Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Issue of Documenting Live Art

A persistent issue and ill-addressed problem for at least forty years, the documentation of live art remains how most of its audience sees (and not even remembers, but really sees and experiences for the first time) the ephemeral form of bodies in motion. I am personally referring to the last forty years since the Happenings took off, an era of contemporary art I only know from articles, videos, and retrospective exhibitions. While the discussion on documentation has often circled in and around the visual documentation of performances, especially on photographers as creative collaborators, and in past years to the rise of performance on and for screen as a third medium born and separate from film language and choreography, I am interested in where the written word fits into this collective archive of sensory perceptions.

In looking up information on any past live art work, the search yields a textual summary of the artist and a description of what their work has been like in the past. Descriptive writing is blind writing, and can be written with or without ever seeing the live work. In fact, the majority of writing about past live works and interventions has been written from a perspective that has never experienced the work live, but only read about, researched through other texts that may have also never experienced the work first hand, but experienced through visual archival materials. Researching live art is a practice in mummifying a living form. This type of writing is supplementary, and they continue to hold an important place in our cultural memories to preserve a work for posterity (for value), but this type of writing will rarely ignite the work and its issues.

While the overwhelming majority of arts writing is supplementary, this fact alone is more reason than ever to explore the creation of parallel texts, especially in the arena of live art. By parallel texts, I am expressing a desire for words to transpire what the writer is thinking and feeling and experiencing based on their experience of a work in context. A writer is not only there to reinforce a legacy of thought; a writer must eventually form their own thoughts and thought processes. The creation of parallel texts is grounds for revaluing the writer as more than just a scribe, but as an informed filter, if not translator -- which perhaps is a role I value because there is a connotation of skills both technical and poetic in practice. There is still room for theoretical referencing and philosophical pondering (if that is already inherent in the writer in question), but there is also room for transgressions of form and understanding, of repositioning the work relative to various interpretations and histories rather than prescribing meaning from a top down position of didactic information learning.

This issue rears its head again as I leave City of Women in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a festival with a vision of   politically charged aesthetics and critically-minded intensities. Currently led by Artistic Director Mara Vujic, the festival has an atmosphere conducive for critical thinking amidst the wide ranging styles of live art presented. There were plenty of formal and informal discussions held during panels and in the post-performance marathon gatherings, but now, looking back, how do I capture what was seen and felt and discussed without being pedantic?

For instance, how do I write about La Pocha Nostra's remix, Psycho-Magic Actions For A World Gone Wrong? The descriptive text is available through the link provided, but what must be written after one has gone through this one-off interaction of protestations and provocations? Especially since the performance was designed to be interactive with the audience, how do the photographers and writers interact and document at the same time?

Maybe we just do what we can, when we can.

The festival photographer, Nada Zgank, was the busiest person all night, dodging through the crowd from one side of the room to the next as all four sides of the black box theatre were in constant action that swelled and dipped in harmonious correlation with each other. Audience members were also busy snapping shots, reinforcing a fourth wall mentality of entertainer and audience, most disturbing to self-reflexively watch during moments of physical harm both potential and real done not just to the performers, but also to audience members. We as roaming audience members were free to focus on the given choices of violence, greed, desire, and all the other nitty gritty symbols that keep our world in motion. I tried to keep moving like a shark, but I kept finding myself in front of Violeta Luna's platform. I stood transfixed by her revolver of imagery and props that transformed into machinations of the vulnerable body. I was passing Luna's stage again as a new costume change occurred, and her assistant gestured for me to come closer, to go up on stage. I obliged, and I sat down on the lone chair present on stage. She started taking my jacket off, which I then did so for her, and then she gestured for me to get up, to turn around and place a knee down on the chair and hold onto the back of the chair. Before I knew it my shirt was lifted up past my crouched shoulders, my bra unclipped, and my back was brushed before being thrashed by a bouquet of fresh roses. The sudden surprising smell of the roses stirred up a memory of the last time I inhaled this perfume, off the island of Arran this recent summer, which then had conjured up another memory, one of rose water and what the means to me and whom that reminds me of. A rose is a rose is a rose is a smell and a trigger and a flood of experiences and memories. I was present and I was participating. I was only snapped back by the sudden presence of the Nada moving in front of me, raising her camera, and I became hyperaware of my position on stage, with my shirt half off, noting the unflattering angle this would be in, and I flinched.

There may be a photograph out there documenting this moment live in real time, and there is now this text to document what was thought and felt in real time. Together they still only capture a small refraction of what really happened, which was only a short moment in an evening long series of interactions, and so, the issue then is not of documenting live art, but the lack of documenting live art through a multitude of practices and perceptions.

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