Friday, 2 May 2008

MA Research Paper- Diploma stage assessment

Harriet Norwood Poole

MA Theatre: Visual Language of Performance
Full Time, Diploma Stage
April 2008

VLP Tutor: Douglas O’Connell
Critical Studies Tutor: Sean Ashton

Research Paper

Working Title:

The temporality of photography as an intimate participatory experience


A storeroom closet full of mops, tools, and ladders, within an art gallery had been modified slightly to accommodate becoming a temporary photographic darkroom in low light. The small closet was chosen as a place of intimacy or privacy, like a child’s den or an inventor’s secret workroom. People individually entered through knocking on the door, and were invited inside. Personal stories were shared through objects from the artist’s own pocket, and if the participants wanted to discuss, their own pockets. The objects were laid onto photographic paper and exposed and developed; they surfaced fleetingly through a photogrammed trace of the object, but the images were not then fixed, as is usual photographic practice. This was intended as a dual narrative with the stories momentarily shared. This performance culminated in marking this fact through the ultimate ‘death’ of the photographs created; there were options including for the image being either displayed, still seen as photographic prints on the gallery wall, or to emerge pushed out under the door as a relic of the performance. Two strangers, the artist and the participant, then leave one another taking away with them only their memories of the exchange as the images, attacked by light, continue to dematerialise and become entirely invisible in their final location.

Description of (in)visible exchange performance, Harriet Poole, Nunnery, Bow, March 2008.

The central core of my research is concerned with the relationship between photography and performance, focusing on the performativity and temporality of photography through an intimate participatory experience. To develop these ideas within performance I am examining storytelling and theories about participation between the artist, photographic process, and spectator. The Preface is intended as a means to demonstrate an example of how I have interlinked these purposefully to aid understanding of the chosen discourse.

In my previous Research Proposal, I identified my theoretical framework within Michael Kirby’s (Kirby, 1965) ideas about the non-matrixed theatre model. This was where, in The New Theatre (Kirby, 1965), Kirby describes Allan Kaprow’s Happenings as emphasising time, and using a variety of art materials, elements of chance, flexibility between performer and spectator roles, and are overall less concerned with narrative and character. I still draw parallels here with ideals about incorporating art (photography) materials, and less character based theatre, however, in exploring personal storytelling am moving away from what Gunter Berghaus defines as a key feature of a Happening, “…performers [are not] expressing their inner feelings, but carry out allotted tasks without active engagement of the Ego.” (Berghaus, 2005.) Another performance model which offers me a way to examine the real and personal, is seen through the ‘micro-performance’ ethos in the work of artists Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead (known as FrenchMottershead.) This is for their co-authorship approach through transforming daily life in engaging in an activity with participants. They describe their practice as, “live work specifically exploring ideas of human identity, physicality, interaction, social ritual and the everyday public and private realms in which they are played out.” (FrenchMottershead website, 2008.) The Uninvited Guests, Love letters straight from your heart performance at NRLA in February this year, invited participation, via an email list. People wrote a personal song dedication to someone they love, and impersonally emailed it to the performers. These people were then invited as the sole audience members in the show. The dedications were then woven into the performance; read out as written from the printed emails they were holding, the performers “… make [the] romantic declarations [their] own.” (Uninvited Guests website, 2008.) From personal experience of this performance, the resultant show was a very cleverly constructed and odd mix of being an intensely intimate encounter, yet amongst strangers.

The intimacy of photography can lie in the image-viewer level of reception, for example, as according to Mette Sandbye, in Performing the Everyday (Sandbye, 2005) when a viewer holds a photo book they can carry it around with them in their bag, and read wherever they like. There is a tactile, nurtured quality, a “.. performative play between work and viewer.”(Sandbye, 2005: 118.) When looking at the Brown sisters series of photographer Nicholas Nixon, in which every year since 1975 he has photographed his wife and her sisters standing in a line, we are aware of even though they are someone else’s family, how familiar they seem when looking at them- they appear universal, we all have photographs like these in family albums, or know people ‘like them’, so can place our own or imagined life stories to them to ‘identify them.’ Henry M. Sayre writes, in The Rhetoric of the Pose, Photography and the Portrait as Performance, (Sayre, 1989) how the complexities of the dynamics of the relationships between the relatives are not known, in that, “how thoroughly and necessarily this personal and private narrative is lost, leaving the viewer only with intimations of the family ties that bind these women together.” (Sayre, 1989: 40) I connect this series to the work of Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players whom I mentioned in my previous proposal, who create performances that, “Interpret the Lives of the Strangers [within found vintage slide collections.]” (Burgess, 2007.) What I find fascinating about the connection here between Nixon’s Brown Sisters photos and the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Player’s performances is the way there is an invention of a perceived reality, the once private being made public (former in exhibition and individually in the viewer, latter in performance and announced/sung by the performer.) There also seems to be a ‘disposable’ amateur quality about both, being quite generic family photos in Nixon’s case and the fact that the Trachtenberg’s find their often everyday family ‘snapshot’ images as discarded and bought in car boot sales, until you think about their context that gives them a kind of status and reference, former being a gallery and the latter a theatre. The Trachtenberg’s ‘disposability’ of their images is further reinforced by the temporal qualities of the photographs as low tech, hand controlled slide projections on an outdated, film based, projector; as well as only ever existing virtually in a performance for the duration the story about them is told, snatched away a moment later onto the next slide.

As discussed in my previous proposal, in Camera Lucida (Barthes, 1980), Roland Barthes describes what is unique about the experience of viewing photographs, using the notion of the ‘trace’ to discuss photographs as witnesses of ‘what has been’, and his issues of, “Life/Death: the paradigm [of picture taking] is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.” (Barthes, 1980:92) He goes on to describe how the photographic image is only ever temporal, being that it uses paper and that paper is perishable, it is mortal and is, “…Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes, there is nothing left to do but throw it away.” (Barthes, 1980: 93). Barthes demonstrates how a photograph exists only to represent the moment, which has already passed, an impossible record of ‘now.’ Whilst Barthes was writing in a time of purely analogue photography, now in a digital age, the issues are still current concerns, with the ‘impossibility’ of a camera’s ‘objectivity’ in the hands of a photographer ‘subjectively’ controlling it, or computer software to manipulate its ‘truth to nature’; “ This realism has always been photography’s force and at the same time its Achilles’ heel.” (Sandbye: 2005.)

David Claerbout is a contemporary artist who challenges the photographs static, frozen ‘snapshot’ of time contained in a 2D surface, by pushing it into the 4D durational time arena. This is through investigating the temporal nature of photography in fusing photography with video. He subtly digitally manipulates photographs within virtual, digitally projected installations that fool our visual perceptions through optical illusions. He, “…introduces moving elements, and with them, time.” (MIT List Visual Arts center website, 2008.) One work is described as;
“Kindergarten Antonio Sant'Elia, 1932, a 1998 installation, is a large projected image of a found, historic photograph showing children playing in a schoolyard, interesting in itself for its formal composition and the narratives it implies, and even more compelling when one notices the gentle motion of the leaves on the tree - fluidity in an image that supposedly records a moment fixed in time.” (DIA Art website, 2008.) The ‘objective’ document of ‘now’ clearly reinforcing its’ ‘subjectivity,’ through a doctoring, in part, of the passage of time. The Stack (2002), is a 36 minutes of video of the light changing though twilight and moving combined with a still image of a homeless man sleeping, “…here, the sun, daylight, and the mere passage of time become the major elements, allowing an escape from the ostensible subjects.” (MIT List Visual Arts center website, 2008.)

As discussed in my previous paper, and to re-contexualise into my current thinking, Tino Sehgal’s work as a visual artist is still central to my thinking about temporality. There is no physical artwork, i.e. no visual documentation, no materiality, only the memories of the participants based on a singular or collective experience as relayed by actors on behalf of Sehgal. Lucy Steeds (Steeds, 2005) in Art Monthly, describes how Sehgal's artwork never becomes, “….enduring traces.” The artwork concerns the viewer as participant to exist, explores social interactions within processes, drawing links back to the work of FrenchMottershead surrounding interactive engagement.

I am still also investigating the theories and practice of Julia Bardsley, for her Trans-Acts performance, she, “…forges an intimate dialogue between the audience and the performer, the artist and the creative process, live presence and the visual art object.” (Julia Bardsley website, 2008.) I feel that Bardsley’s performative exploration of film and the long exposures of pinhole photography, particularly in her recent work, Almost the same, (NRLA, 2008) links partly to the work of Claerbout, in the unusual displaying of different periods of time simultaneously. Additionally, Bardsley’s use of time in the real time live performer alongside the virtual pre-recorded video projections and pinhole images exhibited, are all supporting my research into ways practitioners use the more ‘theatrical’ and playback, versus real time.

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