This Case Study is a collaboration between audio-visual conservator Stephen Gray and Clare Thornton from Capturing the Past, Preserving the Future: Digitising the NRLA Video Archive and Paul Clarke, the GWR Fellow on Performing the Archive: the Future of the Past. The artist Richard Layzell has also worked closely with the team, being involved in authoring the metadata, collated here as a new set of documents, a network of traces or hypertext.
The aim is to enhance the usefulness of an existing performance document for future users of the National Review of Live Art Video Archive. Rather than producing a themed overview of various materials held in the archive they have focused in-depth on a single video recording, Richard Layzell's I Never Done Enough Weird Stuff, which was originally shown at NRLA in 1996.
This show was itself an archival performance, in which Layzell screened previous video works and documentation of performance interventions, in a new composition, re-performing and transforming gestures from past works alongside their video recordings – it was a performance-as-archive, a live remediation. In the show, he says, that it is both ‘the National Review and a personal review’.
There is a tendency amongst performance researchers to rely on video as a record, despite recognising the distinction between the live work and its document. Video has become the dominant and accepted mode of documenting live events and its ubiquity across art centres, festivals and practitioners themselves produces the assumption that audio-visual recordings alone function as effective stands-ins for past events. A good proportion of the performance and devised theatre works shown at NRLA do not have paper-based scripts or detailed diagrams scored in advance, and therefore their legacy is reliant on the documents and accounts produced during and after the event.
The video of Layzell’s I Never Done Enough Weird Stuff falls to fully reproduce what took place there and then, leaving many gaps and questions for the viewer about what exactly happened: it is shot with one camera, Layzell sometimes disappears out of shot, at points the image is too dark or grainy to make-out and much is lost from re-filming the video works and slides off screen. Likewise, there is a lack of significant metadata around the production of the video, the methodology employed, its provenance, relationship to the artist and performance work represented. This makes the work a good candidate for enhancement.
The Case Study trials the application of the Variable Media approach and specifically the Media Art Notation System to performance. This adaptable and expandable metadata system, based on XML format, was initially developed to conserve generative and interactive digital works, by the Guggenheim and Richard Rhinehart at Berkeley Art Museum. Certain time-based and ephemeral media works present conservators and gallery curators with similar complexities to those encountered by performance archivists. Stephen Gray has adapted this metadata schema into PADS, a specialised Performance Art Documentation Structure. PADS uses MPEG-21 expressed as XML, which is the standard “Rights Expression Language”, authorised by the Moving Pictures Experts Group as an open framework for multimedia applications. This is a machine-readable means of providing licencse information and sharing rights and permissions for digital content.
The intention is to produce an accessible web-based database from the XML-based document, which brings together a range of media and approaches in an attempt to better represent I Never Done Enough Weird Stuff. A prototype HTML version is currently available on this website.
The XML document incorporates or links a number of elements: a commentary by Layzell, like those by directors on movie DVDs, recollections from Nikki Millican, Artistic Director of NRLA, digitised copies of the videos and slides Richard projected. An interview with the artist also addresses: his decision-making process, sources and devising of performance actions/gestures, his experience of performing, audience reception, position in relation to the performance field & the trajectory of his work, reflection on this piece and how the video recording performs as a document.
It is recognised that the taking apart or analysis of a performance event, breaking it down into its constituent elements, is potentially problematic, as a performance unfolds over time and its affects build-up cumulatively. The different elements and stage systems collaborate, encountering one another in the event and coming together differently for each collaborating spectator. At the same time, they have tried to score the trajectories of elements over time and the relationships between them in the composition, zooming-in, close-up on details, from which to unfold, expand and make connections.
Layzell has gifted the U-matic video works projected in I Never Done Enough Weird Stuff to the archive, such that these elements are viewable here. The objects and clothing used in the performance, which the artist still held, have also been photographed or accessioned into the collection. The PADS score also points the user towards these physical remains, linking to material objects held and accessible in the Theatre Collection.
Forging the Future, a consortium of US museums and cultural heritage organisations, is currently developing tools for cataloguing, managing and searching MANS (Media Art Notation System) documents, inputting and accessing data on variable media artworks. We hope to apply these tools, produced in collaboration with New York’s Franklin Furnace Archive Inc., to the PADS MPEG-21 format score and in the collating of future data with artists. Forging the Future aims to collect the ‘data and metadata necessary to migrate, re-create, and preserve catalogued variable media objects’, including performance works.
PADS is a special implementation of Richard Rinehart’s Media Art Notation System (MANS) and both systems are built on the MPEG-21 metadata framework. This standardisation is intended to allow PADS scores to be exchanged between collections.
The idea for PADS began during the digitisation of the National Review of Live Art analogue videotape collection. Some interesting problems occur when using a single videotape to represent a performance artwork. For instance, metadata about how the video is related to the work can be ambiguous: is a video part of a work and loved by the artist? Is the recording unknown to the artist? Or was the video requested by funders and actively loathed by the artist?
Archival videos can be of very poor quality, often made with no budget but a lot of good will. There is a risk of the unfamiliar researcher associating a perceived lack of video quality with a lack of quality in the performance work itself. Other problems are associated with using any single method of documentation to record an event. Each technique has its own inherent limitations (for instance, video is essentially a 2D technique attempting to describe 3D space).
The PADS project began by finding out what had already been done to conserve ephemeral contemporary art forms in the widest sense. These, usually time-limited projects often focused on installation or media work, in such projects performance art is typically seen as a subcategory.
Of particular interest were projects in which artists’ interviews were used as the main data collection tool. INCCA (International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art) acts as a repository for such artist interview material and an international platform for joint research. A full report of the PADS project can be accessed via the INCCA website
A key piece of research proved to be the Variable Media Art Project. This project focused on the preservation of ephemeral art in a general sense, but made special mention of the special challenges of preserving a record of performance art. The Variable Media project placed artists in central roles of deciding how their work should be preserved. Archivists and conservators then facilitated this process.
Another aspect of the Variable Media work, which was to have a great influence on the PADS project, was the classification system. Works were not considered by media type such as ‘painting’, ‘sculpture’ or ‘video’ but instead by behaviour such as ‘duplicated’, ‘reproduced’, ‘interactive’, ‘performed’, ‘installed’ or ‘contained’
Thomas Mulready was closely associated with performance art for the duration of the Variable Media project. Mulready suggested extensive case studies but unfortunately these were not carried out. Another researcher, Richard Rinehart was also involved with Variable Media and has since continued researching similar issues via his MANS project, at Berkeley Art Museum.
MANS builds on and extends the Variable media research and again focuses on media artwork, but here ‘media art’ explicitly includes performance art. The system not only ‘describes the nature and location of elements in a work’ but also maps the ‘behaviours, interactions, choices and variables’ of the work. The MANS system is also granular; scores may be very brief or extremely complex depending on available resources and user requirements. The MPEG-21 metadata framework, on which MANS is based is already widely supported by media industries and so promises a high degree of future interoperability.
When the review of existing research was complete some very specific project aims were defined for PADS:
Early discussion with Richard Rinehart lead to the decision to use MANS as a starting point and then adapt the system to the specific needs of performance art. Richard Layzell’s work I Never Done Enough Weird Stuff was selected as the work to be described in the initial PADS score.
Constructing this score then began with a series of interviews with the artist. In line with existing research these questions were asked from two distinctive points of view, that of the ‘curator’ and the ‘conservator’. The ‘curator’ line of questioning tended to deal with larger issues such as context and influences while the ‘conservator’ questions dealt with the details of the work.
Using this initial interview material as a guide, it became possible to identify several key ‘elements’ within the work, which might be usefully described in detail. These elements were then sorted into different ‘types’. These type categories will vary between different works, so this list below is offered as an illustration only:
Upon completion of the I Never Done Enough Weird Stuff score, all available materials used within the work were located and details added to the PADS record. Finally, a set of usage guidelines was drawn up to allow PADS to be used by third parties.
A key benefit which has emerged while developing PADS has been the opportunity to engage closely with the artist when building a score. When an artist requests a performance work be left ‘un-documented’ this often seems to mean ‘not videoed’. PADS offers an alternative strategy of documentation with plenty of space for the artist’s creative input.
PADS also engages closely with the end-user of the score: the researcher. PADS is essentially a network or web of discreet blocks of data, which can potentially be linked in many ways and so encourages an active - rather than a passive - researcher.
It is hoped that development of the system will continue with several more PADS trials. It is particularly hoped that PADS will be used to document a performance which is later to be re-enacted, thus testing the limits of recordable detail. PADS might also be used for documenting a performance as the work is created, rather than focusing on an older work, and so include ‘work-in-progress’ materials and decisions-made in process. A graphical user interface which will allow for easy browsing of all PADS scores is currently in development.