Documentation of Live Performance and Variable Media Artworks

Kotin, Alison
Completion Date: 

In response to a research assignment asking us to speculate on the future of a non-digital technology as it transitions to a media platform, I chose to examine the impact of documentation on performance artists’ approach to creating new work, and the role that digital documentation plays in shaping our experience of live performance.

Presentation Overview

What is Performance Art?
Performance art calls on the artist to use the body in real time and space in order to express ideas. It is not theatre. It is not scripted. A more detailed history of performance art is available at

How do performance artists document their work?
Documentation of performance art can include photography, video, sound recording, and creative collection and display of “remnants” of performed actions left behind when the piece is complete. Documentation is often considered to be indexical; i.e. it provides proof for viewers who did not witness the live event that a particular event really occurred.

Amelia Jones says: “… the role of documentation [is to] secur[e] the position of the artist as beloved object of the art world’s desires.” So, does the artist document live performance because documentation is really integral to the meaning and impact of the piece, or only in order to retain an “object” that the contemporary art world will recognize as an artistic creation?

Documentation As Performance
Can the documentary ever be separated from the theatrical in performance? In other words, if a performer knows that his or her actions are staged for documentation, the act of documenting becomes part of the performance, whether acknowledged or not.
Consider the “ideology of photography”: photography creates an illusion of realness that our first instinct is to accept without question, even in an era where Photoshoped and retouched images are commonplace. Philip Auslander notes that seeing documentation as only a supplement to performance “reaffirms the status of the photograph as an access point to the reality of the performance.” Making documentation part of the performance piece leads viewers in real time and after the fact to question the reliability of the photograph’s representation.

An interesting corollary: A documentarian can become a partner or a collaborator in a performance work, so that the act of documentation itself becomes performative.

The future of documentation: performance and “variable media”
Performance art and dynamic media artworks (also called “variable media art” in curatorial circles) have a lot in common!
• Interactivity
• Evolution over time
• Variation based on audience input
• Opportunities for collaboration between audience and artists
• Artworks do not produce physical objects
• Preservation & documentation are challenging
• Changing social context impacts reception of work
• Changing technological resources impact experience of work

Another big question: What is a document anyway? If documentation of work relies on collecting information on content, context, and practice many kinds of documentary materials are needed for a full representation of each artwork. Can a document “act as a substitute for lived experience”? Or, can documentation of an artwork recreate some elements of the original performance?

If the document must reflect the form of the work itself, documentation may become a new area of intellectual and artistic practice (maybe parallel to the task of the literary translator). Corina MacDonald says that documentation is becoming a “new cultural technique” that draws on many disciplines and forms, and is its own realm of expression.

The Variable Media Questionnaire
“The variable media approach asks creators to play the central role in deciding how their work should evolve over time,” says James Ippolito of the Guggenheim Museum.

The Variable Media Questionnaire was developed by a task force of curators at the Guggenheim in the early 2000’s. The mission of the Questionnaire’s creators was to develop a data collection tool to capture information about artists’ preferences for the recreation and display of variable media (and performed) works. The task force suggested that information collected could be stored in a database shared by many arts institutions, and to account for ongoing evolution of technology, data on artworks should be “medium-independent.”

“A system of formal notation for scoring works of digital and variable media art”
“Media art is as much performative or behavior-centric as it is artifactual or object-centric,” says Robert Reinhart who proposed this system of documentation in 2004.

Reinhart’s system uses musical notation as a metaphor for a system to standardize instructions for how time=based work is to be viewed and re-created after the original performance is complete. For digital art, in many cases coding acts as a score, but coding languages are not universal and are subject to change. Reinhart suggests that XML or a relational database might hold sufficient metadata: the important aspect is that data is media-independent and accessible.

Bibliography (selected)
• Auslander, Philip. “The performativity of performance documentation.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28.3 (2006): 1+.
• Ippolito, J. “Accommodating the Unpredictable: the Variable Media Questionnaire” In Permanence through change: The variable media approach. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art Science and Technology, 2003.
• Jones, Amelia. “’Presence’ in absentia: experiencing performance as documentation.” Art Journal, Winter 1997, pp. 11-18.
• MacDonald, Corina. “Scoring the Work: Documenting Practice and Performance in Variable Media Art.” Leonardo, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 59-63, 2009.
• Reinhart, R. “A system of formal notation for scoring works of digital and variable media art.” Archiving the avant-garde; documenting and preserving digital/ variable media art: project documents and papers (2004).

Interview with Alexia Mellor, performance artist and instructor, who talks about the role of documentation in her own work, and how performance artists’ relationship to documentation is changing. Video by Alison Kotin.

Chris Burden Shoot (1971). Burden’s documentation of a performance piece in which a friend shoots him in the arm with a rifle. Owing to technological limitations, only a sound recording and extremely short film of the event exist. This example of a live event which provokes an immediate, visceral reaction in viewers exists in documentation that is so minimal that viewers are forced to use their imagination to fill in the gaps.

Project Gallery: 

Login | The Dynamic Media Institute and Massachusetts College of Art and Design are trademarks and all contents of this site are Copyright 2005 - 2012 unless otherwise noted. Writings and projects are property of their respective authors. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited without prior consent.