Dorota Sosnowska

Recording Theater Performances—Between Presence and Mediality

Angielska wersja artykułu / English translation of:

Dorota Sosnowska, Rejestracja spektaklu – między obecnością a medialnością, w: Teatr wśród mediów, red. Artur Duda, Marzenna Wiśniewska, Bartłomiej Oleszek, Toruń 2015, s. 17–33.



Perform, Repeat, Record—Live Art in History, a 2013 anthology offering a comprehensive look at the issues surrounding the documentation of performative art, includes an essay authored by Boris Groys entitled Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation. In his fascinating disquisition, Groys discusses the considerable shift that we have been recently observing in contemporary art. Nowadays, the objects exhibited in galleries and museums increasingly rarely rate as art itself, and increasingly often serve as art documentation. The objective of these photos, movies, sculptures, and paintings, however, is not to invoke history or to facilitate the recollection of past events. In Groys’ opinion, it is rather the only form which an artistic gesture may materialize in, the only possible representation of art. “[…] more and more and art documentation is produced and exhibited that does not claim to make a past art event present. Examples include complex and varied artistic interventions in daily life, lengthy and complicated processes of discussion and analysis, the creation of unusual living circumstances, artistic exploration into the reception of art in various cultures and milieus, politically motivated artistic actions, and so on. None of these artistic activities can be presented except by means of art documentation, since from the very beginning these activities do not serve to produce an artwork in which art as such could manifest itself. Consequently, such art does not appear in object form—is not a product or result of a »creative« activity. Rather, art is itself this activity, is the practice of art as such. Correspondingly, art documentation is neither the making present of a past art event nor the promise of a coming artwork but the only possible form of reference to an artistic activity that cannot be represented any other way.”[1] In a later section of the essay, the author attempts to depict the shift from the perspective of biopolitics—that is politics trying to define and master biological life through technological means. Tons of documents and files, a metastasizing bureaucracy and the descriptions and images it seems to multiply into infinity, social media, and other technological inventions all comprise our everyday experience. Art is gradually adopting similar strategies, and shifting that which it considers important towards the sphere of action. Severing its relationship with the artefact and escaping into the sphere of life itself. Following down the path of Giorgio Agamben, Groys formulates the thesis underpinning his meditations—that life is what

life is what “can be documented—but it cannot be presented for view.”[2] This is where a surprising notion appears in his deliberations: “But here the difference between a commercial television documentation and art documentation becomes particularly clear. Precisely because television time and again shows images of the enclosed people [a reference to Big Brother], the viewer begins to suspect manipulation, constantly asking what might be happening in the space hidden behind these images in which »real« life takes place. By contrast, Höller’s performance [Carsten Höller The Baudouin/Boudewijn Experiment: A Large-Scale, Non-Fatalistic Experiment in Deviation] is not shown but merely documented—specifically, by means of the participants’ narratives, which describe precisely that which could not be seen. Here, then, life is understood as something narrated and documented but unable to be shown or presented. This lends the documentation a plausibility of representing life that a direct visual presentation cannot possess.”[3] And although ascribes tremendous power to documentation (“Art documentation thus describes the realm of biopolitics by showing how the living can be replaced by the artificial, and how the artificial can be made living by means of a narrative.”[4]), although he daringly proves that the Benjaminian concept of aura is strictly linked to the very capability of technical reproduction, making the aura a contemporary invention, although he concludes with the following passage: “The practices of art documentation and of installation in particular reveal another path for biopolitics: rather than fighting off modernity, they develop strategies of resisting and inscription based on situation and context, which make it possible to transform the artificial into something living and the repetitive into something unique,”[5] from the field of this revolutionary discovery of the power of the document, the copy, the reproduction, he excludes one particular incarnation thereof—the recording.

It is striking, that Groys’ concept—here merely outlined—pushes the entire field of art closer towards theater. With this gesture, however, Groys falls into a fear highly familiar to theater science scholars—the fear of recording a theater performance. In theater science, that particular problem is well known. Photographs, reviews, posters, audience accounts—these are all legitimate documents on which our own reconstruction, interpretations, and analyses may be based. Video recording, however, a direct audio and video transmission of what happened on stage, is perceived as transgressive, a blow dealt to the very heart of the art of theater—its “liveness” unique, and original character.[6] On the other hand, however, recording seems today an inextricable element of theater practice and our own everyday reality. Maybe we should, therefore, ponder its specific status and diagnose the reasons behind the controversy it still seems to engender among performative arts scholars.

In my opinion, the problem with recording stems from two paradigms that theater studies consider fundamental: the ephemeral nature of the spectacle and the experience of unmediated presence (liveness) in the theater.

As convincingly demonstrated by Dorota Sajewska: “I consider the moment in which the autonomy of the art of theater, and simultaneously the sovereignty of the field, emerged to be of foundational importance to the myth of the ephemeral nature of theater. […] The myth that portrays theater as a sphere of unique and unmediated experience of living effort and simultaneously a venue for events which are wholly subject to the irrevocable process of disappearance.”[7] At the same time, as theater, via theater studies, emancipates itself from literature and literary studies, it is defined as the sphere of the flesh and of action. Simultaneously, however, it also becomes apparent that as a result thereof, theater cannot be “preserved,” and thus all of the “traces” remaining after a performance need to be archived. Sajewska references an essay written by Wiktor Brumer who in the 1920s headed the newly-established Polish Theater Institute, furnished with a dedicated facility for collecting and archiving theatrical documentation. In his essay, published in Scena Polska [The Polish Stage], Brumer argued: “The necessity to archive all facts and figures pertaining to the life of the Polish theater, a necessity satisfied in the West and in Russia by theater yearbooks—a type of publication unknown in Poland—forces Scena Polska to schematize the most important facts and figures and offer them in an approachable for, as archival material for any and all future scholarly efforts focused on the history of theater in Poland. The most fleeting and least enduring of the arts, theater not only fails to leave any trace of itself, without the support of rationally governed libraries and theater archives it does nothing to provide future scholars even the most essential data that would allow them to scientifically reconstruct the performances from even the most recent past.”[8] The peak of the archiving and documenting frenzy in the 1970s coincided with the widespread adoption of the semiotic perspective. Arguing the influence of Ingarden on contemporary theater studies, Irena Sławińska asserted:

“1.    The theater does not exist as something fixed in space, but rather as a process (Vorgang) that is event-like (Ereignis) in nature

  1. (…)
  2. Contrary to the aesthetic of other arts, theater science does not possess its own objects. Only through appropriate thought operations can it possibly bring these objects to life, make them a reality (dingfest machen)
  3. The fact that the concepts formulated within theater studies pertain to things »bygone,« things that have faded out of existence, produces a series of difficult epistemological problems: the structures and functions in this »bygone« phenomenon can be verified only intellectually rather than empirically.
  4. The spectacle is reconstructed, or more precisely, reconstituted by a historian of the theater who uses verbal means, description and analysis in an attempt to facilitate its viewing (Anschauung).
  5. The material relicts of the performance are not in and of themselves the subject of inquiries of theater scholars: the performance is not the sum of its material parts but a conceptual structure which we reconstruct in the course of the epistemologic process (erkenntniskritisch)
  6. (…)
  7. In contrast to other arts, theater exists not for posterity but for the present. It is, therefore, doubly inaccessible to us: because of its fleeting nature and because the reaction of the initial audience is unavailable.”[9]

The only material element of the theater, thus, are the traces, the “relicts” of the performance than can be used to linguistically reconstruct the spectacle itself. Here, corporeality is driven off towards the sphere of non-existence, non-entity, vanishing. The process of thinking about the theater invoked herein serves as foundation for the whole of contemporary theater science. It is confined to an archive of “relicts” used to reconstruct the ephemeral spectacle with language (the form of presence from which theater tried emancipating itself). Steeped in constant melancholy and convinced of the non-existence of its subject of study, theater science is engaged, in some sense, in incessant oppression of the flesh and efforts that were supposed to bring liberation to the theater.

At a time when European and Polish theater theory was dominated by semiotics, across the ocean a form of art was blooming that was destined to revolutionize our perception of bodies and their presence—performance art. To quote Sajewska: “It does not seem a coincidence that this renouncement of the body via secondary discursivization in theater science took place in the 1970s and 1980s. To me, this seems an ambiguous—ideologically and politically—reaction to the radical presence of the body in performance art and in the theater of the 1960s and 1970s. On the one hand, the avant-garde in that period strived for maximum possible exposure of the materiality of voice, effectiveness of gesture, trained movement of the body, while on the other hand nurturing the myth of theater and performance as the art of vanishing.”[10] The essence of that particular period is embodied by Marina Abramović, back then a political and radical artist and today something of a celebrity. Her contemporary efforts aren’t all universally praised, the most interesting take on the artist’s work, however, is offered by Amelia Jones’ interpretation in her essay The Artist is Present”: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence. The scholar mostly discusses Abramović’s 2010 retrospective held in the New York Museum of Modern Art. Aside from admiring the assembled objects (material relicts), video footage, photographs, and the reconstructions of past performances delivered by young performers, the visitors could, throughout the entire duration of the exhibition, sit across from Abramović herself. Thus the name of the exhibition—The Artist is Present. Jones writes: “Paradoxically, Abramović’s recent practice, in its desire to manifest presence, points to the very fact that the live act itself destroys presence (or makes the impossibility of its being secured evident). The live act marks the body, understood as an expression of the self, as representational. Thus, as someone who sat across from Abramović in the atrium of MoMA, surrounded by a barrier like a boxing ring, itself surrounded by dozens of staring visitors, cameras, and lit by klieg lights, I can say personally I found the exchange to be anything but energizing, personal, or transformative. Though I felt aware that the person I have met and whom I respect as an artist and cultural force was sitting there before me, I primarily felt myself the object of myriad individual and photographic gazes (including hers), and the experience overall was very strongly one of participating in a spectacle […] If anything, I found myself wanting to revert to reading books about performance to escape the noisy emptiness of this »real« live art experience.”[11] Therefore, the live experience of art is incapable of capturing the pure presence that is problematized in the following way in a later section of the essay: “»Presence« as commonly understood is a state that entails the unmediated co-extensivity in time and place of what I perceive and myself; it promises a transparency to an observer of what »is« at the very moment at which it takes place. But the event, the performance, by combining materiality and durationality (its enacting of the body as always already escaping into the past) points to the fact that there is no »presence« as such.”[12] On the one hand, performance, by opposing theatricality, rejected the framework imposed on the body by the text (drama, role), which, in turn, pushed theater towards the sphere of fake, contrived, artificial presence; on the other hand, however, it became apparent that the body once again eludes the experience of the viewer who—like a typical theater scholar—would gladly flee the “audience” to seek refuge in the archive, among texts and material relicts.

It seems that both myths underpinning the understanding of the theater event (and, more generally, the performative event) can be distilled down to the tension between the text and the body that seems to drive their paradoxical character or, to follow Diana Taylor’s train of thought, the tension between archive and repertoire. In her book The Archive and the Repertoire. Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, the author formulates a concept of expanding the performance studies field to include historical and history-based inquiries. However, in her understanding of the concept, the archive—a collection of material relicts—should not be the sole medium of history and memory. The repertoire—that is the bodily practices and behaviors communicated over time and carrying the memory of the body and embodied history—should be an equally valid source for inquiries defined thusly. Taylor  writes: “The repertoire, on the other hand, enacts embodied memory:[13] performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance singing—in short, all those acts usually though of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge.”[14] Including theater, obviously. Importantly, Taylor does not define archive and repertoire as polar categories. She emphasizes how one permeates and overlaps with the other. Fully aware—from the very first paragraphs—of the considerable shifts produced in such broad inquiries by digital technology and the Internet, Taylor writes:

“Certainly it is true that individual instances of performances disappear from the repertoire. This happens to a lesser degree in the archive. The question of disappearance in relation to the archive and the repertoire differs in kind as well as degree. The live performance can never be capture or transmitted through the archive. A video of a performance is not a performance, though it often comes to replace the performance as a thing in itself (the video is part of the archive; what it represents is part of the repertoire).”[15] This brief interjection at the end seems to have tremendous consequences—the video recording becomes that which sits at the intersection of archive and repertoire, between text and body, presence and mediality, thus landing in the middle of every paradox outlined above. This is the essence of the problem with recording—by subverting the categories of ephemerality and presence, by suspending the spectacle between duration and vanishing, recording demolishes the entire framework of understanding theater and performance. This is why it is relegated to a shameful existence deep inside the archives and rarely becomes the subject of self-reflection. It has been, and still is, the subject of numerous attempts to demote it to just one of many types of documentation, a source for specialists, or base entertainment for unsophisticated TV audiences. Meanwhile, its subversive potential continues to undermine the stable frame of the theatrical form.

Let us shift perspectives for a moment. In her incredible book Performing Remains (which Taylor extensively drew on) Rebecca Schneider demonstrated that the definition of performance (and in her understanding also theater) as something fleeting, ephemeral, and subject to constant loss—and thus always taking place “live”—is a direct consequence of adopting the logic of the archive. She writes: “If we consider performance as of disappearance, of an ephemerality read as vanishment and loss, are we perhaps limiting ourselves to an understanding of performance predetermined by our cultural habituation to the logic of the archive? According to the logic of the archive, what is given to the archive is that which is recognized as constituting a remain, that which can have been documented or has become document. To the degree that performance is not its own document (as Schechner, Blau, and Phelan have argued), it is, constitutively, that which does not remain. As the logic goes, performance is so radically »in time« (with time considered linear) that it cannot reside in its material traces and therefore »disappears.«”[16] Schneider, however, offers another solution: “Arguably, this sense of performance is imbricated in Phelan’s phrasing—that performance »becomes itself through« disappearance. This phrasing is arguably different from an ontological claim of being (despite Phelan’s stated drive to ontology), even different from an ontology of being under erasure. This phrasing rather invites us to think of performance as a medium in which disappearance negotiates, perhaps becomes, materiality. That is, disappearance is passed through. As is materiality.”[17] Simultaneously, the theater becomes the most stable machine of memory, the largest archive transcribing history onto the body, suspending the line between what is dead and what is alive. In another text, Schneider asserts: “The instability of the divide between life and death, or liveness and deadness, is, as so many have noted, something of a theatrical thing. Onstage, the lack of resolute demarcation between the live and the dead is the very stuff of the art form. We write of the haunted stage, or the mask of death, as given attributes of a medium we insist is nevertheless indelibly live. The dead appear live, so to speak. The live, dead. As Luce Irigaray writes of Dionysus (in the midst of writing about Nietzsche): »Here and not here. Here — dead. […] The only skin he knows is a dead skin. […] And, behind this effigy, he looks you straight in the eye.«”[18]

Is it possible, therefore, that neither the category of ephemerality nor the category of presence penetrate into the heart of the theatrical event? If we follow down Schneider’s trail, it will become apparent that mediality is theater’s deep nature—eternal mediation, displacement, reflection, and repetition. Theater revolves around mediality, but, as Samuel Weber points out in Theatricality as Medium, it continues to question mediality as is. By engendering a dichotomy between production and reception, actor and audience, body and participant of the spectacle, corporeality and fictionality, simultaneous being here and there, theater tears down continuity, integrity, being contained-within-itself. In Weber’s words: “This irreducible opacity defines the quality of theater as medium. When an event or series of events takes place without reducing the place it »takes« to a purely neutral site, then that place reveals itself to be a »stage,« and those events become theatrical happenings. As the gerund here suggests […] such happenings never take place once and for all but are ongoing. This in turn suggests that they can neither be contained within the place where they unfold nor entirely separated from it. They can be said, then, in a quite literal sense, to come to pass. They take place, which means in a particular place, and yet simultaneously also pass away—not simply to disappear but to happen somewhere else.”[19] Still interrogating its own nature, theater essentially becomes a metamedium, offering constant contemplation of mediality and media. This context reveals the subversive character of recording which not only becomes another medium appropriated by the theater, another means of expression, another place (according to Weber’s definition) of theatricality. By transcending the qualities ascribed to theater, recording undermines prior definitions; it allows flesh to penetrate into the domain of the text, allows repertoire to subjugate archive, transforms archive into performance. This is why I would suggest avoiding using appropriateness, appurtenance, and faithfulness to the spectacle (which one?) to confer value judgments on recording, but rather seeing it as a form of emancipation of both theater and body, the latter spilling beyond the rigid categories of document, archive, and text, breathing the element of body back into spaces from which it was relegated to spheres of death and vanishment.

Going back, however, to Groys’ deliberations, it turns out that it is recording, which he rejected, that is imbued with the unique power of turning the living into the artificial and the artificial into the living—in the course of a constant, dynamic, and ceaseless process of mediation between presence and disappearance.

[1] Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation,” in: Perform, Repeat, RecordLive Art in History, ed. Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2013), 210.

[2] ibid., 213.

[3] ibid., 214.

[4] ibid., 213.

[5] ibid., 218.

[6] In this context, see Agata Adamiecka-Sitek and Leszek Kolankiewicz, “Korespondencja,” Didaskalia 113 (2013).

[7] Dorota Sajewska, “Mit efemeryczności teatru” [“The Myth of the Ephemeral Nature of Theater”], Dialog 1 (2015).

[8] As quoted in: ibid.

[9] As quoted in: ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] Amelia Jones,“’The Artist is Present’: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence,” TDR: The Drama Review 55, no. 1 (2011): 18.

[12] ibid., 18.

[13] Diana Tylor, The Archive and the Repertoire. Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 20. This particular phrase implies that repertoire is not a memory resource for the body to be replayed, but is the act of replaying itself, it is the repeating. As an act, repertoire is impossible to translate into discourse. The Polish translation of the phrase, included in the original version of this essay, implies that repertoire is something that can be subject to discursivization and eventually can become text itself.

[14] ibid.

[15] ibid.

[16] Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011), 98.

[17] ibid., 105.

[18] Rebecca Schneider, “It Seems As If…I Am Dead. Zombie Capitalism and Theatrical Labor,” TDR: The Drama Review 56, no. 4 (2012): 151.


[19] Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 7.