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Surrogate Performances

Performance Documentation and the New York Avant-garde, ca. 196474

Philip Auslander

In an earlier essay, I argued that performance documents in all media are not just
records of performances that happened but are themselves performative in J. L.
Austins most basic sense:
Speaking of language, Austin calls statements whose utterance
constitutes action in itself performatives (e.g., saying I do in a
marriage ceremony). Distinguishing performative utterances from
constative utterances, Austin argues that to utter [a performative
sentence] is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so
uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it. If I may
analogize the images that document performances with verbal
statements, the traditional view sees performance documents as
constatives that describe performances and state that they occurred. I
am suggesting that performance documents are not analogous to
constatives, but to performatives: in other words, the act of
documenting an event as a performance is what constitutes it as
such. Documentation does not simply generate image/statements that
describe an autonomous performance and state that it occurred: it
produces an event as a performance. 1
The documentation of Vito Acconcis Trademarks (1970)
exemplifies this eect. In Trademarks, Acconci produced works
of visual art through a process that became a performance in itself by having been documented as such. The artists description
of the performance states:

Vito Acconci, Trademarks, 1970, lithography on pa

per; 45/50, 20 x 20 3/16 in. (51.1 x 51.3 cm). Pub
lished by Lithography Workshop, Nova Scotia Col

Biting as much of my body as I can reach: turning on

myself, turning in on myself: performance as
locomotion across a boundary: connecting a region:
absorption, by one organization, of a neighbouring
organization: self-absorption.Bite: getting to a point,
getting through a point: brand of performance.
Applying printers ink to each bite and making biteprints: identity pegs: identifiers of a certain position I
have taken at a certain time: TRADEMARKS (title of
the piece; September 1970): performance as the shaping
of an alibi.The bite-prints can be stamped on various
surfaces (paper, a stone, a possession, another body):
performance as opening a system, sharing a secret.

lege of Art and Design, Halifax. Collection Walker

Art Center, Gift of Dayton Hudson Corporation,
Minneapolis, 1978, 1978.25.

The documentation of this event includes photographs of the naked Acconci sitting on the floor and biting himself in hard-to-reach spots, as well as
close-ups of the marks that he made on himself with his teeth. As the description
indicates, he also used the bite marks to produce prints by inking and stamping
them on paper and other surfaces. (A 1970 lithograph in the Walker Art Centers
collection, Trademarks, combines all these elements.) If viewed solely as a means
of making prints, Acconcis action could be seen simply as a highly eccentric studio practice, in which case it would be sucient to identify the traces of his working methods in the resulting images (for example, the way the prints made from
the bites clearly image the impression of teeth on skin). But when the action itself
is recorded through written description (in which Acconci clearly frames what he
was doing as a performance that raised issues he wished to explore about what can
be achieved in and through performance) and photographs (as well as the prints of
bites that are the actions artifacts) and presented to an audience as an object of
aesthetic appreciation in itself, the act of documentation performatively frames
his actions as performance.
In order to better understand the performativity of performance documentation, we need to look more closely at what I originally called the act of documenting an event as a performance. This act does not consist simply of producing a description or an image of a performance. Photographers, for example, have
been shooting theater, dance, and other performances in one way or another since
the 1850s, but only a small and relatively recent subset of this vast store of images
is understood to be performance documentation. The identity of a description
or image as a performance document depends not simply on its subject matter but
on the circumstances and context of its production and what it is seen as doing (its
performativity, in short).
Performance documentation has a history: the idea of documenting performances, the thought that it was necessary to do so, and specific techniques of performance documentation all arose at specific moments. One of the archaeological
sites on which to trace the emergence of performance documentation as a selfconscious practice is the New York art and performance scene of the mid-1960s
through the early 1970s. This scene encompassed a wide range of emergent art
forms and styles, including Pop art, Happenings, the beginnings of Conceptual Art,
Minimalism, Process art, and so on. It also included the Judson Dance Theater and
the countercultural underground theater identified with the Living Theatre
(whose members returned from self-imposed exile in Europe in 1968), the Open
Theater, the Performance Group, and others devoted to collective creation. From
this artistic ferment developed a particular way of thinking about the relationship
between performances and their documentation.
In choosing New York as the site of my excavation, I am not in any way implying that the particular evolution of performance documentation that I discuss
is definitive. The decade that I have identified was crucial to both performance
and its documentation not only in North America but also in the United Kingdom,
throughout continental Europe, and in parts of Asia and Latin America. The story
might be significantly dierent if it were to focus on a dierent scene. Nevertheless, it is particularly productive to pursue the question of performance documentation by looking at the New York art world in this period. This is partly because of
the extraordinary amount of innovative and internationally influential artistic
work in a broad range of forms that took place there. But it is also because of the
presence on the scene of Michael Kirby, a sculptor, theater maker, editor, and academic who saw the New York scene as akin to the European avant-garde move-

ments of the early twentieth century and felt that the ephemeral work happening
there needed to be preserved through documentation. Kirby was one of the first to
practice performance documentation, beginning in the late 1950s with written accounts of Allan Kaprows Happenings. For Kirby, the performativity of performance documentation lay in its ability to capture the disparate performance practices that made up the New York avant-garde and thus to lend coherence to the
scene. He also was one of the first to theorize performance documentation as a
distinct and self-conscious discursive practice. In the discussion that follows, I will
examine Kirbys ideas on performance documentation as an early theorization of
the practice and look at how his ideas resonated with those of others involved in
the documentation of performance on the New York scene, including the photographers Peter Moore and Babette Mangolte, the artist and anthologist Ursula Meyer, and the scholar Ronald Argelander. I will also discuss the relationship of performance documentation as conceived by Kirby to its most important historical antecedent, the practice of theater photography. In conclusion, I will return to the
question of the performativity of performance documentation.


Michael Kirby came to New York in 1957 and saw firsthand all the
new aesthetic alternatives that opened up in reaction to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. He was a vociferous chronicler
and theorist of contemporary and historical avant-gardes 3
who maintained a staunch commitment to the value of the new
in art. He often compared artistic creation to scientific discovery
and insisted, in art, as in science, it is the new that gives the
field its significance. 4 Kirbys book Happenings, published in
1965, is perhaps the first example of performance documentation
per se, although he did not identify it as such. Kirby devotes his
introduction to identifying some generic characteristics of the
Happening as a form and providing it with a complex genealogy
in the historical avant-garde and the work of more proximate figures such as the composer John Cage and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. There is no direct discussion of the
premises behind Kirbys approach and the books form, but it is
important that the book is subtitled An Illustrated Anthology. It is
presented as a collection of Happenings rather than a book about
Happenings. Included in the anthology are scripts for Happenings, statements and other texts by the artists responsible for
them, textual descriptions of the performances (presumably by
Kirby himself, who is credited as writer and editor), and photographs of performances and rehearsals.

Michael Kirby, Happenings, New York: E. P. Dutton,


Although Kirbys anthology of Happenings was an early

exemplar of performance documentation and his particular approach to itas were some of the essays in his second book, The
Art of Time, published in 1968he did not theorize the practice
in either book. This came a bit later, in a series of overlapping essays published largely in the Drama Review (known as TDR and

performance must be
documented in order to
be known beyond its
negligible initial
audience. In eect, it
must be documented to

later renamed TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies), a journal

with editorial oces at New York University, where Kirby was
teaching when he assumed the editorship in 1971. In these essays,
Kirby grounds the necessity for performance documentation in
both the ephemerality of live performances and the often very
limited access to avant-garde performance work: Some important pieces are performed only once or twice to small audiences;
even those presentations that tour internationally cannot hope
to have the attendance of the average commercial film. 5 Although Kirby was editing a journal with a long history of addressing contemporary drama and theater, he redefined its brief more
broadly to encompass the kinds of performance that would be
regarded as early examples of performance art. In an introductory statement that outlined his editorial intentions, Kirby specifically identified TDRs interest in performances done by artists
primarily involved in other fields. The investigations of these inter-connections and influences among the arts is another way to
expand our view from drama to performance in general. 6
He further states, in another text, Notice that our concern is
with performance as fine art. This means that we are dealing with
only a relatively small area of theatre [the term Kirby often used
for performance]. Most theatre is commercial art, involving a
mass appeal to general popular standards. 7 Kirby implies
that because avant-garde performance occupies so little space in
a cultural landscape dominated by commercial art it needs to
be documented in order to have greater cultural presence. Mainstream performance does not require documentationit can
take care of itself, so to speak. But avant-garde, experimental performance must be documented in order to be known beyond its
negligible initial audience. In eect, it must be documented to

Lucas Samaras and Claes Oldenburg in Sports, 1962. Foreground, from left, Patty Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, and Claes Olden
burg (in green pants). The audience for this Happening included Andy Warhol (background center) and John Chamberlain
(leaning on pillar). Claes Oldenburg; All rights reserved, Robert R. McElroy/VAGA, NY. Courtesy of Oldenburg van Bruggen

Kirbys characterization of fine art performance as essentially a coterie

phenomenon that could have greater reach only through documentation apparently was shared by some of the artists involved in the production of the performances, including Happenings, that he covered as a documentarian and editor.
Claes Oldenburg, for one, engaged a photographer, Robert McElroy, to shoot his
performances. McElroys photographs appear both in Kirbys Happenings anthology and Oldenburgs own book Store Days, published in 1967, which documents Oldenburgs environmental installation The Store and the Ray Gun Theater performances that took place there, performances that were also filmed by Raymond
Saro. McElroys photographs are joined in the book by scripts, texts, and drawings by Oldenburg related to the production of the five performances that made
up Ray Gun Theater. Oldenburg includes the program for these events, reproduced in facsimile, which makes it clear that each one was performed only twice,
and by a dierent group of people each time. In a text titled Budget for Theater,
which follows the program in the book and may be a proposal or a funding request
(or perhaps just a statement of purpose by the artist), Oldenburg stresses the
small scale of his operation: These performances would occur one time only
with about 35 spectators each time. He also indicates that these performances
were not so much directed at the general public as at other artists and connoisseurs interested in developments along this line. 8 Nevertheless, it seems that
he sought a larger audience for these coterie performances by documenting them
in the book that contains this text.
In arguing for the need to document performances, Kirby looked both to
the present and the future: documentation makes current work accessible to a

larger audience and establishes a record for study in future times. 9 Moreover, he stated: A concern for tomorrows past is one reason for documentation
of contemporary performances. All current presentations will soon pass into
history where they will be completely unavailable to direct experience. Anyone interested in theatre history should recognize the importance of documenting significant contemporary works as completely as possible. 10 It is noteworthy that
Kirby refers here to the present as tomorrows past. This makes it clear that performance documentation was to be addressed primarily to the future, not the
present: it was to be directed to posterity and the historical record more than to
current audiences and publicity. It was a means of making performances available
to future audiences who would have no other access to them. From Kirbys perspective, the crucial task for performance documentation is to allow the reader of
the performance document to experience the performance itself. Acknowledging
that no information about an experience is the same as the experience itself, he
nevertheless refers at one point to performance documents as creating surrogate
performance[s]. 11 The document, as surrogate, stands in for the original
event for an audience to whom that event is no longer available. In Kirbys version
of surrogacy, it is the responsibility of the document to provide its audience with
an experience as close as possible to that of the original event. This can be accomplished only if the performance documentarian recognizes that a concern with
history demands an accurate and objective record of the performance. 12 Kirby readily admits that complete objectivity is impossible, not least because of the
inevitable selectivity of any account or image, but insists that it remains a worthwhile objective: To the extent that a writer consciously attempts to record rather
than to evaluate or interpret, the performance will retain its own identity and
the reader will respond to the documentation in much the same way as he would
have responded to the performance. 13
Kirbys notion that documentation can deliver something like the same experience as the original performance goes against the grain of current ways of
thinking about performance documentation, which tend to emphasize the futility
of producing an adequate representation of an original live event. Nevertheless,
his claim should be taken seriously despite its lack of qualification. There is no
question but that the performance document becomes a surrogate for the original
performance: we rely on documentation to provide us with information about performances that we have not seen, and we take the information to be about the performance, not the document. Many more recent commentators feel, along with
Caroline Rye, that one danger of documenting ephemeral performances is that
the record can all too quickly become a substitute for the live event it represents, a substitute that cannot provide evidence of exactly the thing it purports
to record. 14 As Matthew Reason points out, however, this position is grounded in a paradox: the evanescence that is said to be the defining characteristic of
live performance is the very thing that prompts performance makers and others to
want to preserve it through documentation. 15 The result is that we demand
that performances be documented while simultaneously disavowing the connection between the document and the original performance. Although Kirbys approach may be reductive, it avoids this paradox. Kirby treats performances
ephemerality not as its essential defining characteristic but, rather, as a limiting
condition that prevents avant-garde performance from having larger audiences
and greater historical and cultural presence. He implies that the value of preserving performance for future audiences trumps the value of respecting its ephemerality.
Kirbys faith in objectivity is also controversial from the current perspective, since we are now used to thinking of documentary objectivity as chimerical
and recordings or documents as necessarily reflective of their creators biases, if
only in terms of what they include and exclude. It is important, however, to understand that the crucial opposition for Kirby is not that between objectivity and bias.
Rather, it is the dichotomy between two discursive practices that he sees as op-

posed: documentation and criticism. In a passage I quoted above, Kirby contrasts

recording performances to evaluating or interpreting them and strongly favors the
former approach over the latter two. As Martin Puchner has shown, Kirby imposed
his desire for a precise, descriptive, and analytical style on TDR during the period in which he edited it. 16 Indeed, Kirbys call for objectivity in performance
documentation is one manifestation of an implacable hostility toward criticism,
which he identified with evaluation or interpretation, that recurs throughout his
writingin one essay, he refers to theatrical criticism as a kind of intellectual and
emotional fascism that imposes opinions and value judgments on its subjects and
victims. 17 In Criticism: Four Faults, his most sustained statement on the
subject, Kirby dismisses theater criticism as unnecessary, as well as being nave
and primitive, arrogant, and immoral. It should be eliminated. 18 Although
Kirby oers detailed arguments in support of this claim, they need not concern us
here. What is important is that he explicitly contrasts criticism with performance
documentation, which he sees as embracing positive values that are antithetical to
those of the critic.
Performance is ephemeral. It disappears from history unless it is
recorded and preserved somehow. Thus, a concern with history demands
an accurate and objective record of the performance. To the extent that
the record is complete and detailed, the performance can be
reconstructed mentally. Values will take care of themselves. Since
everyone has values, they will evaluate the historical reconstruction. If
they have accurate and exhaustive information, their evaluation will
approximate the evaluation they would have made of the actual
performance if they had been in the audience. But history does not care
whether its data is liked or disliked; it is built only upon the quality and
accuracy of the data itself.
Thus, a fifth and final claim can be made against evaluative
criticism: it tends to work against and obscure vital historical
documentation. 19
Kirbys hostility toward criticism finds support in Susan Sontags wellknown essay Against Interpretation (1964), in which she characterizes criticism
as poison[ing] our sensibilities with an eusion of interpretations. 20 Sontag focuses more on literary criticism than on the visual arts or performance, but a
number of her points anticipate Kirbys. One of Sontags objections to interpretation is that it makes art into an article for use rather than something to be appreciated in and for itself. 21 Kirbys definition of art includes the stipulation
that works of art have no objective or functional purpose. 22
As we have already seen, Kirby shared Sontags distaste for critics who
would seek to impose their views on the work and its audiences. In practice, both
favored description over interpretation or evaluation. 23 Sontag first proposed
that critical writing needs to switch its object of attention from the content of
works (which is subject to interpretation) to their form, for which we need a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary. Still better, she suggests, would be
acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of
the appearance of works of art. 24 Although it seems unlikely that Kirby, who
often wrote in the detached style of an analytical observer, would have embraced
Sontags call for an erotics of art, it is apparent that both strongly favored a descriptive approach to writing about art over an interpretive one. 25

Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art, New York: E. P. Dut

ton, 1972.

Although Kirbys position on performance documentation

is tendentious and his expression of it frequently intemperate, he
was not alone in believing that art should be presented as objectively as possible rather than critically. For example, Ursula Meyers well-known anthology Conceptual Art (1972)which overlaps
Kirbys field of interest through the inclusion of documentation
of performances by Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman,
and Dennis Oppenheimreflects similar assumptions about the
nature and purpose of such a book. Meyers claims regarding her
approach to assembling the book parallel Kirbys call for using
the printed page to make the artwork itself as directly accessible
as possible. 26 She argues that Conceptual Art is best explained through itself and goes on to say that this book is not a
critical anthology but a documentation of Conceptual Art and
Statements. Critical Interpretation tends to frame propositions
dierent from the artists intention, thus prejudicing information. 27 The books design reflects the eort at direct and
objective presentation of information. The index consists of an
alphabetized list of artists, last name only, in block capitals, and
the pages on which their work appears. Each artists work is represented by texts written by the artist and photographs where
appropriate. Although Meyer oers some definitional generalizations about the nature of conceptual art and its historical placement in her introduction, much the way Kirby does in the introduction to Happenings, the rest of the book is given over to artwork unadorned by further commentary. Although presenting
unadorned information about art in the context of conceptual
art, which itself often takes the form of unadorned information
about art, 28 is arguably dierent from doing so in the context of Happenings and other performances, the intention to use
text and photographs as much as possible to give the reader a direct experience of the artwork, documented with as little critical
intervention as possible, underwrites Meyers project as much as
it does Kirbys.

Douglas Huebler, Duration Piece #15 (Global), Sep

tember, 1969, 1969. Estate of Douglas Hue
bler/ARS. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Kirbys quest for objectivity determined not only the way that he felt descriptions
of performances should be written but also how he felt they should be illustrated.
In Kirbys view, performance photography should rely on the mechanicaland
therefore objective aspects of photography rather than its potential for expressing the subjectivity of the photographer. 29 In this respect, he clearly participated in the long history of understanding photography as primarily a mechanical

process rather than an artistic medium. Roland Barthess oft-quoted description of

the photograph as a denotative message without a code (from The Photographic Message, first published in 1961) is another significant point along this trajectory (though arguably this is a reductive reading of Barthes). 30
The work of two prominent performance photographers active in New
York during the period under consideration, Peter Moore and Babette Mangolte,
constitutes a documentary practice that aligns with Kirbys project. Beginning in
the early 1960s, Moore captured images of Happenings, Judson Dance Theater
performances, Fluxus events, and many other kinds of avant-garde performance.
Excerpts from an interview with Moore were included in an essay by Ronald Argelander that was published in TDR in 1974, under Kirbys editorship. Theorizing the
use of photography to produce performance photo-documentation, 31 Argelander echoes Kirby in many regards. Two of the purposes that Argelander ascribes to photo-documentation are to allow those who did not see the performance to experience it and to serve as a record for historians. 32 Also like Kirby, he opposes documentation to criticism by contrasting photo-documentation to
the work of photographers whose selection of moments to capture from a performance is based primarily on [their] taste or esthetic judgment, accusing such
photographers of adopting a critical attitude toward the performance. These
photographers are photo-critics rather than photo-documentarians. 33

Performances come to be represented by a very small number

of published images, or even a single image, which Barbara
Moore describes as a self-perpetuating misrepresentation since
the publication of certain images increases interest only in
those particular images, which become divorced from the
performance as a whole while simultaneously representing it.

Peter Moore, Charlotte Moorman Performing Nam

June Paiks Concerto for TV Cello and Videotapes,
1971, gelatin silver print, 10 x 16 in. (26 x 41.3
cm) framed. Collection Walker Art Center, Gift of
Barbara Moore in memory of Peter Moore, Char
lotte Moorman, and Frank Pileggi, 1994, 1994.152.
Art Peter Moore Estate/VAGA, New York, NY.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975/2004,

photograph, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm). Brooklyn
Museum, Gift of Marc Routh by arrangement with
the Remy-Toledo Gallery, 2005.35.1. Photo: Antho
ny McCall Carolee Schneemann.

The idea that the photo-documentarians purpose is to

produce a record of the event as untainted as possible by personal biases or preferences is taken up by Moore: I have always dissociated myself completely from making any critical comment,
conspicuously, in a photograph. 34 He and Argelander further emphasize that a photo-document of a performance is a
record of the performers work, not an artwork by the photographer. Moore compares performance documentation to reproducing static artworks: There is a similarity in approach to documenting sculpture and documenting performance. What youre
trying to do is to do justice, as much as you are able to, to the intent of the artist, rather than impose your own point of view on
it. 35 Much of his conversation with Argelander, as well as
Argelanders own ruminations, concerns technical issues that the
photo-documentarian must address, including what kind of cameras, lenses, and shots to use. Argelander asserts that photographers who shoot only close-ups and medium views are not photo-documentors since the idea is to capture as much of the performance as possible and to remain faithful to a spectators visual perspective. 36 This perspective is necessary to produce
images to function as the surrogate performances for which
Kirby calls.
The idea of documenting performances in photographs
does not emerge from Argelanders article as purely unproblematic, however. One of the issues that comes up can be called the
problem of the iconic image. In the interview, Moore and his
wife, Barbara, point to the way performances come to be represented by a very small number of published images, or even a single image, which Barbara Moore describes as a self-perpetuating
misrepresentation since the publication of certain images increases interest only in those particular images, which become
divorced from the performance as a whole while simultaneously
representing it. 37 Barbara Moore mentions Yvonne Rainer in
this context; two of the many other performance artists whose
work has suered this fate are Robert Morris and Carolee
Schneemann. Their collaborative performance Site (1964), which
was photographed by Moore and also by Hans Namuth, is generally represented in print by only two images, one of which has
been repeated so often that it has become the iconic sign for the
whole performance. The same is true of Schneemanns Interior
Scroll (1975), which has long been represented by a single photograph by Anthony McCall. 38
Although Babette Mangoltewho came to New York in
the early 1970s and photographed avant-garde theater, dance (especially Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer), and performance art
belongs to the artistic generation that came of age in the 1970s
rather than the 1960s, she retrospectively describes her work as a
performance photo-documentarian in terms that closely parallel
Kirbys and Moores. She writes of going to one of Richard Foremans theatrical productions in 1970: What I saw was extraordinary but only four other people were there to see it.
Therefore recording it was an absolute necessity. Somebody had
to preserve [it] for posterity. 39 For Mangolte at this time:
photography was not about passing judgment, on the contrary,
it was about absolute objectivity. The justification for shooting
the photographs was solely that they should exist. How the photographs would be used was left vague because they were made

for others who would make sense of them, if not now then sometime in the future. Making the work visible for my contemporaries was not my primary impulse. 40 To these ends, she
developed an approach to shooting performances meant to foster
automatismshooting very quickly and giving as little consideration to choice of shot and camera setup as possible. Getting
it was better than missing it even if technically it wasnt a good
photograph. 41 Kirbys sense of urgency around the need to
document the performances happening on New Yorks art scene
and his emphasis on objectivity and the preservation of performances for future audiences find sympathetic resonance in
Moores and Mangoltes descriptions of their respective photographic practices.

Babette Mangolte, Trisha Brown Roof Piece, 1973, 53 Wooster Street to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City. 1973 and 2003
Babette Mangolte, All rights reserved.

Writing about the need to document performances, Kirby once remarked,

We have not yet reached the point where allor even the most significanttheatrical presentations are recorded on film or videotape, implying that audiovisual
records would be the ideal means of preserving performances. 42 He nevertheless devoted most of his attention to the written word, supplemented by photographs, as the primary medium of performance documentation. 43 Following
its introduction in 1967, the Sony Portapak, the first consumer-level portable
video-recording system, was quickly adopted by artists. Although this eventually
led to the widespread practice of documenting performances on video, the fact

that Kirby does not discuss audiovisual documentation is understandable given his
context. He wrote about documentation primarily as the editor of a print journal
and addressed the forms of documentation that he was in a position to produce
and publish. Also, he began documenting performances with Happenings in the
late 1950s, when writing and photography were the most practical means available.
In fact, photography, not video, continues to be the most important and accessible
visual medium for documenting performances. As Adrian George puts it, the photograph, above all other media, has become crucial in the historicisation of performance, while Reason points to the enduring importance of still photography,
which remains the most frequently used and seen representation of performance.

Additionally, Mangolte, who was trained as a cinematographer in France

before coming to the United States, points out that the early video technology
available to artists was somewhat useful as a rehearsal tool, recalling that the
choreographer Twyla Tharp was one of the first to use video this way in the early
1970s. Its quality, however, was not good enough to show fully what had gone on
to an audience that hadnt been there. 45 More interesting is her discussion of
why she documented performances in still photographs and chose (with very few
exceptions) not to use film or video, despite her background in film and lack of
training as a still photographer. Her argument is that photography could be more
automatic and spontaneous (and therefore more objective) than filmmaking:
Photography was immediate and reactive. Film had to be pre-conceptualized before shooting. 46 Whereas Mangolte felt that a reasonable degree of objectivity in documentation was attainable through photography, she also felt that to render a performance in an audiovisual medium was inevitably to produce an adaptation of it rather than a record of it:
A series of photographs could provide a chronology of the iconography of
the piece, some sense of the makers intentions and aesthetics, and
therefore be informative and worthwhile. Film was almost doomed to
fail if you couldnt restage the action for the film camera, and that was
needed to make an interesting film work. If I had to summarize the
essential dierences between film and photography in documenting
performance, I would say that, for better or worse, the motion picture
camera can mislead while the still camera can be mute. 47
Mangolte explicates her resistance to the idea of using film or video as
means of documentation in ways that align with the values that Kirby espoused. As
we have seen, Kirbys concept of performance documentation is grounded in a
straightforward ontology: performances happen, and documentation preserves
them in forms that will allow future audiences to experience them. Because these
documents present the performance as objectively as possible, future audiences
will be in a position to arrive at their own interpretations and assessments, much
as they would have had they seen the original event. From Kirbys perspective as
an early theorist of performance documentation, the relationships between the
performance and its documentation and between the document and its future audience are clearly defined and uncomplicated. Over time, however, it has become
clear that the reality of performance documentation is considerably messier than
Kirbys fairly cut-and-dried approach suggests.
Mangolte, in some of her recent work as an artist (rather than a documentarian), addresses the complexity and untidiness of performance documentation.
One of her contributions to the exhibition Art, Lies and Videotape: Exposing Performance (a title that in itself suggests how far away we now are from Kirbys confidence in the objectivity and surrogacy of performance documentation) at the Tate
Liverpool (20032004) was an installation juxtaposing her well-known photograph of Trisha Browns Roof Piece (1973) with the contact sheet showing all the
black-and-white shots that she took of the performance. Facing the photographs

were video monitors showing the three reels of color motion picture film that she
also shot that day (which were originally projected as three images side by side).
48 In the installation at the Tate, the glow of the monitors, reflected in the
glass over the photographs, created a forced contrast between still and moving image, color and black-and-white, isolated moment and more complete record. Mangolte raises questions but provides no answers: she leaves the viewer of her installation to sort out the relationship of these multiple modes of representation to the
absent event and the question of how (or if) a single static image documents an
event that unfolds in time.

It is important in this context to contrast the approach to the visual documentation of performance represented by photo-documentation to other practices, particularly those of conventional theater and dance photographers. This is partly because theater photography is the most significant historical antecedent to early
performance documentation and is the practice in relation to which performance
photo-documentarians implicitly or explicitly defined their own. It also returns us
to the premise that performance documents can be understood as performative
utterances. To paraphrase Austin, this is a matter of doing things with pictures.
As I suggested in the introduction, to make an image of a performance is not simply to record its occurrence: it is to bring the event into being in a particular way.
It is therefore necessary to consider what theater and dance photography does and
to compare and contrast these doings with those of performance documentation.

Napoleon Sarony, Joseph Jefferson as Rip van Win

kle in Rip van Winkle, 1870s (1869), albumen cabi
net card. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG

Barbara Morgan, Martha Graham Letter to the

World, 1940. Barbara Morgan Archive, courtesy
of Bruce Silverstein Gallery, NY.

As David Mayer has shown, theater photography became

a regular practice from the late 1850s on. However, these early
photographs were not intended as image[s] of performance;
rather, they were images of performers that participated in the
tradition of photographic portraiture. 49 If these portraits
appeared to depict scenes from plays, the scenes were simulated
in the photographers studio. The primary function of these photographs was promotional, but because the photographs themselves were considered collectible commodities, their marketing
function was complex: the portrait photograph marketed the
play and the performer, and the play and the performer marketed
both the performer and the photograph. 50 The photos were
thus intended exclusively for consumption by a contemporary
audience, with no view to preserving the events for future generations. After 1901 photographs of actors were taken on the stages
on which they performed but generally during specially arranged
sessions for which the actors would strike poses from specific
moments in the play rather than at actual performances, a practice that continues to this day and that Argelander decries as
misleading. 51 Early photographs of stage plays were themselves theatrical (in the sense of being staged and simulated)
rather than documentary in ambition. 52 These images would
be posted in theaters to serve as advertisements and previews for
the performances on oer.
It is worth noting that the founding procedures of theater
photography that Mayer describes have remained firmly in place
in a variety of contexts, although not always for the same purposes, for more than a century. For example, Martha Graham collaborated with the photographer Barbara Morgan between 1935 and
1941 on a series of images eventually published in 1941 as a book
titled Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs. The photographs in the book reproduce moments in Grahams dancing;
however, they were not taken during performances but were shot
in Morgans studio under exacting technical conditions designed to capture the most profound and most crucial moment
of the dance. 53 Morgan did not photograph full performances; rather, Graham repeated specific movements until Morgan felt that she had achieved the images she wanted. Asked
many years later about whether her photographs were intended
to re-create performances, Morgan retorted: Hell, no! I paid no
attention to the stage. I wanted to show that Martha had her own
vision. That what she was conveying was deeper than ego, deeper
than baloney. Dance has to go beyond theatre. I was trying to
connect her spirit with the viewerto show pictures of spiritual
energy. 54 Morgan conceived of her images not as a means
by which a viewer might experience Grahams performance but
as distilling the truth of Grahams dancing, implicitly (and interestingly) suggesting that her carefully posed images could get
closer to that truth than photographs of actual performances,
which are inevitably compromised by the baloney that surrounds performances as social interactions. Morgan suggests, in
fact, that her carefully staged studio images convey the underlying spiritual truth of Grahams dancing in a way that no photograph of an actual performance could.

In [theater photography], the spontaneity at issue is not the

performers but the photographers, and the theater
photographs of the early 1970s often say more about the
photographer than they do about the performance, capturing
the photographers engagement with the event rather than the
event itself.

The early 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in theater

photography on the heels of the notoriety of an underground
theater scene populated by groups engaged in forms of collective
creation that resisted or eschewed the theaters traditional relationship between text and performance. Books documenting
such productions in photographs and text that appeared around
this time include Dionysus in 69: The Performance Group (1970),
with photographs by Max Waldman and Frederick Eberstadt;
Waldman on Theatre (1971), a collection of Waldmans work; Paradise Now: Collective Creation of the Living Theatre (1971), with
photographs by Gianfranco Mantegna; and Alice in Wonderland:
The Forming of a Company and the Making of a Play (1973), with
photographs by Richard Avedon and text by Doon Arbus.
As Natalie Crohn Schmitt observes about this work in an
essay published in 1976, this renaissance of theater photography
reflected an emerging theater aesthetic in which the essence of
the production was thought to lie not in the script being performed but in the performance itself: Theatre reveals an increased concern with process rather than product. The plays may
have no ongoing life apart from their performance. The dramas
existed in their processes, the momentary personal interactions
of actor, role, and audience, which the script does not express
but which the photographer can capture. 55 For an increasingly visually oriented theatrical avant-garde, photography
seemed to provide a more meaningful record than could the written word, for the photograph records the language of silence.

The Performance Group, Dionysus in '69, directed

by Richard Schechner. Photo: Max Waldman Max
Waldman, Archive USA, All rights reserved.


Although Schmitt makes a compelling case for seeing

these photographs as participating in the new theatrical aesthetic
that they also record, it is equally important to emphasize that
they maintain continuity with the tradition of theater and dance
photography sketched here. For one thing, both Avedon and
Waldman shot the performers in their respective studios, not in
performance, seeking to re-create striking images from the productions in a manner akin to Morgans work with Graham. Avedon and Waldman were also portraitists, some of whose subjects
were actors (sometimes in character, in Waldmans case). Both
worked largely in close-up or medium shot, the shots Argelander

The Living Theatre, Paradise Now, 1967. Photo: Gi

anfranco Mantegna. Gianfranco Mantegna Papers,
Special Collections, University of California, Davis,

consigns to the photo critic rather than the photo-documentarian. In these respects, their work is completely continuous with
the history of theater photography and at odds with the ambitions of performance documentarians like Moore and Mangolte,
with whom they were contemporary. As Mayer says of the earliest examples of theater photography, these are images of performers, not performances.
Avedons and Waldmans images are of performers as
seen by a particular photographer at a particular moment.
Schmitt defines the aesthetic of the 1960s theatrical avant-garde
as emphasizing momentary personal interactions and argues
that Waldmans photographs do the same: He interacts as audience member and the photo can express that interaction and
provide, then, one spectators experience of the performance,
that persons sense of what it was like to be there. Waldmans
photograph, then, is a record of an interaction, not of the play in
itself. 57 Waldmans emphasis on his own subjectivity rather
than the performance itself runs directly counter to Moores and
Mangoltes respective eorts to avoid subjectivity in their performance work, marking the dierence between his theater photography and the kind of performance documentation that Kirby,
Argelander, and others were conceptualizing at the same time.
Discussing the role of spontaneity in Waldmans carefully
composed shots, Schmitt notes that the photographs make us
aware that Waldman might not be able to get a picture quite like
that again. 58 In other words, the spontaneity at issue is not
the performers but the photographers, and the theater photographs of the early 1970s often say more about the photographer than they do about the performance, capturing the photographers engagement with the event rather than the event itself.
Morgans earlier images of Graham were not as directly about the
photographers subjective experience of the performance, but
they are about photography as a means of accessing an aspect of
Grahams dancing that ostensibly could not be accessed through
the theatrical experience or its direct representation. Although
these photographers certainly produced images of performers
and performances, sometimes performers from the same avantgarde circles as those photographed by Moore and Mangolte,
their work is quite distant from the self-conscious aspiration of
performance documentarians to produce objective, self-eacing
records in words and images that could serve as means by which
future audiences might access the ephemeral performance itself.

Alice in Wonderland, directed by Andre Gregory,

performed by The Manhattan Project, New York,
19701971. Photo: Richard Avedon The Richard
Avedon Foundation.

Alice in Wonderland, directed by Andre Gregory,

performed by The Manhattan Project, New York,
19701971. Photo: Richard Avedon The Richard
Avedon Foundation.


Having presented a brief but, I hope, fairly full picture of the eorescence of the
idea and practice of performance documentation on New Yorks experimental art
scene from about 1964 through 1974, I return to speech act theory to propose a

more refined concept of the performativity of performance documentation than I

suggested at the outset. To enrich my analogy between documentation and speech
acts, I will enlist John R. Searle, one of Austins successors, who made the salient
point that while all utterances, in their performative aspect, exert force on the
world, they do not all do so in the same way or with the same type of force. He
therefore proposed a taxonomy of illocutionary acts. Searle distinguishes declarations from other performative speech acts primarily in terms of what he calls the
direction of fit between words and the world. Some illocutions have as part of
their illocutionary point to get the words to match the world, others to get the
world to match the words. Assertions are in the former category, promises and requests are in the latter. 59 Declarations are distinguished by their dual direction of fit: While the words of a [declaration] do in some sense fit the world
they also constitute it, so that by their very utterance the world is also made to fit
the words. 60
Searles dual direction of fit provides a valuable heuristic for thinking
about the world-making abilities of performance documentation as envisioned
and practiced by Kirby, Moore, Mangolte, and others. With respect to performance
documentation as a discourse, Kirby clearly wanted the words to match the
world (literally in written documentation, metaphorically in photo-documentation) in that he wanted documentation to produce as objective, literal, and accurate a record of the performance (an event in the world) as possible.
But the practice of performance documentation that Kirby envisioned was
also world-making. Searle points out that declarations require the authority of an
extra-linguistic institution (not just linguistic competence) to be successfully
performed. 61 Kirbys status not only as an artist active in both the visual art
and performance scenes in New York but also as editor of TDR, a well-established
and respected journal, and as a professor at New York University provided the institutional authority that endowed the documentation that he published there
with illocutionary force. Discussing Kirbys editorship of TDR, Puchner defines his
project as that of creating a contemporary avant-garde in New York. 62 By
documenting disparate performance practices by visual artists, dancers, theater
makers, and others in the same pages, the journal brought the New Yorkbased
avant-garde that it sought to describe objectively into being as a coherent scene.
Simultaneously, it helped to create a discursive category of performance that
transcended individual genres and art forms but implied an overall experimental
attitude and membership in an avant-garde. As both Kirbys focus on tomorrows
past and Mangoltes statement that she was photographing so that an unknown
future audience might better understand the work documented suggest, performance documentarians created an archive of significant work whose significance
was asserted through the act of documentation rather than established prior to
documentation: these works were not documented because they were significant
but became significant because they were documented.
Certainly Kirby and those who participated in his project considered the
performances that they documented to be significant. But as we have seen, they
undertook to document them largely for a future audience and could not have
claimed to know what that audience would find to be significant. Whereas Kirby
believed that the availability of objective records of these performances would allow later audiences to make their own determinations about them, the reality is
that the availability of these performances in documentary form is a major reason
that later audiences have found them to be significant. In these respects, performance documentation brought the world it described into being through its own

Philip Auslander, a professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication of

the Georgia Institute of Technology, writes frequently on performance, music, media, and
visual art. His books include Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural
Politics in Contemporary American Performance (University of Michigan Press,
1992); Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (Routledge, 1999; second edition 2008); and Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music
(University of Michigan Press, 2006). Auslander has been a regular contributor to Artforum and other publications, and edits The Art Section: An Online Journal of Art
and Cultural Commentary (www.theartsection.com).

1. Philip Auslander, The Performativity of Performance Documentation,
PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, no. 28 (September 2006): 5, citing
J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1962), 6.
2. See Vito Acconcis statement about Trademarks, Collections, Walker Art
Center, http://www.walkerart.org/collections/artworks/trademarks).
3. Although Kirbys work on the historical avant-garde lies outside the scope
of the present discussion, it is worth noting that one of his major
contributions was Futurist Performance (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971), a
study of performances created by Italian Futurists that is continuous with
his work on the documentation of contemporary performance in that it is
primarily an anthology of scripts, manifestos, and photographs rather than
a critical history.
4. Michael Kirby, The Art of Time: Essays on the Avant-garde (New York: E. P.
Dutton, 1969), 57. For a fuller version of Kirbys comparison between art
and science, see ibid., 5558. It is important to stipulate here that Kirby
did not intend his claim that only the new can be significant as a value
judgment. For one thing, he argued, the new is not good merely because
it is new (ibid., 42). For Kirby, newness was a necessary condition for
significance but not a sufficient condition. For another, he characterized
the significance of art as objective because it is based in cultural
consensus, not individual evaluation: Shakespeare and Picasso are great,
whether or not I care for them (ibid., 58).
5. Michael Kirby, preface to The New Theatre: Performance Documentation,
ed. Michael Kirby (New York: New York University Press, 1974), unpaged.
6. Michael Kirby, An Introduction, Drama Review 15, no. 3 (1971): 6.
7. Kirby, preface, unpaged.
8. Claes Oldenburg, Store Days: Documents from The Store (1961) and Ray
Gun Theater (1962) (New York: Something Else Press, 1967), 79.
9. Ibid.
10. Michael Kirby, Documentation, Criticism, and History, Drama Review 15,

no. 4 (1971): 3.
11. Ibid., 4.
12. Michael Kirby, Criticism: Four Faults, Drama Review 18, no. 3 (1974):
13. Kirby, preface, unpaged. Kirby takes up the question of how writers may
avoid value-laden language in the service of objective description in
Criticism, 6668.
14. Caroline Rye, Incorporating Practice: A Multi-Viewpoint Approach to
Documentation, Practice as Research in Performance, Department of
Theatre, Film, Television, University of Bristol, 2003,
15. Matthew Reason, Documentation, Disappearance, and the Representation
of Live Performance (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 24.
16. Martin Puchner, Entanglements: The Histories of TDR, TDR: The Journal
of Performance Studies 50, no. 6 (2006): 18. See 1518 for a discussion of
Kirbys editorship of TDR, which lasted from 1971 to 1985.
17. Kirby, Documentation, 5.
18. Kirby, Criticism, 65.
19. Ibid., 6566.
20. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, in Against Interpretation and Other
Essays (New York: Dell, 1969), 17.
21. Ibid., 19.
22. Kirby, Art of Time, 23.
23. Reason was first to note the connection between Kirby and Sontag. See
Documentation, 197.
24. Sontag, Against Interpretation, 22.
25. Ibid., 23.
26. Kirby and Meyer traveled in some of the same circles. Like Kirby, Meyer
was a sculptor who taught at a university in New York. Their work was
shown together on at least one occasion, in 1967 in an exhibition at the
Finch College Museum of Art titled Schemata 7. They also shared a
publisher in E. P. Dutton, which published Kirbys Happenings and his
collection of essays The Art of Time (1969), as well as Meyers anthology
and a host of other books chronicling the art and performance of the
27. Ursula Meyer, introduction to Conceptual Art, ed. Ursula Meyer (New York:
E. P. Dutton, 1972), viii.
28. Examples in Meyers anthology of conceptual art that consists of
information about art include, among others, essays on conceptual art by
Terry Atkinson and by Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden presented as works of
conceptual art in themselves; John Baldessaris painting A Work with One
Property (196667); and Douglas Hueblers immaterial works whose
existence can be deduced only from their documentation.

29. Kirby, preface, unpaged.

30. Roland Barthes, The Photographic Message, in Image / Music / Text,
trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), 19. See also Anne
Marsh, The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire (Melbourne,
Australia: MacMillan, 2003), 9398.
31. The Walker Art Centers collection includes two of Moores photographs,
both of the cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman.
32. Ronald Argelander, Photo-Documentation (and an Interview with Peter
Moore), Drama Review 18, no. 3 (1974): 5152.
33. Ibid., 54.
34. Ibid., 51.
35. Ibid., 52.
36. Ibid., 56.
37. Ibid., 5758.
38. Although this is an issue that lies outside the scope of the present essay,
it is important to point out that while the reduction of a performance to a
single still image is clearly problematic, so is the assumption that a single
still image cannot adequately represent a performance. Consider the
following passage by Matthew Reason, in which he discusses the work of
photographer Lois Greenfield: 'It intrigues me, writes Greenfield, 'that in
1/500th of a second I can allude to past and future moments even if these
are only imaged [sic]. In this manner, the images are interesting
embodiments of Henri Cartier-Bressons thesis that by capturing the
'decisive moment the still photograph can be representative of the
missing whole. They also match what Anthony Snowdon describes as the
ambition of his theatre photography, to 'sum up a moment more than that
moment. Here the decisive moment seeks to lead the viewer into
contemplation of movement, reading a narrative of time into the still
fragment. Documentation, 137.
39. Babette Mangolte, Balancing Act between Instinct and Reason or How to
Organize Volumes on a Flat Surface in Shooting Photographs, Films, and
Videos of Performance, in After the Act: The (Re)Presentation of
Performance Art, ed. Barbara Clausen (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst,
Stiftung Ludwig, 2007), 35.
40. Ibid., 3637.
41. Ibid., 38.
42. Kirby, preface, unpaged.
43. Kirbys emphasis on written description as the primary means of
performance documentation provides a context for considering the work
of Tino Sehgal, whose This objective of that object (2004) was acquired by
the Walker Art Center. As has frequently been noted, Sehgal seeks to
make art without producing any physical artifact of the events that he
stages in galleries and museums as a gesture against what he sees as the
excessive proliferation of objects in the world. As a review of the
performance of This objective at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in
London notes, the space contained only actors, and the work is not

documented in any way because Sehgal forbids its audiovisual

reproduction. Catherine Wood, Tino Sehgal, Frieze, no. 91 (May 2005),
http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/tino_sehgal1/. Sehgal does not
discourage people from writing about his work, however; in fact, it is
surely intended to generate critical discourse. The claim that his work is
not documented in any way is therefore false: the very review in which
these words appear documents the performance by describing it and
makes the work available to someone (such as myself in this case) who has
not experienced it. Seen through the lens of the history of performance
documentation, Sehgals work reveals that we have become so used to
the idea that performance documentation is visual in natureand
consequently neglect the presentational qualities of writing (Reason,
Documentation, 183)that we blithely consider a work to be
undocumented because there are no pictures of it even when there are
copious written descriptions. The irony is that because Sehgal explicitly
prohibits self-conscious documentation, it is the critic, whom Kirby so
detested, who assumes the task of documenting Sehgals work.
44. Adrian George, Art, Lies and Videotape: Exposing Performance, in Art,
Lies and Videotape: Exposing Performance, ed. Adrian George (Liverpool:
Tate Liverpool, 2003), 14; Reason, Documentation, 6.
45. Mangolte, Balancing Act, 43.
46. Ibid. Some conceptual and performance artists who used film echoed
Mangoltes perception of the medium. Meyer notes: Film as a medium
does not hold the same interest for Conceptual Artists as it does for
filmmakers. Said Acconci: 'Most of us are not interested in film as film. I
personally do not care for setting up scenes and editing. Meyer,
Conceptual Art, xiii.
47. Mangolte, Balancing Act, 4445.
48. Babette Mangolte, Installations, BabetteMangolte.com,
49. David Mayer, 'Quote the Words to Prompt the Attitudes: The Victorian
Performer, the Photographer, and the Photograph, Theatre Survey 43,
no. 2 (2002): 227.
50. Ibid., 231.
51. Argelander, Photo-Documentation, 54.
52. I discuss the distinction between the documentary and the theatrical in
performance documentation at greater length in The Performativity of
Performance Documentation.
53. Barbara Morgan, Permanent Collection, Museum of Contemporary
Photography, http://www.mocp.org/detail.php?
54. Barbara Morgan, quoted in Curtis Carter, review of reissue of Martha
Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs, Dance Dimensions 8, nos. 12
(1981): 41.
55. Natalie Crohn Schmitt, Recording the Theatre in Photographs, Theatre
Journal 28, no. 3 (1976): 377.
56. Ibid.

57. Ibid., 378, 382.

58. Ibid., 381.
59. John R. Searle, A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts, in Language, Mind, and
Knowledge, ed. Keith Gnderson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1975), 346.
60. Kira Hall, Performativity, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 91, nos. 12
(2000): 185.
61. Searle, Taxonomy, 35960.
62. Puchner, Entanglements, 16.