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Performance as Knowledge graphic spacer Wednesday 3 May 2006
The Portico Rooms
Somerset House, London WC2R 1LA

Transcripts — Questions


Chris Bannerman (CB)
Jacqueline Davis (JD)
Richard Alston (RA)
Susan Melrose (SM)

Chris Bannerman: And now for questions, comments and responses to anything you’ve heard so far today.

Lois Keidan: I would like to ask two questions. The first concerns Jacqueline Davis and the issue of the unions. Are they concerned about piracy and does this also relate to new media? Can you tell me why, if this work has such commercial currency, why it isn’t being documented and distributed commercially? I’m interested in the social-public role of the New York Public Library collections in relation to this commercial potential. My second question is for Chris and concerns the bigger issue of national archives and cultural archives. You touched on the visual arts archives and questions around who makes the selections. I am wondering about what seems like a separate strategy for the performing arts, especially concerning the area that I’m involved in, live art and performance art, which probably has a closer relationship to the visual arts than the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company. So, I’m really interested in the kind of practices that we’re talking about and where the kind of work that I’m involved in fits within that larger picture. Bex Carrington is here from the University of Bristol’s Live Art Archive, which was instigated at Nottingham Trent University very much to look at relationships across the visual and performing arts. Now that the archive has moved to the Theatre Collection in Bristol, what does that say about the kind of practices that we are documenting? What does it say about the relationship across art forms, and why aren’t we distinguishing between archives of conceptual things, art practice and experimental performance practice?

JD: The first question related to the commercial viability of the tapes in the Performing Arts Library. There is very little potential in that regard. The theatre archive is the most strictly regulated. The unions are concerned about protecting the rights of actors, set designers, lighting designers, et cetera. They do not want people coming into the Library to see performances when they could be seeing them on Broadway, off-Broadway, or in some other theatre. Even if the work is no longer on Broadway, it has potential to be revived. There is a way to be able to show a tape, however, which involves getting permissions for specific use from absolutely everyone involved in the production. These circumstances limit the potential for earned income. Just think about it: if you were to sell copies of tapes in the collections, there would be significant earned income. I recently spoke with actor, Patti LuPone about accessibility to these tapes outside the Library. She asserted that the cast and production team gave permission for Sweeny Todd to be taped because the creative team wanted that documentation to be in the library and available to other artists. Artists are not interested in the work being sold for any commercial use; they are hoping for the immortality of the work and want people to be inspired by it. Perhaps you might get lucky and find an entire production where every single person – and I want to stress the idea of how many people are in a production – agree to a tape being made into a commercial product. But, given the time it takes to get everyone's approval in a production, it is not a reasonable undertaking. Even if there were a small possibility of doing so on occasion, it would divert so much effort in that direction away from what we really need to be doing to raise funds to continue the process of documentation. That is where we need to keep our efforts right now.

Jill Evans: Jill Evans from the National Video Archive of Performance. To add to what you’ve just said, Jackie, I understand from the actors that we’ve approached to use recordings we’ve made in a more commercial fashion that they feel very strongly that their performances were for the audience, not for the camera. I think there’s a strong feeling from the acting profession that, if a production is going to be made available commercially, it needs to be taken out of the theatre, re-lit and recorded specifically for that purpose. That is different to the documenting kind of recording that we do.

CB: Thank you for that. I guess, Lois, my response to your second question is two-fold. The first part is that I would be worried if my ideas about the sector were dominant today. Of course, that’s a strange thing to say at this point in the day. I hope that, if I’m wrong, other people will feed into that, create a different kind of environment and will see the environment very differently. The other part of it is that I felt I was responding to distinctions that other people had made. I think I’d like to see very much a kind of seamless continuum. There may, however, be practitioners who prefer the limnality that distinctions provide, who may not want the seamless kind of connection. But I would prefer to see that kind of spectrum. It appears to me that we may not be on the spectrum – by ‘we’, I mean the performing arts – although we have to address a particular set of difficulties. Again, the people I was speaking to at that particular point might be more concerned with things like comprehensive spending reviews, in which Government allocates amounts of money centrally from the Treasury to various departments. There’s an aspect of this that might have to be very particular in relation to those sorts of things; if we did want to progress this area of work and create a more equal spectrum of activity, then probably we’re going to have to engage with some of those arguments and make a particular kind of case. I would be disturbed if that were prejudicial to certain kinds of art practices, which are very important.

Alda Terracciano: I’m Alda Terracciano, director of Future Histories, an art and heritage organisation devoted to preserving archives and disseminating the history of African, Caribbean and Asian performing arts in the UK. I was very interested in what Funmi was saying earlier. We have had conversations in the past and know that it’s very difficult to disseminate. It’s difficult to archive, initially, because it’s difficult to convince people that they can trust institutions. At Future Histories we aim to create as many bridges as possible, and as many connections as possible. We have worked in collaboration with Middlesex University, with the Theatre Museum, with the national archives. What I ask the panel– and probably everybody here – is: how can we translate the process which is at the core of performing arts, that never-ending process? As Professor Melrose said earlier, performance continues in the mind of the audiences, so how can we translate that process in the actual archiving process? We have tried to do that by directly involving artists in naming describing and selecting the objects. That’s what we have been doing. But I wonder what can be done across the sector? How we can maintain that very special quality of performance in working across the sectors, so that the academies, the schools, the universities, the museums, the companies, the individual artists are engaged in dialogue? That’s my question for today.

JD: I'm going to give part of the answer and ask for help from my colleagues. I'm interested in your question from the point of view of the creators of the work. In the Performing Arts Library Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, taping is a very elaborate process. At a live theatrical performance, a truck sits outside the venue where the performance is being recorded. There are perhaps a dozen screens and a director controlling two or three cameras inside the theatre, and wires and cables everywhere. That operation produces a finished product. Now, let's move over to dance, where perhaps there are two to three cameras, or maybe just one camera, depending on the budget. There is no truck and no editor. The choreographer comes to the Library to work with an editor, making certain choices to create the finished product. Because you have really good editors both for theatre and dance, the finished products are very satisfying. I think the second part of your question related to dissemination. Is that correct? Did I understand that?

AT: It’s also about working across sectors. How can we keep the special quality of the performers and the process across sectors?

Susan Melrose: My sense is that we need both, that neither makes sense without the other. The reason I put the focus on ‘professional’ is precisely because I’m talking about work which is evaluated by the wider community as important, as well as work which is identified by the university as important. Those two are not necessarily good bedfellows. One of the complexities surrounding process that I didn’t really talk about, locates around the notion of difference between the enigmatic of the work of art and the technicity. This suggestion, which emerges around the mid-1980s, is that you can capture one and lose the other. I’ve been brooding on this. I made a small pact at one stage that I would not talk about the work of a living practitioner with whom I was not involved in some professional capacity. It’s quite a stricture. One of the things that emerges from being with professional practitioners in the creative process is whether or not they want to know what they’re doing when they’re doing it, whether or not they know what they’re doing in terms of what others will make of it, and whether, then, they can direct my attention to that as a vital aspect for them to record within process. But the brain is a wonderful and complex thing, and I know perfectly well that if a problem comes up for Kim Brandstrup in a choreographing process, where he’s effectively devising new material, he may well find the solution at 3.00am, and that he will come in charged with what’s called the hyperbolic certainty that this is the solution. He then spends all of his energy working with that. Now I haven’t been in bed with Kim Brandstrup at 3.00am, nor do I know what hit him, what he saw, what he felt. Neither am I party to the ways in which he immediately, having seen this – and this is what I mean about ... creativity – it came from nowhere, it offers a solution. Or does it offer a solution? What if so-and-so doesn’t like this? How will I fit this into the various compositional groups that I’m struggling with every minute of my process? Do I want to talk about it before it’s been transformed into something concrete? Absolutely not, as far as Kim Branstrop is concerned; absolutely not, as far as Shobana Jeyasingh is concerned; absolutely not, as far as Rosemary Butcher is concerned. So there’s a reticence and a pleasure in discovery in the creative process itself, which seems to me to be the double bind for the process recorder. I know it’s happening; I can see the immediate outcomes of its happening; I’d sense the excitement, I can’t map it. Maybe I can map its outcome. But Shobana Jeyasingh is perfectly capable of coming back three days later and saying, “No I don’t want that. Stop it, we’re doing something else.” So there are huge difficulties tied up in this question of the artist’s own processing, the recording of her or his own processes, or with the person, the familiar of the artist, who is there for precisely that purpose. My sense, when it comes to creative process, is that it involves juggling multiple multidimensional grids, or schema, all the time, and investing in those a curiously heightened energy. But also the coping strategies, which are the means by which one brings the logistics of production into productive interface with intuition, create impulse and so on. So I think that I could model that from a distance, after five years of trying, but I can’t catch it in its moment. What options do I then have? My only option is to engage in the metadiscourse about that difficulty, and then hope that a practitioner will want to include my obscure musings within her account of her own work.

CB: A response from the floor?

Christopher Baugh: This segues back to Jacqueline Davies and to another question directly from what Susan Melrose was saying. When you go out to raise money, and you talk about raising money from the production community, what do you offer? What do they get for their dollars?

SM: A knighthood!

Chris Baugh: You might offer immortality, but I assume that you have developed a more sophisticated sales pitch than that. We talk so much about process. We are in the business of education, the business of understanding, and this is fascinating. I’m reminded of my brother, who is a television costume designer and designed the costumes for a very famous science fiction series in the 1960s. Everything from that show has totally vanished – there is no archive of it. As an artist, as a practitioner, he’s not worried about it. Even the tapes have disappeared – they don’t exist even under somebody’s bed. What are you offering when you go out to the community, not of educators but of artists? We, as educators and academics, can get an enormous amount from archives; we can understand an enormous amount; we can write books about it. But what does the artist, apart from immortality, get for their dollars if they hand them over to the New York Public Library?

JD: It is a very interesting question, which I will try to answer in several parts. The Performing Arts Library has received endowments created through the generosity of individuals and Foundations that give funding based on what is important to them. We seek out information about the interests of individual donors and the guidelines for Foundation giving. In this way, we can proactively identify our needs and match them with donors’ giving. Another approach is to discuss with producers the importance of documenting work for posterity. For some, that is reason enough to support the tapings. Others need convincing. For example, I spoke with the producer of Spamalot last summer who initially expressed little interest in documenting the piece. Luckily, several of his colleagues and staff were present for the conversation. They passionately expressed how important it would be to document Spamalot and he agreed. Sometimes, we have been clever. We have suggested to friends and family of producers of certain shows that the taping of a piece would make an excellent birthday or Christmas present.

I don't want to downplay how important the archives in Dance and Theatre On Film and Tape are to the artistic community. The knowledge that the works will be in the Library for them to see is enough reason to put up the funding. When Tony Kushner created Angels in America for the theatre, we documented it. Years later, when Mike Nichols remounted the piece for HBO television, his creative team spent days looking at costumes, sets and everything else in the theatre production. Everyone in the industry understands the value of being able to evaluate the previous work. So word of mouth underscores the importance of documentation in part because it has the potential to be used to create something else in the future. I don't know if I have fully answered your question but I want to emphasize that there is no visible hook to offer potential donors. We cannot offer to put donors' names on a billboard or give them a large party. Giving revolves around an internal acceptance that taping for posterity is important. In conclusion I will share with you that I have one recalcitrant producer – British – who told me recently that, "Theatre is ephemeral. It exists in the moment and I see no point in documenting it". I will get him yet!


CB: We need to draw this to a close. So Richard, do you want to…?

Richard Alston: Jacqueline, you said, “apart from immortality”. That’s a pretty attractive thing to offer, you know.

SM: Not when you’re dead!

RA: Well, as Jacqueline said, I know that I go back and look at tapes. With my company, over the last eleven years, I’ve filmed every performance. The point is for me not to have just one record but to have the process. I work on the pieces all the time; I change things. Dancers go wrong, they make weird mistakes that I find rather interesting and might keep. For me, it’s actually a valuable tool. Channel 4 made a series of documentaries about ten years ago– one was about [William] Forsythe, one was about Trisha Brown, and one was about me. The documentary makers acted like a kind of fly on the wall during the making of a piece and shot sixty hours of studio material, which they gave to me as a present. And one day I’ll look at it! [LAUGHTER] As Jacqueline said, it’s really important to me that it’s there.

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