Sunday, 31 August 2008

Intangible Heritage

A nice week in Glasgow last week at the Sibmas Conference, discussing the problems associated with documenting and archiving intangible cultural heritage, specifically live performance.

I've written previously that there is more to say about our work with Christopher Hall, our Associate Artist (Film and Video).  Well, in Glasgow last week I said quite a lot about that, in a paper about how our Digital Shorts (Hang Up 02:39:02 pictured above and below) are a response to having to document live work 'faithfully', and how they have in turn influenced our other film and video work .  Here's an extract:

4. Some Problems With Documentation

From the outset, an ongoing company debate about the documentation of live performance.  We need to produce full length videos of our performances for promoters, archives and educational establishments.  We also need 5 – 10 minute samplers to show when giving lectures about our work.   We require them, practically, but these video documents don’t satisfy us creatively.  They're constrained by having to represent the performance, but are some distance from the experience of seeing the work live. 

Senseless 02:47:18 opened a door for us.  We realised that we could carry on exploring the ideas and themes of a live project, even as we are fixing it in the process of documenting it.

The process of making these shorts has much in common with our process of making our live work.  The core of Third Angel is the two Artistic Directors - Rachael Walton and myself.  For each project we draw together a group of collaborators – performers, sound recordists, composers - some familiar and regular; some new. Christopher Hall, now Associate Artist, has been working with us since we set up in 1995.

In devising the work we map out a territory, an area of interest, set an agenda.  We ask our collaborators to explore that territory with us, respond to what we've got, bring in new ideas.  We generate far more material, more ideas, than we can use in the final piece.  Many of these ideas will not be used because they don’t work, aren’t interesting enough, aren’t good enough.  But some of them just don’t fit, through time or formal constraints; some are the beginnings of something else.

So even when a project is ready to start meeting an audience, there are still loose ends to be used, or new ideas nagging at us.  Even as we tie a live performance to video in making the documentation we need, we are able to continue devising, trying out ideas in relation to the themes we are exploring, through making a digital short inspired by it.

We go in to the edit suite with rushes, much in the way we go into rehearsal with a bit of text or an idea for a section of the show.  Rachael and I have already set a territory by making the live work; Chris begins his exploration within that territory, sometimes responding to seeing the work live, sometimes responding to making the documentation of it.  He sets out to find something that interests him within the territory we have laid out.  

My paper was followed by a really interesting presentation by my old pal Becky Edmunds, who used to be a dancer and choreographer (her past tense), and is now a dance film maker.  She showed us a video duet made with Fiona Wright, in which only Fiona appears, but of which both artists are clearly authors.

In spirit Becky's work is quite close to our Digital Shorts, I feel.  She said a nice thing, something like: "I won't make something accurate, but I will make something appropriate".  She talked about the gap between the live performance and the documentation of it, and suggested three solutions: Ignore it (just video it from the back of the audience), try to lessen it (use more cameras to give you close ups and opportunity to edit) or (her approach) jump in to it and have fun, play around in it, make it wider.

Later in our session, Daisy Abbott (Glasgow University) gave a paper that pulled together some of these strands nicely.  She observed that a worry with a 'faithful' video document of a performance is that it becomes the authoritative version, even though it is just one example of that performance.  That even the final performance of a particular piece isn't a summation of performances that have gone before, it is just one more version.  So for a video of one particular performance (or for-camera version) to acquire that status can be problematic to many artists (I know it is for us, particularly if work is documented early in a tour).

Daisy quoted Peggy Phelan's observations that "the performance becomes itself through disappearance" and that documentation is not an act of representation but of transformation (any inaccuracies mine, not Daisy's).