Review of DocPerform 4: Curating Immersive Performance

The DocPerform team were delighted to partner with the Digital Research in the Humanities and Arts association for the fourth symposium as part of their annual conference, which in 2020 took as its title Situating Digital Curation: Locating Creative Practice and Research between Digital Humanities and the Arts. The topics of the DocPerform panels included interactive narratives, documenting performance art and live art, data mapping theatre and performance, VR and 360 film, and issues of ownership and power in museums.

Giulia Carla Rossi began the session with a paper discussing the Emerging Formats project at the British Library. Emerging formats are publications defined as stories that use technology to create multi-media web-based narratives. The project is investigating the impact of new technologies on reading and writing practices and is concerned with creating new methods of preservation for publications that are highly interactive and often adaptive to user experience. Other characteristics of emerging formats is the lack of a print version and their dependency on hardware and software to be readable. Indeed, many of the publications at the British Library require bespoke software. This dependency puts them at risk of technological obsolescence. Considered in a broader context, emerging formats signify the much larger digital shift in all parts of contemporary culture.

For LIS, the digital shift in publications represents an opportunity to create new learning environments where documents such as mobile apps and web-based interactive narratives can be accessed. The pressing questions is how to capture the interactive nature of these publications. The Emerging Formats team are beginning to consider if the record of the publication, which will include metadata produced through user experience, might be more valuable than the narrative itself. Giulia described this as ‘enhanced curation’ to highlight the emphasis on the embodied, more overtly performative nature of reading these publications.

Rachel Fensham’s paper provided background information to the Circuit: Mapping Theatre in Australia project to consider how data and analytics could model histories of place through theatre. Noting that the processes of map-making precede the white, Eurocentric practices of naming places by marking out territories according to measurable distances, Rachel argued that the mobile nature of theatre challenged conceptions of distance through the creation of networks of affiliation, collaboration and visitation. Circuit uses data to understand assemblages of Australian theatre as an actor in the country’s cultural ecosystem. This produces circuits of thinking between places and peoples over time that can be expressed through data visualisation from 1965-2020. Noting that digital maps are provisional due to changes in climate, population, and new datasets and that therefore histories of place should not be grounded on them, Rachel contended that Circuit reflects how theatre’s mobility provides a model to map the highly transient and transformative nature of place.

Hélia Marcal and Louise Lawson continued to explore performance’s relationship with history by sharing documentation projects at Tate. The Collecting the Performative project investigated how documents can retain the liveness of an event, which in this context is defined as those qualities which make it adaptable to new environments. Imbricated in this question was an interest in how curators could collect those elements of a performance that allow it to exist again in the future. The team soon realised that the performances documented at Tate were reliant on socialisation between bodies and groups. Any documentation designed to activate the performance again must therefore allow for new forms of social relations to become manifest. Out of this project came a series of tools: Performance specification (venue, artist, date of original production); an activation report, created with the intention of capturing new information each time a work is taken from a dormant state into an active one; and a map of interactions for understanding the networks in and outside of Tate produced from a performance. Tate has since commissioned artists to create new work using the dossiers. One of the most interesting innovations is the human transmitters, individuals who have played the artwork before and who are present at each activation. The human transmitters are necessary because the dossier, as a written document, is not sufficient to communicate embodied and material histories of performance practice. Maintaining difference is recognised as a fundamental aspect of preservation.  

Alison Matthews drew on her experience as the creator of a The Ballad of Isosceles to analyse the affordances of 360/VR film as a documentation medium. The Ballad of Isosceles is a performance for two people. Alison’s point of departure when devising the piece was the notion of triangular desire, where feelings of jealously and envy are always directed towards a third subject or object. Similar to Hélia and Louise’s comments on socialisation, Alison recognised that the highly intimate nature of the performance meant any documentation would have to simulate an effect of being a spectator inside a scenographically rich atmosphere. One of the interesting aspects of 360/VR film as a documentation medium is the way it troubles the binary between digital and analogue environment. The digital is always experienced through embodiment, so the audience is always partially aware of the experience of viewing an artwork and do not therefore become fully immersed into the aesthetic reality. This parallel perspective lead Alison to enquire how 360/VR video documentation can create an experience for a remote observer that simulates and expands upon the scenographic atmosphere and key themes discovered in the development of The Ballad of Isosceles. She concluded that 360/VR video documentation creates an environment that is animated beyond the control of the viewer so is in a sense redolent of the collaborative nature of one-to-one performances where the audiences create the piece with the artist. Producing documentation for one-to-one performances that seeks to expand the scopic regime of the event requires the artist to make a 360/VR film for an absent body, who only becomes present when the document is activated.

In the final paper Riad Salameh argued that the idiom of ownership in a museological context is problematic because it refers to object-based values whereas performance is created with living bodies. Riad went on to state that it is more appropriate to think of performance as a form not a medium to foreground the presence of the artist’s body in the artwork, which must never be commodified or purchased. Referring to Marina Abramovic’s Mixed Reality auction at Christy’s, he concluded that one cannot possess a body and the flesh of a person or group, only the legal rights for its documentation.

Interdisciplinary collaboration was a common theme in all of the papers. This relates to collaborations between artists and memory institutions and the need for audiences to feel as though they are playing an active role in the future history of a performance when they activate a document. These collaborations are clearly complex and multi-faceted processes requiring skills in using interactive and mobile technologies to access the information instantiated in the immersive documents, whilst also needing clear parameters and protocols for the elements of socialisation that are so vital in knowledge transfer. The importance of the environment for accessing immersive documents is also a significant factor requiring further research. The library of the future may indeed resemble a performance-like environment where readers must play roles to participate in the materialisation of histories across time, bodies and objects.

In sum, there is a need in LIS discourse to shift away from thinking about methods of recording live immersive events per se to thinking about how recording the experience of that live event might be a more effective way of making documents and documentation an active part of art-making processes.

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