Archive of the Live – A Leap of Faith by Donald Smith
By Donald Smith, Existere, 2011
There is a reproduction in Gombrich’s The Story Of Art that depicts a man sticking his finger deep into a wound on another man’s torso. Instead of writhing in agony the man with the wound stands demurely and guides the other man’s hand into his body. The image is shocking but strangely compelling. Coming across this image of Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas was unsettling, especially for the impressionable schoolboy I used to be. At first the shadowy black and white picture looked photographic but the caption read ‘about 1600’. What I thought was a photograph of a ‘real’ scene turned out to be a painting. The context in which I saw the black and white reproduction, combined with Caravaggio’s skilful manipulation of paint, had seduced me into believing what I thought I saw.
My teenage crisis of perception continues to resonate when I think about the depiction of the human body in performance art and of how it is documented and re-presented. The archiving of performance has a long and rich history but it is also incomplete. As an interdisciplinary activity, performance art can be traced — through drawings, schema and written descriptions — to the artist-designed spectacles that took place during the Renaissance. Yet the temporal and ephemeral nature of these events meant that they never left a legacy like that of painting, sculpture or architecture. It was not until the age of mechanical reproduction that the archiving of performance began in earnest. The art historian RoseLee Goldberg pinpoints its origins to the publication of the first Futurist Manifesto in the French newspaper Le Figaro on 20 February 1909, a date that coincides with the popularisation of photography and film.
All documentation is likely to be incomplete, subjective or ambiguous. But the archive of a performance is particularly complex. There are countless variables to consider: the skill of the performer(s); the size and mood of the audience; the type and scale of the venue; the temporal aspects of the performance itself; the recording methods and techniques; the intentions of the artists and their agents, and so on.
The media and gossip have also played their parts in muddying the waters. A critic or commentator may unwittingly (or wittingly) misrepresent an action, whilst a spectator may misremember. With all this in mind accurate documentation seems impossible.
To make things harder still the artist sometimes deliberately misleads the viewer. Did Yves Klein leap out of a second story window? Did Rudolf Schwarzkogler die slicing off his penis during a performance? (As it turns out Schwarzkogler did organise a performance simulating castration but apparently it was his friend, the photographer Hans Cibulka, who acted out the piece. Schwarzkogler died by accidently falling out of a window, a fate that might have befallen Yves Klein had he really leapt into the void.)
And just how far do we trust archival documentation? We have seen images and read descriptions of Chris Burden being shot, of Carolee Schneeman writhing in an orgy of human bodies, meat, and fish, of Joseph Beuys trapped in a gallery with a wild coyote, of Stelarc being hung by hooks through his flesh. The images and descriptions seem to authenticate the event but unless we were there how can we know what happened?
Then there are the issues of spontaneity and artificiality. Even if we had watched Franko B letting his blood, what does it mean for it to be a planned act, for his performances to require rigorous preparation, special diets and regular blood tests, and for there to be, among the spectators, a doctor on hand in case of emergency?
As the archive of performance has expanded over the last century, so artists have begun to question the truth and authenticity of documentary evidence. On 15 November 2003 a show curated by Adrian George entitled Art Lies and Video Tape: Exposing Performance opened at Tate Liverpool. Accompanied by a catalogue, the exhibition set out to examine the unreliability of documentation and the ambiguity of the narratives that have emerged out of the history of performance. Or take Hayley Newman’s Connotations project (1994–1998), which documents the fictional career of a performance artist. It was made as ‘a celebration and analysis of the performance canon,’ yet it does not comprise an archive of performances but posed and faked documents. Meanwhile artists such as Matthew Barney and Moriko Mori have used techniques derived from the cinema and commercial photography to produce illusions. Others like Mark McGowan have manipulated the press by using social media to give out snippets of information about controversial actions. McGowan’s proposed self-immolation in London’s Parliament Square made the police cordon off the area and the Evening Standard publish a report of the incident. But it was a newspaper cutting for an archive of non-events – the performance itself never happened.
It is onto this sceptical, knowing stage that JocJonJosch have made their entrance. The artists are not immune to the possibilities of the internet and the media. Just check the number of references to them on Google and the number of times they have appeared on the BBC website or other news sites. But in the virtual, fast-paced world of tweets, blogs and emails it is easier to ‘delete’ than to ‘save’ and archiving gets harder, not easier. An example of JocJonJosch’s online publicity came after their performance at CHELSEA space in 2010. For the performance they were handsomely poised on plinths whilst their bodies were sewn together by attractive assistants with long lengths of thread. The photogenic event was declared a ‘picture of the day’ on the BBC website. But what the well-composed digital images could never describe was the strong clinical whiff of the antiseptic fluid used to clean the artists’ flesh before it was punctured by sewing needles. It was a smell loaded with memories and fears that I found repulsive. When I saw the images the day after the smell was already a vague memory whilst the stylish photographs had obtained an iconic glow. I was seduced despite having been repulsed less than a day before. The olfactory version of events has yet to be fully catalogued.
For Existere JocJonJosch tried to look beyond the conventions of photographic documentation in an attempt to find a different — if not truer — record of events. There were internet advertisements calling for volunteers to be part of a sculptural and architectural artwork made up of naked human bodies. The archival material might also include blogs, tweets, and emails exchanged by the participants and the artists, who didn’t know each other before the performance and needed to build trust. There were warm up exercises designed to create bonds between strangers who would be naked and in close proximity to one another. For this a manual of stylised drawings was produced to guide participants, a record of the potential event which may be connected to a tradition of instructional performance diagrams dating back to the likes of Oscar Schlemmer and Balla in the early 20th century. Alongside the performances was an exhibition at London’s Son Gallery which aimed to reveal normally hidden traces of performance such as the breath of spectators.
In a period of cosmetic surgery and Photoshop when DNA tests and Iris scans are a more reliable proof of identity than the photograph, it may be that JocJonJosch’s abstract approach to the recording of live art offers a possibility to think differently about what does and does not constitute the archive. Perhaps they can dispel some of our doubts and reveal a new, more authentic document of performance.