« Lost Objects Not So Lost | Main | The 'Authentic', Imagined: On actuality as process of making (non)sense »

September 24, 2004

Digging and Building

Reading Pearson and Shanks felt like being on an archeological site, progressively uncovering a treasure, finding analogies, letting interpretation flow and accepting missing fragments and unanswered questions. When applied to performance studies, their combined approach unveils new horizons of analysis and research, especially in the context of defining, re-presenting and documenting performance.

According to them, �performance resides primarily within a set of contracts and transactional conventions between two orders of participants � watchers and watched; spectators and performers; witnesses and protagonists � and in three sets of relationship: performer to performer, performer to spectator and vice versa, spectator to spectator�(20). This definition seems very loose at first sight, but offers the advantage of focusing on the relationship between the participants rather than being distracted by the action, the space or the setting. It also frames performance as a social practice that creates meaning, whether it happens on a stage or on a street, with spoken words or music, with hybrid artistic media or as a religious ritual. In other words, anything is possible, as long as the relationship between participants is maintained. We now situate ourselves at the opposite end of classical tragedy (17th century in France) which was defined according to �the rule of three unities,� unity of time, unity of space, unity of action. At the time, there was not a word about the spectators and their relationship to the performer.

Shanks and Pearson�s definition of performance adds more to the complex cluster of relationships in mentioning behind-the-scene participants who facilitate the performance (sound, light stage technicians, staff) and contribute to its memory. �The same event is experienced, remembered, characterized in a multitude of different ways, none of which appropriates singular authority� (57). What ensue is that the memory of a performance is intrinsically multi-facetted, interwoven with a variety of objects and material (from script to props, scores, videotapes, reviews and personal journals) and constituted of multiple holes, uncertainties, and omissions. While we are aware of the richness and hybrid nature of performance, we are, ironically, still mostly attached to written remains and dependent on narrative traces.

The archeological approach helps us understand our relationship to the past, not as something to reconstitute, but as something to recontextualize. Interpretation is always shaped by our present interests and values, and the authors describe the process as �making a past work a present presence� (11). The general trend is to worship the past, fostering the illusion of preserving it, aiming at exhaustive documentation and hoping for eternity, in a clear, sanitized separation from the present. The seduction of conservation is a reflection of our own fear of death and oblivion, of our need to leave a trace that we think will be perpetual, even though we are deceiving ourselves with an illusion of immortality.

Pearson and Shanks invite us to take away the sacred aura of the past, or rather, bring the past to a present perspective and accept its fragmentary, uncertain and subjective nature. From a methodological point of view, they insist on four types of analysis � empirical, logical, conceptual and creative � and encourage assemblages, quotations, collages and montages in order to construct something new out of the old, with new insights and understanding.
This is based on the premise that an event in the past cannot be copied, and by extension, that two performances will never be the same and never experienced the same. Further, because there cannot be a replica of the �first� performance, the notion of �original� loses authority. Any event or performance is unique and accompanied by changes and processes that will prevent a reproduction. Pearson and Shanks explain this dialectic in relation to monuments: �Preserved monuments are simulacra, an exact copy of an original that never existed�. This is valid for the renovation of a historic site/memorial (Auschwitz concentration camp, e.g.) or a production of a Balanchine choreography, or a T�t ritual in a Buddhist temple. In each case, performance is recontextualized and actualized. It is a conjunction of three temporal layers: the past�s present, the moment of documenting (photograph, film, review) and the time of looking at the documentation. The authors give a definition of actuality that summarizes both the irreproducibility of the past and the necessary intertwining of present and past: �a return of what is no longer the same�(41).

There is a temptation to equate authenticity with completeness, which, applied to performance, would mean that the more documentation I use to replicate a performance, the more authentic it will be. But completeness is an impossible goal to achieve in performance documentation, because the performance itself is not unique, its documentation fragmented and it doesn�t set a standard of �authenticity� for which further performances should strive. Authenticity is not to be found in a wishful reenactment of an event, on the contrary: we look for authenticity in the fragmentary, in the juxtaposition of fluid elements. We should let personal memories and contemporary interpretation craft the account (and not reenactment) of a past event or the performance, so that they gain a meaning and a history of their own.

Pearson and Shanks call for a model of performance �as a creative process in the present ad not as a speculation on the past meaning of intention.� Their approach to the past and to the treatment of documentation opens new horizons for my research in memorials and museums, which have a tendency to act as immortal testimonies of a historical event or timeframe. Theatre/Archeology reminds us that documentation is generated before, during and after the event by various participants, which is not always obvious when dealing with stony buildings. When the authors say that �memory is not inventory but the act of memorizing�, it adds quality to a research field saturated with empty calls (yes, the oxymoron is intentional) to remember, preserve and cherish the past. After reading Pearson and Shanks, it becomes clear to me that we should accept decay and be aware of the fact that performances we are tempted to consider as perpetuations of the past are intrinsically fake. Memorials, museums and performances in general keep some liveliness and relevance only in recontextualization, and create meaning only in their relationship to the present.

Posted by Brigitte Sion at September 24, 2004 3:27 PM