preserve their work? Surely it need not only be photographically or digitally? Perhaps something akin to the manner in which plays and music is continued through re-performance? In ‘A Performance Anxiety’, (Manzella & Watkins) 2011 talks about the problem of documenting performance art:

“How does one document performance art, which is not an object but an interaction between artist and viewers? After the performance, the work is preserved in various videos, photographs, eyewitness accounts, and remaining artifacts. It is these remains that enter the archive and the catalog, and which must be described and interrelated to give an idea of the original performance” (Manzella & Watkins 2011; p. 1).

Artist Marina Abramović is exploring methods to preserve her work outside the usual museum/gallery paradigm with re-performance. Inculcating new artists into her work, Abramović is currently inducting a new generation of performers into her work. How will this work be considered and read? What would the difference be in this paradigm between work performed by the artist or by others? Abramović ponders and questions how she leaves her performances to posterity. In ‘Performance Anxiety: Performance Art in Twenty- First Century’ (Manzella & Watkins) 2011 states:

“In repeating and directing re-stagings of her own performances and in re-performing others’ performances, Marina Abramović is, in essence, creating a living archive. For artists, (“re-performance proposes a dynamic, living document as a solution to the past’s disappearance; it allows a re-experiencing of the work in a time-based, body-based, ephemeral medium and makes available new experiences of memory.”This is a notion not implicit in the traditional archive, but rather one emerging with new technologies in much the same way that documentation is being changed by them. (Manzella & Watkins 2011; p. 5).

Abramović’s use of “multiple authorship” to re-perform her work could be said to re-create it with each new performer that performs it. In the case of music and a musical score, no one debates the authorship of classical music based on the fact that it is constantly reperformed. Clearly each artist that re-performs it is adding their own creative talents and energies, (or lack of them), is this really multiple authorship? In this case a musician/artist playing music could be said to be like a vessel, a performer, encapsulating the work, while the author generated the idea. These two contributions are vastly different. Could it ever be said that that an actor in a film or stage play was an author? Is this concept transferable to the case of Marina Abramović? The artist has said she wanted: “to see if performance can be re-performed giving it new life” and to paraphrase from ‘Marina Abramović on Performance’, the artist states that, “performance is the most immaterial form of art ever, after music. All that is left is the memory” (Chicago Humanities 2012). This is motivation for the idea of the re-performance as documentation. An artists works may also in some way be added to or used for inspiration as can be seen in Amir Baradaran’s, “The Other Artist is Present”, Act II: Behind the Canvas, On Marina Abramović ‘s ‘The artist is present’ (Toaip2010 2010).

But one has to question what happens to an artwork when it is re-performed or documented in some other way than its original iteration. In Marina Abramović ‘s ‘Seven Easy Pieces: Critical Documentation Strategies or Preserving Art’s History’ by Jessica Santone, Santone muses on multiple authorship:

“Generating this multiplicity of fragments is a multiplicity of authors. Crucial for understanding how documentation works in relation to an original is an appreciation for the specificity of authorship of each document. How and at which historical moment a document is produced influences the character of the document. To imagine a document that has authority over all other documents because it entailed more research in its production or was closer to the time of the first instantiation of the work restricts the memory of the work to a singular perspective, discounting the variety of ways it was and continues to be encountered. Instead, each individual document adds to the archive of the work. Mediating works of art even for the purpose of documentation is thought to create distance from the original; the more elaborate the mediation and the more different from the original in terms of temporality and spatiality, the less authentic the “reproduction.” (Santone 2008; p. 151).

Santone talks of the the additive effect of multiple iteration for the artwork and also of the loss of the original, so perhaps loss and gain both occur in the re-performance. Originality is not trusted as much currently as in the past. Post modernism saw to that. As an artwork goes through multiple iterations in genre and location and is disseminated on the web it gets constantly reconfigured. This is one argument for the idea of multiple authorship, as the artwork becomes a kind of creative commons. But is this a relationship that develops between the artist and the viewer and that viewer is later becoming the artist via a reconfiguration of their work that takes place in its viewing or is it rather a relationship, a conversation that develops between artist and viewer. Marina Abramović has said in regard to how she feels during one of her endurance pieces:

“The reaction of people is an incredible reward, people come and get in contact with themselves, its difficult but incredibly satisfying” ( 2012a).

She is referring to her relationship with the audience that also includes the way in which they perceive and react to her work. How does this alchemical relationship between the artist, viewer, artwork and its iterations affect the work? Where does authorship reside? How do we quantify this space between the viewer and the artwork and the meaning that is generated as the viewer activates it? When an artist appropriates an artwork is it in every way similar to a musical iteration or more so, a new artwork, one that contains or uses multiple authorship? Is this what Marina Abramović means by the idea? Does each viewer create meaning and is therefore an author? Would her re-performed works be more related to the original performance if she did them, herself at her current age. The aging of the body might say more about the original than its re-performance by others or is this missing the point entirely? In ‘Seven Easy Pieces: Critical Documentation Strategies or Preserving Art’s History’ Jessica Santone says:

“Authorship comes into question because, like the archival impulse, the drive to produce documentation is also conditioned by a relation to materials that are both found and constructed — and thus by an individual who both manipulates existing documents and produces new documents” (Santone 2008; p. 147).

When a performance is re-performed does that re-performance retain status as an artwork in its own right with a new author or is it a document of the original artists performance? Does this performance have the gravitas of that which included the original author in some way? In Walter Benjamin’s, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” he says:

“that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (Benjamin 1936; Part II)

What is the nature of originality in the case of re-performance? How do reiterations and reperformances affect the aura of the first performance? Is it true to say that a performance grows as it is re-performed therefore adding to the original work ensuring that the original is a constant state of growth? Santone says:

“The medium of the documentation that Abramović produces, authorizes or uses is therefore part of a layered, knotted set of materials all hovering around the idea that some ‘original’ precedes the current documentation” (Santone 2008; p. 148).

Or does it diminish and wither the aura of the original? What is at the heart of this alchemical relationship between the viewer, and the audience? The artist creating and the viewer activating the artwork like fuel/energy and combustion? The audience completes the artwork. But the act of making art presupposes the artist has something meaningful to say. Otherwise why would an audience take the time to view it. This is the innate narcissism of art. That one’s opinion is worth viewing by a wider audience, that what one says as an artist is important. This recognition, or lack of it, constitutes a large part of the artist, artwork, and viewer triangle

But how does an artwork gain traction? When an artwork is overexposed via multiple iteration in terms of performance and cross platform exposure it becomes banal and dilutes the originals impact. In other cases it morphs the meaning. So the context alters the meaning, therefore if you don’t get the full context do you get the full meaning? Does it even matter? Are re-performances and re-stagings adding to an artworks aura or detracting from them? The artwork is created, it is viewed in differing formats, maybe it is re-performed. It may migrate from location to location changing its reading, perhaps the artwork just exists on a continuum of change and the vantage point we perceive it from determines the meaning for us.