‘Tending the archive’ talk for Australasian Association of Digital Humanities conference 2016

[The talk was intended to be accompanied by video documentation of the inaugural TLC performance of re-enactment (Wo)Man With Mirror in 2009 here https://vimeo.com/8855880].

This short paper is an initial sketch exploring a possible shift in our mental map of how we care for things that are prone to disappearance, including the digital.

My background attunes me to things prone to disappearance. It has two parts – one in the arts, specifically obsolete moving image, think hand made film made using obsolete techniques and equipment and as we shall, re-enactment of live art from the 1970s. The other part is in archives – in the past, I worked in film preservation, more recently on digital records of government, engineering them and appraising them and.

I am currently part way through a PhD. Using a case study of resolutely analogue performance-dependent heritage, one way to caste my research is that it explores how we might re-think the preservation/access dilemma. By dilemma I mean that if we use things, we physically degrade them, and if we just preserve them without ever permitting a use for them, how do we justify keeping them? The field of conservation is predicated on this idea of ‘indefinite’ access. So in part, I am interested in looking again at this dilemma, inviting a re-reframing of archiving as a process of ‘tending’. In short, the tending idea puts use front and centre – through using things, we can maintain them and through embodied use, we can reinvigorate them.  This somewhat cryptic notion of ‘embodied use’ will become clear in the course of this paper.

While my case (live art) is resolutely analogue, it can be caste as performance-dependent heritage along with heritage like motion picture film and digital records which rely on layers of technological performance to experience them. So this means my tending idea may resonate with dealing with digital stuff in general.

The case study I will talk you through is drawn from my work in Teaching and Learning Cinema, an artist/archivist collaboration between me and artist Lucas Ihlein, drawing on my background in archives and experimental film and Lucas’ background in contemporary art.

Over the past decade, TLC has been re-enacting works of Expanded Cinema. Our work has coincided with the wide spread adoption of re-enactment in contemporary art, which started to emerge around 2002-3. We began our re-enactment work out of curiosity about early immersive artworks, curiosity piqued by tantalising images and descriptions of expanded cinema.

Expanded cinema is an area of practice from the 1960s and ‘70s that explores the ‘situation’ of cinema. It often looked like literal expansion beyond the movie screen eg multiple screens, live bodies interacting with the projected image, reversal of the usual relationships where we overlook the projection apparatus to enter into the narrative. My colleague in TLC has described it as a precursor to the immersive practices of new media art. [1]

The work I want to use to illustrate my ideas is TLC’s 2009 re-enactment (Wo)Man With Mirror, a re-enactment of British artist Guy Sherwin’s Man With Mirror from 1976. This is a film performance for a live performer interacting with a projection made earlier of the same performer.

This is not a work that can be taken off a shelf and staged. The work hinges on Guy’s film self performing with his real self – real Guy is integral to it. At this point, a version of the film is collected but to experience Man With Mirror relies on Guy to perform with the film. [2]

We can access documentation online and I first encountered this work on VHS, from which I took a taste of the work but could make little sense of what was going on, how it was enacted. I felt that I needed to take the remnants of the work and ‘tend’ them carefully so that, from these resonant remnants, the work could come back to life somehow, so that I could experience the work rather than just mull over some grainy photo-documentation referencing a definitely past and finished event.

So how does the idea of tending get us past the preservation/access dilemma? I’m going to throw these two terms  — ‘preservation’ and ‘access’ together as ‘heritage management’.

Some of the heritage management issues for Man with Mirror are these: the work is dependent upon Guy if an audience is to experience it in its full and original form. As a participant/appreciator of the work, I can access video documentation of it;  but I can’t make body to body contact with it. There are several reasons why I want to make this kind of contact. The first is that the work was intended for encounter in a social experience with an audience. Certainly for Guy, the video documentation doesn’t constitute the work – he never sends it in place of himself as performer.

TLC has constructed gallery installations of the work, here are two examples [Slides of exhibitions Imprint (Artspace Sydney 2009, curator Anneke Jaspers) and Hollow in the paper (CAST Hobart, 2013, curator Rebecca Stevens) ], but the work to which we constantly return is the live performance.

Secondly, the work I am engaged in within TLC is interested in the re-enactment process itself as embodied use. We tease out exactly what must change if we are to experience the work now when it is re-enacted by us. To do this, we must actually carry out the creative process for ourselves, enact  it, pass the actions of the work through our own bodies.  So what this suggests for access is that access can look like something altogether different from retrieval, it can look like a body to body transmission from the heritage object to the user.

So this kind of use is ‘embodied’. Synonyms are situated, contextual, holistic, multivocal, multi-sensory.’

So let’s recap on the access issues:

1. We can’t get it off a shelf

2. The usual digital surrogates can’t stand in for it

3. The user is interested in ‘body to body’ contact with it.

It now bears thinking about the preservation point of view. Works like (Wo)Man With Mirror (ie works that are distributed, intended for experience in the present) challenge preservation as they consist of more than just the physical elements such as the film strips and audio tracks, they also consist of a set of procedures carried out by the artist in performance, procedures sometimes captured in documentation, by and large extant only in the artist’s memory.  Thus they have an algorithm or ‘operating code’ inherent to them.

These elements could all be subject to conservation treatment and there are methodologies in conservation to help document the intentions of the work so that the elements can come together.[3]

But in the case of (Wo)Man With Mirror, whose building blocks demand a physical engagement with the work – you need to shoot your film, it needs to be you and you need to be the performer, using the work and preserving the work are intimately bound up. In short, you need to perform it.

So we need a different mindset.

Recently, Lucas and I wrote about our re-enactment methodology as ‘tending’. [4]. We described the methodology as three pronged: engagement with the original artist, research in the archives and physically ‘trying it out’ for ourselves. We went on to discuss how we seek to ‘reach through to the object’, thinking about the archival object as composite, both ‘a physical object and a set of relations’, bearing both its own provenance as an archival object and the relations it is now participating in.

We characterised our work as a process of thinking through and with archives as pragmatic and opportunitistic – we use the archives to make a new work; generous and interventionist – we add to the archives through our blog entries and by making new archival deposits in a ‘read/write’ relationship; and our approach is ongoing and ritualistic.

I now want to build on this idea to discuss how critical it is to this that we reach through, Lucas and I, that it is our bodies in particular that do this reaching through. So I have subtly recaste our tending idea this way: through using things, we maintain them and through embodied use, we reinvigorate them.

From the discussions that have emerged over the conference, I want to emphasise this embodied use. By this I mean it is my use, my experience and your use, your experience will be different.

I am going to close by illustrating how TLC sees this situated, embodied experience as generative and critical.

Before I do that, I want to tease out some possible implications of embodied use for collections:

provenance extends – the contextual information about the object extends to record its life over time (let’s talk about (Wo)Man With Mirror as a ‘work’ in the audiovisual archiving sense ie something constituted of multiple parts even tho’ some of those parts may not be tangible);

paratextual – the object starts to become both the iteration you experience and its previous iterations or in the case of this re-enactment, the work it re-enacts. The term ‘the original’ is problematic but maybe necessary here. Performance studies scholar Rebecca Schneider who has written in depth about re-enactment, describes the re-enactments of Civil War re-enactors in the US as ‘not the Civil war but not not the Civil War’ and she borrows from Gertrude Stein the idea of syncopated time, one time nested within another. [5] This resonates with our experience in the TLC re-enactment projects.

So to really close, I want to talk you through embodied use. I have explained that our method is to connect with the original artist, to consult archives and to ‘try things out’ in the studio. Our approach is to adhere to the rules and rigours of the work as closely as possible. So in the case of (Wo)Man With Mirror, we spent time with Guy Sherwin, he took us through the choreography of the piece and talked us through shooting it and we helped him set up for his performance in Brisbane. As we did our work afterward to try it out, we kept track of our experience on our blog. We also prepared a user’s manual. In a previous re-enactment we worked on with Anthony McCall’s Long Film for Ambient Light, we realised we hadn’t chrystalised our experience into something useful for others. The user’s manual was our attempt to do this – to capture what we found from the secondary sources, from the archives, from our tuition with Guy and our ‘trying it out’ work.

Connection to embodied use? Because our goal is to adhere to the rules and rigours of the work, what emerges clearly is the points where we cannot adhere any longer, where we must diverge. For us this is the site of the artwork because we acknowledge these points of divergence emerge from pragmatic technological decisions (in one work it became video rather than 16mm), literal application of the rules (which can look very simple eg in WWM, we cut down my mirror size to retain Guy’s proportion relative to my height so that I could physically manage it), and our creative response. In the case of WWM, after some months planning to make two separate re-enactments, one each, we realised that we could make one performance containing both performances. So this slip from one to two has become the key marker or contribution from this work. And it comes from the methodology of the performance dependent heritage, it’s come from within the algorithm of the work. But what’s critical is that it has come from running the algorithm through our bodies, Lucas’ and mine.

What the user’s manual sets up is the opportunity for embodied use by someone else and for TLC to pass the work on to someone else. We explored this earlier this year with former Hobart artist Laura Hindmarsh. We worked with Laura to assist her to use the user’s manual, to shoot her film and then to put it together as a performance. We spent several days doing it. We made the work on super 8 film as per the manual but it emerged that Laura wanted to transpose a version to 16mm, hand-processed black and white film. So this looks like Laura’s embedded use. I will explain this term in just a moment.


Preparation for 16mm shoot of Man With Mirror, foreground Laura Hindmarsh, background Lucas Ihlein, April 2016.

So to draw the link back to DH which I read as a field concerned with ways to make use of the digital to generate or augment knowledge, TLC’s re-enactments are an instance of performance-dependent heritage. They rely upon performance in response to algorithms or operating codes, and that performance occurs in a particular place and time for, or in our case, with, a particular user. The outputs of re-enactment go a step further in making the particularity of that use tangible – TLC’s (Wo)Man With Mirror consists of two of us, Laura’s will include a hand-processed B&W film on 16mm.

So I am casting ‘embedded use’ as a synonym for the user’s particular, peculiar experience and I think this inflection is critical for the idea of tending, that we channel our care for digital things through use, as through using things, we maintain them and through embodied use, we reinvigorate them.  And by combining these processes, we can interpret and understand the archived artefacts; we can prevent them from lapsing into oblivion.


[1]  Ihlein, L. (2005). “Pre-Digital New Media Art.” RealTime Arts 66, no. April-May, 26.

[2] Guy confirms that in recent years a 16mm copy of his super 8 film was made by EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

[3] An example is the Variable Media Questionnaire developed by the Forging the Future alliance, a tool for ‘recording opinions on how to preserve creative works when their current medium becomes obsolete.’ See http://variablemediaquestionnaire.net/ for more information.

[4] Ihlein, M & Curham, L. (2015). Reaching Through to the Object. Performance Matters 1.1-2: 24-40.

[5]  Schneider, R. (2011). Performing remains : art and war in times of theatrical reenactment. London: Routledge.

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