Whilst theatre is at my creative centre I have worked for more years than I care to remember in the broadcast video industry. In the course of this I had come to work as a consultant for the Tate Gallery’s Time Based Media Department with the conservators there archiving time based media elements of pieces the Tate has acquired over the years. In November 2015 these two worlds collided when I ended up producing a performance piece which emerged from Aleksandra Mir’s Antarctica work.
I first met Aleksandra Mir in June 2013 when the Tate had acquired a video piece of hers called First Woman On The Moon. Unusually there were technical adjustments that the artist wanted to make. Questions of authorial and archival integrity were raised and, most unusually, the changes were made. Essentially it involved little more than correcting a few technical errors present due to the available technology at the time of making and ensuring that the credits were fully inclusive.
In 2015 I found myself working with Aleksandra again, editing some video material she had recorded on a sailboat voyage from Argentina to Antarctica some ten years earlier. From 40 hours of video footage we edited a video piece less than 3 minutes long. As we completed the project Aleksandra mentioned as an aside that she had text from the voyage and, knowing of my theatrical activities, wondered how to put a play on. As it happened The Playgoers Society of Dartington Hall had, that very week, taken up residence in Studio 31 at Dartington Hall Estate after a few years without a home. I got in touch with the society, of which I had been chair in 2013, and it was arranged that we could stage Antarctica – A Play there. We came up with the idea of preparing and presenting it in a single day with the actors having no preparation beforehand. What had been captured as a document, transcribed from life, was going to be re-iterated by actors from the page.
The text involved was an ‘Artist’s Log’ in which Aleksandra had recorded overheard speech, from the others present on the voyage. She had prepared the text by designating the words to seven archetypal characters rather than the many more individuals who were actually on board. As the text was already present online she wished to remain anonymous until the day as she didn’t want the actors taking part to come across it and prepare for the day. It was an easy matter to recruit a bunch of adventurous actors, who seemed to relish the mysterious nature of the project. Aleksandra’s record of the day can be found here:
Co-incidentally, the week before the experiment the Tate Modern, along with The Getty Conservation Institute and Getty Research Institute, hosted a conference entitled Media in Transition at the Tate Modern in London.
It was particularly concerned with the conservation of time based media and works with a performance element. Many speakers addressed the difficulties of accurately conserving video media as technologies evolved so quickly that the idea that we could always preserve ephemeral events in film and video became increasingly challenging as those technologies themselves had proved themselves to be more ephemeral than expected as film gave way to analogue video tape formats, which in turn gave way gave way to digital tape and the file based formats presently relied upon. Repeatedly delegates referred to the poignancy of the ephemeral and the quest for fixity in circumstances that require verified authenticity. How can we confirm that the light that hits our eye when we see a piece is the light that the artist intended when the work was made? How can we have those assurances when the artist is dead and unable to affirm their intentions?
Clearly this new area in the art world, barely a generation old, was giving the contemporary conservators and curators a whole new world of issues to process. It raised the spectre of ‘Trigger’s broom’ which he’d had for 20 years, it had only had 17 new handles and 14 new heads and the antique clock that has been maintained and restored so well that it doesn’t retain a single original working part.
As someone who’s artistic centre is theatre I found the conflict between the needs of fine art institutions and theatres of performance fascinating. In theatre we do not fix on the ‘poignancy of the ephemeral’ in fact, we tend to revel in the ephemeral nature of performance and works of performance, whether theatre or music, are archived in the audiences mind via their senses. We work cheerfully and lightly re-iterating the works of long dead masters in whatever way we deem fit. The texts are the instructions, with much scope for interpretation.
The conference included show and tell sessions, featured among them was the story of Aleksandra Mir’s First Woman on the Moon as an example of an extraordinary curatorial decision and I was present as the video engineer who worked on it to answer any questions that might be raised.
So, quite coincidentally Antarctica: A Play manifested at a most timely point in the discussion, except that no one who was in the conversation attended. So, as a contribution to the conversation about the dilemmas raised when we endeavour to curate performance, it was as ephemeral as the museum curator’s worst nightmare.
To sum up: Antarctica: A Play came from verbatim documentary transcripts of a voyage taken for artistic gain, distilled from life into archetypes and then re-iterated through a secondary layer of performers whose influence on the outcome was made from their own emotional intelligence and response to the text as they read from the pages which fell to the floor of a set which represented the original sailboat. Already we have three generations of perception and understanding of an event which took place and at each point it begins to distort from the original truth of events as our ears and mouths and bodies imprinted our impressions and responses upon the text creating an alternative universe.
The event, the edit of the text and the performance then had a fourth existence in the minds of the audience present.
To cap it all, that unique and ephemeral event was fixed. At least it was fixed partially. We recorded the whole thing. Well, we recorded the sound and vision of the event as far as the camera’s allowed. And so Antarctica: A Play accidentally became a contribution the conservation conversation. The link is below.
The fifth generation of Antarctica: A Play: https://vimeo.com/183225484
Thanks to The Media Workshop for production resources and Darryl Leech for camera work.