Thursday 07/31

SHOP TALK: Archiving Performance: the Museum’s Methodologies with a canary torsi

by Travis Chamberlain, Associate Curator of Performance and Manager of Public Programs, Tara Hart, Digital Archivist, Yanira Castro, a canary torsi, Director and Choreographer, Kathy Couch, a canary torsi, Installation Designer, tagged with a canary torsi, Travis Chamberlain, Tara Hart, Archives, Digital Archive, Shop Talk-Archiving Performance, Shop Talk, R&D Season
Cover Image:

a canary torsi, “The People to Come: Closing the Archive Concert,” 2012–13. Performance at the New Museum. Photo: Travis Chamberlain

As residents of last fall’s R&D Season “Performance Archiving Performance” (“PAP”), a canary torsi—a group led by Yanira Castro whose work is anchored in performance—completed the archive of their project “The People to Come: A Participatory Performance Project” (“TPtC”; 2012–13) through a live installation and open studio in the New Museum Theater. During a five-day period, videos of fifty dances, over one hundred audience submissions, and fifty musical scores were edited, catalogued, and uploaded onto the project’s website by the group’s archivists. The website for “TPtC” is an archive of material created by participants—documentation of dances, musical scores, and audience submissions—and the ways in which they were connected.

As part of the “Shop Talk: Archiving Performance” conversation series, which considers methods for archiving and documenting performance or other live art at the Museum in consultation with artists, Travis Chamberlain, Associate Curator of Performance and Manager of Public Programs, and Tara Hart, Digital Archivist, talk with Yanira Castro, a canary torsi Director and Choreographer, and her collaborator, Installation Designer Kathy Couch.

In the first part of this discussion, “Terms of Submission with a canary torsi,” they examine how the archive for “TPtC” was conceived as an integral component of the performances themselves, addressing questions surrounding authorship, ephemerality, and liveness in relation to the creation, presentation, and reception of works of performance. In the second part of this conversation, a canary torsi asks Chamberlain and Hart questions concerning the representation of performance’s liveness through documentation at the Museum, paying particular attention to the way in which records of performance are presented online through organizational structures and taxonomic systems. Questions about the Museum’s responsibility to document performance, and how this can impact forms of audience engagement, are addressed in light of recent public programming.

Travis Chamberlain: Before we begin our discussion, I wanted to open with some institutional background to help readers visualize our facilities for presenting public programs and how those spaces are curated and managed. In 2007, the New Museum moved to its current location on the Bowery, which includes over four floors of gallery space and features the Museum’s first dedicated theater space (a 182-seat, basement-level, modular “white box” theater with twenty-foot-high ceilings). The theater’s programming is overseen by the Department of Education and Public Engagement, hosting programs typical of such a space within an art museum today: conferences and symposia, artist talks, film and video screenings, performances, concerts, workshops, artist residencies, and open studios. Simultaneous to the opening of this theater was my hiring as the Museum’s first (and only) full-time employee dedicated exclusively to public programming.

In my first year, Education produced and presented nearly 150 programs in this space. While the quantity of programs we organize has decreased by nearly half in the intervening years, the breadth, scale, and ambition of our programs and their various production demands continue to grow, requiring an expanded diversification of managerial skill. Additionally, Education now often programs events in other spaces throughout the Museum, frequently presenting events in our fifth-floor gallery space, organizing curated gallery tours throughout the building, and occasionally producing performances and special presentations in the lobby galleries.

Tara Hart: I’ve been working as the Museum’s first full-time professional archivist since 2011, when the position of Digital Archivist was created with the aim of improving access to the wealth of unique primary-source material that has been generated by the Museum. After joining the Department of Education and Public Engagement in March last year, I began working closely with Travis, Johanna Burton, Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement, and others on a number of projects that aim to expand upon and deepen the Museum’s understanding of its existing structures relative to archives and documentation. Engaging with “PAP” and the issues explored in “TPtC” provided the perfect occasion for us to examine our own best practices and strategies for preserving the wealth of born-digital documentation that is generated during the production of performances and other live events. Museums often work very closely with artists during the conception phase leading up to the execution of a work, but this engagement can sometimes appear to end rather abruptly after the event has taken place or the exhibition has ended.

Kathy and Yanira, what are your expectations and/or needs from such an institution beyond the production of the programming itself?

a canary torsi (Yanira Castro and Kathy Couch): Instead of expectations, we can speak to aspirations: the hope for an ongoing dialogue between artist and curator/institution (noting that these two are tied but distinct) and a conversation about what will and did take place and how it was understood from the point of view of the various parties who were engaged in its presentation: curator, artist, audience, et al. (And we don’t mean this as a discussion of the logistics of what could have gone better in production or marketing, though this is also important.)

The artist and hosting institution have together forged a moment and should together take the time to contextualize and process that moment. In addition to open communication about immediate framing, there should be collaborative and flexible ways to write that work in the history of that institution, whether it be through archives, documentation, discussions on the institution’s online platforms (like we are doing on Six Degrees), or a series of conversations with visitors. Perhaps one way the audience perspective could be recorded is through a “response booth.” These records could be an important resource, not only for the artist, but for the institution to have a way of speaking about, showing, and grappling with a multiplicity of experiences. Would you ever consider something like that?

Facebook page for New Museum R&D Season: VOICE, 2014 (screencap)

Facebook page for “Performance Archiving Performance” at New Museum, 2014 (screencap)

TC: Finding ways to solicit and make legible audience engagement is something we’ve been thinking about a lot lately. “TPtC” imagines a system that could produce a record of the audience’s participation in an event, with participation being defined across a broad spectrum of engagement: from merely being present at an event, to offering feedback on that event, to actually playing a role in the creation of the artwork. The response booth you suggest extends from that, and syncs with some of the Museum’s considerations about how it uses various social media platforms and the kinds of legibility these platforms are designed to support. For example, beyond the Museum’s larger social media channels, for the current R&D VOICE Season there is a dedicated Facebook community page, Tumblr page, and Twitter feed. (The Facebook page is specific to the Season’s unique thematic, while the Tumblr and Twitter feeds will continue to be used for future Seasons.)

A vehicle for sharing a variety of related content, we use Facebook to aggregate selections of research materials, behind-the-scenes photos and video documentation excerpts of Season events, artist profiles and interviews, and discursive prompts and questions posed to the page’s members, etc. The function of collecting these materials here is not primarily to archive, but to generate dialogue. Tumblr, on the other hand, focuses on largely original content that is then further distributed through Facebook and Twitter, such as interviews, short essays and editorial reflections, research, behind-the-scenes videos, and images of R&D Season production, etc. Twitter is used primarily as a tool to build “followers” for this and future Seasons, creating an accumulation of different kinds of audiences. Moderated “live tweeting” sessions could also be used to host real-time dialogues responding to events as they happen. Livestreaming, similarly, could allow for audiences from around the world to respond to events in real time. (All of this content has been produced by our current Season Fellow, Kaegan Sparks.) With the development of the new R&D Season programming structure, we continue to think through how our various online media channels, resources, and platforms function together to both document performances and ephemeral artworks and continue to engage conversation after they’ve come to pass.

Tumblr blog for New Museum R&D Season: VOICE, 2014 (screencap)

Riffing further off the idea of a response booth, depending on resources and interest, the Museum could have social media outlets available on-site as a means for visitors to leave accounts of their experiences. This could be as simple as a comments box application at a computer kiosk where visitors could leave comments, anonymously or otherwise. Or it could be more elaborately moderated, encouraging dialogues between the visitors to the museum and elsewhere, like an online discussion forum with questions and comments proposed between artists, audiences, and curators. Variations on this concept are a common convention in museums today and tie into the expectations around a museum’s mission to serve a public. However, I think museums could do this better by finding ways to solicit and record responses that are specific to the work they are presenting. I am wary of a one-size-fits-all solution that predetermines—or requires—public responses, and I do not believe the production of legible public responses should be a prerequisite for the successful presentation of art (and its subsequent archiving) in museums.

YC & KC: Your comment about using social media not as an archival tool but as a tool to generate dialogue got us thinking about how archival practices can impact the possibility for future dialogue. With respect to the structures for subsequent archiving, classification within archives sets up hierarchies, whether it intends to or not. How work falls within an archival structure affects how it will later be accessed or understood, i.e., how accessible materials are and how the perceived relationship of those materials to other elements within an archive influences future perception by researchers, students, archivists, curators, general audiences, etc. An archive embeds a history and speaks to what the institution values. How work is categorized then becomes critical to the historical resonance of that project. Therefore, archival taxonomies impact how an artist’s work is written about, presented, alluded to, appropriated, and historicized. In some instances, due to the ephemeral nature of performance, all that is left of an event is a record in an archive of the institution that presented it.

How does the Museum currently classify performance projects within its archive? Also, does it categorize performance with a distinction between performance elements in live events and exhibitions?

TH: I agree that the way performance is described1 or classified according to archival methods can often give additional meaning beyond that which is embedded in the event itself. It is important to acknowledge that an archivist’s decisions carry weight in terms of how an event or work might be received. Understandably, the relationship of performance art to its documentation through archival traces challenges traditional museological boundaries between artwork and documentation, as well as the differentiation between artwork and archive. With performance and time-based art, the boundaries between the work—be it object or idea—and its documentation are not so easily fixed.

Within the Digital Archive, performance projects, art objects, talks and lectures, and exhibitions that were presented at the Museum all appear as “occurrences,” or entries based on events that took place at a specific time and location. The attendant documentation—for example, images, audio and video recordings, and publications—of these moments takes the form of digital objects, which are linked to a record of each event in a relational, nonhierarchical structure. This structure allows connections to be made to other records of other participating artists’ engagement at the Museum, such as artist residencies and exhibitions.

We are beginning to ask artists to help select what documentation is made available. This will also give the artist the opportunity to include other forms of documentation, such as correspondence, artist sketches, and other planning documents, should they desire. Providing meaningful representation for such a wide array of engagement is always a stimulating, collaborative challenge. While a performance or event is often understood to exist in the “immediacy of the now,”2 the life of a work often extends beyond the live event and we work closely with artists to help determine the means through which the event can best live on.

The New Museum Digital Archive, 2014 (screencap)

TC: For the first few years that I worked at the Museum (2007–09), it was often necessary for me to operate, essentially, as a one-person production house, performing simultaneous functions as an event organizer, stage manager, house manager, and theater technician. As part of my responsibilities, I was also documenting events. With limited tools and staff resources, I could only manage to produce documentation in the most rudimentary way: with an old standard-definition digital video camera and high-quality audio feed from the soundboard, operated by an intern when available. (It was also prior to the availability of consumer-grade HD solid-state video cameras and digital SLRs). At the time—that is, before the development of the Museum’s Digital Archive—I had the sense that this documentation would be for scholarship purposes only and would not be publicly available, so thus we did not worry too much about its production qualities.

The huge backlog of documentation of public programs, including documentation of dozens of performances that I organized, remains largely on undigitized mini-DV tapes in standard definition. The discussion we are having now is whether these video documents, with their extremely low production quality, are even worth the time and expense it would take to digitize and process them. The Museum, it could be argued, is in the business of producing meaningful impressions—often fleeting and deliberately staged in time. Since our founding, we have maintained a longstanding emphasis on knowledge production through real-time dialogue, and there is now an increasing emphasis on performance-based modes of research by artists in residence. Our unusual relationship to museum collection policies (i.e., the New Museum is a largely non-collecting institution) underscores our interest in ephemeral modes of production, staying current, and being present. Given these factors, I think it is incumbent for us to recognize the value of what it is we produce through ephemeral modes of production and prioritize our documentation and archiving methodologies around that activity. How else will others, including those not present, be able to access and build upon this work once it’s passed? I am pleased that we now have much better equipment for recording and are in the process of revising our entire approach to event documentation, but there is still so much that I hope to be able to accomplish in this regard.

TH: The costs surrounding producing and preserving high-quality digital moving image documentation is an issue many institutions (big and small) are grappling with. The amount of documentation created and support given to a particular event or exhibition often correlates to the resources surrounding its material production. Images of events that occur here are often taken in-house by Museum staff, but A/V technicians are brought in to document select performances that require complex documentation. The infrastructure for producing events is often very separate from that in place for producing exhibitions.

TC: The distinction between the ways in which performance is presented by the Curatorial and Education Departments is sometimes difficult to discern, following an emergent interest in the exhibition of performance during the last five years. Curatorial must always deal with questions of how to actually “exhibit” performance in a gallery setting, taking into account what that means in terms of the histories of visual art, performance, and exhibitions. As a result, Curatorial generally presents performance as finished artworks conceived specifically for gallery settings by artists who are already exploring these questions as part of their practice.

Education, however, often engages performance as a tool for research as part of a larger residency or by inviting visitors into the process of performance-making through open studios and other programs. Education also uses the theater to present performance in a more traditional event-based format—with light cues, sound cues, and other conventions of contemporary theater and dance. Curatorial tends to work with visual artists who incorporate performance as part of their practice, while Education actively involves all kinds of contemporary performance-makers: dancers, actors, playwrights, directors, composers, singers, storytellers, comedians, performance artists, and so on.

YC & KC: How can the Museum collaborate with artists in making decisions about documentation and, intra-institutionally, what are the roles of the artist, curator, and archivist in doing this?

TC: In order to further facilitate the documentation process, we are introducing a customizable series of new “packages” that will offer curators and other organizers of public programs a variety of options. These “packages” will range from a no-frills, single-camera video shoot (unmanned) to a high-quality, professional three-camera video edit, plus options for professional still photography. Curators and organizers, generally in consultation with artists, will choose what best suits their program and budget, after which my team will facilitate the implementation accordingly.

By discussing documentation options as part of preproduction—and including documentation expenses as a discrete line in the program budget—we will be able to produce higher-quality records that better reflect the intentions of artists and curators. This is a step that is often overlooked in event production in favor of the immediate needs of the live experience. Placing an emphasis on recording the live experience, however, introduces concerns around its potential objectification, permanence, and distribution—and attendant commodification. Our new system encourages curators and artists to discuss these concerns early on and determine together what value to place on the production of documentation. If standard documentation is considered antithetical to the integrity of the event, the hope is that a discussion about other kinds of “archivable” traces might occur.

TH: Archival material reflects the personal as well as the empirical. With the ubiquity of digital materials, an increasing number of archivists today are working to describe current or “active” materials in addition to describing material from the past, which is a distinct shift away from a solely “custodial” model for working with archives. In my role as a Digital Archivist, this can require consultation with artists, curators, and others in order to account for multiple narratives. In some instances, I may work directly with an artist or curator to select what images will appear in the record of an event. Once records are placed on the Digital Archive, they can continue to develop and change with the addition of materials and links to related projects, events, exhibitions, or publications that may take place in the future. This process illustrates how most archives—often criticized as static sites that value monumentalization above all else—are generative spaces that can accommodate new forms over time.

YC & KC: Does the Museum see itself as a presenter of live works of art or does it see these events as ancillary to the other work it does, such as the exhibitions of objects? Because the New Museum is a non-collecting institution, it has the opportunity to level the value placed on temporal and non-temporal work and, it seems, this valuation can be most powerfully carried out through the Museum’s archive. And while the New Museum is not an actively collecting museum, it is commissioning, producing, and presenting live work that will only ever be seen at the Museum. In the artists’ minds, their work is distinctive and to be valued by the institution because its sole existence is within the Museum’s walls, making the project’s history intimately connected with the Museum itself. An example is “TPtC,” as the live archiving cannot be repeated and was an integral part of the project made entirely possible by the Museum’s support.

How does the Museum consider its unique relationship to a live work? Could commissioning live artworks for an institution be considered a form of collecting?

TH: This question is significant given the New Museum’s critical relationship to museological systems of connoisseurship, classification, display, and preservation since day one. The Museum was founded in 1977, at a time when there was a limited commercial market for emerging and avant-garde works and the New York contemporary art scene revolved around alternative spaces such as Artists Space, White Columns, and MoMA P.S.1. Founding Director Marcia Tucker envisioned the New Museum as an “exhibition, information, and documentation center for contemporary art made within a period of approximately ten years prior to the present.”3 In response to established, object-oriented structures of major art museums, the New Museum supported work that was often dematerialized and considered ephemeral.

Alva Rogers, “Black to the Future: Alva Rogers in Performance,” 1989. Performance: New Museum

The question of whether to collect presented an interesting challenge: Though the Museum was not a kunsthalle, one concern at the time was that resources taken up by a permanent collection would mean historicizing the present, thus taking the focus away from facilitating contemporary art production. Over the years, the Museum’s approach to history has progressed to consider how the New Museum’s own institutional past might inform its current program. I agree that archives have enduring value that extends beyond the life of a project.

The Digital Archive is less focused on reproduction and re-performance, in part because, as a non-collecting institution, the Museum often does not own the necessary copyrights. Though the institution does not currently seek to own, re-perform, or reproduce works of art, work should nonetheless be supported in social and material ways, some of which have been discussed here.

TC: Collecting would seem to imply ownership of a work. To reference my earlier comments about authorship and licensing, while we do not own the work that we present, we do own the documentation that we produce—owning documentation is not the same as owning a work of art, unless, of course, the documentation is the work of art. In the case of “TPtC,” some of the video documentation produced through the course of the performances is actually a part of the artwork itself, so, if the New Museum were to include any of that documentation in its own archive, it would need to first license the material from the various authors of “TPtC.” In other cases where the Museum might present a work where the documentation produced is actually part of the artwork itself, this would need to be clear from the initial proposal as, presumably, we would need to discuss what this means and work out a license agreement with the artists. Otherwise, artists are always welcome to produce their own documentation of their work at the Museum and do with that as they please.

Of course, performance is actively being collected today by many museums, and there are several artists who, in collaboration with gallerists, curators, and collectors, have essentially made the contracting process for this practice into its own kind of art form. I am interested in the notion of collecting performance as a form of institutional critique, where the artist is challenging the economic structures that separate modes of attributing monetary value to material and non-material art. While I am suspicious of the motives and outcomes of what appears to be a trend to enable the collection of live art, I am open to considering its potential wider application as a means to enable artistic production that does not revolve around the collection of objects or bodies in seats for support.

“Rhetorical Image Resource Room: A Viewer Participation Project of The New Museum of Contemporary Art,” 1990–91. Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo: Fred Scrutin


The formal acquisition of performance by museums is a relatively new phenomenon that is not without controversy. In 2008, under the direction of Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA acquired Tino Sehgal’s Kiss (2003), its first performance work with rights to re-performance. Kiss exists as an edition of four in addition to an “artist’s proof” retained by Sehgal. Arthur Lubow describes the unusual acquisition process of this work in his article for the New York Times, which, as stipulated by the artist, was done entirely as a verbal transaction. The terms that define the work and how it may be re-created for exhibition are part of this verbal contract. As with all areas of Seghal’s practice, documentation of the transaction was forbidden. Read Lublow’s article “Making Art Out of an Encounter” here.

In “It’s History Now: Performance Art and the Museum,” held in 2010 as part of the “Not For Sale” series of talks organized by Performa, MoMA conservator Glenn Wharton remarked on the museum’s recent performance acquisitions and discussed strategies that his department had begun to develop for conserving these works as part of MoMA’s collection. His comments are available here.

In 2012, Jen Ortiz, writing for Hyperallergic, asked a group of curators, gallerists, and performance artists, “Can performance art be collected or reproduced and still maintain its original message and ephemerality?” Their responses here indicate the broad inconsistencies of opinion within the field on this divisive topic.

For further examination of some of the issues pertaining to the documentation of performance as intellectual property, view these discussions surrounding the intricacies of copyright and intellectual property at the 2010 symposium at Columbia Law School “Digital Archives: Navigating the Legal Shoals.”

During the run of “PAP,” Chamberlain and Hart participated in a series of focus groups convened by the Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC) to explore the concept of an “artist-driven” archive. Distillations of this series of meetings can be found here.

“Talking Back: The Audience in Dialogue,” a recent exhibition organized by Johanna Burton and Tara Hart in the Museum’s Resource Center, presented select materials from the Museum’s history that highlight the various ways in which artworks and projects have engaged the voice of the Museum’s audience. One project revisited was “Rhetorical Image Resource Room,” which was organized by artist, theorist, and educator Julie Ault and Susan Cahan, then Education Curator. During the run of the exhibition in 1990–91, visitors were invited to answer questions about their critical and interpretative processes as audiences of the Museum. The resulting four thousand response cards were displayed on the gallery. Read the catalogue on the New Museum Digital Archive here.

1. Richard Pearce-Moses, A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology (Chicago: The Society of American Archivists, 2005), 112.

2. Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 91.

3. New Museum Annual Report (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1978), 3.

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