Point/ Counterpoint: Performance art documentation

Photo: James Prinz Photography.

Courtesy of Nick Cave and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.




Con: In Defense of Toiling in Obscurity for No Tangible Result.

by John Hutt

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? If an artist stages a performance event and does not photograph it, does it matter? If a photograph captures part of the event, is that photograph a documentary work or an original work? What is more important; that the event happened or that it was photographed?


Clearly the nebulous world of elaborate performance art / public art / public spectacle is a difficult one to navigate; there are only questions.


Only the performance, the happening, the event matters. Everything before the event is foreplay, and everything after it is the cigarette.


The band “Hanatarashi” played a show once. On stage the band members tuned their instruments and did a full sound check where they made minute adjustments to the monitors and volume control. They then left the stage and drove a bulldozer through the wall of the club.


No one documented this. What is important is that it happened. The photographs of the aftermath exist, but the event was not a set up to be photographed. Creating events simply for the purpose of taking one or two pictures is photography. But when there is a constructed lead up, public interaction or a backstory, then the photograph fails to capture the essential spirit of the moment and is ultimately disposable, simply a keepsake.


Spanish photographer Andrea Galvani spent years developing a flashlight that could penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and shoot into space without being dispersed. He became an expert in the effects of every layer of the atmosphere, and by the end of it he could have written a paper on the development of high energy flashlights. Of course this had already been done with the advent of laser technology, but Galvini started from scratch. Not content with simply building his light and turning it on, he went to the North Pole and shot the burst, which only lasted a few minutes, from a dingy surrounded by ice, where the Earth's magnetic field and therefore the Aurora Borealis is at its strongest. Physics attempts to explain the universe through equations, proofs and experiments of which the laser is a tangible result. Art has the same brief, simply approaching the questions from different angles. It's the journey, not the destination.



Pro: Documentation of Performance Art

 by Molly MacDermot

I went to a party on New York City’s Lower East Side recently to support an organization that celebrates artists and displays their work on Governor’s Island, that newly appointed art Mecca that is applauded equally for its circuitous bike paths as it's urban hammocks. The goal is to continue the journey, so the art installations are not limited to the New York audience but can move from Governor’s Island to places like Australia and Japan. The room was bustling, as was my head, because I was just assigned the somewhat daunting task of arguing against John Hutt’s point. John states that art is about the journey, not the destination. A popular and incidentally progressive belief that is commonly embraced today, because, well, isn’t the process and journey what ultimately keeps us satisfied? Documenting a happening, moment or other ephemeral, real-time event is simply that: documentation, a dead-end destination.


It’s not art. No? Luckily, the first party goer I met, Noah, happened to be a photographer, and was armed with ammunition for my argument that videos, photos, sketches or any other type of “documentation” or “remake” of a performance can in fact, also be art. We debated and decided that the key point is what the artist wants.


Noah brought up Chris Burden, the conceptual performance artist and cult figure who, on November 19th, 1971 at 7:45 PM, had a friend shoot the upper part of his left arm with a .22 rifle for his performance piece, “Shoot.” When asked, “What were you thinking?” Burden replies, “I hoped he wouldn’t miss.” The body-defying event took place in a studio in California and was witnessed by twelve people; consequently, the shocking piece spread like wildfire in the art world through that powerful publicity machine — pre social-media— best known as word-of-mouth. It didn’t reach the mainstream public until two years later when Esquire magazine profiled Burden. Burden’s “Shoot” survives certainly in the minds of the twelve witnesses who watched him take a bullet, but also for the rest of us because Burden chose to document this event with photos and a short film, which was Vine-esque in its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it eight second duration. Burden’s intentional use of photos and videos don’t pretend to recreate the live experience, but they present another form of art, as his voice over tells the viewer to listen for the shell falling. Need more? Another example; in his performance piece, “Through the Night”, Burden crawls and drags himself through fifty feet of broken glass with his hands held behind his back on a street in Los Angeles. This was the initial art experience, but he supplemented his work with the addition of photos and video that he wanted to show for a desired effect. Those images continued the journey for his art and audiences. A side note: the video was also then inserted between regular TV commercials, a juxtaposition that highlighted art’s power alongside popular ads. Burden was unabashedly transparent and directed the documentation closely by choosing the black and white photos of “Through the Night” because the broken glass looked more like “stars,” he has said, and the colorless pics wouldn’t show his red blood, he continued. When you Google image Burden’s “Shoot” and “Through the Night,” you find images and videos directed by the artist that have allowed his work to move through history, shocking and stimulating the viewer as only art can, regardless that we weren’t actually there.


If one of the twelve witnesses at the “Shoot” event in 1971 had then posted a photo they took on Instagram, without Burden involved in the direction and selection, that person would be considered a mere tourist, and the photo just another way to be socially “liked.”




Close look: John Baldessari's Unforgivingly Humorous Art