You Didn’t Have to Be There…

As promised:

http://fora.tv/2007/11/14/Photography_and_Contemporary_Performance_Art

This is a link to a panel discussion on the relationship of photography and performance art, featuring RoseLee Goldberg, Babette Mangolte, Vanessa Beecroft, and of course, Marina Abramovic.  I think that this is a really great discussion of the topic, despite the fact that some of the the concerns don’t get fully addressed.  It focuses (photo pun!) mostly on the larger more central concerns of photography as documentation, such as the idea that photo compresses something that is time based and ephemeral into a single static moment, the fact that the photographer should at all times be a representative of the truth, and of course the question of when and how documentation becomes a work of art in it’s own right.  It’s difficult to clearly delineate these issues as they all become muddled together, one tying into the next, and feeding back out of another, however.

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Personally, I think I struggle the most with the first concept, the fact that photography can never capture the entire scope of the performance.  The best that it can hope to do, is to give a good sense of how the performance looked, an impression of what happened where and in relation to whom.  It can never capture the “vibe” of the experience, or the dynamic between viewers/participants and the artist.  And yet, at the same time, the photographs exist as a type of proof that the event happened for galleries, press, or of course in our current situation, act as evidence for our next studio visit.  But, aside from proof, why must these images be created?  I go back and forth on this hourly…

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Very early in the video, RoseLee Goldberg makes the point that often times people are told that “You have to be there (at the performance), to understand.”  Her response is that, well, she wasn’t at the Battle of Waterloo, or any other number of historical events, but she can still appreciate their significance.  In her view, experiencing performance via photography is legitimate.  I however, am not so convinced on this logic (Isn’t the saying that history is written by the victors?).  These “documentary” images of a performance are not the objective records we believe them to be.  Photographs can easily be misleading or even misused after the fact, leading to interpretation or opinions that may not be in line with what the artist intended.  In fact, you can have a terrible performance, or even one that never actually took place, evidenced beautifully in a still photograph.  Then, even if the images captured reflect, at least, the essence of what the artist was going through, they are very carefully edited and circulated by the artist themselves, there by controlling the interpretation of the work.  Chris Burden always had his performances documented, but culled the documentation down into one or two photographs that were then used to represent that piece of work for perpetuity.  Babette Mangolte also points out that art historians tend to follow a similar behavior pattern in their realm of research.  Instead of looking for many images from the same performance, the habit of art historians is to viewing only published documentation, thus narrowing the field through which the work is encountered.

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All of this leads me to wonder exactly how right it is to “experience” a performance via photography.  Photography lies.  It always has, and will continue to, be it through the medium itself, or those who make use of/study it.  I think our society is more in love with the idea of a beautiful image than we are with the truth.  Marina Abramovic makes a wonderful point when she says that art historians typically only concern themselves with the still photo because it aestheticizes the performance in to  one single thing.  In essence, it that image becomes one single, easily digestible tidbit, which can easily come to stand in for the piece in it’s entirety.  Which is where we cross into the territory of the documentation become a work in it’s own right…

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This is another aspect of this discussion for which I don’t have a really good answer.  While most of the art we look at is viewed through documentation, performance art is almost exclusively viewed this way.  Because of the fact works are often only performed once, or done for a specific place, or the artist has passed, the only way we can access those pieces is through their documentation.  So when galleries or museums wish to show a piece of work which no longer actually exists, what is there to do but use the documentation, making it an art work in it’s own right?   Finally, there is the need to take into consideration the idea of photography itself as a performance.  In this respect, Cindy Sherman could be creating a performance every single time she creates one of her images.  Think also of the Yves Kline image, Leap into the Void, a composited image of an event that never truly took place.

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Some things I had never considered, that this panel brought up, was the concept of the importance of sound to a performance and it’s documentation, and the idea of “collaboration” with a photographer.  The idea of sound I think is a truly crucial one that photography has no hopes of addressing.  All performances have some type of sound associated with them, even if it is only the ambient sound of movement, or of the space itself.  That has an impact on the way a performance is perceived, and that is not captured in a photography.  When we look at photographic documentation of a performance, we cannot get even a sense of what the space sounded like, and so we lose that important information for our interpretation.  Lastly, in the panel, the question is raised as to how the artist relates to and works with the photographer.  Oddly enough, this thought had never crossed my mind.  But it makes sense, if you’re attempting to capture your performance, the relationship to the person documenting it becomes something of a collaboration.  You have to understand them, and they you…  There’s a necessity for being on the same page.  However, this then raises the question of creative rights.  Does the work belong to the photographer, do the images belong to the artist?

It’s murky water my friends.

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