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Week 12 - Performance: an immaterial discipline, historically on the margins of museum collections

Theme of the week: the margin


Since the early 2000s, several theoretical works on performance in the visual arts, experimental exhibitions of performance, and comparison with dance and choreography, have attracted attention. In Montreal, art historians such as Anne Bénichou and Barbara Clausen have worked on performance and its documentation. The former has published books on the subject (Ouvrir le document published in 2010 and Recréer / Scripter published in 2016, both at the Presses du réel), while the latter has done so through exhibitions (a project on Babette Mangolte, who photographed performances in the 1970s before turning to video documentation, presented at VOX in 2013, or an exhibition of performer and video artist Joan Jonas at the DHC Foundation, now PHI, in 2016).

What these two theorists are exploring, each in their own way, is the status of the documents arising from or produced for performance; the role of these traces as testimony, script, or even artworks replacing the original performance. This interest in documents and transmission is not new, but it allows us to approach the turning point that began in the 2000s. Around that time, major museums such as MoMA (New York), SFMoMA (San Francisco), and the Tate Modern (London, UK), started to acquire performances in many forms, whether video recordings, notations, photographs, or agreements that set out the conditions for recreating live actions.

The genre of performance, associated with Dada, Futurist, and Situationist avant-garde movements, as well as Fluxus and the 1950s happenings, aimed to bring art closer to life by focusing attention on the present moment, the encounter with the body of the other. Immaterial in essence, performance was on the fringes of the art market and its commercial activities. Hence its relative absence from museum collections.

The Musée d'art de Joliette does not yet have any performative works in its collections. However, since its reopening in 2015, it has integrated the presentation of performance into its programming. This takes the form of unique events, production residencies, and even exhibitions. Stéphane Gilot's exhibition, Le catalogue des futurs, presented for six months in 2016, included a program of three performances (Belinda Campbell, k.g. Guttman and Sophie Breton) and a performative residency by Caroline Boileau, who lived at the Musée for five days. Exploring the idea of duration, the exhibition was transformed along the way, with the Musée inviting visitors to repeat the experience that was renewed after three months. A place of living research, the exhibition was intended to be "performative" in a way. Also, the current residency program developed with Diffusion Hector-Charland is part of this desire to make room for dance and performance within our walls. Still, it is the challenges of exhibiting and collecting performances that I would like to emphasize this week.

In 2019, Adam Kinner was invited for a one-week residency at the Musée to work on a performance titled Suite canadienne, une démonstration [Suite canadienne, a demonstration]. Kinner extended the experience of his performance through an exhibition of artworks/documents related to his research on Suite canadienne, an original choreography by founder of Les Grands ballets canadiens Ludmilla Chiriaeff. The exhibition included photographic material that informed the conception of the performance, a video juxtaposing the testimony of a ballet master from Chiriaeff's company with moments of rehearsal of the group assembled by Kinner, a recording of Chiriaeff's original work performed for broadcast on Radio-Canada in the 1950s, a recreation of the same performance by Kinner, a text, and a curtain of the type seen in documentary photographs. There was never any question of presenting the recording of the public performance interpreted by Hanako Hoshimi-Caines, Louise Michel Jackson, Kelly Keenan, Justin de Luna, Mulu Tesfu, and Adam Kinner on the day of the opening. There was only one representation, the number of seats was limited, and some visitors who wanted to attend were unable to enter the room, causing disappointment. But isn't it the very nature of the performance: a one-off event with a fixed duration, which may or may not be repeated? It has to be experienced live, and that's it.

Yet this specific case shows the plurality of documents that surround a performative work, bearing witness to it without necessarily replacing it. This raises the question of the nature of the performative work and how to ensure its transmission for posterity. How to document it? How to collect it? How to exhibit it? These issues challenge museums to question their practices.

The Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal acquired its first performance, This Situation by artist Tino Sehgal, in the wake of his exhibition at the MACM in 2013. Sehgal refuses to document the performance, he does not provide any written script, the acquisition process is done orally, sealed with a handshake, and it is transmitted through the passage of experience from performer to performer. This acquisition is courageous. It highlights the institution's responsibility for safeguarding a work, whether material or not. In this case, the responsibility is all the greater as the MACM must implement a handover through its team, which preserves the memory of the event and targets the essential parameters for its recreation, otherwise the work will be lost. An interview conducted by Amélie Giguère with members of the MACM team involved in this acquisition is very revealing on the subject.

Performance art was on the margins of museum collections. This is less and less the case, but the fact remains that the genre reveals some blind spots in collecting practices and forces institutions to adapt. The MAJ is in the process of acquiring a corpus of documents surrounding a performative work. The acquisition has not been confirmed, so I cannot give more details at this time, but the team is currently delving into several questions of the type raised above. Stay tuned for more details!

Adam Kinner, Suite canadienne, une démonstration, 2019, performance, Musée d'art de Joliette. Photo: Romain Guilbault.


Adam Kinner, Suite canadienne, une démonstration, 2019, exhibition views, Musée d'art de Joliette. Photo: Paul Litherland


Adam Kinner, Suite canadienne, une démonstration, 2019, exhibition views, Musée d'art de Joliette. Photo: Paul Litherland



This article was written by Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre, Curator of Contemporary Art, Musée d'art de Joliette. Click here to read all articles by Anne-Marie on this blog.

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