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In all art there exists an interaction between the work and spectator, some on higher levels than others. During my previous research, I have found that those artworks which treat the viewer as an individual (from here on referred to as the participant) rather than a large single mass (the audience) offer an active experience rather than one which is passive. When an active encounter takes place both spectator and artwork brings qualities, which enhance the experience. In some cases, the spectator can bring their past experiences and knowledge which will contribute to their reading of the work. In other cases the spectator activates the work through their gaze, one example of this would be the work of Bridget Riley, whose stripe paintings seem to oscillate before the viewers’ eyes, the reaction caused by the painted lines and the viewers’ perception.

Performance art is perhaps where the most obviously direct encounters between artwork and spectator takes place. This is often the case because the viewers are within the same space, being involved physically or mentally within the performance. The interactions between viewer and work feel more tangible within performance, but an encounter exists on some level within all mediums. Performance artist Clifford Owens, (whose work I experienced at the Cornerhouse in Manchester earlier this year), explores in an article for The New York Times, the nature of performance when experienced live: ‘live performance art forces us to recognize the limits of our own body and psyche in relation to the artist and the audience, and the world around us.’[1] With particular styles of performance art the relationship between viewer and artwork is easier to see, but it exists in all performance art that is experienced live. One example is the work of Marina Abramović, who’s performances directly and physically challenge and engage the viewer.

The live, tangible experience is becoming increasingly contrasted with ones that exist online. Type ‘performance art’ into the search engine at YouTube and it provides the viewer with ‘about 4, 290, 000 results’.[2] This is filled with documentation of performance art. This is a demonstration of the possibilities that the online space possesses. It widens the availability and potency of performance art. YouTube and other video forums widen the reach of performance art; anyone with an Internet connection can view the medium.

Paul Levinson discusses this in his New York Times article ‘Performance Art Engages All Five Senses’: ‘live performance is more relevant today than ever before. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook do not replace face-to face experiences as much as augment and extend them to vastly larger audiences.’[3] However caution is needed, whilst the prevalence of discussion surrounding performance art can only be a good thing, the manner in which the performance is recorded and the reliance of viewing the medium online is troubling.

The manner in which the viewer receives/watches the performance video is highly limiting and filled with distractions, as Amelia Jones has discussed in an interview with Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein. Jones discusses performance art and live streaming, but a similar thought process can be applied to recorded performance art:

But, of course, it has to be presented through a camera lens (or lenses) and so its already ‘formed’ and contingent, not to mention that our mode of viewing if via a piece of software presents it through a particular visual style (usually interrupted by advertisements) on a flat screen, usually on a laptop or some kind of computer device, is highly overdetermined – none of these technologies are innocent, and so all of them shape, inform and even define the work.[4]

The most common form of performance documentation is prescriptive, often shown through one camera angle, documenting one aspect of the performance, in the most straightforward way possible. With this form of video documentation the camera tries to assume the role of another viewer, but instead it becomes an all-seeing passive eye. This form of documentation tries to place the viewer within the space of the gallery, but fails. The straightforward form of performance documentation, which has explored so far, will henceforth be referred to as linear.

When viewing linear documentation the common single lens view dictates the viewer’s eye. All the viewer can do is follow the direction of the camera. All the viewer can do is receive the information provided by the lens. In A History of Experimental Film and Video, A.L. Rees discusses the differences between film and video, which exists on a screen in the gallery, and online:

Access to film and video art was split into two parts: the fixed space of the gallery and the fluid time of the Internet. The first required the viewer to ‘be there’ to experience the work, while the second opened non-linear access to a virtual experience that had ‘no there there’ at all. Whatever their many virtues, however, both of these modes of reception encouraged the viewer to sample the work rather than to participate in more engaged kinds of attention.[5]

According to Rees, both modes of Curation require nothing more from the viewer than to stand passively watching the screen. Film and video art, however, can engage the viewers when presented in this way and can encourage and different mode of viewing, one that has the potential to become active. Linear performance documentation cannot. This is due to the nature of the medium; it becomes displaced from its original source without accepting a new position. Film and video art, however can exist more easily within online forums, especially those which can be viewed on one screen for a single viewer. Linear documentation however cannot ever create a comfortable viewing experience. This is due to the temporal and physical distance between the work and the viewer. It is an unavoidable fact that performance documentation is often the only connection to a past performance, but due to this there exists an inherent distance between performance and viewer. Philip Auslander discusses this tension in a conversation with Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein:

It is impossible, however, for us to experience the ‘original’ performance as its original audience did (which could not have been a singular experience in the first place, of course). There is a tension between the fact that the event documented occurred in another place, at another time, in another situation, in the act of reactivation, which occurs in the here and now, in the immediately present situation. [6]

When viewing performance art in this way the viewer experience is passive. They are distanced from the event. This is not to wholly condemn online or video documentation, but more to accept that it exists on a different plane to performance art that is experienced live. The spectator experience is very restricted when viewing the medium through video documentation, but if this is acknowledged then there is a potential for the medium of video documentation to transcend its restrictive boundaries. If performance documentation is treated as something different, an art work in its own right, then it can achieve something more. First the medium has to acknowledge its flaws. It then can exploit and experiment with those flaws and create something that exists separate to the performance, yet derived from it. The medium has the ability to become something that occupies the spaces of performance and film art. Performance documentation needs to become non-linear.

For a documentation of a performance to become non-linear, the medium must first accept its apparent restrictions and exploit them. It must accept that it can never recreate the initial performance, and, instead of mourn this loss, endeavour to create something new. The non-linear must also accept that the gallery and the online are two different environments, each with their own promises and faults. Non-linear documentation has an opportunity in both these settings and in others. To become non-linear, the documentation has become something other. This could take any method or approach, but it must be separate from its linear relative. A.L. Rees described the work of the Lettriste group and their approach to film: ‘Among their tactics of ‘detournement’, or subversion, Isou and Maurice Lemaître cut commercial found footage literally to pieces, scratching and painting the film surface and frames, moulding texts and soundtracks to further dislocate its original meaning.’[7] This is a possible approach, taken literally or not. The linear must dislocate itself. With a non-linear approach, the viewer can become a participant in the dislocation. Performance documentation can achieve an active engagement between artwork and spectator.

Jesc Bunyard is an artist and writer. Bunyard seeks to explore the interactions between artwork and spectator. In her art practice this takes the form of immersive or perceptually challenging work, often using C-Type Photograms, performances, videos, interventions and installations. Jesc Bunyard recently restaged a performance at the ICA, as part of Bloomberg New Contemporaries. Bunyard is the arts critic for Hunger Magazine and currently writes for Rooms Magazine and Candid Magazine.

[1]http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/08/18/did-youtube-kill-performance-art/the-internet-is-no-substitute-for-live-performance-art Accessed 01/10/2014

[2]http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=performance+art Accessed 08/11/2014

[3]http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/08/18/did-youtube-kill-performance-art/performance-art-engages-all-five-senses Accessed 01/10/2014

[4] Amelia Jones, ‘From The Document towards Material Traces: Amelia Jones in Conversation with Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein’, in Performing the Sentence: Research and Teaching in Performative Arts, ed. By Carola Dertnig and Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein (Vienna: Sternberg Press, 2014) pp. 58 – 65, p. 60

[5] A.L. Rees, ‘In the Gallery and On the Air’, in A History of Experimental Film and Video (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) pp. 132-134, p. 133

[6] Philip Auslander ‘Understanding is Performative: Philip Auslander in Conversation with Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein’ in Performing the Sentence: Research and Teaching in Performative Arts, ed. By Carola Dertnig and Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein (Vienna: Sternberg Press, 2014) pp.128 – 137, p. 129

[7] Rees, p. 68

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