Keeping Live Works Alive

POBA’s mission is to preserve art works created by exceptional deceased 20th and 21st century artists, and to capture original performances and re-creations of their works for the benefit of POBA visitors. Some POBA artists – for example, Clark Tippet – often had their performances captured on video and film for us to enjoy forever. Yet, what does this say about the power of live performances — those moments where the vibrant, unique, and irreproducible are given to us as a moment in time, never to be re-experienced? [How] do we preserve these for the future?

Kenneth Schlesinger, an advisor to POBA, reflects on this question:

What is left of a live performance when it’s over? 

The short answer: we have the script, choreography, score or text, and of course, the production notes from the director and stage manager, scenic and costume designs, lighting plots, production photos, press files, critical reviews. Admittedly – this is meager representation of a three-dimensional, living and breathing work existing in real time.  For better or worse, many artists create work without the foresight or expectation that it will ever be seen again. Needless to say, this behavior of creating work in the moment ultimately challenges and frustrates the work of librarians and archivists trying to document it.

While some believe that videotaping a performance is ultimately the best record of it, this can only, at best, function as a surrogate representation: an image of Plato’s Cave, but not the Cave itself. Choreographers extensively employ video to document rehearsals, dance segments, and the actual performance itself. However, this is still a two-dimensional, frequently black-and-white medium to capture the corporeal: work made in time and space by sentient, sweating human beings.

Nevertheless, we’ve recently been treated to high quality, commercial renditions of HD operas and productions from the UK’s National Theatre, artistic products in themselves, but separate entities from their originals. Still, we must be grateful for New York Public Library’s Theater on Film and Tape for their straight documentations of live theatre and dance productions, many of which would have been lost to history. This treasure trove gives us the opportunity to see Charles Ludlam in his extraordinary Irma Vep, while we can regret never seeing Laurette Taylor in her legendary performance in The Glass Menagerie.

Ironically, all of those stockpiled dance documentation by Umatic and VHS tapes from the 1970s and 1980s become the preservation nightmare of today’s archivists. When these formats were first introduced, media artists immediately adopted and repurposed them for their own expression. They weren’t thinking about format obsolescence, proprietary software, migration, refreshing, compression, or geographic separation of masters.

A number of museums have created emulation exhibits, where original media works are recreated using current technologies. I’ve never quite understood all the time and effort involved in this exercise since artists evolve, their conception and execution of previous works change, and many continue to tinker with their repertory as they move forward. What is impressive is when installations are recreated and artists are insistent on using the original – if outmoded – technologies. Artists want to see and hear the slide projectors, the sound of film projectors running and hitting splices that is part of the texture and atmosphere of the piece.

It’s disturbing when a number of our major museums [who should know better] transfer artists’ original films to videotape to facilitate screening and re-edit artists’ works without the artist’s oversight or approval. The artist must be front and center in any restaging of her work. Increasingly, media artists are creating specific instructions and extensive documentation – recording space dimensions, lighting, signage – to assist institutions in appropriate, respectful, and ethical exhibition practices.

For these reasons, artists must be mindful of their legacies. Part of the appeal of the performing arts is its quintessential ephemerality – performances exist in a particular time and place with the participation and observation of a specific group of spectators. Organizations such as POBA and Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP) can partner with practitioners to demonstrate and reinforce best practices such as instituting archival techniques as works are created. Artists should be empowered to follow basic preservation guidelines in addressing their own work.

Lastly, artists should be able to make the determination whether they want their work to survive – or if certain pieces can have a shelf life to ultimately self-destruct. This accords with the right to be forgotten – which often proves a challenge for survivors. What would have happened if Kafka’s heirs had followed his explicit instructions to burn all his writings?


Kenneth Schlesinger, an advisor to POBA, is Chief Librarian of Lehman College, past President of Theatre Library Association, and President of Independent Media Arts Preservation. He is editing a collection of essays for Performing Arts Resources, State of the Profession: Performing Arts Librarianship in the 21st Century.