Volume and Ubiquity: Shaping the Future of the Past through the Digital Present

by Johanna Plant*

On February 1, 2012, Facebook, Inc. filed a Registration Statement with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. This step, required prior to the corporation’s initial public offering, noted that more than 250 million photos per day were uploaded in the last three months of 2011.[1] Multiplied by any number of other social media and personal websites—Instagram, Twitter, blogs, and so on—this number quickly becomes so large that it is almost meaningless. The quantities of digital content—photographs, videos, sound recordings, and written texts—created and disseminated on a daily basis by cultural producers, both amateur and professional, has, as Lev Manovich points out, “created a fundamentally new cultural situation and a challenge to our normal ways of tracking and studying culture.”[2]

Online archives[3] with artistic mandates are one subset of this “new cultural situation.” Whether institutionally-sanctioned or managed by individuals, these archives are operating in an environment where the production of content quickly exceeds the ability to (humanly) interpret or assess it. And while prospective content for artistically-oriented digital archives is not being produced at the same rate as images are posted to Facebook, it remains that the relative ease with which events can be recorded and made public on the Internet has greatly affected the potential availability of research materials. In turn, this quantity and accessibility has created an environment that seems democratic; because the option to bypass traditional gatekeepers such as curators, publishers, and dealers exists, we are given the impression that all artists have an equal chance of reaching an audience via a personalized digital presence. But this optimistic vision fails to take into account what actually happens to documentation once it is created, if it is created at all. Taking the position that digital documentation is relatively easy to generate, but not necessarily easy to manage, this essay seeks to explore what happens to the recordings of action-based or performative works of art once they exist. Questioning the notion of a democratic, complete, or comprehensive online archive—and subsequently, the notion of a democratic historical narrative that can be written from it—I want to trace how mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion operate in a digital environment, and to consider how the management of digital records generated today will affect future understandings of the past.

Performance art presents a particularly interesting vehicle through which to study acts of inclusion and exclusion in the (online) archive, given that its documentation presents a number of issues that complicate its representation in the lectures, texts, databases, galleries, and museums that comprise the institutions of art history. These issues are both practical and ethical, although the practical issues—even if they have not been entirely resolved—are perhaps at this point more of a red herring than an actual barrier to inclusion. Technological advances allow us to record and replay events with increasing degrees of verisimilitude, and while such recordings do not yet—and may never—exactly replicate the experience of “being there,” they do provide a reasonable level of representation for many performances.[4] Indeed, the records created can be approximately equivalent to the archival representation of other (non-art) events and occurrences, inasmuch as these things can ever be represented. As Sarah Jones, Daisy Abbott, and Seamus Ross have pointed out, “Arguably, all archiving is performance: records are surrogates that provide a window onto past moments that can never be recreated, and users interact with these records in a performance to reinterpret this past.”[5] In this sense, the documentation of performance art, regardless of the format it takes, is on par with other historical records, and it can no longer be argued that inadequate forms of representation are keeping performance art out of the institutions of art history.

The documentation of performance art, however, does more than provide a starting place from which we can attempt to reinterpret the past. Especially in cases where the documentation is not intended to be part of the work, the recording translates a primarily intangible experience into a tangible form; it takes “the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge” and gives it a physical form that exists outside the human body.[6] These translations, regardless of their format, have characteristics that allow them to be reproduced and catalogued: a duration, a size, a title (whether given by the artist or otherwise assigned), a date, and so on. In turn, the processes of documentation allow performance art to be slotted into the traditions of empirical rationalism that still dominate the institutions of art history.[7] Whether the integration of performance art into these institutions is desirable is the basis of the ethical questions that surround documentation.

Should performance art be documented in the first place? Performance art is ephemeral, transient, and fleeting. It is meant to be experienced, but not necessarily in a book, on a screen, or in a carefully monitored research room, and not necessarily more than once. Moreover, for many artists, it is a practice that seeks to challenge and question the institutionalization of art; by avoiding documentation and reproduction, it evades the limited logic that uses both ownership and the ability to be quantified as the criteria for the inclusion of a work in the institutions of art history.[8] By existing without a physical form, by existing only as someone’s memory, or as a rumour—or by being forgotten entirely—an action-based work can take on an oppositional stance, an orientation defined by Raymond Williams as being in “active opposition to the established institutions.”[9]

For artists who wish their work to be antithetical, a lack of institutional representation could be considered a partial victory, albeit one that is more of a passive protest than a direct challenge to established institutions. For artists less concerned about opting out and more concerned with choosing the correct medium for their message, and disseminating that message, this limited reach can be problematic, and not just within the institutional setting. As Peter Walsh points out, “…less reproduced art is less significant. The unphotographed, unpublished work of art exists in a kind of limbo. In fact, […] the unphotographed work can hardly be said to exist at all.”[10] Building on this statement, I would add that the undigitized, un-Google-indexed work is in the same situation: of course it exists, but if it cannot be found on the Internet, its chances of being included in current dialogues, whether directly related to art history or broader in scope, are low. Moreover, its chance to live on into the future—to be examined by scholars, to be reinterpreted by other artists, to be known beyond its time—is highly restricted.

Before considering scenarios about the archival life of the documentation of performance art, I want to pause and examine in greater depth the importance of documentation to the art historical sphere. As previously mentioned, documentation allows a work of art to fit into the operations of art history. But more specifically, as a discipline based on the ability to make and disseminate reproductions, art history relies on documentation to form its canons. As Michael Camille has stated, “canons are created not so much out of a series of worthy objects as out of the possibilities of their reproduction.”[11] And while the use of canons in art history remains a subject of debate, I find myself aligned with literary scholar Matthew Wilkens, who writes, “If we need to read books in order to extract information from them and if we need to have read things in common in order to talk about them, we’re going to spend most of our time dealing with a relatively small set of texts.”[12] Substituting “works of art” for “books,” it remains that we need to have viewed or experienced the same works in order to share a dialogue about them, and it is the reproduction of a limited pool of works that allows us to do so. This is not to say that the works within this pool are necessarily the “best” or most worthy of study, or that they will remain the same over time; certainly, canons are instruments of exclusion and control, and notions of quality are highly subjective and changing, if not entirely arbitrary. Instead, I wish to acknowledge the limitations of human ability when it comes to viewing, learning about, and discussing works of art, especially in a time of unprecedented cultural documentation and dissemination.

It is now, when the production of documentation requires little more than removing one’s mobile device from one’s pocket, that the stakes surrounding documentation and how it is managed are high. It matters if an action-based work is documented or not, and it matters even more how that documentation is handled. If artists wish to avoid documentation, or do not take at least a semi-active interest in the afterlife of that documentation, they do so with the knowledge that they are limiting their audiences and essentially condemning themselves to Walsh’s art historical limbo. Indeed, for artists who do not wish to have their performances documented, but still wish to participate in future dialogues about them, there seems little choice but to sacrifice their moral rights to the institutions of art history, and to succumb to its systemization and rationalities in order to avoid historical obscurity.

For a brief moment, the Internet and its attendant digital technologies appeared to offer an alternative to this bleak scenario: digital recording devices were becoming prevalent, the price of digital storage space was decreasing, and the possibility of dissemination through affordable self-administered means (a web page, an artist-run digital archival project, etc.) was becoming a reality. The ease with which an artist could bypass cultural middlemen was increasing as curators were no longer required to deem a work worthy of publication. Additionally, immediate online dissemination was going to allow artists to sidestep the traditional time lapses associated with the writing of history, where we act as though we can get some “objective perspective” through the passage of time. The possibility of remaining at least somewhat oppositional to existing institutions seemed within reach, and an increasingly democratic artistic sphere was certainly a possibility.

This vision, however, has not been fully realized, if it has been realized at all. While there are multiple reasons for this (partial) failure, I think one of the most important is the availability of recording technologies, and the ease with which recordings can be disseminated. In other words, the very same reason why this vision of a democratic artistic sphere could exist in the first place is the same reason why it has failed. Rather than making the Internet a level playing field, the existence of copious amounts of content has resulted in the Internet “present[ing] itself as a huge garbage can in which everything disappears, never getting the degree of public attention one hopes to achieve.”[13] In turn, rather than being dismantled, the canons that provide order and structure in the non-digital environment are simply reinforced as people repost and re-research the same digitized works already publicized by curators, dealers, authors, and other players. The ability for something to “go viral,” crossed with the human unwillingness to sift through millions of search results personalized by Google’s algorithms, seems to render moot any minor gains towards broader inclusivity in art history brought about by digitization. If anything, the possibilities of digital technologies reproduce the same processes of inclusion and exclusion that exist within the non-digital environment.

Given this situation, it is worth considering these processes in greater detail, both for the artists who wish to participate in documentation-driven art historical dialogues, and for those who wish to opt-out. Opting-in—or rather, proposing one’s candidacy for a canon—requires the same negotiation of existing structures as in the non-digital world. An artist must be able to “sell” his or her work, whether to a dealer who would buy (or more likely consign) the physical embodiment of work (i.e., its documentation), or to a curator, who would buy into the idea of the work, and perhaps accept its donation into the permanent collection. Both paths require reproducible documentation for critical reviews and monetary appraisals, as well as artist statements and other supporting material for interpretative purposes. For artists who are media-savvy, concerted efforts to increase the visibility of their digital presence could improve their chances of successfully negotiating these institutions. But even the translation of a hard copy of a portfolio to a website is not particularly different from the days when portfolios existed as non-digital photographs or as works of art that were paraded in front of curators. The technology may have changed, but the basic processes have not.

In contrast, opting-out of current dialogues either requires not documenting a performance at all, and thus throwing into question the existence of the work, or attempting to take refuge in the vast anonymity of the Internet. This latter strategy is based on hope more than anything else: adding documentation to a non-institutional website, an artist can hope that the work will be “discovered” by a potential audience that exists outside of the major institutions of art history. The potential future life of the work is left up to chance, and ultimately this is opting-out through obscurity, especially given that personal websites (and even those of larger organizations) can disappear at any moment, particularly if they have no plans for future maintenance in place.

There are, however, some advantages to this hope-based technique; it is the artist, rather than a curator or dealer, who controls what is represented, and how it is represented.[14] Being able to feature more than a single image may prevent a particular action-based work from being reduced to a single, iconic image; the complexities of live events can be suggested in a space where the artist controls the number of images or videos available and how they are described.[15] At the same time, having a personalized web presence—a website entirely run by and about a specific artist—means that someone who is seeking that artist is likely to find his or her site before finding a profile on an institutional site or a work within an institutional database. Of course, the person seeking information might be an art historian employed by a museum or gallery, and finding such information might lead to future acquisitions, meaning that this strategy of avoidance has had an effect entirely opposite of what was intended, and indeed, one that is closer to the strategies needing to be employed by artists wishing to opt-in. And so, in spite of the advantages, strategies for opting-out end up being weak and counter-intuitive ways to pursue oppositionality. They are ultimately no different from wishing to burn one’s studio contents, or to donate one’s papers to a non-digital archive in the hope that a curious researcher will one day come across them.

Digitization, in spite of its promise, seems to offer no ways to meaningfully go beyond the processes currently in place. And this situation may be worse than it seems: by replicating current mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion within an environment of abundance, not only are the existent processes reinforced, there is simultaneously generated the appearance of comprehensiveness and objectivity through sheer volume alone. If “everything” has been recorded and made available online, then surely future scholars will be able to pick and choose “the best” evidence to support an argument; no longer will scholars have to make do with historical residue that has been shaped by accident more than anything else. This is of course not the case: not everything has been documented, not everything is online, and quantity and accessibility are not substitutes for deliberate and conscientious efforts to examine historical evidence from multiple angles and to deliberately search for what has been left out and to question why it has been excluded.

The illusion of comprehensive historical coverage is far-reaching, to the extent that material that is born digital and quickly uploaded has the potential to overshadow its analogue ancestors through its twinned advantages of volume and ubiquity. Immediately available, and apparently providing more comprehensive coverage, documentation created in the present can obscure the documentation of performance works created in the past. In the event that analogue records of performance art from the pre-digital age exist in the first place, they may appear inadequate in contrast to those being created today, or, even if the documentation is comprehensive, if it has not been digitized—or is in a lengthy institutional queue for digitization—its chances of being used as research material are substantially lowered as more readily available digital material takes its place. Even when hard copy material is available for study, it is limited to researchers who can travel to view it, and further restricted by whatever regulations the owner—whether an artist or an institution—may have in place. As such, the will to explore against the grain—the will to explore beyond plentiful digital documentation—is eroded via practical limitations.

Combined, these conditions lead to the situation that Amelia Jones describes in her article, “Unpredictable Temporalities: The Body and Performance in (Art) History.” Here, she argues that Nicolas Bourriaud’s promotion of relational aesthetics is a good example of “the tendency to simplify the past by disavowing the potential of performative work to continue resonating through interpretative acts in the future.”[16] In other words, action-based works from the past are being either deliberately or inadvertently ignored or downplayed in a quest to claim newness and innovation for particular practices, regardless of their clear historical precedents.

I worry this situation will only grow worse as the volume of documentation created today outstrips the pace at which existent non-digital documentation can be formatted electronically. This worry is complicated—or perhaps tempered—by the knowledge that digital formats have a limited lifespan, meaning that there exists the potential for hard copy documentation to outlive its digital successors, even though accessibility will remain a concern. But whatever the case, as of today, it appears that the tide of digital documentation will be influencing our current and future interpretations of performance art. It is likely that digital material that will be available to future scholars, and its quantity and accessibility will shape the histories they write.

I have sketched a depressing scenario: vast waves of undifferentiated digital content are threatening to overshadow the documentation of the past while simultaneously being susceptible to instantaneous deletion. Volume is creating the illusion of objectivity, while the human inability to manage information overload is actually leading to the reproduction of the traditional processes of art history in the electronic sphere; canons are not being shattered, but rather reinforced. Meanwhile, artists who create action-based works—and really, all artists producing work in any medium—have two potentially unpalatable choices: become part of the system, or risk obscurity.

But in spite of this apparently pessimistic stance, I remain hopeful, believing that there are steps that can be taken to modify the current situation. Perhaps the most important step is to recognize and acknowledge the current situation, and to understand that technology is not a panacea. For all of the promise that it holds, it remains that the Internet is not a democracy. It is not a utopia; it is not a neutral and magical system for recording all things that have ever happened, although it may give that impression. Instead, it is a tool, and subject to the same limitations as other tools: it may work well for one job, but not for another. It may break or stop working how we think it should, or it might need to be supplemented with other tools. Recognizing these characteristics puts artists and researchers in a better position to study the processes of art history, and how these processes shape its content, as opposed to looking just at the content itself. Asking what is included, what is excluded and why reminds us that practices of documentation, and the concomitant practices of archiving, whether done by an institution or an individual, are certainly not objective.

Posing these questions helps us navigate copious amounts of documentation that renders historical exclusions less obvious through volume. But this is not a task that needs to be undertaken alone: online archives, and especially those belonging to institutions, should disclose their archival policies and acknowledge authorship. The processes through which something is added to a collection needs to be transparent, and the people involved with these processes need to be named. Archives should not be anonymous places, where documentation simply appears and is rendered suitable for inclusion in future historical narratives by mystical institutional processes. In other words, without knowing about the processes through which it arrived, without knowing about the particular ideological and cultural values that support an institution, the appearance of some piece of documentation in an online archive is not enough to render it authoritative. The people who decide to accept a donation of material or make a purchase should be identified, and their reasons for doing so should be made clear. Equally important is the disclosure of future plans: how much material is currently digital, and how much will be digitized in the future?

It is also vital that all artists, not just those working in performance, consider the future lives (the archival lives) of the works they produce. Do they want them to exist in the future? If so, who will care for them? Does an artist wish to maintain a semblance of control over them by maintaining a personal website (one complete with instructions for what to do once the artist dies), or does he or she want to leave documentation to a museum or gallery, hoping that it will be better able to maintain the documentation over time, provided the gallery wishes to accept the work in the first place?

Admittedly, acknowledging the limitations of the Internet, recognizing the constructed nature of all archives, and institutional archives in particular, and creating a “living will” to address the afterlife of documentation will not combat the exponential increases in cultural production that have been enabled by technological developments. Nor will they stop the replication of existing art historical practices within the digital realm. But they will give us the means to critically approach a shifting archival situation, and the means to shape our future histories through the management of our digital present.

Some of the ideas in this essay were discussed with the participants of the Critical Theory Book Club held in John Snow House, Calgary, on October 7, 2013. I am grateful to Johanna Householder, Tomas Jonsson, and Andrea Williamson for organizing the event, and to the participants for the thoughtful discussion.

*Johanna Plant is a PhD candidate in Art History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. She holds a BA in Art History from the University of Calgary, and an MA in the same subject from University College London (UK). Her current academic research investigates the role of artist-run centre archives in shaping Canadian art history. Prior to embarking on her latest round of studies, Plant worked in a variety of cultural institutions as an art technician, collections manager, and curator.


[1] “Form S-1, Registration Statement for Facebook, Inc.” Accessed October 4, 2013, http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1326801/000119312512034517/d287954ds1.htm, 74.

[2] Lev Manovich, “How to Compare One Million Images?” in Understanding Digital Humanities, ed. David M. Berry (Houndsmills, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 250.

[3] “Online archives” is a term than can have multiple meanings, and indeed, the entire Internet could be considered an archive. However, for the purposes of this discussion, “online archive” refers specifically to publicly accessible electronic databases and related web projects provided by organizations or institutions with a mandate related to the arts, or to websites or social media presences created by artists or other individuals with the purpose of creating current and future records of that artist’s activities.

[4] While technology may not be able to realize an artist’s vision for a project’s documentation to its fullest extent (and may in turn lead an artist to want to avoid documentation entirely), it should be kept in mind that audio-visual documentation can be enhanced (or even supplanted) by written descriptions and personal narratives. Written accounts can add richness to the representation by recording the highly subjective and intangible aspects of a performance, such as an audience member’s feelings about the event. See Anne Marsh, “Performance Art and its Documentation: A Photo/Video Essay,” About Performance 8 (2008), for a discussion of the role of narrative in supplementing still images of a performance, especially 18ff.

[5] Sarah Jones, Daisy Abbott, and Seamus Ross, “Redefining the performing arts archive.” Archival Science 9, nos. 3-5 (December 2009): 166.

[6] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003), 19.

[7] Fiona Cameron and Helena Robinson, “Digital Knowledgescapes: Cultural, Theoretical, Practical, and Usage Issues Facing Museum Collection Databases in a Digital Epoch,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, eds. Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010), 168.

[8] As Heike Roms points out in “Archiving Legacies: Who Cares for Performance Remains?” in Performing Archives/ Archives of Performance, eds. Gunhild Borggreen and Rune Gade (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013), 35-36, the articulation of this sentiment is often attributed to Peggy Phelan in her 1993 book, Unmarked. Questions around the ability of performance art to avoid institutionalization have been asked and considered by many artists, although Phelan’s investigation of the issue is perhaps one of the best known.

[9] Raymond Williams, Culture (Glasgow: Fontana Paperbacks, 1981), 70.

[10] Peter Walsh, “Rise and Fall of the Post-Photographic Museum: Technology and the Transformation of Art,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage (see note 7), 30.

[11] Michael Camille, “Prophets, Canons, and Promising Monsters,” Art Bulletin 78, no. 2 (June 1996): 198.

[12] Matthew Wilkens, “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), open access edition accessed October 4, 2013, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/17b.

[13] Boris Groys, “Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive,” e-flux journal 45 (May 2013): 1, accessed October 5, 2013 at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-workers-between-utopia-and-the-archive/

[14] It should be noted that once online, whether on a dealer’s website, an institutional website, or even the artist’s own site, the artist must relinquish the idea that he or she has complete control over the digitized material. Even as copyright legislation is running to catch up with digital realities, effectively preventing an image on the Internet from being reproduced and modified seems unlikely.

[15] Amelia Jones, “Unpredictable Temporalities: The Body and Performance in (Art) History,” in Performing Archives (see note 8), 54.

[16] Ibid., 62.