Ellen Friis and I first met when we both studied theatre history in Copenhagen in the 1990s. Back then, performance art was presented as a thing of the past. Often the text was accomplished by a picture of the performance, and if we were lucky, we got to see a badly recorded video clip. That changed when we both moved to Berlin in 2000; not in the least because the interest in performance art returned during the 2000s, and we had the possibility to watch live performances every week. In 2004, we founded Live Art Denmark.
During our theatre history studies, the general perception agreed with Peggy Phelan’s emphasis that performance art is ephemeral and cannot be saved, recorded or documented. It exists here and now and only for the bodies present. Others stated that performance art defines itself as resistance or a political art form—also in relation to academia; in resisting any categorisation.
It always felt odd that, while studying performance art, we were told it could not be studied, because we weren’t present when it happened. Many performance theorists deny reproduction, but the artform finds itself surrounded by structures built upon documentation. This contradiction somehow made the study even more interesting.
Live performance documentation
Since we founded Live Art Denmark, we have filmed and photographed innumerable works. Our homepage features text and photos from over 300 works presented by us, of which more than 200 are available in our YouTube channel. Along with documenting our own content, we explore various ways of documenting performance art. We are asking: What exactly do we wish to document? The atmosphere or the content? The number of objects? Why is it important to save that work? What do we want the documentation to DO? To whom and how many? Must a documentation always be for all eternity and for all? Or could it be just a few years for a single person as a private memory? Do we document for the archives or for a new audience?
Alain Badiou wrote about “the passion for the real”[i], describing how avant-garde artists have felt representative of that passion. This is why performance artists mostly prefer to work with real material in real time and avoid mimicking something else.
The first work presented by Live Art Denmark in 2004 was Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport, a performance lecture by Tanja Ostojić. In August 2000, Ostojić published an ad with the title “Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport”. She exchanged over 500 letters with applicants from around the world. After a correspondence of six months with a German artist, she arranged a meeting as a public performance in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in 2001. One month later, they officially married, and Ostojić moved to EU/Germany. Her performance lecture was a presentation of the work up to her marriage. They had to stay married for five years in order to keep her in the EU. The whole project took several years and without proper documentation, it would have reached only a limited audience. The performance lecture added new layers to the work, so it became difficult to separate the live performance and the documentation of it. As Simone Osthoff writes in Performing the Archive:
In many performance and real time events, the documentation of artworks often ended up exchanging places with the works themselves. Documentation usually made in a different medium from that of the “original work” went on to perform its own engagement with audience and often through the mass media. Art’s emphasis on real things, eventually structures, real gestures in real life, as a result, eventually transferred the question of representation to the realm of documentation (usually in the form of photography or video).[ii]
Tanja Ostojić: A Dinner Conversation, a performance lecture on The Integration Project which included Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport. Photo by Gert van der Pumperlei.
Recording works has some practical relevance in relation to foundations or for the artist to keep for his or her own purposes. But we have always felt that a good documentation should become a new performative experience. This text tries to outline some of our thoughts presented along with relevant works. About half of the projects described have not been hosted by Live Art Denmark—but we would have loved to. Good documentation is an art form in its own right!
This was definitely the case with the second performance we presented: Wagner-Feigl-Forschung/Festspiele’s Encyclopedia of Performance Art. In the 2004 version, they introduced their work by saying how performance artists often find it difficult to know if their material has already been used by other artists, so Otmar Wagner and Florian Feigl set out to create the Encyclopedia of Performance Art. For instance, they had a long chapter on the use of tomatoes in performance. Which artist has used tomatoes and what is the difference between tomatoes and ketchup in performance art? The work was received happily by the academia, which could see a lot of uses for the encyclopedia, but it was never the intention of Wagner and Feigl to create a complete real encyclopedia of performance art, but rather to inspire themselves and others.
In their most recent work at Sophiensaele in Berlin in 2020, they disassembled a car and used its different parts in various smaller performances, examining other ways to let a car perform and exploring the history of performance art. One night was a light performance lasting only so long as the car batteries could power the car lights. The work is full of references to other performance artists, such as Wolfgang Flatz, Chris Burden, Wolf Vostell and more. If these other works had not been documented, the performances of Wagner and Feigl would have looked very different.
Artists need to see previous works by other artists to develop their practice and not to repeat the past. Without proper documentation, scholars will not see, compare and discuss work of important artists. Museums and galleries will not exhibit it and a wider audience will not gain access to it. Good documentation is necessary to secure performance art as an art form.
Documentation has been part of our practice since 2004. Not only does documentation have a larger audience than the actual works, but documentation is often the work itself, or inseparably intertwined with it.
In the work Shoot (1971), a friend apparently shot Chris Burden in his arm. The performance was documented with several cameras, but in the material Burden presented to the public, the actual hit is nowhere to be found. The sound of the shell dropping to the floor is all.
When he was invited to the Venice Biennial some years later, he gave each person lining up outside his tent a private version of the events. If the shot actually happened was already dubious, and the many slightly different versions told in the tent did not serve to decrease the confusion. But since the work is about expectations, media and disorientation, this was a brilliant way to document it, which was in itself a new work and an unforgettable experience for those present, as well as an intriguing and amusing story for anybody else who just heard about it.
Nick Kaye writes, “If performance can exist by means of rumour, then the conventional opposition between the ephemerality of live art and its material remains becomes uncertain, as works may gain their currency primarily through these remainders.”[iii] In 2001, I saw a performance ES GEHT UM DIE WURST by Lars Ramberg at Kunsthall Oslo. Sausages, an expensive car and a garage—it did not make sense until he talked with Ramberg at a bar later.
Ramberg and three others had travelled from Berlin in a Mercedes with 100 kg of wieners. At the time, it was forbidden to bring meat into Norway for the fear of pig flu. They crossed the border to Norway from Sweden at a remote border, in order to pass discreetly. Each of them stuffed 25 kg of sausages in their clothes and crossed the border. Then they went to Oslo. It was a fantastic story, but at Kunsthall Oslo, the public performance consisted of a screen picturing four persons at a gas station somewhere in Germany. That was it. If you wanted the whole story, you had to speak to the performers afterwards.
In 2007, Live Art Denmark presented Christopher Hewitt’s The Performance Art Jukebox at the 3rd Berliner Luft festival. Hewitt was presenting his archive of performance art. If somebody wanted to see the Chris Burden clip, they could; but what was more important than the footage was what people had heard about it. Hewitt added his own gossip. Some works described at the jukebox were stories and rumours from the performance art milieu. They might have been made up, but that did not make them less interesting. Sometimes the inside story of an artist´s struggle to realise his or her work is more impressive than the actual work.
In 2011, Live Art Denmark screened a couple of Marcus Coates’s works at our own forum “Samtalekøkkenet”. In The Trip (2011) he worked with dying people at a hospice with the intention of realising whatever undertakings they had not realised in their lifetime. One had always wanted to paddle down the Amazon river in a canoe. Coates did it for him and took photos—but in return, he chose not to reveal the pictures but to describe the trip orally to the man in so much detail that the man would have his own memories of the trip. Only a video of the grey and dull London street seen from the hospice window was shown during the forum. Apparently, the viewers must create their own images, too.
The oral documentation of the trip down the Amazon river was of greater importance than a photographed documentation. Of course, you can never be completely objective in a documentation, but it is always a decision: Do you strive to be objective, or do you leave more to the imagination of the viewer or listener?
Marcus Coates: The Trip. Still captured from the video.
A documentation should address the essence of the work. For this reason, documentation may not be the best word. Perhaps “publication” as suggested by Izabella Borzecka[iv] is better, in the sense of “making public”, of reaching people and of making the work come alive for a new and wider audience. At Live Art Denmark, we do not document performance art works for the archives, but for future audiences, so we are always concerned with the performative potential of the documentation.
A documenter can decide to document selected aspects of the original work, like the actual order of events or the atmosphere. But the feeling of “live” and “now” must be most important, because this is what defines the art form compared to other art forms. How do we preserve the intensity of the “now”? How can the documentation perform and create a new “now”?
Pictures of performance or performance photo
In 2014, we were invited to host a project at Overgaden – Institute of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen during the annual event Culture Night. Here, we invited three established painters to create paintings on adults’ faces, hence it is called Face Painting for Adults.[v] It was a scary situation for the painters who usually work unseen in a studio, and it was also a new experience for the visitors to have a painting on their face which would usually cost a small fortune. Their only way to keep the painting was to photograph it and/or carry it.
Katrine Ærtebjerg: Face Painting for Adults. Photo by Ellen Friis.
This was a work in several steps. The painters became performers, and after being painted in their faces and proceeding into the street, the guests became performers as well. As the images spread in the social media, the work had a third life where it performed yet again to a new audience. It was a deliberately short-lived documentation which investigated how traditional painting and performance art differ in duration, production conditions and economical value.
Photos are a great way of documenting performance art, because a picture can make a work look really exciting, even if it is not. Art museums are quite aware of this, and some seem to purposely invite artists whose works are Instagrammable. A key component in a good documentation is engaging the viewer physically, intellectually or both. Today everybody has a camera in their phones and like to take pictures, especially if they or their friends are in them.
But photos are also great because of the way our brain works. When experiencing a work only partially documented, the brain will start filling out the missing information by imagining the work and creating inner images. A good documentation puts the viewer to work. Photos as documentation work through what they do NOT tell. A brilliant artist knows exactly how much to reveal and what not, in order to engage the viewer. From a conversation between Alastair MacLennan and Amanda Coogan transcribed by Áine Phillips, “Both Alastair and Amanda agreed that still photographic documentation was often more useful in transmitting a vivid sense of what a performance work is about.” Amanda Coogan further said the “a live performance sometimes cannot be translated. I’m often happier with the stills, but they go somewhere else.” Áine Phillips added that “the photographic still documentation image often provides a mysterious open space into which the viewer can project meaning imaginatively.”[vi]
Chris Burden was the master of the willfully fuzzy documentation as described. Another is the Danish artist Lea Porsager, who participated in dOCUMENTA (13) with the Anatta Experiment (2012). It evolves around Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland. In the early 1900s, this magnetic hill was attracting anarchists and occultists. In the summer of 2011, Porsager invited seven friends to Casa Anatta, Monte Verità’s principal building. Their work during this week was exhibited at dOCUMENTA as a collection of “mystic” and almost undecipherable images. Almost.
A third example is Hayley Newman, an English artist, who published a book called Connotations – Performance Images 1994-1998 with images from the works she had done in this period, and also from the ones which remained ideas at the time. She still felt, however, that they were a part of her practice and background, and decided to stage them all for a camera during one long week. This week was of course in itself quite a performance, where she would change hair length and skin colour constantly to match the relevant year and season for that work.
In most museums, performance as an art form lacks a well-defined space. There is no standard method for displaying and preserving the art form in the museums. Painting has established preservation techniques, but in terms of performance art, you have to deal with each work individually. One cannot simply return to a performance like to a painting, and for the visitor’s statistics, museums prefer something with a longer duration than performance art normally has. A common way to solve this is to work with relics and leftovers from a live performance.
In her performance Heavy Light, Danish artist Sophie Dupont created canvasses with print that can be exhibited or sold. Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen used another method. In the week before the opening of an exhibition, she invited family members and other artists to work with her on different materials. In 2002, Tone Avenstroup created an exchange library for performance art in Oslo, an archive with performance objects from her past. You could exchange them for objects from your own performances—if they had a good story—and this kept the exhibition alive.
Sophie Dupont: Heavy Light (Kulstof 15 / Nordkraft Aalborg Denmark). Photo by Ellen Friis.
The archive is a format which dates back to earlier centuries of the Wunderkammer or the cabinet of curiosities, where strange or everyday-like objects and documents were archived according to individual principles and rules. According to Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, the first archive was the ten commandments:
Arkhé, as you know, names at once the commencement and the commandment. We have here, apparently, two principles in one: the principle according to nature or history, where things commence (physical, historical or ontological principle), but also the principle according to the law, where command, authority, social order are exercised, the place from which order is given (nomological principle).[vii]
A present-day version of the Wunderkammer is the German Boris Nieslony’s archive “Black Kit” in Cologne, where everything, even remotely performance-related, is stored alphabetically in boxes and folders. Under the letter K, for example, you will find performances from KANADA, Indian religious rituals performed on KNEES, and the urn containing the ashes of his friend Norbert KLASSEN.
Like photos, writing is a form of documentation that works really well. One of the best books we have read about Josephs Beuys’s works carefully describes a performance action by action. It requires the reader to participate by forming internal images. We used this method at our own four Berliner Luft festivals from 2004 to 2009, where we presented German theatre in Copenhagen.[viii]
But the written record can also be a performative investigation in its own right: Allan Kaprow described a woman keeping a diary of her walks in a daily changing landscape of sand in a study of whether one can recreate exactly the same walk from a description.[ix] A similar study was described in 1843 by an important Danish performance artist, Søren Kierkegaard, who lived all his life in Copenhagen and left the country only twice—once to go to Berlin, where he visited the theatre, and then again to Berlin to see if repetition is possible at all. This investigation was described in the book Repetition by the fictive character Constantin Constantius. Ellen Friis reenacted this walk as part of her Six Saints series.[x]
Ellen Friis: Six Saints. Photo by Gert van der Pumperlei.
Johannes from The Seducer’s Diary was another Kierkegaard’s character. His many identities and investigations of the blurring of art and life in writing are very modern and point to the works of the Danish Madame Nielsen, for example. Madame Nielsen was born Claus Beck-Nielsen in 1963. In 2001, he declared himself dead and became an institution, Das Beckwerk, which went on to produce art works, installations and books. Still, people continued to refer to it as Claus Beck-Nielsen. It was nearly a decade after his death that a funeral was decided to be held. In 2011, an effigy was buried, and in 2013, Madame Nielsen appeared. She performs, sings and writes books.
Like documentation can be performative, so can art criticism—performative criticism. The duo Open Dialogues and their project Critical Writing on and as Performance by Mary Paterson and Rachel Lois Clapham took up ideas in existing live art works, investigated and explored the paths, the works could still take. They also arranged a seminar called “Critics & Cocktails” in Copenhagen as a part of Mary Paterson’s residency with Live Art Denmark in 2014.
Process-based art forms are not defined by their endings and results, but by their outset, their connection of ideas and their ability to lead to new places. The evaluation of a process should be a process itself; or of the process as a process. How does the expectation of the next action influence what you are seeing?
Perhaps the most common documentation format is film and video. For traditional theatre, it can be fine, since the stage is often presented like a flat TV screen anyway. Everything that happens is registered, which can be practical for a precise reconstruction in museums, but rarely provides an interesting experience in itself. Perhaps even because the viewer sees too much and has no incitement to imagine the missing information.
Several of the artists mentioned here planned the documentation carefully before the execution of their works. An artist like Christian Falsnaes has been working with very professional recordings of his performances, and the documentation often IS the work. In 2006, Philip Auslander wrote in “The Performativity of Performance Documentation” that “the acts of documenting an event as a performance is what constitutes it as such.”[xi] That goes for many of Falsnaes’s works. He was a part of our iPad-performance series called “Now and Again”, which intended to generate new performative situations. Besides Falsnaes, Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, Joachim Hamou, Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt, Ellen Friis, Stine Marie Jacobsen, Erik Pold and Olof Olsson participated. The works were presented one by one during 2014 at Fotografisk Center in Copenhagen.
In his performance for “Now and Again”, Falsnaes asked the viewers to dance with him and touch themselves inside a box, which at some point could be observed from the outside by other visitors as well. This was also the first time Falsnaes used a digital media to ask questions directly to the viewers.
Christian Falsnaes: Now and Then. Stills captured from the video.
The video format also offers possibilities for manipulating time and space. For instance, Marcus Coates utilises the video format to speed up time in Local Birds (2001), so that the performers will twitter and tremble like their favourite birds.
The virtual reality archive of performance art
After years of working with various means of documentation, we took up virtual reality: When a new generation of VR technology emerged in 2016, we acquired a small 360° camera to test if it was any good. We had an idea that it would be perfect for the typical small performance that lasts about 20 minutes and is watched by eight to ten people in a white gallery space.
The results were convincing, so we bought a more expensive camera (Insta360 Pro) in 2018 with 6 small lenses which can record in 8K. Of all the documentation we have tried yet, it comes closest to simulating reality. In addition to the work itself, the viewer experiences the mood in the room and the interaction with the audience, and has the same freedom as in the real world to turn around and focus on what they want to inspect, whether it is the sideman, the sky or the artist. Currently we have some goggles with an internal hard drive which holds about 20 excerpts of work. It can also connect wirelessly to a computer, giving access to full-length recordings.
We have travelled to Cameroon, Toronto, Stockholm and many more places. Here the goggles function as a pocket-sized festival which will give others an impression of Danish performance art. At the same time, we film new works and bring them home.
Apart from virtual reality, we are also following another trail. Maybe the event score can be termed the oldest way to document performance art. The event score was especially popular in the 1960s. Fluxus movement, and the Futuristic Cookbook (1930) were a forerunner. Here, artists would write recipes for art works in a poetic language, which were probably not meant to be reenacted by the reader, other than in his or her imagination. The event scores from the 1960s and forward could be very poetic in themselves and were also meant to be realised in many cases.
We have been interested in scores since our days of studying, but never found the right occasion, until we read Ken Friedman’s score Fluxus Instant Theater (1966): “Rescore Fluxus events for performance by the audience. A conductor may guide the audience.” Then we started to collect event scores to present them in workshops and in a revue format called the Virak Revy, which consists of 15 works that we create together with the audience.
One of the works is Make a Salad (1962) by Alison Knowles. By (re)creating that work, you are invited into the choices of an artistic process. Should you make a small salad of leftovers from the fridge? Or thrown 100 kg of salad from the balcony of Tate Modern to form a salad? Why one rather than another? Traditional drama and sheet music for actors and musicians pose similar challenges, of course.
We have both worked with remakes of other artists’ works during our solo careers. In the fall of 2019, we staged a version of PLAYING UP, a game produced by Fundus Theater in Hamburg and Live Art Development Agency in London. It consists of 36 cards about performance art history, explaining the works in a few short sentences and offering the audience the objects and tools to recreate the works for fun. It was first exhibited in Tate Modern in 2016, and by Live Art Denmark in Copenhagen Contemporary in 2019. PLAYING UP was the perfect continuation of our own way of working with performance art.
Henning Christiansen: The Green Ear (1984). From PLAYING UP – Nordic Version.
Marina Abramović said earlier: “The only real way to document a performance art piece is to re-perform the piece itself.”[xii] This holds true for her work Freeing the Voice, which is included in PLAYING UP. It was performed in Budapest in 1976. In the video recording, Abramović was on her back and tilting her head so the audience and the camera had her face in full view. Re-performing the action and experiencing what it does to one’s own body adds an important new dimension to the work, which goes beyond reading about or watching it.
A game of live art is a work in itself, as well as an instruction for others to play. Other artists have also worked with the game format, such as English Joshua Sofaer. He has developed a performance artist game for the family, but also investigates other reality-TV inspired formats, such as public treasure hunts and voting for a certain citizen to reach instant fame by having his or her “name in lights” over a large building in the project by the same name.
Since 2019, we have invited artists in residences at Copenhagen Contemporary to develop a recipe from the work they present, so that the educational department can use it in the future to reconstruct the works with new museum guests.
Different works demand different means of documentation. Some works are better off without documentation while some others are best suited for images. It is necessary to decide whether the documentation should be an artwork in its own right, and this could ideally be planned into the original work even before presenting it. Also, the documentation should reveal just the right amount of information, not too little, and even more important, not too much. The viewer needs to be engaged with the work by filling out the missing information with his or her own imagination.
(This text is finished with the assistance of Ellen Friis.)
[i] Alain Badiou. The Century (Oxford, UK: Polity Press, 2007): 1.
[ii] Simone Osthoff. Performing the Archive: The Transformation of the Archive in Contemporary Art from Repository of Documents to Art Medium (New York, US & Dresden, Germany: Atropos Press, 2009): 58.
[iii] Nick Kaye. ”Liveness and the Entanglement with Things” in P. Clarke, S. Jones, N. Kaye & J. Linsley (Eds.) Artists in the Archive: Creative and Curatorial Engagements with Documents of Art and Performance (London, UK: Routledge, 2018): 26.
[iv] Izabella Borzecka initiated PAM which is a place for experimental publishing, art and movement-based practices. For details of PAM: https://www.pamsthlm.se/
[v] For details of Face Painting for Adults: http://liveart.dk/face-painting-for-adults/
[vi] Áine Phillips. “Art, Live & Videotape” in L. Keidan & A. Wright (Eds.) The Live Art Almanac Volume 3 (London, UK: Live Art Development Agency & Oberon Books, 2013).
[vii] Jacques Derrida. Mal d'Archive: Une Impression Freudienne (Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression) (Paris: Éditions Galilée , 1995). [English translation by Peter Krapp: http://hydra.humanities.uci.edu/derrida/arch.html]
[viii] Henrik Vestergaard & Ellen Friis. Berliner Luft – a burp from the lower regions (Copenhagen: Forlaget Gruppe Press, 2009). http://liveart.dk/2015/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/berliner_luft_endelig_elektronik.pdf.
[ix] Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (London, UK & Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA, US: University of California Press, 2003): 212-215.
[x] Six Saints: Søren Kierkegaard was performed at the Mellemrum Festival (Kitt Johnson) in Copenhagen in 2008. For details of Six Saints: Søren Kierkegaard: http://ellenfriis.dk/?page_id=163
[xi] Philip Auslander. “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 28, No. 3, (September, 2006): 5.
[xii] Nancy Spector, Erika Fischer-Lichte and Sandra Umathum. Marina Abramović: Seven Easy Pieces (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2007): 11.