Capturing the Moment: Archiving Performance Art in A Post-internet World
Social media is a tool that re-introduces ephemeral art into the quotidian, challenging the confines of institutional archives’ approach towards ephemeral art. While we often think of the traditional archive as static and fixed, in the wake of social media platforms and networks, the archives of contemporary art grows increasingly mutable each day.
With each advance in technology, we are seemingly forced towards using social media on the daily to stay attuned to the goings on of the world both socially and politically each day. We carefully curate our own unique digital profile where we earn social capital and express our views to audience numbers we would have never been able to before. The digital has democratized how we are seen and perceived because we don’t have to rely on someone else’s gaze to frame our stories, we are doing it ourselves all the time.
Instagram, as an example of a highly utilized social media platform, plays a critical role in re-presenting contemporary art online, and an important role specifically in the realm of ephemeral and performance art. Where we were once limited to hiring a professional videographer or photographer to capture the moment, we now can rely on anyone with a smartphone and a social media account to record the work, tag it to a location, hashtag it, and effectively archive the work instantaneously. Additionally, individual Instagram users can now bookmark posts, archive them into folders, and access them at any point.
By capturing the moment and posting it in real time, the performance can be relived again and again through the lens of the account owner and its varied viewers within minutes of the work being performed. Remnants of the performance are found at their raw and uncensored state as this evolving hashtag becomes an active space, consolidating a mosaic of input from different viewers.
But what happens when that cloud data is erased and lost? While social media access can help in some ways, it can also be damaging in others. We become consumed with a desire to always be posting and outwardly sharing our experiences to our detriment, which can in turn alienate us from experiencing the authenticity of truly ephemeral works. Walter Benjamin’s pre-Internet prediction of our doom crystallizes this notion of our loss of the aura[i];
What is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object, the weight it derives from tradition. One might focus on these aspects of the artwork in the concept of the aura and go on to say: what withers in the age of technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura.[ii]
Having experienced the power of a performance’s aura in real time, and most recently at Vaginal Davis’s Blick und Begehren (Gaze and Desire) at the New Museum, I can testify to this loss that is inherent to documenting any ephemeral art. Certain aspects of the performance, such as the smell, the performer’s sound variations and vibrations, and the audience’s reactions and responses, are most quintessential, and yet most difficult to capture through an audio or visual recording. When Davis whispers words, lip-synchs, or yells in high pitched gibberish, she furloughs the capacity of documentation.
Screenshot of the hashtag “Vaginal Davis” on Instagram
This issue of how to thoroughly document and archive the ephemeral is in no way a new issue - both the new-age social media documentation and ‘old-school’ institutional archives have had variations of this same problem. Institutions such as Franklin Furnace (FF) are a great example of how an organization can approach archiving. Artfully preserving a comprehensive record of ephemeral art since 1976, FF has collected event ephemera, support materials, photo documentation, and full-length videos that eternalize the specificity of ephemeral and performance art work. However, despite their best efforts, some project documentation is still not always all-encompassing.
On a recent trip to the FF archive, I was moved by the act of shedding the layers of my highly digitized self to travel through time, exchanging my trusty iPhone for a notebook, pencil, and magnifying glass. The experience provided a rare opportunity to unravel pockets of historical evidence. As I dug through Karen Finley’s FF performances from the 1980s and 1990s (a pivotal time for the artist’s career when politics came to define and ostracize her performances), I discovered positive reviews iterating her ability to reproduce the feeling of the oppressed, and became familiar with the controversy that pushed the NEA to revoke her funds.[iii] These testimonials continue to live in the physical archive, a place that the domain of social media is unable to replicate.
While we need to pay close attention to the role of social media as a platform that we often don’t recognize as an archive, and one that we all use daily, it is important to clarify that the point of this essay is to present social media’s possibilities and pitfalls as a tool of and for the millennium.
While the archive experience can be magical, it can also be incomplete in other ways - not every FF Karen Finley performance has audio-visual documentation. What I couldn't help but wonder was what it would have been like if the viewers or the artists had access to social media back when this work was being made - how would it have added? What would it have taken away? With a simple search of the hashtag #KarenFinley, hundreds of public photos, videos, and captions that describe her latest performances are revealed.
Screenshot of the hashtag “KarenFinley” on Instagram
[i] Benjamin defines aura as “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be.”
[ii] Benjamin, Walter, et al. “The Production, Reproduction, and Reception of the Work of Art.”The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
[iii] Full discretion: Karen Finley currently serves as the author’s MA advisor at NYU Tisch School of the Art, Art and Public Policy Department
“Dissecting the Archive” is a seven-part piece commissioned by Common Field for the 2017 Field Perspectives as part of the Annual Convening in LA. Read all seven pieces here.