I have to admit, I took part in the Performance Re-enactment Society’s piece more by accident than design. It was definitely a case of “the right place, the right time”.
In the run up to the Pigs Of Today are the Hams Of Tomorrow symposium, I had seen the call out for participants and read a little about what the PRS have been doing for the last few years. It would be safe to say that I am not usually a fan of performance re-enactment. Since the Whitechapel’s series of high profile body-centric re-enactments “A Short History of Performance” in 2003 coincided with writing my BA thesis (suggesting Tim Brennan’s Guidebook as a model for how artists could create documentation that operates alongside live artworks to empower the reader to re-make the performance for themselves rather than simply to “look” passively at the often unsatisfactory and didactic “singular performance image” employed by the now-iconic Body Artists of the 60s and 70s), you could say the battle lines had been drawn.
It follows that I had not signed up to take part in PRS’s Untitled Performance Stills. That is, until Hannah and I were just passing, and wanted to drop in to say hello and see what was going on. On entering the space, you could be forgiven for thinking you had just walked into the photographic concession of a local department store – you know, the ones festooned with pictures of slightly shiny, very well-lit, smiling couples with their new baby (or dog), or slightly plump women adopting glamourous poses wrapped in feather boas, and a photographer who promises to make you ‘beautiful’. But it doesn’t take long for us to realise what is going on here is a little more complicated than that.
Someone is being interviewed on the couch about what it was like to have to re-create their chosen performance moment. Someone else is booking an appointment to take part in the process later. There are shelves full of props that people have made, sourced or brought with them. There is a kind of make-shift washing line with one or two freshly printed photographs hanging on it. The next photoshoot is in full swing and Tom (one of the PRS’s operatives) is just being called in as a prop. In a space like this, it is hard not to think about which performance moments you yourself would choose to re-enact and before we know it, Hannah and I have signed ourselves up to create a photograph of a moment from Cupola Bobber’s The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment.
It is only a few hours later, in the pub, that the political potency of our choice/decision dawns on us. If this is our chance to ensure that one moment (out of all of the performance moments we have collectively witnessed) is preserved or ‘immortalized’ as part of this new archive, have we made the right choice? Shouldn’t we be doing our bit for the underdogs, the otherwise unrecorded or unrecognised? Cupola Bobber already ‘have’ this image (Hannah has just checked, it is on their website). So why would we need to draw attention to it again? Should we, instead, be choosing something that changed the way we think about the world, or made us want to make work together? Are we making a statement about ourselves through the moment/artists we choose? Are we telling part of our personal narrative through this image? Are we setting ourselves up to be compared with these artists? Between our work and their work? Their physical characteristics and ours? Our gender and theirs?
Should we have made such a spur of the moment decision?
As artists, Hannah and I realise that the attention we pay to things increases their size and importance – that there is a certain politics involved in ‘attending to’ things through making artworks. With this realisation comes the responsibility to act in a considered fashion, to operate with an awareness of the consequence of one’s actions, to wield your personal position of power in ways that make a positive difference. Similarly, deciding what should be recorded, written about or otherwise archived for an imagined future audience becomes a task fraught with possibilities of redressing the balance of power. We are also concerned about doing a good job of it, about doing the piece that we admired justice, about getting it right (whatever that means!).
We decide that it is too late to go back, to change our minds or to wimp out and instead give ourselves over to the process itself – of remembering, discussing, recalling, “doing bits of” the performance for each other (the dance, the foot shuffle, the pulling little paper cups out of pockets), trying to remember where the bottle or the till-roll came from, in what order things happened, how one of the performers made the tower of cardboard bricks – that is very much ‘part of’ the piece PRS have engineered.
Performance Re-Enactment Society’s UNTITLED PERFORMANCE STILLS (after Eva Meyer Keller’s Death Is Certain)
While I’m writing this, I take a break and go to Plymouth Arts Centre where the photographs from PRS (and the rest of the documentation from POTHOT) are on show. On my way to the exhibition, I think about the numerous points at which this piece ‘happens’. There is the pre-event publicity and open invitation to participate, the experience of being in the space (as described above), the process of deciding on a ‘performance moment’, signing up, making the appointment and signing the contract. Then there are the activities involved in preparing yourself to re-enact the moment – the private/informal remembering, revisiting and revising that goes on, possible uses of ‘aides-mémoire’ like official documentation, programme notes or diary entries, and the industrious making or gathering of the props you will need. Returning to the formal space of PRS’s artwork, you are guided with a particular competence and efficiency through a process of re-calling and re-telling the moment (interviewed by one of the piece’s three operatives), directed towards choosing one very specific moment to re-create for the camera, and then, of course, there is the actual process of being photographed.
For Hannah and I, this involves a certain amount of hero worship. Like many of our peers, we have grown-up (as artists) in a world whose landscape and performative language has been irrevocably changed by the work of experimental theatre companies like Forced Entertainment. For UNTITLED PERFORMANCE STILLS, the Performance Re-enactment Society are working with Hugo Glendinning, who many may know informally as Forced Entertainment’s unofficial ‘official photographer’. You can imagine, then, how strange it felt being directed to shouts of “Girl on the top, I don’t think it was so funny – make it look like hard work” or “Girl on the bottom, move your arm a bit to the left” by the same person whose photographs of empty stages, of the durational performance Quizoola, or of Franko B back-stage (having his white make-up applied) we had both admired from afar for so long.
The notion of hero worship, of course, runs far deeper in UNTITLED PERFORMANCE STILLS, than this. While stepping into the place of the performers whose work Hannah and I had decided to re-create to camera, our bodies are involved in venerating the performance moment we are ‘remembering’ – attending to it in a way that we are not that used to. Usually for each of us, words (rather than actions) form the main part of our ‘remembering’ – whether this is in the re-telling of what happened in an episode of LOST, piecing together the re-called fragments of a drunken night out or the task of re-presenting our live work (as documentation) to an audience who couldn’t be there (in a situation like an artist’s talk). As we pose in our makeshift ‘set’ and the flashbulbs ping, I become acutely aware of my part (as an audience member, and subsequently my role here in producing a creative response) in the ‘making reverent’ of an artist’s work. I am reminded of the comparative ‘lack of outlet’ for audience members of live works to express the importance or relevance of what effect the work has on them – that the views or experiences of audience members who don’t happen to double-up as writers, programmers, lecturers or archivists are lost in the formalised discourse, historicization or ‘worship’ of live art practices.
PRS’s declared interest in the notion of the archive and more specifically “the relationship between memory and the archive, performance and its documents” (from Paul Clarke’s conference paper at the Pigs Of Today) might also focus our minds on the corrupting influence of such a set-up. If the archive aims to (and is expected to) provide an authoritative and ‘complete’ record of events, it is bound to fail. However, the objects that form the archive take on a rarefied status by dint of them being the only remainders of the ephemeral event they refer to. The objects in the archive (the photographs, recordings, scores, props or other remnants) ‘change’ our personal rememberings, with the possibility of bringing certain things into focus at the expense of others. Could all of this be accused of ‘leading the witness’ by suggesting an answer or ‘putting words in the mouth’ of the reader to simply be echoed back?
In some ways the physical effort involved in this re-creation also changes (or corrupts) my memory of the work I saw all that time ago – of this piece The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment that I have decided is significant enough to want to re-tell. I find out that it is not as difficult as I expect to hold Hannah on my back and move around, but having said that, I also realise that I would not personally have the stamina Cupola Bobber display in the original. And from now on, this experience of physically ‘doing it’ will forever append the original work – Cupola Bobber’s piece and this whole staged process of remembering/re-authoring have become inseparable in my memory. I now can’t see the image of them ‘doing it’ without also remembering the image of us ‘doing it’.
I also wonder whether, in this case, all of this focus on photography is a bit of a red herring and whether PRS are ‘leading the witness’ by offering a situation that is so bound up with thinking about live work/performances in terms of ‘imagery’. The controlled scope of the performance set-up leads us as participants into a relatively narrow view of what types of thing we can consider as memories of performances. The majority of the ‘moments’ photographed are centred on the body of the artist – we are asked to re-create and re-enact what the artist/body was doing ‘for the camera’, to make still what was once moving, to turn our experience into an image, to identify and re-make something ‘iconic’. There is little space for us to consider the notability of work that is ‘unphotogenic’ (not constructed around a central point of focus, or to the scope of the lens) in what PRS describe as a “tableaux of the high points from performance art history”. Indeed, I also wonder if it would not be impossible to honour UNTILED PERFORMANCE STILLS’s complex and intelligent ‘untidiness’ in the mode they put forward (the singular performance image) for our consideration?
However, the piece does not end with the photograph. When I get to the Arts Centre, I’m still thinking about these points at which the work ‘happens’. Walking into the installation of photographs from UNTILED PERFORMANCE STILLS, I am reminded that after the experience of being photographed there is also the experience of returning to the space to see the resulting photograph(s), coming to the “tour” on the last day and seeing how your performance moment/image (and those of the other participants) are dealt with by the members of PRS. In this element of the piece, each member of the PRS adopts a role as presenter rather than facilitator. As a participant, I was intrigued to see how my words were edited, how my image was taken down ceremoniously and folded into a roll of black cloth, how the objects and props used in the re-creations were distributed throughout the audience and how this new, and unashamedly ‘partial’ (in the sense of something incomplete, and also something that demonstrates a bias) archive was being re-preformed and re-presented.
It seems strange to encounter these images again in this exhibition – taken out of their charged context and transplanted into the relatively clinical environment of the gallery. It is hard to know whether they are presented as an artwork in their own right, as a document of a piece that happened elsewhere or as a re-construction of a set of ‘traces’ left in the space of the performance itself. I think about the printed copy of our co-created image I have at home, waiting to be framed and put on my wall and the one co-created by my friend Ria (after Eva Meyer Keller’s Death Is Certain) which now stands-in for her profile picture on Facebook. I like that for the participants involved these images have become part of the domestic space, inhabiting ‘non-art spaces’ in our respective worlds, part of each of our daily lives – much like the memories we previously carried around with us.
Even after writing all of this down, I’m left with more questions than answers, but that (for me at least) is a good thing!
[originally posted at http://thingsthatdontquitefit.wordpress.com in March 2010]