41st Annual Meeting – General Session – “Collecting the Performative: The Role of the Conservator in the Conservation of Performance-Based Art” Dr. Pip Laurenson

As Principal Investigator for Collecting the Performative: A Research Network Examining Emerging Practice for the Collection and Conservation of Performance Based Artworks, Dr. Pip Laurenson (Head of Collection Care Research, Tate) has lead a two-year investigation of the issues surrounding the collection of performance works within the disciplines of dance, activism and theater. Participants in the interdisciplinary Network include artists, curators, academics, conservators, archivists, transmitters of dance, and registrars.
Dr. Laurenson introduced performance-based artwork as a novel and still somewhat controversial activity within art museums. She notes that performance, or “live art,” works have long been regarded as profoundly ephemeral, non-reproduceable, and therefore—by definition—uncollectable. Until very recently, museums might acquire the remains or documents of performance works (e.g., slides, recordings, etc.), but never the performance work itself.
Meanwhile, some ever-innovating artists have moved away from this strictly one-off concept of performance where the artist’s presence is essential, toward an idea of performance as something that may be enacted over time independent of the artist. In response, museums have recently begun to acquire “live art,” including the rights to re-perform works via “delegated performance.” In 2005 Tate acquired two such live art works: Roman Ondák’s Good Feelings in Good Times (2003) and Tino Sehgal’s This is Propaganda (2002).
Ondák’s “Good Feelings in Good Times” involves a queue of people forming in a location within the museum. The work explores the idea of how time is experienced differently—more slowly—when one waits in line. This work has been reproduced at the Tate using volunteers and individuals hired by the museum. Sehgal’s “This is Propaganda” involves an individual singing inside the gallery’s entrance as guests arrive. A particular challenge the Tate faced when acquiring Sehgal’s work was the artist’s requirement that the work not be documented in any way. This prohibition was intended not only to insure that the work would not be replaced by a photograph or video, but also to challenge the fundamental material object bias of museums. As a result of the artist’s requirements, the conservation of this work depends entirely on memory. Initially concerned that she might forget the lyrics, it soon became clear to Dr. Laurenson that a good memory would not suffice as one needs to be schooled in a particular performance medium in order to fully recognize what one is seeing and committing to memory. Owing to such complexities, the conservation of such works (i.e., the ability re-perform) has become the joint responsibility of conservation and curatorial staff, sometimes with further engagement from the artist or other expert consultants.
Dr. Laurenson spoke of the many challenges, with examples from her experiences as conservator, returning to her fundamental question: should the discipline of art conservation expand to incorporate time-based media? She cites Salvator Munoz-Vinas’ Contemporary Theory of Conservation (2005), which draws one sensible conclusion: “conservators work on tangible objects.” While Munoz-Vinas acknowledges that intangible “artifacts” can indeed hold value, he sets limits on the expertise of conservation—limiting the scope of conservation to material artifacts—so as not to dilute the effectiveness of conservators. Acknowledging that a conservtor’s expertise is not capable of infinite expansion, Dr. Laurenson reminds us that fine arts conservation has expanded to incorporate new media again and again, and that to exclude certain forms of art would be to skew history. What to do?
Dr. Laurenson draws on the literature of expertise, which differentiates between interactional and contributory expertise: interactional expertise is the expertise needed to interact with those possessing contributory expertise (i.e., expert doers, such as scientists, plumbers, and dancers). She notes that the literature also contains helpful information on building communication skills for those seeking to expand their ability to leverage the expertise of others. Ultimately, she concludes that the field of conservation ought to address time based media, employing a distributed model that identifies and taps an external network of people who can support the works.
Dr. Laurenson concluded with a broader look at how museum acquisitions practices continue to evolve. Museums are seeing works that change their form over time, and require maintenance. Museums are engaging more in this process, often meeting increasing demands of artists, but at the same time learning that it is appropriate and necessary to establish parameters for what they can and cannot do to support such works. There is a limit to the skills that conservators can acquire, but where resources permit, Dr. Laurenson contends, we can acquire the interactional expertise needed to work with others to conserve such works.