The multi-faceted practice of preserving performance arts in the digital age can be traced back to the 1980s. Arguably, the earliest examples consist of sound recordings captured to audio compact discs, followed almost immediately by the use of the less popular, now obsolete, CD-ROM format. This line of thinking about digital preservation instantly proposes a parallel lineage for performance arts documentation, which is separate from the now ubiquitous use of the Internet. To put it simply, preserving performance arts in the digital age involves more than preserving whatever is disseminated over the internet. The use of CDs since the 1980s highlights the obvious fact that music is as much a performance art as theatre, dance, live art, and other such forms of performance that are rarely suited for preservation through digital media.
In discussing digital preservation in the context of the performance arts, the first thing to keep in mind is that not all the performance arts can be preserved in the same way. Furthermore, aside from music and other sound-based or lens-based performance, ontologically ephemeral performance arts—perhaps a better term for capturing the slightly broader spectrum of performance beyond the performing arts—defy the very notion of preservation. We should not, however, overlook the possibility of preserving aspects of all performance arts as time-based arts.
When considering digital preservation, it is essential to distinguish between the various types of performance arts, approaching them as complex time-based phenomena. Conventional expectations and traditions associated with them over time make dance, for example, a form that can be annotated, and most drama, for another example, essentially a script-based form. Dance notation and play scripts are therefore prime methods for preserving the key mechanics of a choreographer’s work or the authorly intentions of a playwright. However, further processes of documenting are required to preserve the dancer’s or actor’s craft in interpreting the choreography or the dramatic text as written. Any taxonomy of performance arts would also indicate that the choreographer’s role is also aligned with that of a theatre director and not just of the playwright, thus proving the point that different forms of performance require different considerations in terms of preservation.
The very nature of ephemeral arts implies that they are meant to defy preservation. The momentary experience of the live event, or the perishable object, are not resigned to be preserved. The wide-ranging types of ephemeral arts have been extended further through the use of media technology, at least since the invention of the camera capable of capturing still images in an instant.
In many cases, when a performance is captured through media technology for an audience outside the immediate physical space occupied by the work itself during its execution, regardless of whether recording devices are involved or not, the live performance is extended into a new spatial dimension. This new spatial dimension may be within the relative control of the originators of the work or one which is created accidentally in the process of remediating the work to an audience located outside the immediate physical space of the performance.
Once a recording device is introduced into the equation, a new temporal dimension is produced for the originally live work. The extension of these two dimensions of ephemeral performance makes for a new way of thinking about the preservation of performance arts. This way of thinking predates the digital age, which has brought it to the fore as a concern and a ubiquitous practice.
The difference between the creation of documents from performance and the processes of documentation has been the focus of my own work since around 2010. My main argument is that the term “documentation” is often used as a synonym for documents from performance which are not preserved in useful ways. Documentation, as proposed by information science, necessitates the preservation of evidence in ways that make the document accessible and potentially reusable. The point about reusability is why music recordings, dance notation, and play scripts are widely considered to be useful documentation of original works of performance, even if incomplete in terms of the live experience produced by the original production of the work. Documentation, however, can and must go well beyond music recordings, dance notation or play scripts.
The need to address these ideas systematically brought me to the development of a working group with TaPRA, the UK-based Theatre and Performance Research Association. When Nicola Shaughnessy and I first convened the working group on documenting performance in 2010/11, we were driven by my distinct desire to focus not on documents as objects but on the processes of documenting as a practice. This is a subtle but essential shift that moves the centre of attention towards an activity that has hitherto been grossly underexplored in Performance Studies and practiced in misguided ways by artists untrained in long-term preservation of their own works.
In this context, documentation is not about the contents or objective qualities of a document but the making, preservation and potential reuse of that document. From a noun associated with documentary evidence to a verb describing the act of creating and collecting documents. The TaPRA working group on documenting performance has attracted interest and contributions from computer scientists, archaeologists, architects, visual artists, archivists and digital data preservation specialists. Not surprisingly, it has also drawn in participants from several other countries outside the UK. The work of a significant number of participants in this working group appeared in a special issue of the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, published by Routledge in 2014, under the theme of interdisciplinary approaches to documenting performance. This paved the way for a subsequent book, published by Bloomsbury’s Methuen Drama in 2017, called Documenting Performance: The Context and Processes of Digital Curation and Archiving.
Book launch for Documenting Performance in London (Photo courtesy: Toni Sant)
There are others working in this area, both in the UK and in various other countries around the world. Within the UK, the Association of Performing Arts Collections (APAC) takes a pragmatic approach to the subject matter, providing opportunities for archivists and others working with them to network regularly and share good practice from their own work on the preservation of performing arts archives. Established in 1985, APAC is the UK National Centre for SIBMAS, the International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts. The larger organisation, SIBMAS, offers a broader perspective on the preservation of performance arts. Many points of view on preservation in the digital age are based on long years of considering performance heritage and the preservation of intangible cultural heritage. Digital technology has altered the ways performance arts can be documented, and therefore preserved, based on the evolution of production methods for performance arts in contemporary contexts.
At the Digital Curation Lab, which I have led at MediaCityUK since 2019, the focus is on adopting international standards for digital preservation on intangible cultural heritage collections. While this is a slightly broader approach than the preservation of performance arts collections, or of individual works of performance arts, the approach enables a stronger connection with digital preservation professionals, whose skills and knowledge are essential to the useful preservation of performance remains for long-term access and potential reuse.
An essential first step towards better preservation is to be mindful that documents of performance are not useful documentation until they are processed for long-term access and potential reuse. In essence, this is the key to ensuring that the great number of documents produced from and around performance in contemporary contexts are preserved in ways that enable not only continuity of performance histories, but also ensure more inclusive representation and accessibility.
Note: the term “performance arts” is preferred by the author to “performing arts” to denote a broader approach to ephemeral arts that involve performance, aligning discussions more with work on intangible cultural heritage than stage craft.