Raising the Ruins: (Re)enactment and Remembering as a Mode of Documentation

by Joanna Bucknall

There is much debate as to whether the documentation of professional performance practice is ontological or ideological and as to what role documentation plays in the legacy and constitution of culture and arts history. Phillip Auslander suggests that the documentation of work is not simply an ethnographic activity but instead is more closely related to the reproduction of works and therefore might be understood to actually perform culture:

It may well be that our sense of the presence, power and authenticity of these pieces derives not from treating the document as an indexical access point to a past event but from perceiving the document itself as a performance that directly reflects an artist’s aesthetic project or sensibility for which we are the present audience.[1]

This would suggest that the live or original event is not what constitutes culture itself but instead it is the various ‘remembrances’ of the event. In some instances no original event may exist prior to its documentation and dissemination as a performative event. If we for a moment accept this position then we accept that documentation and dissemination is central to the performance of culture for professional practice. This would suggest then that the documentation of practice is ontological and ideological in nature rather than simply ethnographic. Documentation of performance work is one of the ways in which it performs as culture.

I want to suggest that Practice as Research (PaR) has a different agenda to that of professional practice. PaR documentation is required to be ontological, ethnographic and epistemic in order to contribute to knowledge communities in a rigorous manner, particularly within the context of doctoral study and the Higher Education environment. Ontological in that it must be framed as research with the research agenda both authorising and contextualising the practice and it is ethnographic in that the performance and its documentation/theorisation chart a knowledge acquisition process in a critical and reflexive manner. Epistemic because the practice is a way of knowing and is a research methodology to uncover insight. I am not suggesting that professional practice cannot/does not necessarily do this but in order to be understood specifically as PaR, its framing as research must be explicit and rigorous. Documentation is as central to PaR practice as it is to professional practice but for distinctly different reasons. I want to share the ontology of the epistemic approach to performance documentation that I undertook for my doctoral research and its dissemination. I want to start by outlining the research and documentation challenges that the research presented in order to discuss the ways in which the website as form presented an epistemic dissemination solution.

My PhD entitled: ‘‘Participative’ Dramaturgy & The ‘Material Creatorly Participant’: A Theory of Production and Reception’, was concerned with developing a theory of production and reception that made distinct participative and immersive dramaturgies their reception.[2] Practice was central to articulating such dramaturgies but was also central in explicating the ontology of the audience’s role. My PaR activity consisted of a series of laboratory performance experiments and some professional practice case studies. The case studies of professional practice that I employed were two performances produced by Breatheartists; Just To(o) Long(?) and To(o) Long(?) and Love Letters straight from your Heart, by Uninvited Guests. My own series of PaR experiments were called Siren Song. In my research I was engaging with two different practice-based strategies: the documentation of professional practice with a view to gaining insight into the nature of the dramaturgy of those practices from a phenomenological perspective and the creation of live performance laboratories to gain insight into the nature of the audience’s role within those participative practice events. A subjective and localised reflexive lens underpinned these two strategies. I took up the role of reflective participant in my approach to professional practice and reflective practitioner in relation to my own performance experiments.

One of the main challenges was how to document and disseminate practice that has experience, participation and play as its central dramaturgical principal. How does one document a liminoid invitation and its subsequent liminoid acts? The laboratory performances and professional case studies needed to be documented and disseminated in relation to the theorisation of the practices and the audience’s experience of them in a manner that addressed the central experiential nature of the works. The performance itself served as a reflexive knowledge acquisition activity and the theorisation had a symbiotic relation with the development of the insights by and through the performance experiences. My roles of reflective participant and reflective practitioner generated many subjective and localised documents, artefacts and ephemera created by and through performance, (see my PhD blog site at <http://sirensongin3parts.blogspot.co.uk/>). Martin Welton and Paul Rae have argued that to discuss the mysterious experience intrinsic to performance practice is to reduce it to something that is ‘aside’ from or ‘other’ to that practice and thus does not embody those practices in an accurate discourse.[3] By reducing the ‘unspeakable’ forces that drive practice into a set of academic and cerebral paradigms, may assert that practice is then transformed into another category of intellectual discourse that is never fully able to disclose itself adequately or truthfully. Martin Welton identifies such a need for developing a suitable discourse that could be adopted by the potential practitioner as researcher:

If we are to claim, as I am, that performance entails a particular state, or way of being, then it is from the actuality of the point of performance, and not the abstractions of theory, which must be articulated.[4]

Those practitioners whom assert that the work should stand alone and speak for itself entirely in a PaR project are indeed correct, as anything else is not that which has been undertaken as research and offers up an ‘untruthful’ or inadequate aside to the work itself. However, the very nature of performance as ephemeral suggests that the work cannot be disseminated in a form that can be held accountable to the community it wishes to address by its very ontology. Practice, in the case of live performance, can only ever be able to speak to a limited number of people and the concerns that it seeks to address through practice are only evident in the moment of that practice; herein lies the dilemma for the reflective-practitioner; ‘performance honours the idea that only a limited number of people in a specific time/space’[5], can be privy to such works. Practice, as I have suggested does and should embody a rigour intrinsic to research, however, its inability to make itself available as a lasting and accessible contribution to the community it wishes to be significant to, is a potential barrier to PaR’s full acceptance into the realms of scholarly activity. Although the work might embody the answer to the research questions as a whole, and if it is PaR it must; without communication and dissemination, PaR projects fail to reach their full potential as a contribution to knowledge: ‘if the aim of research is to communicate knowledge or understanding then reception cannot be an uncontrolled process’[6]. As well as the problem of how to make a PaR project available to its target audience in a permanent form, there is also the concern of how to control and contextualise the reception and understanding of that work, if it is to simply stand alone as a piece of live performance. The way in which a performance is framed effects the reception of that work and for various reasons the practitioner often has little control over the way in which a work is received. Research must be contextualised and framed appropriately, communicated accordingly to its community. A piece of live performance alone has difficulty in achieving acceptable means of delivering both these requirements. As Philip Auslander identifies in the work of Herbert Moulderings on the ontology of performance:

Whatever survives of a performance in the form of a photograph or video tape is no more than a fragmentary, petrified vestige of a lively process that took place at a different time in a different place.[7]

In accepting that anything left behind or produced by performance is indeed not the performance but something else or other to the ephemeral performance itself then the researcher must start to think about the relationship that exists between the documentation and the documentations audience; thus the mode of dissemination and its reception.

Figure 1: Screen shot from the menu page of Chapter 9


The performance work itself along with their tacit knowledges and insights once experienced by the practitioners and the audiences of the work disappear in the moment of the live performance itself; what we are then left with are the ‘rememberings’ and (re)enactments of the performance events through artefacts and ethnographic documents produced by and through those performances. These artefacts are the ruins of performance. It is out of these ethnographic ruins that I want to suggest one can start to employ the form of the website to (re)perform through ‘remembrance’ and create a new experiential-based digital performance out of the ruins of performance. The website can (re)enact and remember the tacit knowledges using a multi-media approach for the audience in a meaningful way, without the reliance upon the notion of authenticity or the need for having to have been a part of the original live events, as it creates a new performance event that stages the insights of the original performances.

Communication, dissemination and accessibility of the research’s outcomes is an important factor to consider in order to ensure that it is acknowledged to be making a contribution to knowledge; ‘one might regard it as implied in the notion of making a contribution since the contribution will go unnoticed if it is not communicated’, to the community that it wishes to engage and address.[8] It is argued that the communication and dissemination of PaR projects, such as my own, by way of textual documentation, betrays the very position of PaR and deeply undermines the ethics of such an approach by documenting the processes and outcomes textually. It is suggested that this turns tPaR into something else and is not an adequate way in which to present such findings and that: ‘in doing so, we have committed the theatre event to the logic of the critical text. We have validated it on terms not its own’.[9] However, the website acknowledges its own presence as both primary and secondary document for its audience and in doing so acknowledges the fragmentary and intrinsic (but acknowledged) bias of the creator. In this way the website performs the constitution and dissemination of knowledge that (re)enacts the liveness of the original performance event, as Auslander asserts:

Just as artworks from the past do not simply disclose themselves to us as contemporaneous but become so only as a conscious achievement on our part, interactive technologies do not disclose themselves to us as live but become so only as a conscious achievement on our part.[10]

My PhD case studies are not simply a record of the experiences of both makers and audience involved in particular events but are performative (re)enactments and ‘rememberings’ of the events themselves. As well as being part being one of the two main aspects of knowledge acquisition for this research project, the case studies also become new knowledge in their own right; they become primary source material that lends insight to particular contemporary practice in the form a living history. The compilation and design of the website becomes a new primary document to be experienced by its own audiences autonomous of the original live events. They perform the ruins and in doing so generate a new performance event that documents the insights generated by the original performance but also offering the space for continual insights to be made by engagement with the new performance of the original performances. The theorisation becomes part of the (re)enactment and ‘remembering’ that places the audience of the website into the role of a ‘creatorly’ reader.

The case study and PaR chapters are presented in a website format; they are interactive, performative (re)enactments that utilise the intermedia flexibility that new media offers. Although, the website form that these two chapters employ is not ‘live’, they maintain an interactive and performative integrity that is at the heart of new media’s very ontology.[11] The website form allows direct access to audio files, images, video footage, hyperlinks and other media resources, that are embedded within the body of the text. The website form means that encountering these two chapters is an interactive and performative experience; an experience that I want to suggest is imposed over the space of the live event’s ruins.

Figure 2: Screen shot from Chapter 9. A (re)enactment of Breathe Artists T(o)o Long?

2 The various fragments and traces can be negotiated, through an interactive platform in order to generate a new performance that attempts to offer insights into the original performance events. The text of the chapters can be viewed simultaneously to video footage, audio tracks, images, photos and live websites in order to generate an intermedial, sensory performative experience. Although my PhD chapter websites are fixed due to the nature of the PhD process one of the exciting possibilities of the website in conjunction with other social networking applications and smart media is the possibility for creating a space that is a live palimpsest where (re)performance and rememberings can be continually updated and overwritten to create a dynamic digital performance space in the ruins of performances.

Figure 3: Screen shot from the dissemination of the PaR experiments in Chapter 10 without pop-ups open

3Figure 4: Screen shot from the dissemination of the PaR experiments in Chapter 10 with pop-ups open

4I want to suggest that this mode of documentation is ontologically performative and ethnographic but can also present an epistemic approach to the documentation of PaR activity. The website in this usage becomes an enunciated modality that performs the discursive fields of knowledges in such a way as to generate a new primary experience for its own audiences, independent of the original performances and research activity.

Joanna Bucknall is a senior lecturer in drama and performance in the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, School of Media & Performing Arts at The University of Portsmouth. Her research interests include production and reception theory of experimental contemporary performance; specifically immersive, one on one, micro performance & participative dramaturgies, documentation of performance, augmented reality in performance and digitalised immersive technologies and Practice as Research. Bucknall is artistic director of Vertical Exchange Performance (VEX), a live art collective, (http://verticalexchange.wix.com/verticalexchangeperformance) and co-artistic director of KeepHouse Performance a PaR performance company with Dr Karen Savage, (www.keephouseperformance.org). I have been working as a practice–based scholar since 2006 and in that time she has produced PaR projects with both of these companies in collaboration with venues such as The Barbican in Plymouth, Camden People’s Theatre, The Basement in Brighton, Performing Arts Centre Lincoln and the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth.

[1] Phillip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London: Routledge, 1999), P. 9

[2] See full text at <http://www.keephouseperformance.org/#!__joes-phd>)

[3] Martin Welton, ‘Practice as research and the mind-body problem’, (PaRiP: Bristol University, 2003), http://www.bris.ac.uk/parip/welton.htm & Paul Rae ‘Re: invention – on the limits of reflective practice’, (PaRiP: Bristol University, 2003), http://www.bris.ac.uk/parip/rae.htm, Accessed 12/02/2012

[4] Ibid.,

[5] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: Politics of Performance, (New York: Routledge, 1993), P. 149

[6] Michael Biggs, ‘The Role of ‘the Work’ in Art and Design research’, (PaRiP: Bristol University, 2003) http://www.bris.ac.uk/parip/biggs.htm Accessed 12/02/12

[7] Philip Auslander, Liveness, pp. 172-173

[8] Biggs, ‘The Role of ‘the Work’ in Art and Design Research’, Accessed 12/02/2012

[9] Simon Jones, ‘The Courage of Complementarity’, (PaRiP: Bristol University, 2003) http://www.bris.ac.uk/parip/jones.htm, Accessed 12/02/2012

[10] Philip Auslander ‘Digital Liveness: A Historico-Political Perspective’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance & Art, Vol. 34 Issue 3, (2012) p. 102

[11] Not being ‘live’, simply means that at this stage the research is not freely available on the world wide web and can currently only be viewed directly from the DVD content.

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