When I was appointed as the artistic director of Spazju Kreattiv, Malta’s national centre for creativity, in 2014, I engaged in implementing a strategic vision that involved a rethink of the organisation’s archives, among other things. There were many documents held by the organisations in what is commonly called an archive. However, on closer inspection, the archive was little more than a collection of documents (consisting mostly of publicity materials and production photos) with neither conventional cataloging or systematic documentation to enable long-term access and potential reuse. This is a common situation across many cultural organisations around the world. The main, though not only, reason for it was the fact that these types of organisations are primarily geared for production rather than preservation. Fully aware of how different these two functions are, I proposed a radical approach towards organising the Spazju Kreattiv archive: Stop producing, start preserving.
I did not expect the organisation to stop producing, of course. Production is an integral part of what it was set up to do. My radical imperative was intended to ensure that preservation became part of the organisation’s workflow in a systematic way that aligns with established standards and conventions. Documenting performance and other creative projects could no longer remain incidental but needed to be deliberate. My insistence on not using documentation as a synonym for documents or processes of documenting was among the guiding principles for preservation adopted by the organisation. Mistaking documents or processes of documenting for documentation (in the information science sense of the word) tends to give the misguided impression that holding on to the documents is enough to make useful documentation accessible for long-term access or reuse of the original materials appropriately.
How do we preserve documents of performance, if not performance itself? Proposals, artists’ statements, scripts, production designs, rehearsal notes, contracts, publicity materials, photos, videos, live recordings, reviews, and whatever else may be classed as the remains of live performance are among the points of contact between live performance and its documentation. This is undoubtedly easier said than done. Five years later, as I was nearing the end of my tenure as artistic director at Spazju Kreattiv, the organisation still didn’t have a formally structured archive. Preservation came to be seen as a challenge that needs to be addressed regularly whenever the various types of documents are produced. From the desktop, whether physical or virtual, they need to be stored for subsequent access and potential reuse, and as evidence that the performance took place, if nothing else.
Information monitors from the 2016 exhibition curated by Toni Sant from the Spazju Kreattiv Art Collection in Malta (Photo courtesy: Toni Sant)
The reason I’m bringing this up here is to enable a more realistic approach to the understanding of the politics of preserving performance. I chose the term performance to encompass activities that fall outside the conventional categorisation afforded by the performing arts. A classification limited to music, theatre, and dance, almost always involves an other. This enduring other has most frequently been named live art, performance art, or just performance. In some cases, the additional classification extends to multimedia art or interdisciplinary works. These last two terms are ambiguous because multimedia art is often a synonym for works involving digital media technology, and interdisciplinary works can span across whatever two or more disciplines artists care to bring together.
In any discussion on the politics of preserving performance, it’s very likely that an essay written thirty years ago is brought up to make a very important point about the nature of performance. The point has taken on multiple critiques and points of analysis over the past three decades. I am referring to Peggy Phelan’s opening statement in her essay on the ontology of performance, where she declares that:
“Performance’s only life is in the present”; that it “cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance.”
Although this declaration may negate the preservation of performance as something worthwhile considering, or even possible, the key point that informs any useful political stance beyond the statement itself is that once performance is preserved “it becomes something other than performance”. Approaching this frequently cited sentence from this perspective manifests an essential framework within which to consider the politics of preserving performance. Performance preservation is an exercise in the preservation of “something other than performance”.
Still images from a video documenting Spokes, a performance created by Albert Garzia and Pierre Portelli, which originally appeared at Spazju Kreattiv in 2010 (Photo courtesy: Toni Sant)
What does an art collector or a museum acquire when they purchase a performance? Is it a representation of a representation? Do they own the performance once they’ve bought it? What does that ownership mean? Is the intellectual property of the originating artist, and the performer or performers, what the buyer possesses? Does the document itself, as Philip Auslander suggests, produce “an event as a performance”? Are the documents of a live performance (produced before and/or during and/or after the live event) the only way to preserve performance?
Most of these questions do not have a clear or simple answer; and they are complicated further when taken in the context of dance or dramatic theatre rather than performance art. There are certainly legal issues to consider. There are also technical issues to consider in terms of long-term preservation. Certain media or data carriers are prone to obsolescence, regardless of whether they are documents of a performance or, for instance, audiovisual elements used within a live performance. Ephemerality is often either a desired quality of performance or an unintended quality of the work merely by the design of it. In Phelan’s words, performance “becomes itself through disappearance”. This remains an alluring quality of performance for both artists and audiences, even in our media saturated world and within the ever-expanding economy of reproduction.
Accepting the ephemeral quality of performance as an essential element of performance makes the preservation of performance impossible. Simultaneously, this argument brings forward the diversity of types of works encompassing the spectrum of performance, even without necessarily going as far as considering what Richard Schechner calls the broad spectrum of performance.
As I’ve indicated in my previous article, music performances and their preservation via recording operate under a different set of considerations. The exceptions conventionally afforded to music performance, to a growing degree, have also been adopted for the recording of live performances of theatre and dance. This has happened mainly through the proliferation of rarified theatrical performances broadcast live to cinemas around the world. In most cases, this has added little from an aesthetic perspective to previous live broadcasts intended for television, other than the size of the screen where they are presented to the audience outside the physical space of the venue where the live performance is produced.
The model of preservation offered by music may be extended to other forms of performance, especially when what is preserved is seen as an essential context for the live work. My intention here is to highlight the dichotomy between the live ephemeral event and its remains as both equally worthy of consideration for preservation, albeit inflected by the multifaceted politics of performance preservation. Producing performance and preserving performance are two separate activities that potentially negate each other.
Note: The author has refrained from engaging in a discussion of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in this context as he feels that it would unnecessarily complicate the point of view presented here. Nevertheless, the author recognises that NFTs need to be considered as a contemporary reality within the art world and that the preservation of performance through NFTs may or may not expand the way performance preservation plays out ontologically.
 See my introduction to Documenting Performance: The Context and Processes of Digital Curation and Archiving edited by Toni Sant. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. pp. 1–12.
 See Sant, Toni. The Spazju Kreattiv Art Collection. Malta: Fondazzjonii Kreattività, 2020.
 Phelan, Peggy. ‘The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproducton’ in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Routledge, 1993. pp.146–166.
 Auslander, Philip. ‘The Performativity of Performance Documentation’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 84 (vol.28 no.3), September 2006, pp.5.
 Schechner, Richard. ‘TDR Comment: The Broad Spectrum Approach’, The Drama Review, vol. 32 no 3, Autumn 1988, pp. 4–6.
 I refer here to live broadcast to cinemas from the like of the National Theatre in London, Met Opera in New York, or the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. See, for example: Abbot, Daisy, and Read, Claire. ‘Paradocumentation and NT Lives's “CumberHamlet”’, in Documenting Performance, op cit. pp.165–188.