Viewing a performance through a camera is viewing an unfolding visual, aural and sensory reality actualized through the field of a lens. Through the frame, a performance assumes a further layer of meaning and aesthetic value — it is the framed subject of the camera and as such it is no longer the reality felt by the performers or the audiences of the performance in the live performance space. A documented performance is a new creative whole and its aesthetic limits are tied to the techniques and possibilities of the cinematic medium as much as they are to the physical, kinetic and creative dimensions of performance itself. As film editor, Dai Vaughan eloquently suggests, reality before the camera includes the presence of the camera. It is not external to the camera. Therefore to assume that the camera can offer an unmediated record, as if from an omniscient or objective position is to confuse the presence of the camera with its impossible absence.
Cameras intervene in the worlds and phenomena they document. They do not offer passive records or re-presentations of what they observe and record. Very often performance documentation discussions wind up in a cul-de-sac where, from a performance perspective, the sole purpose of the camera is to capture and preserve as widely as possible a record of the performance event for future reference, for example for the purposes of studying performance or creating samples of work. While these uses are not necessarily irrelevant — for certainly if one can playback and see how one was performing, one can amend and advance mise-en-scene and movement dynamics — what is at issue however, is that from a documentation perspective, the perspective of the camera, such documentation is perhaps too simplistic and an inadequate use of the potentials of the camera as a whole. A kind of dehumanized documentation process results that while accommodating the figure/s facing the lens, is oblivious towards and eliminates the ones behind it. If cameras are purely to record performance for study purposes, performers can, as they many times do, undertake documentation by simply placing the camera at a perceived vantage point and pressing the record button. Such use of the camera has certain advantages but at the same time, it limits the potentials that documentarists working with the camera could offer performers.
If documentation is understood as a process, a living and organic one, then it necessitates participants both in front of, and behind the lens. This process then also necessitates understanding that documentation is partial and it cannot lead to a total, sealed and therefore immutable outcome. If documentation is a process between documented, (here performers), and documentarists, (those who document performances), then the camera can be understood as a site of dialogue between both. Its interventions are not limited to the efficacious recording of performance, based on a passive camera approach. What are the contours and requisites of this documentation as a dialogue? More importantly, what forms do the outcomes of this dialogic process entail and where would those outcomes be situated for multiple audiences?
For a few years, I have been documenting performances (including dance), in which the camera is held as a tool of dialogue with the performers. As such, the camera has been situated less as an observer recording performance, and more as a co-performer interacting with and shaping performance as a whole. One of the projects I was associated with, Dog Tags (2005, director, Firenza Guidi) involved live coverage of a promenade performance that had multiple scenes enacted simultaneously in a public square. In this work, I focused my camera on the peripheral scenes, those that were away from the center of the public square, and these were then transmitted live to a large screening surface near to the center of the performance setting. The screening surface was the front façade of a building and projected on this, the scale of things in the image was magnified. The camera’s perspective served two purposes that contributed in altering and enhancing the performance as a whole. Firstly, the live feed of images from a minor, peripheral scene that was part of a wider performance whole, shattered the marginality of that instance and brought it, through a mediated image, close to the center of the performance. This in turn, provoked a dialogue between live performers and mediated images, integrating the latter with the larger performance as a whole. Secondly, by projecting on large surface, this magnified the recorded scene beyond its human scale. Thus what was on the periphery in the live performance was doubly mobilized in the performance-as-a-whole through its physical and magnified (mediated) presence. The camera contributed to the performance-as-a-whole, magnifying the scale of things beyond the eye level. This is tied to the specificity and uniqueness of cinema — it can offer a perspective to things that differs from the human eye perspective.
In another collaborative dance research project at Bath Spa University (2006-2011), I offered training to dancers in the uses of the camera to document spaces relating to their site-specific performances. At first, the performers used the camera to observe themselves performing in those sites. They brought those video materials into the studio space and projected them onto a large back wall. They felt diminished by the size and scale of the image and their own bodies within it. Seeing their own bodies altered in size created an uncanny feeling for the performers, particularly feeling diminished by the image in which their bodies were enlarged. We decided to experiment with the scale of the projected image: make it small or large in keeping with the particular effects we were seeking to produce by positioning the live body in relation to its mediated image. So instead of only projecting on a large back wall in the performance space, a number of other surfaces created from multiple materials: cardboard boxes, fabrics and other props were used, on which the recorded image was projected. As we experimented with scale, it became possible for the performers to relate to their own and other bodies within the projected image, creating lines of juxtaposition, overlap and repetition of movements between the projected images and live performance. Dancers undertook further documentation to advance the lines of connection between the live body and the filmed body. One such experiment led to projecting the image onto the very body of the performer and this further opened more lines of creative dialogue between projected image and live performance. Most significantly, introducing the projected image into the performance space allowed an expansion of the performance space — bringing the outside into that space, enhancing the layers of meaning within it and advancing its felt and tactile qualities.
These possibilities for the interface of performance and camera led to very specific creative and aesthetic outcomes, in which the camera’s inputs were integrated in the performance wholes. Parallel to this, supplemental materials were recorded that contributed to the documentation of performance process. As the camera got more integrated with performance, a distinct camera vocabulary — sensitive to the aesthetic dynamics and broader concerns of the performance emerged. This camera vocabulary then facilitated selective documentation of instances from the performance-making process such as exercises, movement phrases, feedback and dialogues between performers. The performers, and I as a documentarist, conversed and determined which moments from the process merited documentation and this also expanded our usage of the documented materials for further developing the performance. Determining a camera vocabulary that complemented the performance vocabulary facilitated our conversations and we could all express interest towards the specific instances we felt merited documentation rather than aspire towards some whole or total documentation of their processes. These specific instances were often those that mapped the leaps, the big advances we made in the performance devising process. In this way the performance vocabulary and the camera vocabulary were in connection, complementing and linked with each other. The camera was no longer passively recording the performance rehearsals. And the performance itself was advanced, often aesthetically and conceptually through the integration of the camera into the performance process.
Aparna Sharma is a documentary filmmaker and theorist. She works as Assistant Professor at the Dept. of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, UCLA. Her films document narratives that are overlooked in the mainstream imagination of the Indian nation. Previously, she has focused on Indian diasporas and the widows of Vrindavan and is presently working in India’s northeastern region where she has completed a documentary on the Kamakhya Temple and where she is now documenting a tribal women’s weaving workshop. Aparna Sharma’s films combine techniques of observational cinema with montage practice. As a film theorist she is committed to writing about cinema practices that fall outside the normative narratives of mainstream Hindi cinema. She has previously written on Indo-Pak ties through documentary and the representation of gender in Indian cinema. Currently, Aparna is working on a book manuscript that explores non-canonical documentary practices from the Indian subcontinent.
 Dai Vaughan, ‘The Aesthetics of Ambiguity’ in For Documentary (California: University of California Press, 1999) pp. 54 -84, p. 82