Performance Works: Documenting Feminist Performance Art

(Anja Foerschner)

Project Description

The documentation of ephemeral art practices is an important, yet highly discussed topic in art historical research. It often provides the only means by which happenings, dance, temporary land art, or performance art, which is the topic of this project, can be examined. However, it seems that the preparation and documentation of ephemeral work, the scripting of events and actions and the curation and archiving of the material are dismissed as having secondary relevance to the “final product”, which is the physical enactment of an ephemeral art piece. Some scholars and artists themselves consider documentation of performance art as unnecessary or even impossible. Peggy Phelan, for example, argued in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (1993) that “[p]erformance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representation of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.”[1] Similarly, artist Marta Jovanović stated in an interview: “I believe that performance only makes sense when it is still ‘alive’, when you are in the room and it is happening.”[2] Amelia Jones has argued for the contrary: “[…] not having been there, I approach body artworks through their photographic, textual, oral, video, and/or film traces. I would like to argue, however, that the problems raised by my absence […] are largely logistical rather than ethical or hermeneutic.”[3] She states that it is only in retrospect, when drawing from a performance’s documentation, that performances become meaningful as it is only then that patterns of history can be identified, i.e. a work be interpreted in its respective context.

Of the different forms and media of documentation, the visual capture of ephemeral art seems to be given by far the highest significance. The photographic documentation— the still— has become what most of the scholarly examination (and general understanding) of a performative art piece is based on, and that even though it only captures a very partial aspect of a temporal sequence or narrative. Photographs of ephemeral events exist somewhere between documentation and iconic representation of a work, imprinting in our mind a specific segment of an art piece, which becomes the symbolic stand-in for a much more complex work, and is often equated to the entire work. Existing at the interface between photography and performance, performance narrative and independent image, the still is much more than a piece of documentation. It is approached by the viewer with the expectation of holding a “truth claim”, of mediating undeniable and correct knowledge about a past event. Performance stills often, as Chris Burden had recognized in 1993, “allow the viewer’s imagination to make the performance a mythical and a bigger-than-life-event.”[4]

In our highly visual culture, it is not a surprise that a visual remnant of ephemeral art is what we are drawn mostly to. Thus, preparatory material and documentation in other media such as handwritten notes, typed paragraphs, copies, collages, or emails, posts, or snippets of online research in the present, have so far taken a back seat in the researching and exhibition process. Scholarly investigation of these issues is almost completely absent from the discourse. This is the gap in scholarship of performance art that this research project intends to fill. It aims not only to look at the various kinds of documentation, but also at the practices of editing, curating, archiving, and collecting these forms of physical traces of ephemeral art. Furthermore, the project will narrow the thematic focus and highlight especially feminist performance art as these practices broke with the art historical cannon and every-day social interactions in the 1960s and 70s (and continue to do so to the present day). By their inherently political nature, they invite a critical distinction from the larger field of performance art and thus deserve closer consideration.

Using examples such as Carolee Schneemann, Barbara T. Smith, or Kate Durbin, among others, the project uncovers the detailed documentation and meticulous preparation of ephemeral works by feminist artists and foregrounds the curating and archiving practices by the artists themselves. Finally, it will examine the challenges these issues present for institutions, conservators, and scholars with regard to collecting and preserving ephemeral art and their physical traces.

Core Areas:
1- Provide an analysis of the physical traces and documentary material of performance works in the respective archive: analysis of the different “stages” of the projects and the different media used in them as well as the correspondence between them; analysis of the editing process, the curating and archiving practices employed by the artist with regard to her work. Examine in how far documentation practices change over time and why.

2- In collaboration with conservators and archivists assess issues of collection and preservation of ephemeral art practices: What status do documentary traces have within a collection, how is their status determined? How can the time- and site-specific experience of a performance be transformed into an artwork with sustainability?

3- Situate the documentation and archiving methods within a larger framework of contemporary media theories, theories of the use of the body in feminist performance art and its respective art historical and cultural context

Core Questions:
1- How important is documentation in performance art? Does the study of accompanying material influence our understanding and interpretation of a performance piece? What is the value we place on documentation and preparation material in relation to the final piece of art?

2- What are the challenges institutes and scholars alike face with regard to the preservation and study of ephemeral art on a practical and theoretical level?

3- How can the role of the artist as a curator and archivist of her own work be understood? In how far do the economic interests and collection policies of institutes acquiring archives interfere with that and the ‘authenticity’ of an archive?

4- How does documentation change with new technologies and what does that mean for the concept of the archive?







1, Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London: Routledge 1993, p. 146.
2, Interview with the artist, 2014,, last accessed on July 20th, 2015.
3, Amelia Jones, “’Presence in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation’”, in: Art Journal, vol. 56, no. 4, 1997, pp. 11-18. Worth mentioning is also Live Art in LA: Performance in Southern California, 1970-1983, edited by Peggy Phelan, London: Routledge 2012, which was published as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time. Essays tackle, among other topics, the issue of restaging or reinventing happenings and performances based on documentation and archival material.
4, Chris Burden, May 26, 1993, cited in: Action/Performance and the Photograph, Turner/Krull Galleries, exhibition catalog, Los Angeles 1993.

Image Captions
1.Barbara T. Smith, typed and annotated script page, 1977, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute (2014.M.14), Box 169, folder 1, image courtesy of the artist
2. n. a., negative of performance photograph of "Ordinary Life" pt. 1, 1977, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute (2014.M.14), Box 124, folder 13,image courtesy of the artist
3.Barbara T. Smith, drawing of performance setup for "Ordinary Life" pt. 1, 1977, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute (2014.M.14), Box 169, folder 2,image courtesy of the artist 
Barbara T. Smith, typed and annotated auction list for "A Week in the Life" of, 1975, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute (2014.M.14), Box 167, folder 16, image courtesy of the artist
5.Kate Durbin, "Hello Selfie Miami," 2015, image courtesy of the artist