Chris Kraus and Philip Auslander in Dialogue

Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation

Chris Kraus: Your book raises questions about the boundaries between performance - which we usually understand as a live performance in front of an audience - and contemporary art that presents a figurative or narrative image. You write that a performance doesn’t even necessarily need to take place in real time, let alone in front of a live audience. It’s an important distinction, and one that takes into account media ecology. What are the implications of this?

PhiIip Auslander: I like that you use the word boundaries: that’s exactly the point. The traditional view of the relationship between live performances and their documentation sets up numerous boundaries between these two versions of the performance. The live performance is taken to be the primary thing and the document to be merely a secondary reproduction of that thing. It is also widely held that performances cannot be documented at all, since documentation necessitates the translation of the performance into a different medium, thus turning the performance into something else. Alternately, it is conceded that performances can be documented but that documentation inevitably betrays the performance by failing to convey the experience of it adequately. Even though these ways of thinking link the document to a specific performance event, they also set up impermeable boundaries between performance and document by insisting that they are intrinsically, almost tragically, different and incommensurable things.

My position departs from two premises. The first is pragmatic. If I seek information about a performance I have not seen or one I’m trying to remember, I look for some form of documentation of it. When I find it, I believe that I can have an experience of the performance from it. I don’t treat the document as something that is tangentially related to an event but ultimately different from it. I treat the document as a means of accessing the performance and coming to an understanding of it. My second premise is that whereas the discussion to this point has centered on the relationship between the performance and the document, we need an account of how the audience for the document experiences the performance from it. From my perspective, the live event and the document offer different but equally valid experiences of the same performance that do not have to be evaluated in relation to each other. The document becomes a performance space in its own right from which the audience reactivates the performance and thus experiences it.

Vito Acconci, Following Piece (1969). Gelatin silver prints, chalk, and ink on index cards mounted to board 29 15/16 x 39 5/8" Credit The Abramson Collection. Gift of Stephen and Sandra Abramson © 2018 Vito Acconci

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Vito Acconci, Following Piece, performed in New York City between October 3 and 25, 1969.

CK: Many performances of the 1970s consisted simply of a set of instructions.  So the audience became the performers, in these works?

PA: Sometimes. In some cases, the instructions are clearly stated in such a way as to invite the audience to perform, while in other cases the text seems more to be a description of what the performer did, what the audience might have seen had they been present at the time. It is interesting that there are versions of Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969), which I discuss in the book, that fall into each category. In one version, text and images are framed at the top and bottom by the statement, “FOLLOW DIFFERENT PERSON EVERYDAY UNTIL PERSON ENTER PRIVATE PLACE.” Phrased in this way, as an imperative, the statement could be taken as instructions to the viewer. In other versions, however, the text reads, “I follow a different person everyday; I keep following until that person enters a private place (home, office, etc.) where I can’t get in.” This is clearly intended as a statement that documents what the artist does rather than as an invitation to the viewer to perform an action (though this description could certainly be used that way). Some artists, particularly those associated with FLUXUS in the early 1960s, emphasized the DIY quality of this kind of work. For example, the text of Alison Knowles’s Proposition (1962) is, in its entirety: “Make a soup.” This is an invitation to the reader to perform the action (though it is duly noted that Knowles herself premiered the piece in London in 1962). It is also the case that once one becomes aware of this event score, one also becomes aware of performing a work by Alison Knowles every time one makes a soup.

There are at least two interesting dimensions to this question. The first is that many people have difficulty in dissociating these kinds of performance works from the artists who created and originally performed them. To this way of thinking, to perform a piece by Acconci without being Acconci, for example, is a kind of heresy. Marina Abramovic challenged this ideology with her Seven Easy Pieces (2005), for which she reenacted iconic performances by other artists, including Acconci. She nevertheless acknowledged the close connection between performer and performances frequently imputed to this kind of work by only performing pieces whose creators gave her permission to do so.

The other dimension is that the DIY aspect of such performance scores acknowledges something that I believe to be endemic to all kinds of representations of performances and that I discuss in the conclusion to my book: that experiencing a performance from its documentation not only gives rise to a mental reconstruction of the performance but may also give rise to a corporeal desire to perform it oneself, to see how it feels to do something not just to understand what was done. Reenactments of canonical performance art works by Abramovic and others reflect this desire (though there are also other reasons for reenacting canonical works) as do the many, many instances of people recreating performances of all sorts and posting the results on social media.

Vito Acconci, Following Piece (1969). Street Works IV sponsored by the Architectural League of New York October 3-25, 1969 Activity New York City, various locations 23 days, varying times each day Photo Courtesy of vitoacconci.org

CK: But it’s not the same, is it?  What do you think are some of the most successful performances on social media? 

PA: It depends on how you define success, of course. There are works of performance art made for social media, such as Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections (2014), a narrative performance that evolved over four months on Instagram concerning a young woman’s move to LA, her dissolution following a break-up, and her return through self-help. The strength of this work is that it is enacted through selfies and the kinds of texts that accompany them on Instagram, making it strongly resemble the way people use the platform while also commenting on how a certain brand of femininity is constructed by those means. In the book, I talk about a very different instance, Sara Freeman’s re-performance of Andy Kaufman’s famous 1974 Mighty Mouse routine from Saturday Night Live which she posted on YouTube in 2013. This is one of many reenactments of this particular piece to be seen there. Her performance is very rich in the way it juxtaposes original and recreation, past and present, male and female performers, and a live performer with a virtual one, since Kaufman’s version runs simultaneously with hers on a laptop perched next to her. She is not using the social media platform in a self-conscious or critical way as does Ulman, but she takes advantage of its accessibility to enter into dialogue with a well-known performer and performance.

Sara Freeman’s performance of Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse routine, originally performed on Saturday Night Live in 1975. Still from YouTube video (2013)

CK: You write about Yves Klein’s famous photograph, Leap Into The Void (1960) which seems to document a performance - and yet no such performance ever took place.  It was just an image. If something is staged just to be photographed, is it a performance?  

PA: I believe so, yes. I discuss Cindy Sherman’s work in this way as well as Klein’s and that of other practitioners of what has come to be called “performed photography.” One of the points I make in the book is that most performance art is staged to be documented in the sense that the work’s continued existence—and the way most people come to experience it—is in its documented form. For this reason, I don’t see a sharp distinction between performances staged just to be photographed like Sherman’s or Klein’s and performances staged to be documented even when those performances also have a present audience.

Yves Klein Leap into the Void (1960).

Artistic action by Yves Klein photographed by Harry Shunk and Janos (Jean) Kender. Gelatin Silver print,

10 3/16 X 7 7/8 in Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image Source: Art Resource, NY.

© Yves Klein c/o Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2017

CK: Documentation, then, isn’t really separate from a performance?

PA: That’s right. My main point is that the document should be seen as a primary venue for the performance through which it can be experienced rather than as a secondary reproduction of a performance that took place elsewhere. 

CK: You’ve written at length about Michael Kirby’s work - he was a formalist pioneer of performance art, as I recall, and a formidably intelligent presence.  Kirby was a performer himself as well as a theorist, is that right? In what ways was his work influential, and how does it resonate now?

PA: Kirby was many things: a sculptor, a theater maker, a theorist and advocate for formalism, an editor of an influential academic journal, a performer with the Wooster Group, a playwright for his own Structuralist Workshop, and a film actor. I feel he is a somewhat neglected figure at this point, deserving of more recognition than he currently receives. His primary legacy resides in the continued reference to his book Happenings (1965), still a crucial source on that early form of performance art, and his ideas on acting, particularly in an essay called “On Acting and Not Acting” (1972) in which he works to establish criteria for distinguishing between acting and other kinds of performance taking place in emergent genres of experimental theater and performance art as well as the minimum requirements for behavior to qualify as acting. For Kirby, acting is quantifiable: one can speak of more acting or less in particular kinds of performing. Kirby brought the sensibility of a scientific rationalist to the arts, a somewhat quixotic approach I quite like.

In my book, I devote a chapter largely to him because I feel that he was the first person to offer theoretical reflections on performance documentation, including ideas about why performance needs to be documented and his version of best practices for doing so. He believed it was necessary to document performances to preserve them for future generations and was a staunch advocate of documenting them as objectively as possible through written descriptions and images. He thought that such documentation should be untainted by value judgments. The irony is that his call for objectivity in documentation was rooted in a deeply subjective, implacable hatred of criticism.

CK: I agree.  He was a really interesting artist, ahead of his time, and under-recognized, too.  Do you think the distinction between acting/not-acting that most people associate as the difference between theatre and contemporary art performance is an important one?  Can you explain?

PA: Yes, I think the way Kirby formulated this distinction retains considerable explanatory power. It’s not a dichotomy—it’s a continuum from non-matrixed performing (which is not acting in the sense that it does not represent anything beyond what is immediately present and is the kind of performance Kirby saw in Happenings, FLUXUS, and related phenomena) to Complex Acting, which is what one finds in stage or film acting. Kirby identifies certain discrete points on this continuum, but the implication is that there are an infinite number of possible gradations and variations between the two poles. This is very useful when thinking about the Wooster Group, for example, with whom Kirby worked, who combine modes of performance from many different points on the spectrum. His ideas also extend beyond the realms of theater and performance art. In my work on musicians as performers, I argue that symphony players, for instance, are non-matrixed performers inasmuch as they do not represent anything other than themselves as musicians.

It’s also interesting to think about Kirby’s involvement with the Wooster Group in relation to the issues surrounding performance documentation. For example, one sequence of their piece L.S.D. ( . . . JUST THE HIGH POINTS. . .) entailed the performers’ recreating their own behavior while on L.S.D. Since their altered state prevented them from remembering what they had done, they videotaped themselves and used the tape as a record from which to reenact their own behavior, which they did meticulously. This undermines the distinction between original and copy that is at the heart of many discussions of performance documentation since the original performance is already a copy of documented behavior.

This kind of complexity is what drew me to the subject of performance documentation in the first place. The idea of preserving present performances for future audiences is inherently complicated. Kirby spoke of the need to capture present performances out of “concern for tomorrow’s past,” a phrase I love. Calling the present “tomorrow’s past” itself conveys some of the slipperiness of the attempt to save from disappearance events whose very ephemerality is thought to be their defining characteristic. Going back to your first question about boundaries, one of the central purposes of my book is to suggest that the boundaries between performance and document, original and copy, performer and spectator and, ultimately, past and present are far less defined and more permeable than they are traditionally thought to be.

Chris Kraus is the author of four novels, three books of art and cultural criticism, and After Kathy Acker, a literary biography. She lives in Los Angeles.  

Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. He writes regularly on performance, music, and media culture. He is the author of six books, the most recent of which is 

Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation.