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The Performance
Art Document

A Contextualized Study


In this paper I consider recent critical positions on performance art and its documentation. The experience of a live event.  Jill Orr’s She had long golden hair (1980)  is then used as a case study to explore the debates.

  • Category
    Performance Art
  • Published In
    Originally published as Performance Art and its Documentation: A Photo/Video Essay, in About Performance, Still/ Moving: Photography and Live Performance, Sydney: Department of Performance Studies, University of Sydney, No. 8. 2008, pp. 15-29.
  • Year

The Performance
Art Document

I was present at the performance and I have subsequently tried to reconstruct this experience for students and the art public with the aid of photographs and video. My purpose here is to think through the issues concerning the document of the event, the event itself and the re-make for the camera. I have asked Jill Orr to respond to my interpretation and to the issues concerning documentation. In this way I hope to generate a paper that is both critical and reflective.

The theoretical case

Performance art has its genesis in the late 1950s. Although there are historical precedents in Futurism and Dada in the early twentieth-century (Goldberg 1988), the performance art genre as we understand it today emerged within a general movement to democratize and dematerialize the arts (Lippard 1973 and 1984). It was often associated with issue-based politics - feminism, ecological and anti-nuclear issues - and time-based and process art practiced by some of the Conceptualists.

Video and performance art developed side by side and interacted from the late 1960s onwards. Although these two mediums can be seen as separate, the relationship between them is integral if any history of an ephemeral medium such as performance art is to enter art history. Performance art in the 1970s often stressed its ‘liveness’ and immediacy but it was almost always mediated for a wider audience via photography and video. The  real time aspects of video were often considered to better re-present the immediacy of the event. However, as Jill Orr argues, the single camera view does not recreate the live experience:  “The camera s viewfinder has no peripheral vision so it records a flattened reality . . . the time based image becomes lifeless” (Orr 2008).

The relationship between performance art and its documentation is fascinating and problematic. On one hand it seems logical to simply argue that a live event cannot be re-mediated. In 1993 I argued that:  “Performance art is a visual art practice which is located in a specific time and place and involves the presence of the artist before his/her audience . . .” (Marsh 1993). Although this is still true for much performance art, it is also evident that mechanical means of reproducing and re-presenting ephemeral events became extremely important.

The perceptual, phenomenological and aesthetic shifts that occur between a live event and its representations present complex theoretical problems. How can the ‘live’ be reproduced? Surely this is a contradiction in terms. Photography and video are mediated forms of representation  chemical, digital and electronic recordings that situate an event in time and place. A life/death paradox underlies analogue photography and although photography in its digital mode can free itself from the referent, most of the time it does not (De Duve 1978, Batchen, 2001). Photographs of performance art shot on an analogue or a digital camera are essentially the same, or should I say they have the same intent: to capture the event as directed by the artist.

Current scholarship in performance art history is divided between those who believe that it is necessary to have actually seen the performance event and those who believe that the event can be interpreted and critiqued from surviving documents (Auslander 2006). Allan Kaprow, considered to be the ‘father’ of the Happenings, the precursor to performance art, said that these events “would be measured by the stories that multiply . . . [a kind of] calculated rumor, the purpose of which is to stimulate as much fantasy as possible” (Kaprow 1966). Kaprow s statement stresses the merger between art and life that inspired his generation. Like John Cage, and, in Australia, David Ahern, he was concerned with the concept of ‘real time’. Ahern said: “One walks into a set of situations (art) just as one walks down the street (life)” (Ahern 1970).

These ideas enshrine the Zen philosophy of waking up to the life we are living and can be seen clearly in Cage s work with the Merc Cunningham Dance Company recently shown at the Melbourne International Arts Festival (2007). Experimental dance and music present a germane comparator when considering performance art documentation. John Cage died in 1992 but his music is still performed; even though he wrote extremely abstract scores they are still interpreted by other musicians and played to audiences. Merc Cunningham is now in his eighties and can no longer perform but he still directs his dance company and he still uses John Cage s Zen techniques to inject an element of chance into the works. He has also experimented with different ways of filming and video-taping the dance.

Dance is difficult to document but it can be performed over and over much like a piece of music or theatre. Individual dancers and choreographers have experimented from time to time with different ways of duplicating the effect or experience of the dance. In Australia Jude Walton’s Remembering is Forgetting (Performance Space 1988) was essentially a dance performed with her virtual self. Using a super-8 camera strapped to her head she recorded what she saw as she danced in her own studio. She then projected the film and performed live with this imagery. Interviewed in 1992 she said her work was about “visual kinaesthetics . . . it s what you see and feel kinaesthetically” (Marsh 1993, 205).

The relationship between the camera and performance has often been integral to live art because of the way in which the camera can capture time. However the camera has been used in creative ways, both to enhance the performance event and to record it. In Jude Walton s performance the camera is an extension of the body, a virtual dumb body which is then incorporated via the screen into another event. In this case the camera becomes part of the phenomenological experience both for the dancer and the audience.

Although experimental dance and music embraces chance techniques, it is still able to be re-staged, interpreted anew and experienced by different audiences in different times and places. Walton’s experiment could be re-made by another performer using the same methodology.

The video camera and screen has been used extensively and in multifarious ways within performance art. Jude Walton’s No Hope No Reason (Deutscher, Brunswick Street, 1991 and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art 2004) used the projection skills of Ian de Gruchy to create screen like illusions within which the performers moved. Lyndal Jones pioneered the use of video in performance art in the 1970s. Later her Prediction Pieces (1981-91) utilised the video image in increasingly sophisticated ways. In more recent, works such as Crying Man (2003), she clearly moves into a video performance mode where the event itself is not performed for a live audience. It is a performance for camera. The American artists Matthew Barney has popularised this mode of performance for camera by creating spectacular surreal tableaux which draw on body art, ritual and shamanism. In Australia Monica Tichacek, who studied with Barney for a brief period, uses a similar, but arguably more edgy, approach by melding body art action with cinematic spectacle in performance, photography and video. Her series The Shadowers (2004-05) is presented across all three mediums.

In the 1970s and into the 1980s the video camera and monitor were often used as mirroring devices, allowing artists to go face-to-face with their audience (Biesenbach 2002). Krauss considered this a narcissistic practice (Krauss 1976) but it is also a confessional type of practice which underlines an intimacy. Bruce Nauman’s Self-Portrait as Fountain (1966-7) and Vito Acconci s Seedbed (1972) utilise a confessional mode. This has also been the case in recent work from Australia (Lyndal Jones, Crying Man 2003; David Rosetzky, Maniac de Lux, 2004; Catherine Bell, Felt Is the Past Tense of Feel, 2006).

Although there is an obvious difference between a live event and its documentation, some scholars have insisted that one can only experience the work truthfully if one was there, present before the artist at the time. This was my initial description of performance art in 1993 but recent scholarship which insists on the ‘having to have been there’ argument has made me re-examine this to a certain extent. The problem is that if one insists on this - the presence of the audience before the artist - then one is in danger of excluding scholars who did not see the performance from writing about these works (Heartfield, 2004). This forecloses on the history of the genre.

How is it possible to contextualise and interpret ‘live’ performances if one has not seen them? This debate intersects with the area of documentation (video and photographs) and the issue of presence and absence. Many art historians write about and refer to paintings, sculptures etc. that they may not have seen ‘in the flesh’. The reproduction of art works via photography and film is commonplace and integral to the discipline of art history. Walter Benjamin famously critiqued the way in which the aura of the work of art disintegrates through its reproduction  through the photographic image  but his message was as much about the quasi-religious iconic status of the original work of art as it was about photography. In fact, in some respects, he saw mechanical reproduction as a form of democratization and an emancipation for the arts (Benjamin 1992). Photography and film meant that art could be reproduced and distributed to a much wider audience through publications and screenings. This form of remediation is imperative for performance art because it is an ephemeral medium. This is not to claim that a live performance can be seamlessly transferred to another medium nor that the new medium will provide the same experience of the work. There are obvious compromises - the issue for performance artists who decide to document or remake their works in a photo-based medium is how best to do this. There is a difference between a document and a re-make. The document is a record of the ‘real time’ performance whereas a re-make is a more considered approach to remediation (Bolter and Grusin, 1996; Auslander, 1999).

The experience and the document

Jill Orr, She had long golden hair, Adelaide Festival of Arts, Experimental Art Foundation, 1980. Photograph: Elizabeth Campbell.

Jill Orr’s performance She had long golden hair was performed at the Experimental Art Foundation (EAF) in Adelaide in 1980. I was in the second row watching the performance in  ‘real time’.

I remember the lead into the performance as one of the most dramatic parts but this has never been documented. The performance venue was in the basement of an old jam factory and Orr entered from behind the audience to a soundtrack which began as a chant:  Witch, bitch, mole, dyke; “witch, bitch, mole, dyke; witch, bitch, mole, dyke”. A litany of words commonly used to verbally abuse women was chanted by a male chorus as Orr slowly walked into the space. She was dressed as a young woman from the 1950s with a full skirted dress and perfectly groomed long golden hair.

It was 1980. The audience was uncomfortable. The EAF was, at that time, the kingdom of the male avantgarde and it was only slowly coming to terms with the experimental work of women. When Orr got to the ‘stage’ area, which was marked only by small chains hanging from the ceiling, the sound track turned into her own voice narrating stories of women having their hair forcefully cut. In part the script read:

From the tower, I lowered my hair to the ground

My lover climbed to meet me at midnight.

I used my long golden hair to cover my body.

I rode through the town on a tall white stallion.

My hair was a golden light.

The colour of the wheat fields.

My blood was red and pure.

They shaved my hair to make me different

They shaved my hair to give birth to my child

They shaved my head because I had lice, they had syphilis.

Before I could do God’s work, they shaved my head.

When I came home late last night my father was furious, he cut my hair.

I m proud of my shaven head,

They were soldiers, our mothers; women of the Amazon.

They bound their hair in single plates

They removed one breast

They made me what I am.

They raped me, bashed me and shaved my head.

They made me what I am.

Slowly Orr tied her hair to the small chains hanging from the ceiling so that eventually her head was held fairly rigidly in place by six chains. I can t remember who made the first cut but presume that Jill Orr organized this before hand because the person who made the first cut then handed the scissors to the audience and one by one people volunteered to cut her hair. The sound track continued to tell stories of abuse. Once all the hair was cut Orr made a sensuous gesture by rubbing her hands through her hair and then shaking her cut hair free.

Jill Orr, She had long golden hair, Adelaide Festival of Arts, Experimental Art Foundation, 1980. Photograph: Elizabeth Campbell.

As with most performance art events cameras were clicking away and a video recorded in  ‘real time’. Jill Orr - like many artists - has tried to control the photographic documentation of her work. It’s a tricky business but history suggests that it is not an impossible project. To professionalise the documentation of her work and to attempt to control its distribution, Orr established early on that she would be the prime director of the performance photographs and she prefers to do photo shoots without the audience present, however, She had long golden hair could only be performed once since it entailed the cutting of a full head of hair.

Most people know the performance from a series of carefully selected still images taken during the performance. In fact three images in particular: 1) where she stands with her hair in chains 2) where a women makes the second cut and 3) where she shakes her head and the camera captures the motion.

In the still photographs the lighting dramatizes the shadows behind the performer creating a repetition and a ghostly other body which is ephemeral and fragile. In later works Orr drew her audience’s attention to this shadowing which is used to metaphorical effect to represent the disappearing body.1

Having been at the performance these photographs act as prompts and allow me to recall all the other aspects of the performance. But when I show these images of the performance I need to tell the experiential story so that those looking at the photographs for the first time understand that there was more going on. The point is that the photographs read out of context and without embellishment don’t convey the depth nor the context of the event. This is an issue that plagues performance art.

Jill Orr, She had long golden hair, Adelaide Festival of Arts, Experimental Art Foundation, 1980. Frames from video recording made by the Experimental Art Foundation.

The video of this work is a ‘real time’ dumb witness set up by people at the EAF. Unlike the professional photographs, it presents a grainy picture from one perspective. There s no directorial hand evident and the video quality is poor. The video was part of a documentation tape that the EAF made of their Performance Festival as part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1980. Jill Orr, as a participating artist, got a copy but remembers that even at the time it was difficult to play because it was in an obscure format that her video machine could not play. When Matthew Perkins and I began work on the Videoartchive, an on-line video data bank of Australian performance art and video, we had the tape conserved (Marsh, Perkins, Galimberti 2008). The tape was unplayable in its original form and needed to be plunged into a bath of chemicals to separate the tape from itself. In Roland Barthes’s terms the sticky film that captures the referent had captured itself (Barthes, 1981). In pedestrian terms the tape was stuck up. The chemical procedure was half successful and afterwards the tape could be played. But it didn’t play a true straight documentation of the real time performance. Writing about the tape recently, Jill Orr said:

I have always tried to separate the format of presentation. To try to create an essential something that will carry the idea across the mediums. That means that the documentation is not necessarily an accurate representation of the live work. That has never been my concern. I am concerned with creating images that can be distilled and read as a single framed photographic moment or video footage edited with a rhythm dictated for the viewing audience. . . I was not interested in the early use of video from the 1970s - where the single camera view was determined by a gap in the audience, like the original footage of She had long golden hair because it cannot capture the vibratory exchange of the live performance. However the video footage of this work has been reclaimed by nature, time and chemical processes acting on the tape. Part of the reason the footage remained in my archives for years was that I was not interested in such bland recording and eventually the technology was redundant and the work remained unseen. Little did I know that the work was still cooking another layer.

In this case the damage has re-energized the work - and edited it - creating a random rhythm relevant to the medium. It has gone through a process where the organic action of air and chemicals acting on the videotape are similar to gestural painting and other process/action oriented works that rely to a degree on chance and random exchange. . . Nature has provided the select moments as if it is remembering. Some moments are in tact and others blurred. The recorded dialogue - also affected by the chemical interaction through time - leaves an essential dialogue in tact. This is similar to the working of memory” (Orr, 2008).

Jill Orr

Jill Orr has always worked in close association with professional photographers who have been hired to photograph the work. This accounts for the dynamic and photogenic shots of the performances, many of which have become iconic moments. This itself is contra to photography’s postmodern claims to appropriation and the simulacrum. In this performance record Orr used photography in a Modernist way to capture ‘decisive moments’ (Cartier-Bresson 1952); her aim was to select iconic moments that held the aura of the performance. Interviewed in 1987, Orr said that in her performance works she tried to capture an image she had imagined. After following Orr’s work for many years I think this is correct. She literally dreams or imagines an image and then she creates it. And she relies on the still photograph to capture this moment. The photographic process allows her to stage and pose the picture she has imagined whereas the performance itself is in time and does not freeze the moment. In the process of the performed action, the iconic is lost in time, it becomes just another fleeting moment. The performance has ritualistic and shamanist attributes. The audience are taken into the event as if conspirators in the ritual which is experienced in time as an ephemeral event. Orr says that she believes that performance art has its roots in the ancient oral cultures (Orr 2008).

The photographs of She had long golden hair do capture a moment but having seen the performance they don t re-present the event. The video tape goes further but this was not a tape that Orr directed. It was the EAF coordinators who set a ‘dumb’ video camera up as witness to the event and Orr got a copy for her archives. Years later the tape is restored.

What’s interesting about the tape is that in its faults, in its would-be restored state, it actually replays over and over the punctum of the event - “witch, bitch, mole, dyke; witch, bitch, mole, dyke”. And the faults in the video transfer duplicate and repeat over and over the tying and untying of the hair to the chains and the cutting of the hair by the audience. And the more the tape disintegrates, the more that the video noise occurs - the incessant flickering - and the more the ‘real’ performance comes through. In this way the bad ‘real time’ video tape tells us much more about the performance than the selected photographic stills chosen by the artist to represent the event.

When I asked Jill Orr to respond to this article and think about the documentation of her live performances she made several points concerning medium specificity. She argued that the performance is made to be received experientially and that any translation of that experience is bound to fail. However she does not believe that it is impossible to critique the event without being there. She says:  “In broader cultural and historic terms events are analysed well past the event . . . There are no living witnesses to the crucifixion of Christ, and, whether this occurred or not, the image still lives and the biblical stories told of supposed first hand accounts still have powerful sway” (Orr 2008). On some levels Jill Orr agrees with Allan Kaprow. But unlike the father of the Happenings, she engages in a process of re-makes for the camera so that her ideas can be conveyed across various media.

Performance art which is not documented can circulate as rumour. In fact it may well be possible to circulate rumours about performances that never happened. When a performance event is documented via a camera, whether on video, film, photographic surface or digital screen, it enters into a relationship with another medium. In doing so it becomes a remediation. Jill Orr understood this early in her career. She knew that she needed to transport the idea across other media. The archive of photographs of Orr’s performances are strong testaments in themselves that remediation works. Pain Melts, Bleeding Trees, Lunch with the Birds (all 1979) all photographed by Elizabeth Campbell are iconic moments in the history of Australian performance art. These photographs are not records of a live event as such, they are photographs made to carry the idea of the performance, to capture what Orr imagines as the decisive moment  often the image she had dreamt or imagined that sparked the idea for the performance in the first place. In her response to this article she said that the audience or performer are “subservient to the over riding concept and image driving the process. In one sense the final photograph and/or video mean that it is a very long process to take a photograph” (Orr 2008). I have often sensed this when watching Orr’s performances. She is acutely aware that within the live event there are individual moments that will create great pictures.

The damaged tape of She had long golden hair is fascinating and intriguing. If it had survived in its original form, as a dumb witness tape, it would not be compelling. But as a wrecked video that has come back after years of neglect via chemical assault it represents aspects of the live performance that the photographs cannot. It s not really a document because it wears its instability on the screen, it breaks up, it fumbles, it repeats. It is and is not a remediation. Orr puts this down to the foibles of nature. I like to think of it as the ruin of technology, the stained record, the hysteria of video noise.


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Auslander, Philip. 2006.  The Performativity of Performance Documentation. PAJ A Journal of Performance and Art 28 (3): pp 1-10.

Barthes, Roland. 1984. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Fontana. First published in French 1980.

Batchen, Geoffrey. 2001.  Post-Photography. In Each Wild Idea: Writing Photography History. Cambridge, Mas.: MIT Press, 108-127.

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Bolter, Jay and Richard Grusin. 2000. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

De Duve, Thiery. 1978.  Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox. October 5 (Summer): 113-125.

Goldberg, RoseLee. 1988. Performance Art from Futurism to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson.

Heathfield, Adrian. (ed). 2004. Live Art and Performance. London: Tate Publishing.

Jones, Amelia. 1998. Body Art: Performing the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Kaprow, Allan. 1966.  The Happenings are Dead: Long Live the Happenings. Artforum 4 (7): 36-39.

Krauss, Rosalind. 1976.  Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism. October 1: 50-64.

Lippard, Lucy. (ed).1973. Six Years: The De-materialization of the Art Object. London: Studio Vista.

Lippard, Lucy. 1984. Get the Message: A Decade of Art for Social Change. New York: Dutton.

Marsh, Anne. 1993. Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia 1969-1992. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Orr, Jill. 2008.  She had Long Golden Hair 1980 EAF. Response to Performance Art and its Documentation: A Photo/Video Essay by Anne Marsh. Unpublished e-mail correspondence with the author.

Warr, Tracey. and Amelia Jones. 2002. (eds). The Artist s Body. London: Phaidon.

1 In more recent works Orr has used phosphorescent painted screens that allow her to stand in front of them whilst a bright light shines and then to move away and turn off the light. As a result of the phosphorescence a body shadow remains for a short period of time on the screen. This was particularly dramatic in the performance The sleep of reason produces monsters. 2002. Sydney: Artspace.

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