Performance is by nature slippery—the work exists only in the moment of its enactment; later, as something remembered or recounted in stories, it’s filtered through someone’s lens. What’s more, performed work itself is inherently fickle. The congeniality of the venue and its relation to the set design, the mood of the performers, the vibe and composition of the audience, and even the weather outside that day are variables that affect the tenor and character of a given show, rendering each iteration of even the same piece as unique and ephemeral as a proverbial snowflake.
So, if you’re a museum that “collects” performing arts—and there are many that have made it a practice to do so in the past half-century—where does this leave you?
In early November, the Walker flew in various experts from around the country to discuss this very question. The timing coincides with the institution’s work on the development of new, open-source cataloguing software for performing arts, and on the occasion of its acquisition of a vast collection of sets, costumes, and props from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, some of which are on view now in the exhibitions Dance Works I: Robert Rauschenberg/Merce Cunningham and Dance Works II: Merce Cunningham/Ernesto Neto.
The assembled group for a daylong workshop on issues raised by cataloguing and collecting performance consisted of independent scholars and writers, web developers and software wonks, videographers, performers, presenters, archivists, and curators representing the Andy Warhol Museum, the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the New York Public Library, Wexner Center for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society, and the University of Minnesota. Participants quickly got down to brass tacks: What does it even mean to collect performance? Given its intrinsically fleeting nature, what, precisely, is an institution to tag and catalogue? Who owns this material? If you’re dealing with recordings, where does the notion of authorship, of creative control, and profit sharing come into play?
Surely such a catalogue should amount to more than mere accounting, more than just a bare record of payments received and sent, performance dates and times, and video recordings to satisfy the bean counters. Even the archive should have “real life,” says Bonnie Brooks of the Cunningham Foundation, and offer a meaningful experience of the performance, even to newcomers to the work who will never actually see it onstage.
But what might that look like? And just as important, why collect this information in the first place?” Ben Harrison of the Andy Warhol Museum, put it, “What’s it all for? Is it just a time capsule?”
It becomes clear as participants talk that, for them, “capturing” a history means digitizing information as well as assembling news and interviews about a work and gathering audience responses (for “valuable texture,” one says). Such a history also involves not only collecting the sets, props, costumes, and media recordings of the event, but also artists’ notes, scores, and documentation of script readings, workshops, and open rehearsals. The aim seems to be to gather in one place a record of all the steps that go into the making of a thing, and to begin doing so long before the premiere. The assembled professionals discussed cataloguing this work as an active process, the cultivation of a living archive. If you want to really understand a work, they say, you must know something of its makers.
And there are pragmatic concerns for comprehensive behind-the-scenes records, too. Trevor Carlson, of the soon-to-be-disbanded Merce Cunningham Dance Company, observes: “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? Our interest is in making that information accessible and reliable, and on our terms, for the sake of paying respect to Merce’s legacy.”
But Carlson also cautions: “The artist needs to be part of the conversation about what will go into the archive—the catalogue—and how and by whom the information gathered will be used. This has to be a two-way conversation. It’s just not something the institution can or should decide on its own.”
Indeed, as the group conversation progresses from the constitution of archival content to questions of access, it’s clear that everyone in the room imagines a 21st-century web-based catalogue of performance works that could be utilized by a pool of users that includes but far exceeds the usual assortment of library patrons. Among them are documentarians, scholars, museum professionals, and working artists, of course—all of whom tap an archive for practical information about staging or remounting work, for historical context or behind-the-scenes research. But one must also consider more casual cultural consumers who might happen upon such an archive by way of a random Google key word search, a moment’s web-surfing whim.
Ben Harrison, of the Warhol Museum, asks: “How do we invite these users of a web-based archive in, engage them in our institution’s offerings and encourage them to seek out more, but without giving away too much sensitive data about the work to just anyone who happens by? If we give access to too much, we risk not serving the best interest of either the artist or the institution.” Walker visual arts curator Betsy Carpenter follows up: “And who has the privilege of providing both public access and stewardship of these archival materials? Who ultimately owns the documentation about work in the collection? And what if the artist’s and institution’s needs aren’t aligned?”
Ownership is a loaded notion, especially in this context, but it’s also an inescapable part of the lexicon of the museum, where the object is central and terms like “commissions,” “collections,” or “acquisitions” are part of everyday parlance. But is it even appropriate to use such language in the context of performing arts? If not ownership, then what, exactly, is the museum’s stake in its commissioned works for the stage? What sort of investment—one of the assembled curators calls it “reputational capital”—is tied up in its performance history? Joan Rothfuss, curator and art historian, suggests shifting our thinking from “ownership” to conservation and keeping culture for the public trust: “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, to expand the context and 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, not to be held separate.”
Philip Bither, the Walker’s William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, affirms: “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.”
Bonnie Brooks, with the Cunningham Foundation, agrees: “Commissioning performance simply isn’t acquisitive. It’s a transactional relationship between the artist and the institution. 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.”
So what do these archives offer, then? If “tracings” of performance works, this extensive catalogue and accoutrements gathered and preserved after the fact, are to have “real life” of their own, and provide a meaningful, stand-alone experiences for their viewers—given the absence of the animating players onstage, what might that look like?
A friend and dance writer I work with, Lightsey Darst, recently wrote on the notion of “dance as still life” for an online arts magazine; it’s a response piece to the Walker exhibition Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg. Her provocative insights have been mingling, in my mind, with the issues of this “cataloguing performance” workshop from a month ago.
Of the Walker’s display of the lauded dance company’s famous-artist-rendered apparel and décor, she writes: “The historicizers have plundered what was live and frozen it to the walls. Some of it is arranged in vitrines, little contrary-to-life dioramas of costumes and props.… Costumes are squashed in narrow drawers, like dead butterflies, and some few things hang from the ceiling in corners, looking tatty and saggy.… I admit to a fundamental reservation about dance décor being mounted as artwork; this is not the use for which these objects were created. Also, I must confess that I have no respect for history, where history means that things are valuable because of their associations, because Robert Rauschenberg put them together, because Merce Cunningham wore them.”
Later, she writes: “So everything here looks a little muddy at the edges, the costumes a little sweat-stained—well, it is over after all.… What is this detritus of your love? Are you glad that someone has archived it?”
And, on the one hand, of course, she’s right: these objects are but peripherals to the main event; and seen alone, bereft of both purpose and performers, they’re dimly visible shadows of the resplendent and transient work from which they spring.
There are stories in these objects all the same, and stories worth seeking out. They’re of a different nature altogether than those spun by the performances for which they were made, but the tales told by this tangible flotsam and jetsam are nonetheless integral—interwoven through the warp and weft of the making of the work. The value of the stories in these objects, to my mind, lies in the seams they make visible in what appears seamless, even immaculately conceived, onstage: the sweat stains, worn corners, and tatty edges speak of the manifold labor, the human ingenuity and long hours spent involved in making something appear effortless.
Susannah Schouweiler is editor for arts writing and criticism at mnartists.org, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She blogged November’s discussions on collecting performance for the Walker Performing Arts blog.