ROBIN DEACON ON DOCUMENTATION / 2005
The following is an unpublished interview with curator Cecelia Wee. Conducted through email correspondence in 2005, the subject matter covers issues of documentation and the preservation of performance:
1: How would you describe your artistic background and training?
I suppose I took the standard route. I took a Foundation course, then a Fine Art degree, although I don’t have an A-Level in art, hence my inability to draw.
2: Does this training influence your current practice as a live artist?
Yes. Although the sort of work I do now is very different, there are things that have stuck.
3: If live art or performance was not your initial practice, can you describe why you shifted your field of practice?
I can’t really remember it being a conscious decision. I used to make what I thought were sculptures on my foundation course until my tutor told me that they were actually ‘assemblages’ and sometimes’ installations’. The standard art historical understanding of why artists start performing is because their ideas supposedly ‘exceed the canvas’, but for me it wasn’t a rejection of what I was doing. I seem to remember that my initial intention had been to stick with my installations, but the sculpture department seemed to be more interested in teaching me how to develop those fundamental skills such as bronze pouring, casting, and stuff like that. I wasn’t interested, so from the second term of my first year, I switched to time based studies and stayed there.
B. Artistic practice and documenting
1: What forms of knowledge or objects would you include under the banner ‘documentation’?
Rightly or wrongly, I always understood documentation as essentially pointing a camera at a performance, and never looking at it ever again. I’ve also hoarded stuff that I suppose could be described as documentation – props, flyers from shows I’ve forgotten even doing. Why I’ve kept this stuff, I don’t know – I’m not one for throwing things out, but a lot of this stuff serves no purpose other than to clutter up my house. I’ve never really considered the idea of knowledge of documentation – for me, it’s still very much a material thing. Perhaps these are delusions of posterity – maybe I think that when I die, someone will unpack a box of stained underwear I used in a performance 10 years ago, and come to understand what it was I was doing.
2: For the purpose of this interview, the term documentation does not extend to oral, non-written accounts. What significance do oral, non-written accounts have for the dissemination of your work?
I suppose there is always word of mouth – often though, this has led to misunderstandings as to the nature of my work. I’ve ended up in some odd venues and situations based on what people have heard about my performances. Often, summations of my work focus on what I would consider to be insignificant aspects of what I do. Often, it’s a specific image. I’ve written and performed over 30 individual performances, and in about 3 of those, I’ve exposed my bottom. To some people, that has been a rather obvious reference point, and hence, I have been introduced to people who already know me as ‘the performer who always gets his arse out’. I have to explain it’s the ‘always’ that isn’t true.
3: Do you consider the production and/or product of performance documentation part of your artistic practice?
My performance Harry and Me (2004) tells the story of how I was planted in my school choir to make it look more diverse for its appearance on a television show. It seemed the success of this performance would hinge on me finding the footage. But when I started writing the performance, I had no idea whether or not this was going to be possible, and so, the first section of the performance is about me trying to find a piece of TV footage – this possibly fruitless search thereby became the subject. It was the documentation of this process - recorded phone calls, letters, that were presented as the performance. Is this a kind of documentation in reverse? When Joshua Sofaer writes about Live Art, he describes it as coming into being at the point of contact with the audience. For me though, the more interesting moments still occur in the preliminary – the performing (which right now, I enjoy much less than research and writing a piece) can almost be seen as a mere presentation of documentation. It’s almost like a ‘making of the performance’ running concurrently within the performance. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make, is that something like one of the telephone conversations I recorded could also be seen as documentation – although they are severely edited for the performance, I think in their own right, they would be of interest, if someone wanted to find out more about the work. Kind of like an extra, deleted scene on a DVD. I’ve made a few bits and pieces like this available on my website, but I don’t know to what degree people will delve that deeply. One more thing – in both Harry & Me and Colin Powell (2005) I have used a brief snatch of footage of myself blacking up in an earlier performance piece, and in the case of the later performance. So this is where recycled documentation very much became part of a creative process, rather than an end in itself.
4: Thinking back to the last time you documented a performance, what motivated you to do so?
It’s almost a reflex action now. It seems to make sense, from the point of view of having say, a video document of a performance, ‘just for the record’. I have asked myself the question, who is this for? I would say it was for me, but nine times out of ten, I don’t watch what I record. I have tapes of performances from three years ago that I am yet to watch. I suppose I have been motivated to do this as a means of keeping my website updated. The site itself is perhaps the best indication of my attitude towards documentation, and what motivates me to do it. This is in terms of the fact that I have so much stuff on there (over 130 pages) and I know that much of this is stuff is only of limited interest for most people. Once you get past the blurb, and a few images, I think most people switch off when it comes to websites. But I was viewing it as an archive to – by 2000, I had accumulated so many boxes of photo’s and performance related nick nacks that it seemed stupid not to try and collate these things. It was like clearing the decks – very useful for looking back on a personal level. I also think the motivation for why you document things changes – on my website, there are images of performances I did in the mid 90’s, some stuff I even did in the first year of my degree. There is also an element of embarrassment in this (some of the work has visual representations of myself that I’d rather forget), but I felt I had to put them in, as I didn’t want to use the website as a means of re-writing history through the selective use of documentation. I think this idea of full disclosure maybe makes the story of how I got from there to here a lot clearer, and certainly more honest.
5: Thinking back to the last time you chose not to document a performance, what motivated you to do so?
I don’t know, laziness perhaps. Also, once I have five or so copies of different renditions of a performance, so there doesn’t seem to be much point. Because I often travel to do performances on my own, it’s just the last thing you’re thinking of. And if it’s a last minute decision to film, I think it will show – do I need another grainy out of focus recording from a bad angle? However, there have been several times where I haven’t documented, and it’s turned out to be something like a ‘definitive’ rendition, or something unexpected happens – I’ve inwardly told myself during the performance, ‘I wish I’d bloody well filmed this.’ In some respects you ask yourself whether in material terms, is this all I have? And if so, does it matter? I think there could be a kind of ‘object envy’ on the part of performance artists relative to other forms of gallery based visual art.
6: Please list the artistic reasons for documenting your work, and rank them in order of importance.
I don’t know to what degree you’d describe these as artistic reasons, but anyway – 1. Habit, 2. Sometimes good images (especially still ones) can mask a bad performance, 3. Maybe its ego – I’m often struck that it’s quite strange that I’ve got hundreds of images of myself not only stored away, but also on my website.
7: Please list the non-artistic reasons for documenting your work, and rank them in order of importance.
Again, it’s hard to list in this way. But I would say if someone doesn’t trust word of mouth, and is interested in your work for whatever reason, the standard question is ‘do you have any documentation’? So there’s one reason – as a tool for self promotion. Although many would consider marketing, and presenting work through documentation is a work of art in itself.
8: In what ways has performance documentation helped your professional development and career progression?
I guess its useful having pictures to show people about your work. In the late mid 90’s I used an SLR camera with a timer to re-enact scenes from performances I was trying to get people to programme. It was good having that degree of control over the way your work is received, and paradoxically, more recently as the work has become more successful, I’ve had trouble with people trying to ‘package’ things in quite specific ways, visually speaking. One thing that has been good is that my fascination with editing tape can be attributed to documentation. A year or two ago, I taught myself to edit, with the purpose to producing what could be described as a three minute trailer ‘advertising’ one of my performance pieces, using images culled from various performances of one show. Also inter cut were elements of projected video used in the performance. Here, the documentation becomes something else – it’s like a compacted version of the performance – one hour into 3 or 4 minutes. This brevity is useful in terms of explaining to somebody (a group of students, a curator, programmer of whoever) what it is you do, although often, people have almost objected to this idea of a ‘greatest hits’ compilation, and ask me for uncut footage. Anyway, in terms of professional development, this is how I learnt to edit video, as well is developing a much clearer eye for articulating the narrative structures in my work. I don’t think of that so much in terms of career progression (a lot of artists don’t like the idea of having a career) - it’s more for me really.
C. Performances and documentation made
1: How many performances have you made in the last five years?
About 23 individual pieces of work, some one offs some repeated. So over the last five years, I have performed about 107 times.
2: Of this number, what percentage have you documented?
Every single individual piece has been documented, but in terms of each performance, it’s around 45 or so, so just under 50% I suppose.
D. Exhibiting performance documentation
1: Of those performances documented, what percentage has ever been publicly exhibited, either within the UK or abroad?
Certainly, nothing has been shown in its own right, other than during lectures I’ve given at educational institutions. Much of my documentation is held by the Live Art Development Agency, which is a public resource.
2: How would you best describe the client who exhibited your performance documentation?
I think its important to point out that the ‘circuit’ on which I find myself isn’t one of galleries displaying my work/objects as documents. Much of the time, I’ve been recently finding myself in quite traditional theatre spaces, where the idea of displaying art objects/documents is of little or no relevance. I have made video pieces (not documents of performances) that have been shown in galleries, but even in this case, I don’t consider them as works for sale. Again, because the quality of my (video) documentation varies wildly, I can’t see why anybody would want to show a lot of it. Even the good documentation can’t be seen as equivalent. I think one of the reasons this is less of a factor in my work is because of its heavy use of text. It’s not that my work isn’t visual, but I do believe there is performance work that is maybe more geared up for say, the production of photographic images that would ‘translate’ to a gallery wall. If for example, your work uses stillness, or static posing in some way, (much ‘body art’ seems to fall into this category) perhaps it is easier for such work to have a double life. I’m perfectly aware that the aural aspects of my work could have some life beyond a performance in terms of CD’s or something, but that’s one of those thing one talks about without getting round to it for a long time. I’d have to trawl through a lot of tapes first.
3: Did that exhibition and your contact with the client/institution lead to subsequent live performance?
The documentation I have sent to individuals has. This is the difference I think, but the principle is the same – it’s still a means of disseminating a version of your work to people who may be interested, but it is viewed in a singular, rather than a public context. Again, although I had a fine art training, I think a distinction has to be made between that training and the way my work is displayed now. I’ve never had much of a foothold in museum/gallery spaces. What was interesting for me in the RCA show this year was that although the performers had an equal standing in the exhibition as those displaying their objects (and those performing durationally in the gallery space), I felt I had no presence in the exhibition beyond the 60 minutes of the performance. Again, this is less of an issue in a theatre space. I remember talking to another performer at the opening, and he said he enjoyed the feeling of anonymity. So any further performances that came from this exhibition would have been from somebody seeing the live show, rather than its documentation.
E. Technology and performance documentation
1: What media have you used to document your work?
Mostly video. But when I was studying, and a few years after, there was a separation between the moving and the still image, so I would usually have a 35mm SLR camera for stills, and a Hi 8 video camera. When the world went digital, the necessity of having the stills camera went out of the window. Using Mini DV, you can draw stills from it in editing. This is ostensibly a good thing in terms of convenience – especially as an SLR camera is mechanically operated, and hence needs a person to operate it. However, I’m becoming more aware of the fact that the restriction of having a camera with 36 exposures required a skill on the part of the photographer in terms of pacing things (i.e. getting to the big finale and finding you’ve only got 2 exposures left) wasn’t such a bad thing. This is because you can take a still from any part of the DV tape. There are 24 frames in a second, so potentially you have 1440 still images from just one minute. It’s just too much – no moment of time is special, because you have access to all of them. One thing I do try to pay special attention to is sound, and I think this is a real problem in a lot of video documentation of live art. I think there is too much reliance on using the camera microphone, and I’ve found when I’ve positioned it at the back, or to the side of a space (as it usually the only position you can find), the sound is just bad. No matter how good your images are, this can screw things up, especially if text is being used. I use mini disc and a separate microphone, so the sound is kept separate and can be synched up in editing.
2: What artistic factors have contributed to this choice?
I actually would like to go back to using 35mm SLR camera because the images simply looked better. It’s probably my Luddite tendency, but I do feel there is something about the way photographic film looks that shows up digital images as being throwaway. Digital seems to lack a depth of field in terms of image – also, the hands on nature of photographic prints was useful when I was starting out, in that much of the documentation I would send out to festivals and organisers would be handmade. Digital severely diminishes this DIY ethic. Or perhaps I’m just being nostalgic. If I follow this logic, maybe I should be getting a watercolour painter to come and document my next performance.
3: What non-artistic factors have contributed to this choice?
See above also. I view many of the reasons I listed as just being pragmatic, common sense.
4/5. Does someone else assist you in documenting your performances? If so would you consider them…
I would say all the categories listed have been involved in documenting my work over the years, although, I’m not sure what a documenturg is. I’ve had friends point a video camera at me in a very informal way, as well as getting specific people will camera skills to set up a tripod and film specific elements. If you mean somebody who maybe has there own artistic input into the generation of the images, then yes. In these cases, this hasn’t so much been for documentation per se, but in terms of working with a photographer for say, publicity shots. I haven’t necessarily enjoyed this process. In one specific incident, it ended with too many compromises and hence a watered down vision on both sides. I’ve often had trouble working with ‘professional’ photographers, who maybe are of the opinion that the person in front of the camera doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have any ideas of their own.
6/7. In addition to a functional role, does technology have an artistic role in documenting your performances? If yes, could you describe what role it has?
I can think of a specific instance, when performing Harry and Me at the Edinburgh Festival last year. Having to perform this piece 24 times over a month proved arduous, (I’d never performed that amount of shows consecutively) but I decided that it would be interesting to document each show to get a sense of high points and low points. But rather than the usual point and press approach, I decided to approach it from a slightly different direction. There is a part of the show where a camera is trained on the audience, and their image projected back in front of them. Of course, this is part of the performance, but up until then, it had never occurred to me to record this section of the performance through the camera. So in this case, that is exactly what I did, hence, I have 20 or so tapes of ‘audience response’ from nearly every show. This was a refreshing departure from having endless tapes of me. I’ve even thought of developing this idea to maybe focus the camera on one specific audience member throughout a performance – this is perhaps where documentation could become something in itself, other than just another tape to add to the pile. I am wary of the use of cameras in performances though – I think at times, the tail can start wagging the dog, and you’re left in a situation where the audience is totally secondary to the performer’s desire to get some good shots.
8: How would you respond to Phelan’s infamous remark with regards to your artistic practice?
Having attempted to read Unmarked on several occasions with little success, I can’t pretend to have anything other than slight resentment toward Peggy Phelan for taking up so much of my time. Although I do understand the significance of her work, I’ve always wondered why this quote always seems to pop up so often. I found Philip Auslander’s book Liveness a compelling argument against this idea that performance is in some way above the fray in terms of reproduction. His observation that preservation of performances by means of materials such as video tape/film etc is by no means permanent (in that such materials degrade) I found to be a really fascinating riposte, as well as being infinitely more readable. You could say that the profusion of coffee table type books filled with glossy images of performances also suggests at the very least, an ambivalence about the live artists relationship with commodity. It seems to me that there is a danger for art movements utilising performance gaining any sort of ‘institutional validity’ - i.e. the tactile works by Fluxus artists that are now in glass boxes in the Tate. It seems to me that those who call themselves live artists are vulnerable to this because they feel (incorrectly I think) the only way they can make money is by selling their documentation.
9: Other aspects of performance documentation
How other people write about my work interests me, as this is only something that has happened in earnest very recently. One of the other motivating factors for setting up my website (and putting a huge amount extraneous documentation, scripts, errata, and footnotes on there) was that as nobody was writing about my work, I decided I would do it myself. I’ve seen it written that there is a feeling that unless a performance is written about, for the artist it does not exist in the aftermath. The feelings and memories of the audience present just aren’t enough for some. However, now that the mainstream press has reviewed my work extensively (particularly in Edinburgh), I’m now aware of how the world wide web can set opinions not so much in stone, but at least in terms of reviews that will remain in the public domain. This form of documentation has a permanence over which the artist has no control. If it’s printed, it’s disappeared the next day, but on-line documents perhaps allow ideas about artists and their work to live on beyond their natural life. But perhaps this goes back to what I was saying about my website – the idea of full disclosure in terms of works we’d rather hide or would like to forget ever happened.