Blogs The Green Room Susannah Schouweiler

Deborah Hay: Turn Your F’ing Head!

For the last few months and up until the new year, the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Work Group, of which I am a member, is organizing a variety of visiting speakers and events each of which is designed as research into how interdisciplinary matters engage individual practices in a variety of ways. As a member of the […]

For the last few months and up until the new year, the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Work Group, of which I am a member, is organizing a variety of visiting speakers and events each of which is designed as research into how interdisciplinary matters engage individual practices in a variety of ways. As a member of the IWG, I chose Deborah Hay to be our first speaker since she has had a profound influence on my life and has developed endless strategies to rely on the wealth of information our beings have to offer while “dislodging,” as she puts it, “old patterns.” Seemed like the right starting point to shake up our ways of operating and to open up the conversation. Deborah will be returning to the Walker in December as part of a mini-festival of her current work in relation to the 50th anniversary of Judson Dance Theater.

The IWG invited writer Susannah Schouweiler to sit in on our events, and write up her account of the proceedings. Here is her first dispatch, with many more to come:

The IWG is organizing eight meetings between now and December 2012; they invited me to attend in order that I might serve as a chronicler of sorts – I’m being allowed intimate access as a participant and witness to these private sessions, in order to provide an enduring account of whatever stories and the insights may emerge in the course of our conversations.

For our first conversation in early May, Walker performing arts assistant curator Michèle Steinwald selected our presenter: dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay, an artist renowned as much for her innovations in writing on dance and educational practice as she is for the raw inventiveness of her choreography.  A small group of us, just 11 in all, spent the day in informal conversation with her in the large conference room on the top floor of the Walker. It was a bit awkward at first – everyone knows one another, of course, and the vibe is collegial, but none of us know what to expect from these discussions. Deeply embedded though we are in a workplace driven by meetings, we’re, all of us, a bit off kilter by the lack of formal agenda or explicit objectives.

Hay and Steinwald begin informally – some introductions, a little small talk. Then Hay, a natural storyteller, begins. We ask questions, but mostly she talks for a while and we ease into her narrative with a little background; as the conversation sprawls into a second, then third hour, we begin to ask questions. She talks about her uniquely meditative style of practice and performance, and ultimately, her own idiosyncratic iteration and interpretation of “interdisciplinary” work.

Hay’s mother was a dancer; she says she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t dancing as well. She grew up in Brooklyn and recalls seeing every Balanchine premiere from the mid-1940s through the ’50s, and going every year to Radio City Music Hall to watch the Rockettes perform with a live orchestra (“those were the only times we’d make that train trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan,” she laughs).

She tells us about a formative experience in her teenage years, sneaking into Merce Cunningham’s closed rehearsals at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut one summer. She describes hiding just out of sight, so she could watch their rehearsal sessions: “I flattened myself on the floor of the balcony so I could watch them practice – no music, just continuity/discontinuity and moments of synchronicity. I was there every night, completely mesmerized by what was going on onstage.”

By 19, she was attending classes in Cunningham’s top-floor studio on 14th Street and 6th Avenue in New York City. Cunningham, of course, is famed for his interdisciplinary partnerships with artists like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Hay says, “Dance and art was enmeshed for us; we were partying together, eating together, making work with and about each other. There were openings every weekend, all of us seeing each other’s work. It was a very interconnected community, and I loved it – I was so comfortable there.”

But, she says, that very comfort began to chafe and, in the late ’60s, Hay left her New York life for a fresh start as part of a commune in Northern Vermont. She says, “It was the spirit of the time to go off and do that. I was one of its more passionate victims. I burned everything – all the records of my life – to get back to the land, leave all else behind.”

And still, she danced. In a tiny studio in northern Vermont, “where no one really cared about dance,” she practiced alone, daily. She says she aimed to reconfigure her perception of the three-dimensional dumb meat of her form; she wanted to create dance with and from what she calls “the cellular body” – all 385 trillion cells alive and conscious, performing individually and in concert.

She describes her routine:

“I’d lock myself in a room for one hour; I was going to listen, perform, and surrender to the dance that emerged from my body, from every cell simultaneously, each and every moment, for one hour. The rules I gave myself also included not allowing practice with anything accumulated from the day before. Sometimes, I spent the time with my nose in the floor, in tears.

I did that every day for six or seven years. And in the course of that practice I learned to surrender – what it means to ‘dis-attach.’ Over time, I learned to trust that my body had an infinite source of material, a new dance for me every day, as long as I stopped looking for it, attaching to its end. That wasn’t my intention, but that’s what I discovered.”

OF COURSE, I’VE HEARD THE PHRASE “POETRY IN MOTION,” even used it on occasion, but until Deborah Hay, I’d never really witnessed a literal exemplar. And I don’t mean it in the flowery sense you usually hear that cliché – hers is a raw sort of poetry, visceral, instinctive, beautiful in its authenticity but far from pretty. To see Hay dance is to be ensnared by sheer force of will and utterly focused, unstinting attention – on her movement, her every limb and gesture, her evolving situation onstage and, in every moment, on you, as well, the viewer, in relation.

Read Hay’s scoring for a dance, any score, and it’s immediately clear she never offers mere stage direction or choreography in her writing about the work, although there is that. Rather, her dance annotations are animate meditations, musical wordplay peppered throughout with little images, elucidating notes and pregnant fragments of poetry. None of these are static things but suggestive and inviting of elaboration — like conversational prompts.

Her writing about dance grew from a practical need to find a language with which to articulate the inchoate experiences, the nonlinear feedback from her body in the studio, for her own and her dancers’ sakes. “I thought, I’d better put this into some linear form, to give dancers a frame for what they’re experiencing.” She goes on, “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from my body – from the experience of the ‘cellular body,’ and then from the act of squeezing that experience into a linear form. The feeling, the experience comes first; then there’s the naming of it, calling it into being. … Writing about it creates a space for others – dancers and audience – also to talk about it.” She describes this transliteration of experience into words in terms of looting, or of alchemy – the act of turning one thing into another.

She describes her practice rooted in the ‘cellular body’ as “playing awake,” saying: “I have to trick myself into being in this body, into noticing time passing, so that I’m there, in that room, in the experience. I can’t grasp it all, and that’s precisely the point — and I love it — because it means I have all this work I can do, in the name of dance, in the name of research, in the name of caring. I trick myself.”

Her “tricks” take the form of “What if” questions. She explains, “What if questions are playful, they don’t feel too extreme; the stakes aren’t high, they’re not invasive, and there’s room for endless variability of response. But it gets the imagination moving, the questions give permission to experience things in a new way.”

Some examples:

What if where I am is where I need to be?

What if every cell in my body could notice the feeling of time passing — could experience its own mortality, the sense of hanging on, then loss?

What if I were to dance as if every cell in my body invites being seen?

“I’m not attached to an answer,” she says. “It’s only about the question, about staying in that question and therefore staying in the body, noticing feedback. I’m in the practice of posing impossible questions – I can’t get it. I’ll never get it. Simply asking the question dislodges old patterns, gives me room to enlarge myself into a new kind of experience.”

Hay recalls a moment of epiphany, seeing herself on video some years ago performing with her head rigidly facing one direction; seeing that, she had a flash of insight: “Turn your fucking head!” And in subsequent practice, she did: “It totally changes your experience of what you’re doing, what you’re noticing as you do it — simply in the act of turning your head. How differently my body feels when I turn my head, when I also get information from over here! Once you decide on a direction, it edits what you see, what you perceive.”

As our conversation draws to a close — after hours of listening and asking questions, of her and of each other, the implications of Hay’s insights for worlds well beyond dance begin to resolve into view: what’s the tension between instinctive creativity and run-of-the-mill institutional hierarchies? How might we free ourselves in the moment, to see our tasks and operate differently? What might be accomplished in the act of deconstructing fruitless mores and habits? How could we changes our modes of working to affect more agility, more harmony?

Steinwald observes: “The idea of the importance of one’s direction, of ‘turning your fucking head,’ it’s also relevant to this notion of ‘interdisciplinary’ as being the spaces between – between front and back … maybe on the diagonal?” Steinwald wonders aloud: “What are we editing out when we work according to habit,” inside the comfortable boundaries of our usual workplace interests and obligations? What might we see in the spaces between if we only turned to look?

Isn’t this precisely the promise of true interdisciplinary practice? That invention springs from working in the unfamiliar zones between the silos of specialty, and doing so in such a way that one is, quite deliberately, always off-kilter. Zen practitioners call that fertile discomfort the “beginner’s mind.” Travelers know it for the anxious exhilaration that comes from exploring utterly foreign territory without a map or knowledge of the language.  Actually, it seems fitting that genuine discomfort, what Hay calls a sensation of “catastrophic loss of former behavior,” is the necessary companion of such preternatural awareness and sensitivity.  Seeking out real experience in the moment and genuine insight, outside the twin constructs of habit and preconception – that’s inherently risky business.

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.

Cataloguing performance: Who owns what?

What about the notion of ownership – how does that work in the context of performance? It’s a loaded word, to be sure, but one that comes to mind for many in the museum community when you start talking about performing arts, using language like “commissions”, or “collections,” or “acquisitions.” The question arises in the […]

What about the notion of ownership – how does that work in the context of performance? It’s a loaded word, to be sure, but one that comes to mind for many in the museum community when you start talking about performing arts, using language like “commissions”, or “collections,” or “acquisitions.” The question arises in the group discussion: Is it even appropriate to use such language in the context of performing arts? If not, then what, exactly, is the museum’s stake in its commissioned works, and what sort of institutional history is tied up in its internal cataloguing of its investments in such performance pieces?

Peter Taub, of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, observes:

 “The notion of individual ownership just doesn’t apply; there are usually multiple commissioning partners behind the development of any given performance work, with shared, vested interests who are all involved in bringing that work to the stage, bringing it to completion. But those commissioning institutions also invest in residency time, in developing contextual material, and building and maintaining a web presence. How do we effectively use all these cohorts, these collaborative partners with a stake in a work, to create a commitment to quality and protocols for consistent documentation of that work? Various museums may have a different valuation for such archival materials and their use; there is no guarantee ‘documentation’ means the same thing to all of them, across the board.”

Chuck Helm of the Wexner Center for the Arts responds, “How then do you position your own investment and institutional history? Your ‘reputational capital’? Is ‘collection’ the way to talk about that?”

Joan Rothfuss, a curator and art historian, clarifies the point nicely, saying:

 “How does any institution actually ‘own’ a commission? A collection includes more than just the objects owned by the museum; an institution’s holdings are not really about collecting and buying, at their heart. ‘Collecting’ works is primarily about preserving and protecting them, presenting them for the public. The process of documenting a performance work for the ‘collection’ provides an institution with the opportunity to delve into what that work is about, to introduce it to people, expand the context to place it in conversation with other objects and projects also important to the museum. ‘Collecting’ a piece is a way an institution declares its commitment to making the work a community resource, something shared –  it’s not a declaration that the work is something to have and hold, separate from that community.”

Sarah Schultz, in the Walker’s education and community programs department echoes that sentiment, saying, “Yes, in my experience, including something in your ‘collection’ speaks of commitment. Given the notion of a museum as a body of people who are producing knowledge around objects and performances, as such when it commissions a piece, its intellectual capital is then dedicated to keeping these works alive. If it’s not in your ‘collection’ you may give these things less attention than those your institution has committed to in that way.”

Ben Harrison of the Andy Warhol Museum then brings up the sticky issue of profit: “Where does packaging and restaging the works in a museum’s collection fit in? Is the work remounted? Beyond stewardship, what about the financial considerations, the revenue generated for an institution by loaning out or remounting its ‘owned’ pieces? At the Warhol Museum, for instance, we generate much of our income through preparing curated packages of work in our collection for touring exhibitions.”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Interscape" (2000), with costumes and décor by Robert Rauschenberg. Courtesy Tony Dougherty

And what about this: Even if you’re unconcerned with remounting a performance piece, what if, as an institution, you simply want to “animate” the pieces in your collection? What sorts of gestures can you use to bring the history of a work to life, in the exhibition of archival information and materials about a performance work after the fact?

Along those lines, Sarah Schultz of the Walker asks, “Do we have the rights to recreate those Rauschenberg costumes (in the Merce collection) for educational purposes, for a program or event? Can we create a facsimile of those materials for the sake of ‘animating the collection’ for gallery visitors?

Trevor Carlson, of MCDC quickly responds, “No, your ownership doesn’t extend that far.”

Bonnie Brooks, the Legacy fellow for the Cunningham Foundation, continues, “This brings to mind George Ballanchine: When he passed, he left his dances to a number of people, each of whom then owned the rights to those dances. What that suggests to me is there’s a precedent we’re not talking about – that particular works could be owned by someone other than the maker. There isn’t a lot of precedent for the situation, granted, but an institution might suggest they want to ‘buy’ intellectual rights to a piece, that they want to actually own every aspect of it. That may be part of what lies ahead in terms of various rights to and ownership of work.”

Philip Bither weighs in, saying, “That’s a very provocative idea, isnt’ it? But right now, a bedrock value [here] is that ownership stays with the artist. It’s written into all our commissioning agreements at the Walker: We don’t own the meat of the performance itself. Maybe, if ‘collection’ as the working lexicon is a distraction, perhaps we should change the vocabulary – call these performance commissions our ‘archive collection’ or something less loaded with connotations of ownership.”

Michele Steinwald, assistant curator for the Walker’s performing arts, goes further, saying “We’re like early investors, entitled to something like royalties if a show turns into a blockbuster, but that’s the extent of our ‘ownership’ to a work.”

“The desire to monetize the investment around commissioning work is a controversial one,” responds Bither. “And it’s something we, as the commissioners. have mixed emotions about it. You hear about the occasional blockbusters, which offer dividends to their investors (like, say, A Chorus Line). But the fact is: most of the artists we work with will never see commercial benefits, or any sort of big compensation for their work. Even if they do, our contract still doesn’t really stipulate hard details about ‘royalties,’ just that we’ll have a conversation about profit sharing if the situation arises.”

Bonnie Brooks, with the Cunningham Foundation, says, “Commissioning performance isn’t acquisitive, though. As you describe it, it’s a transactional relationship between the artist and the institution. In that case, you can discuss the trail of the performance, the tracings left behind – but the work and its documentation is simply not a collectible, as such. With regard to performing arts and visual arts: you just can’t compare the two; it’s apples and oranges.”

What happens when those categories between disciplines aren’t so neatly defined?

Robin Dowden points to an example: “Tino Seghal was commissioned by the Walker as ‘performance art’, and his work is catalogued and marked as part of the visual arts collection. Eiko & Koma were commissioned also, but Naked is not in the catalog because it wasn’t formally acquired in that way, but rather served as a kind of ‘performance’ in the galleries. How do we mix these very different sorts of projects the institution’s supporting together in a meaningful way, a coherent way – regardless of whether they came in through door #1 (visual art) or door #2 (performing art).”

And this brings the conversation in the group down to brass tacks: Assuming the artist and institution are on the same page about documentation, its contents and aims and end users – What is the best way to keep track of the information?

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Minutiae" (1954) against the backdrop of Rauschenberg’s work of the same name. Photo by Herb Migdall, 1976, courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation

This is where the grant from Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) comes in. Three partner organizations, funded by IMLS, are working on a new project to develop open source innovations to help with such institutional information gathering and preserving, CollectionSpace. Those partnering organizations – the Walker Art Center, Museum of the Moving Image, and University of California-Berkeley — are each working in a difference “community of practice” to build cataloguing software that might be seamlessly integrated into the working lives of museum professionals working with a variety of objects and information. For its part, the Walker is in the process of developing such cataloguing software for performing arts. The larger interest, by CollectionSpace and IMLS, is in establishing common tools for museums and institutions to use to change how we manage, care for, and store collections information.

Angela Spinazze, our workshop leader, closes the day’s conversations by inviting a group critique on some of the Walker’s initial forays into that new way of classifying and storing performing arts information; Robin Dowden presents a series of “wireframes” to give an idea what various cataloguing ‘pages’ might look like.

Spinazze raises this issue to the group: “At CollectionSpace, we’re trying to move in a direction that keeps true to record-keeping practices that we already know work, while also taking advantage of new software tools so that adapting to changing technologies isn’t such a burden.” She goes on to ask, “Why do our software applications feel so clunky to use? As we develop these common tools, we want to make our respositories for information more intuitive to use, because the cumbersome applications we’ve been using thus far have resulted in unhelpful silos of information, separated by department and which can’t easily be cross-referenced with one another.”

She says further, “This IMLS Grant gives us an opportunity to talk about ‘communities of practice’ – that’s why we’re talking with you, the people who work in these fields of practice, because you know best what you need to make your work flow more smoothly. We hope to share tools, share technology, and in so doing come up with common practices and interfaces that make all your jobs easier. But first, we’d need to settle upon some shared definitions of terms and establish some common goals for our ‘collections’ information.”

“Ultimately,” she says, “with a new way to gather and store information that’s more in keeping with the way your institutions and artists need to use the material gathered, we want to change the paradigm for the catalogue – not how you do your work. We’re building a new foundation, a framework on which to build what’s common across your institutions. Then, maybe we can also offer a way to configure an open-source software application to help toward that end, something any institution with similar concerns can access. This is a community-sourced approach that will always be freely shared and at no cost to users – it’s a public, not private good.”

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Related links:

Read the first post in this series on cataloguing performance - “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle.”

Read the second post in the series – “How Do You Keep Both History and Magic Alive?”

Read the third post in the series – “Opening the Kimono – How much to reveal and to whom?”

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.

Cataloguing performance: Opening the kimono – how much to reveal and to whom?

As we move from topics of content to access, Trevor Carlson of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company introduces the question of restricting the flow of some information about a work, privileging the use of the archive of a performance work in its entirety for only a circumscribed field of researchers and objectives. He also suggests […]

As we move from topics of content to access, Trevor Carlson of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company introduces the question of restricting the flow of some information about a work, privileging the use of the archive of a performance work in its entirety for only a circumscribed field of researchers and objectives. He also suggests that as a group, museums clarify the important distinction between the work and its documentation, arguing that the relationship between them be articulated explicitly and managed consciously in consultation with the artist responsible for the piece, and from the beginning.

In response to talk from those working on the institutional side of things, about the desire for access to everything that goes into a work, about the need to catalogue as many aspects of its creation as possible for the sake of institutional and cultural posterity, Carlson demurs, “I hear something like, ‘we have to capture what we can’ from an institution, and I get more and more protective – of the dancers in the union, of our presenters, of the artists working on the production. When you’re commissioning a piece, there are opportunities for conversation with the living artist, to include them in the decision-making about what to include in the ‘catalogue’. If that conversation about documentation is in place before the actual event occurs, you’ll have a lot less push-back later, not to mention the opportunity to establish something greater than you’d have done without the artist’s insights.”

Joseph Beuys, Filz-TV (Felt TV), 1970. This multiple, a relic of Joseph Beuys' action Felt TV (1966), is composed of three props (the boxing gloves, felt pad, and sausage) and a film of the performance. (Courtesy of the Walker Art Center)

He goes on: “Let’s change the question about who sees the full archive, and direct it, generally, to the artist as the decision is being made. The artist as well as the institution needs to be involved in defining these terms: e.g. when we say something is needed ‘for archival purposes’ – what does that really mean? You need to ask the artist their position on how the information will be used and by whom. There’s a certain opportunity that exists in having that conversation, and in including all the artists responsible for a work — making those decisions about documentation on a case by case basis, rather than assuming there’s a certain formula applicable in every case, or a one-size fits all technique for preserving all work like this in the future. This has to be a two-way conversation. It’s just not something the institution can or should decide on its own.”

Besides, he says, “we’re putting the cart before the horse, talking about documenting something after the fact. Perhaps the artist could be asked the question about access at the time the commission is first made: ‘What do you want to capture and why?’ For instance, Beuys wanted to preserve the experience he created, and took steps to ensure that it was captured for posterity – but, even with all that documentation, we still don’t know what it was like to be in the gallery with him. With Merce, the relationship between [the work at the documentation] was very clear and comfortable: He was making performance, not film/dance [even if that performance was captured on film] until he was making film/dance. His performers wanted to work with him to perform, not to be documented. In fact, we have an agreement in place about such filming, because you go about performance in a different way when you’re being documented; the documentation piece is a separate work, an edited work that gives the illusion of capturing a discrete performance, but which takes place over the course of a whole day, maybe, in conversation with both a director of the film and the artist.”

He goes on: “And so many artists have bad video. How do you respect the artist’s art, what they’ve made, with the documentation that accompanies it? That’s an important question, too.”

Which raises another interesting concern: What is the status of the documentation as a work of art in its own right? Where does authorship come into play in this situation? How much weight does (and should) the mediated, historical documentation of a work have in relation to the temporal work itself in the archive?

Philip Bither offered this insight: “The reason for the tradition of single-camera documentation, a static video of a performance shot from the back of the house, is precisely to capture a temporal experience of the performance for archival purposes, to have something by way of a record, but where no one is telling you where to look, where no director’s vision is shaping the experience for the viewer, and no documentarian’s name is attached to it. It might be grainy, ‘bad video,’ but it’s as close as we can come to unmediated documentation. It’s never intended for public consumption, but it is something which is very useful for artists looking to recreate the performance later, or artists looking to glean insight into the process of creation.”

At this point, the workshop participants break into small groups, to brainstorm “user personas” for just who might end up using the information they and the artists gather for an institution’s collection catalogue. Who will access this historical data? What are their reasons for tapping the archive?

It’s interesting that, when all the small conversations are reported back to the group, everyone has imagined a user base for this 21st century “catalogue” that includes but goes far beyond the usual assortment of library patrons. They’ve allowed for use of the collection catalogue by documentarians, scholars, museum professionals and working artists, all of whom are accessing the archive for information about staging or re-mounting work, or for historical context or behind-the-scenes details. But in addition, with the prospect of an open-source, digital archive for such information, universal access (or something very near) to at least some of the information gathered in the cataloguing process becomes a real possibility. Each small group’s scenario allowed for new kinds of public interest – e.g. the casual “sporadically interested cultural consumers” who happen upon a digital museum performance archive through the caprice of a random Google key word search, by way of a moment’s whim.

All the presenters and curators in the room, of course, are interested in the possibility of engaging those happenstance users of the archive. Perhaps, they argue, we can leverage what’s available in our online catalogue to entice these happenstance dabblers into attending some of the live events, or entering further conversation about the ideas raised by the work, or accessing related materials and programming the museum offers. All agree: part of the benefit of a compelling performing arts “collections” catalogue would be engagement of that new user segment, those who come via alternate points of entry on the web, to cultivate a broader audience base.

Jasper Johns, A set of seven inflatalble plastic pillows that are painted wilth images taken from Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-1923 that were created for Merce Cunningham's "Walkaround Time" dance performance 1968. (Courtesy of the Walker Art Center)

Then Ben Harrison of the Warhol Museum puts a fine point on the question: “How much do we want to open our kimonos to casually interested members of the public? How do we invite these users of a web-based archive in, engage them and encourage them to seek out accessing more, but without giving away so much sensitive and detailed behind-the-scenes data about the work to just anyone who happens by. If we give access to too much, I think we risk not serving the best interest of the artist or the institution?”

Walker visual arts curator, Betsy Carpenter, followed up: “And who among the stakeholders has the privilege of providing both public access and stewardship of those materials in the catalogue? Who ultimately owns the documentation about work in the collection? What if the artist’s and institution’s needs and desires in that regard aren’t aligned?”

And that’s the big question: Who owns what here?

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Related links:

Read the first post in this series on cataloguing performance - “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle.”

Read the second post in the series – “How Do You Keep Both History and Magic Alive?”

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.

Cataloguing performance: How do you keep both history and magic alive?

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 […]

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?”

Joanna Scavone performing Bruce Nauman's "Body as a Sphere" for the Walker's 2009 exhibition "The Quick and the Dead"

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?

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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.

Cataloguing performance: How to catch lightning in a bottle

Performance is by nature fleeting. It’s also an inherently interactive thing, both experiential and situational. The congeniality of the venue and its relation to the set design, the  mood of the performers, the vibe and make-up of the audience, even the weather outside that day – all are variables which affect the tenor and character […]

Performance is by nature fleeting. It’s also an inherently interactive thing, both experiential and situational. The congeniality of the venue and its relation to the set design, the  mood of the performers, the vibe and make-up of the audience, even the weather outside that day – all are variables which affect the tenor and character of a given show, rendering each iteration of a performance work as unique and ephemeral as a proverbial snowflake.

If you’re a museum which “collects” performing arts, where does this leave you?

One can capture something enduring, and representative about a performed work. There are the surrounding accoutrements, of course: set pieces and design elements, costumes, rehearsal and staging notes, musical scores, installation instructions, marketing and promotional materials, programs and playbills. And then you have documentary records: production photographs, video, and sometimes even extensive, interactive digital archives juxtaposing several re-creations of a given “piece” or a single artist’s body of work, evolving over time.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Antic Meet (1958), with costumes and décor by Robert Rauschenberg Courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation

In addition to these, there are critical and audience responses to the work – the public discourse performance generates, which makes its own, auxiliary and enduring cultural contribution. Those responses include the criticism published by traditional media outlets (e.g. magazines, newspapers, online arts magazines, and alt-weeklies), but also less formal but increasingly influential platforms – the sort of audience response one finds shared on blogs or among “friends” and “followers” in social media circles.

Up until now, it’s been that larger conversation about the transient experience that has given a performance work its own brand of cultural immortality, providing both context for and narrative about that shared moment in time which may linger long past a show’s run time. Those stories we tell each other about performed works, whatever newfangled media we use to do so, are how we’ve stored those passing experiences.

Memory and shared conversation – those have really been the tried and true ways to catch that lightning in a bottle.

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When we think about institutional collections, the very language of “acquisition” centers on the object – things you can tag, box up, and keep in storage until such time as they’re brought out and installed for display, good as new and virtually unchanged. But in the last 50 years, museums the world over have broadened their collections to include performance, numbering works by the likes of Tino Seghal, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Marina Abramovic, or Eiko & Koma among their acquisitions.

Eiko & Koma, "Studies for Naked ", 2010 Photo: Anna Lee Campbell. "Naked" is a Walker Art Center commission and was developed in part during a creative residency at the Park Avenue Armory in New York during the summer and fall of 2010.

Unlike the straightforward, transactional nature of object acquisition, when a museum commissions a performance work from an artist, “it’s more like seed money, an investment in an artist’s career; in exchange they promise that they’ll use those funds to make something” which the institution, upon the work’s completion, has an enduring stake in, says Michele Steinwald, assistant curator for performing arts at the Walker Art Center.

So, how might an institution like Walker Art Center catalogue and archive its performing arts acquisitions? What does it even mean to “catalogue performance”? What sort of information do you gather, how do you frame it, and in what format do you keep it?  Who’s going to use it and for what purpose? Where does re-creation of performance fit into the discussion? To what extent is the artist brought in to determine the archive’s constituent or narrative elements? What sorts of tools and software might be helpful in creating such a thing?

For the institution grappling with these questions, it really boils down to a simple but thorny issue: If you’re in the business of acquiring performance work what, exactly, is being collected? What do you keep as its token, and to what end?

This week, the Walker is hosting a conference tackling just these questions: the center has invited twenty-some people in the field who are immediately invested in their resolution – archivists, curators, presenters, art historians – to spend the day ginning up some ideas together, both practical and philosophical, that might offer some new ways to think about “cataloguing” performance and other multidisciplinary, ephemeral works. Robin Dowden, Director of Mew Media Initiatives at the Walker and one of the organizers of the conference, says, “We really don’t know what all this means yet. We’re hoping to learn from the experts in the room and from the insights that emerge from their conversations  in tomorrow’s workshop.”

Big Dance Theater, "Supernatural Wife", commissioned by the Walker Art Center. Photo by Mike Van Sleen

Sarah Schultz, from the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department, observes, “It comes down to a question of how to document and hold on to an inherently temporal event; it’s the difference between a collection of facts about a performance and the experience itself. You can’t collect an experience, but maybe with multiple sources and perspectives on it, you can document a performance thoroughly enough to offer a kind of approximation after the fact.”

The topic of “cataloguing performance” is especially timely for the Walker, given this year’s Merce Cunningham acquisition and opening of the related exhibition (a vast collection of sets, props, costumes, and selected documentation of the visionary choreographer, who was known for his collaborations with numerous leading visual and musical artists and designers of the past 60 years). In addition, as part of the Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue project, with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, the Walker is working to develop and manage replicable catalogue software for its performing arts collection within CollectionSpace. The hope is that the observations and insights from the gathered, shared expertise offered by those participating in this week’s conference might help inform the museum’s efforts in those endeavors as well.

Check back here over the next few days — I’ll be reporting from the workshop Friday to share some of the big themes and nuts-and-bolts ideas alike that come out of the group’s sessions throughout the day. Then afterward, I’ll do my best to synthesize what I’ve learned from them, and distill any big-picture themes one could take away from the day’s confab.

Art’s a slippery thing — increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative, rich with experience-based cross-pollinations. The issues of cataloguing performance and other ephemeral art aren’t going away any time soon. And these questions aren’t just pertinent for museum professionals. With the move to digitize museum collections and archives, to make them universally accessible, what was once the privileged and insular domain of specialists, curators, and presenters is becoming ever more democratic. Soon enough, we’ll all have access to much of the information in these records. So, the priorities and boundary lines set by institutions about, say, performance — the definitions of terms and the narratives that will give museums a way to classify performing arts, as their shared institutional taxonomy toolkits are developed — will surely become the intellectual seeds that grow to shape the way we think and talk about such work in the larger cultural conversation, too.

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Related link: For a thoughtful perspective on the issue, and a window into the day-to-day practice and decision-making involved in such cataloguing work, read Brooke Kellaway’s recent interview on the Walker Blogs with Coventry University professor Sarah Whatley, about the development of the digital dance archive Siobhan Davies Replay.

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.