Draft for A Performance Museum: A Guided Tour

Virginie Bobin

Hi Everyone!

Welcome to the Draft for a Performance Museum. Thank you so much for joining me in this tour that addresses the recent trends in the conflicted relationships between Performance and the Museum. Here, we’ll get into questions such as, “How have museum practices, methodologies and stakes engaged with performance in recent years?”, “How do museums attempt to incorporate performance?”, “How do performance artists ‘hijack’ these attempts, or propose new models?”, and “Is a love affair between Performance and the Museum so impossible?”

During the tour, you will encounter several projects, both by museums and by artists themselves, addressing such issues as collecting, displaying or even restoring performance. As you will notice, our focus is a mainly Eurocentric one, as Europe (and perhaps the United States) is a fertile terrain for an obsessing desire to “museumize” performance—or, on the other hand, to perform the museum (and sometimes, when we’re lucky, even both at once!). Here, performance art meets the performing arts in a fructuous dialogue, as dance has long escaped the walls of the theater to embark on exploring the territory of the museum, often rethinking the latter’s practices along the way. The results can be refreshing. This intermingling has been much debated in recent years and our museum pays a tribute to such publications as “Curating Performing Arts”, Frakcija magazine #55 in 2010 or such events as Performative Turns. On Relations Between Theatre, Dance and Visual Arts, the meetings curated by Ana Janevski and Joanna Warsza at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in 2011, among many others.

A vast array of possible times shall unfold through the spaces we will cross, hopefully leading us to redefine our apprehension of duration, our habits of exhibition consumption, and our relationship to memory in the museum context. In these rooms, immateriality challenges immortality, opening up new perspectives on the relevance of the museum model for today’s art practices.

But let’s not wait any longer at the doors of this draft for a performance museum. Do follow me inside! 


On the Ground Floor, the Main Hall is dedicated to Tino Sehgal, an ecumenical hero cherished by the worlds of both visual arts and dance. Indeed, by refusing any written contract and selling his performances only through an oral agreement between himself, a notary, and a collector or an institution, he managed to turn the act of acquiring a piece into an artistic gesture in itself, subverting the usual procedures of collecting and exhibiting, hereby engaging the responsibility of the museum far beyond the usual. The space is empty. You will see no description, no name, and no date. Only, sometimes, people kissing on the floor… Oh, by the way, taking pictures in this room is forbidden!

To your left, The Fossil Room is dedicated to the groundbreaking role of certain major museums’s performance departments in the mummification of performance. Here you will find respectfully-hung, large-scale retrospectives crammed with documentation, often offering the viewer a touch of participation, and accompanied by a two-day symposium on the issue of collecting performance. Their most striking innovation is perhaps the expansion of the notion of repetition: they turn a singular event into a ready-made, to be experienced again and again during opening hours for the whole duration of the show, thus reframing fifty years of performance reception theory. If Amelia Jones once stated that one “didn’t have to be there” to experience the agency of the performer’s body; it is its presence itself that is now commodified and mechanically reproduced in the flesh, in the accumulated time of display. Here, yes, you can take pictures!

The Catharsis Room is dedicated to the re-display of exhibitions that both shook and shocked some venerated institutions. Currently on view is a reconstruction of Paul McCarthy’s Head Shop/Shop Head. Works 19662006, originally installed in SMAK, Ghent, in 2008. There, the artist staged an impossible retrospective of his process-oriented oeuvre, notably activating large-scale installations with scattering performances that were filmed and then projected within the same installations; the status of each work being constantly redefined by the discovery of the next. Overwhelmed with sounds, objects and images infecting each other throughout the rooms, the visitor was left with the impression of wandering a former battlefield while not being spared any details of the massacre that had happened before the opening. McCarthy was one of the first performance artists to abandon live happenings in the 1980s for performances staged for video only—thus turning the commodification of documentation into an actual part of his practice. He produced a stunning performance of the museum itself, hijacking and revealing its mechanisms of desire and death into a burlesque mise-en-abyme. Watch your feet, Sir, there is ketchup all over the floor behind you!

By the way, museums will not wait very long before taking their revenge and playfully co-opting / annihilating these attempts at destruction: for more on this, see Trashing Tate Modern, organized by Performance Matters, last autumn, in London!

Up next is the Relics Room, meant to exhibit props of past performances as if they were sculptural works, with an autonomous formal and ontological value: independent from the event for which they were produced, yet loaded with its memory. The idea came from Ne pas jouer avec des choses mortes (“Don’t play with dead things”, a reversal of a quote by the late Mike Kelley), an exhibition curated by Marie de Brugerolle and Eric Mangion at Villa Arson, Nice, in 2008, showcasing works by Guy de Cointet, John Bock, and Dora García, among others. Take this complex structure used by John Bock as the subject and support of a lecture-performance, for example, or this seesaw on which Emmanuelle Bentz sat swinging whilst telling poetry. What do they gain or lose when presented in the aftermath of the performance? Or when confronted by more ambiguous objects (as regards the dualistic narrative of the exhibition that places the objects in a “during” or an “after” the performance) such as Franz West’s “Paßstück”, or these wonderful, enigmatic objects that were as much sculptures as they were props or coded narrative elements in Guy de Cointet’s performances? Contemplating these syncretic objects through a renewed point of view, one can recall their former activation whilst reconsidering the practice of their author through a new vocabulary of forms and space.

On the opposite side, the Practicable Room gathers pieces that were recently shown in Move: Choreographing You (Hayward Gallery, London 2010, Haus der Kunst, Munich and K20, Düsseldorf 2011), an exhibition which, I quote “invited the audience to become a participant—or even a dancer—in installations and sculptures by internationally renowned visual artists and choreographers”, among whom were William Forsythe, Robert Morris and Franz Erhard Walther. (Pause)

Yes, you can enter this sculpture by Lygia Clark, but please, take your shoes off… Here the visitor is led to experience (copies of) works that were conceived by choreographers to challenge the body of the dancer, as well as (copies of) works conceived by artists to renew the perception of the viewer’s body in space and to cancel the autonomy of the artwork. Although you have most likely had the chance of “practicing” artworks in other museums before, here the succession of variable gestural qualities questions the potential transposition of past experiences into the body of the viewer through the intermediary of the objects. How does it impress you?

Moving on to the next part of the tour, the Auto-Collection room is dedicated to practices of performance that work on actualizing an already existing museum collection, whilst simultaneously enhancing it. On June 19, 2010, the Slovenian-based Via Negativa organized the Via Nova series in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb. Thirteen performances were staged in simultaneous groups of four in the permanent collection of the museum. They responded to its structure and its themes, and to the museum’s program to “initiate and show motions in presentation, communication and interpretation of the MSU art collection and at the same time point to essential characteristics of contemporary art—movement, change, inconstancy, and uncertainty”. The produced video documents were then exhibited as video installations and included in the museum’s collection, thus transgressing the autonomy of the (consenting) institution.

Behind this next door is the Scientific Department, run by Atelier Boronali; a restoration studio founded in 2007 by the performance artist Laurent Prexl and the contemporary art restorer Stéphanie Elarbi. Acknowledging the growing amount of performances acquired by museums, they are working on a methodology of conservation and restoration for performances, based on existing models from the visual arts field. Diverging from reenactment, their proposal appropriates, among others, the notion of lacunae: in painting, when a missing part is too big, a restorer shall not attempt to reinvent what is no longer visible, but to integrate the void into a reading of the work that takes its material history into account. With an underlying sense of humor, yet scientifically viable, their approach wittily questions the becoming of performances in museum collections.

Please check the program of our Theater, located just down these stairs to your left. Although performances are staged on an ongoing basis all over the museum space, we felt the need to frame others into the specific temporality and frontality of the theater. We like to consider it as an exhibition room with a different set of rules, and it is often included as a step in our temporary shows, providing a break in the linear consumption of the other rooms. It has served as an exhibition space for La Monnaie Vivante, a touring exhibition initiated by Pierre Bal-Blanc in 2006, and as a theater for Il Tempo del Postino, an opera curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno; two projects very different in scale and content yet which both reformulate the relationship between visual arts and theatricality—the latter wholeheartedly embracing the body’s dependence on the economy and the consumption of leisure that the first had problematized through its reference to Pierre Klossowski’s thought. It also hosts specific programs, such as the Performing Memory seminars; a project by the bo-ring curatorial collective dedicated to artists, choreographers or directors who base their practice upon preexisting documents that may be connected to the history of performance, the history of the arts, or to more or less recent history. Alternatively, the production of documentation may be inherent to their performance practice. So, the historical narrative that is produced by the museum is constantly reassessed from within.                                           

Let’s now take the stairs up to the second floor, where we’ll encounter alternative models conceived by artists or independent curators. Often time-based, process-oriented, and at times barely visible, the link between their performance practices and this very museum is a permeable one. Few objects will be on view on this floor… yet pay attention! There are movements and words to grasp between these walls, adding to an immaterial collection which (no pressure, eh?) you will also become the bearers of…

To your right, the Mise-en-Abyme Room hosts a branch of the Musée de la Danse, a complex, exciting project started in 2009 by the French choreographer Boris Charmatz in the Centre Chorégraphique National de Rennes et de Bretagne. The very act of renaming a “Centre Chorégraphique” (a type of public institution dedicated to producing and showing dance pieces in France) as a Musée de la Danse is quite radical. In spite of its universalizing name, the Musée de la Danse is acting as a laboratory to question how dance may be shared in other ways than the ephemeral moment of the show, and how the ongoing processes of research, production and discourse might work together to form the core of a “live museum”. So far, the Musée de la Danse has investigated the exhibition format through several projects, such as Brouillon (“Draft”); “a dancing museum” which gathers visual artworks that had been moved around by dancers during opening times; or Expo Zéro, an ongoing exhibition of gestures and stories embodied by dancers, artists or theoreticians who had been invited in residency by the museum for specific periods of time, which took on different shapes when it travelled with different guests, from Rennes to Singapore and even to New York... and now, here! While each project actualizes the idea and the form of the museum, a collection of experiences (expanded online in a digital version of the Musée) has begun to take shape.

Now, I will let you walk through the following empty rooms on your own… Three projects are on view, if I may say so, in this part of the museum that we call “The White Cube”. Indeed, what is exhibited here—or rather, staged? (I ask with a wink)—pays a tribute to the white cube as a metonymy for the museum, both glorifying and pervading it by enhancing its self-referentiality.

The Curator’s Room is dedicated to Mathieu Copeland’s A Choreographed Exhibition, first shown in the Kunsthalle St. Gallen and La Ferme du Buisson in 2008, for which he invited artists, dancers and choreographers to provide scores and instructions that are performed by three dancers on an ongoing basis during the museum’s opening hours. Here, it is not the spectator who revolves around works but the works that revolve around him or her, to borrow Copeland’s words. (Pause)… Why is it called “The Curator’s Room”? Because he himself chose the order in which each piece would be presented, adding his own score to the ones composed by the guest artists, producing his own arrangement, his own montage, and the narrative movement of the exhibition. It is a room where the curator produces a model which he or she may invite artists to slip into, and in doing so, appropriates the means of choreography to authorize a new approach of exhibition making…

Please take these headphones with you; for the Choreographer’s Room is only filled with music. Their volume can be adjusted by turning the dial on the right-hand side. Each space displays a soundtrack from Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On, which is activated when the visitor enters the space. This so-called museum adaptation was first installed in the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon during the Lyon Biennial in 2007, while the “original” danced version of The Show Must Go On was on view at the city’s opera house. Oh, you will certainly recognize the pop songs that compose this soundtrack. Will they trigger visual memories of the choreography? Or imagined ones? Will they drive you to dance in the exhibition rooms, or perhaps to populate them with fantasized gestures?

The Performative Room here on the other side of the hall also exhibits evocations, but they are called in by words instead of music, and their scope is infinite. This room hosts the weekly meetings of the Eco-Musée de l’Homme Moderne, an ambitious collection of stories conceived by Benjamin Seror, the French artist, which unfold every time its participants meet to discuss objects and practices of their choice. They thus work together to produce a collective memory of the works. A “methodological fiction”, the Eco-Musée borrows from experimental archeology and the pleasure of storytelling, and in so doing tackles both the myth of the Modern Man and the myth of the Museum at once, and not without a certain sense of tenderness.

What would a performance museum be without an Archive Room? Rather than exhibiting documents per se, however, ours displays projects that reflect on the very notion of the archive—as a collection of documents organized around certain aims—and its relationship to the practices of performance. As such, re.act.feminism is a growing “performing archive” dedicated to feminist, gender critical and queer strategies within performance. Gathered by Bettina Knaup and Beatrice Ellen Stammer, it has been exhibited here under one of its temporary forms, both activated and augmented by a set of new performances. But there is also space here for online databases such as the Anecdote Archive, a collection of videos of people interviewed by American curator Joseph Del Pesco telling about an event of their choice. These two complementary projects have driven the way the museum conceives of this room. Among the questions you’ll surely encounter here are: How does performance trigger alternative ways of conceiving the archive? And, How can this archive be used, reused, interpreted; basically, in a word, “performed”?

Two last things before ending the visit and letting you enjoy our souvenir shop. The museum’s education department is currently developing two programs for which you can sign up if you are interested: The School for Ignorant Schoolmasters is a weekly program of events that explore the ways of transmitting the history of performance art, and the performing arts, within the frame of the museum. The programs have been proposed by artists, curators, critics and theoreticians, but also students and interested individuals. The Hors-les-Murs program consists in a collection of performances acting “as museums”, and in turn tours other spaces. I will only quote one example in this regard: in 37 Years Too Late, Julia Kläring and Andrea Salzmann examine the legacy of Gina Pane’s radical, feminist performances through a multi-layered dialogue between the past and the present, and include images, gestures and voices that reactivate the agency of her work.

Indeed, the “performative” aspect of performances themselves is at the core of our draft for a perfor-mance museum. This is political gesture: we believe that, as institutions, museums have a significant role to play in society, and that the frictions operated by performance within the museum can help reshape this model and its relationship to representation. In so doing, we can produce empowering discrepancies. A recent example is the Van Abbemuseum’s acquisition of the Positions piece by Public Movement (2011), which required training the museum’s team to use the performance as a tool for the institution to take part in the public debate, for a period of seven years.1 Our museum does not intend to incorporate or homogenize performance. On the contrary, we believe that the institution ought to be constantly reassessed, rebooted, and performed in turn by various players: artists, researchers, the curatorial team, and you, the audience, as well. Thank you for taking part in this visit. Do come back: next time, the tour will be different yet again!

Note from the author: The images of empty spaces that punctuated our tour were gathered by Benjamin Seror, for a preparatory study of the Eco-musée de l’homme moderne. I am deeply grateful to him for letting me use them as projection rooms for this Draft for a Performance Museum. 

  • 1. This is a very interesting example of the use of a contract to clarify the relationship between performance and the museum. See Henry Lydiate and Daniel McClean, Performance Art and the Law: “Positions, 2011, by the Israeli artists’s group Public Movement, is the performance of a political choreography in ‘public’ space: members of an audience respond to pairs of political, cultural and social positions read to them out loud by members of Public Movement or its authorized ‘operators’. The audience then aligns itself spatially and physically with the consecutive positions read to them. Public Movement used a written contract to both define the rules for the work’s performance, and to transfer the exclusive right to perform it in the Netherlands to the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. In effect, the artists transferred the exclusive performance rights to the museum, which became the artists’s agent, who was authorized not only to enact the work according to specified rules, but also to update and change the work’s content to reflect future contexts of its performance.”