Capturing live events for art fans of the future

Professor Gabriella Giannachi, an expert in documenting mixed-reality events that span physical and digital environments, has been working with organisations such as the Tate and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) to chart their history of hosting live art and help present-day curators develop and document new performances. 

Live performance and new media arts are unique experiences shared between those who witness it, and often its success depends on live interactions between the work and the public. Performance entered museums in the 1920s, and most prominently from the 1960s onwards, but it was only in the 1980s and 90s that practitioners started to re-perform previously staged works. “The Tate realised that they didn’t have a digital repository that conveyed the sense of the history of performance at the museum,” said Prof. Giannachi. 

Prof. Giannachi was asked to offer solutions to ensure that today’s projects can be experienced by future audiences.

The resulting project, ‘Performance at Tate: Into the Space of Art’, led to the creation of an online archive featuring essays, case studies, audio, films and photographs. Led by the project RA Jonah Westerman, the archive showcases the richness and depth of the gallery’s engagement with performance. It has also informed new strategies for documentation practice.

Part of the project was to identify what Tate and other world-leading museums, like the Whitney, MoMA and SFMoMA, had done, and see if we could establish novel practices of documentation for future performance and new media works. University of Exeter PhD student Acatia Finbow also worked with the Tate’s preservation specialist, Pip Laurenson, to establish a guide to documentation,” said Prof. Giannachi. 

Tate curator Catherine Wood said: “The critical focus enabled by ‘Performance at Tate’ gave us the opportunity to research and share valuable information about the history and impact of performance art in the museum. Additionally, the project allowed us to analyse the ways in which performance influences the broader field of post-war and contemporary art in ways that will inform future thinking about exhibitions and displays.”

The project also illustrates the changing nature of the art market, in that a photograph of a piece of performance work could now be considered an artwork in itself. “It’s fascinating, dealing with a field that is changing very quickly,” said Prof. Giannachi. “Performance documentation has been seen for a long time purely as a way of capturing an event. We tend not to look at it as something producing a changing range of values. The same is true in the case of new media.”

Jill Sterrett, SFMoMA’s Director of Collections, recognised that discussions with Prof. Giannachi instigated a sea-change in how the museum thinks about live work: “We have since been pulling back from the notion that it was object and material-based alone, and put forth the idea that artworks are activity-based. We’re now experimenting with wiki platforms that allow for much more dynamic reporting on the way artworks exist, and we are experimenting with the Artist Material Archive. We’ve had so many conversations over the years about when to keep something and what to do with it. These things suggest layers of control that really urge us to think through new museum strategies.”

‘Performance at Tate’ was funded by the AHRC.

Histories of Performance Documentation is published by Routledge.