Paper for New Work Network Documentation Conference
This [a spiral bound artists pad] is currently my favourite piece of documentation. Good and True is our new touring theatre show, a strange sliding stupid investigation into the events of last night. These are the results of that investigation, what the performers write on stage through the course of the piece. Three pages are torn out, Kings Cross is written in very large letters. Scant evidence.
I used to take documentation too seriously. Not seriously enough to make a good job of it. Just seriously enough to get really upset that it was always such an inadequate substitute for the live experience. I've got a better perspective now. Documentation remains something I intend to make a plush job of but which always slips away in the frenzy of making the actual piece. There was a gesture at doing a three camera shoot for Good and True but it was hastily arranged and although the three camera operators had seen the show and been given basic instructions the main guy went off message and as a result the thing resembles a very wonky version of The Bill. I'm not too fussed about this, for reasons that will be come more clear later on.
The thing we all know is that documentation isn't it. For Stan's Cafe video has usually been the form of choice for documentation as it gives us sound and vision, but there's always that big live thing missing and some how the more centrally or subtly the piece draws on its live nature, the more it loses in the recording. Voodoo City used a notions of the magic of theatre and suspension of disbelief talk about faith and superstition and how people try to change their lives, having this on video seems daft. After years of frustration showing people videos and saying "it's better than this live" we started fiddling around making radio plays because they are their own document. Among these was So Bring Me Down, commissioned for NOW98's radio station. This was pleasing as it allowed us to recycle and reinterpret a strand of material from our stage show Ocean of Storms. I've long wanted to make versions of the theatre shows in other media pursueing the ideas in directions apt for their new context whilst still somehow keeping our identity as a theatre company.
So, for this conference I started to think about what documentation is and in my darkest moments I began to think it's live art trying to gain visual art chic or cultural status through lovely catalogues. I seem to remember it being more in vogue a few years ago, when maybe The Arts Council got keen on it, because documents somehow resemble product more materially than infected memories and reordered lives. I've come to think documentation is undertaken to cosset a sense of self-worth or worse, self-aggrandisement. Now if someone asks what you've been doing with your life you can point to a pile of stuff. It is self-aggrandisement because to record your work suggests someone else may actually want to spend some of their precious time trawling through your old stuff, diaries to be published when you are famous. I'm not bothered about spending too much time on documentation, I'll chuck stuff in a box now and ordering it will be a good hobby should I ever choose to retire. Claire MacDonald once said Impact were too busy partying to care too much about documentation. She is only now, fourteen years after the company split, working through her Impact stuff and turning it into a book. And when I think about this putative retirement I imagine it will be spent selecting the coolest photographs, the most beautiful text, enigmatic video and awesome sound from our varied works and turning them into whatever the contemporary version of a CDROM will be by then. I am going to misrepresent our work as far as humanly possible. Video is unforgiving, not only does it destroy your live edge but it also pitilessly records for posterity all the details of the work that you regarded as failings at the time but were never able to sort out for your satisfaction. Better make it unrepresentative for the better than, as is currently the case, the worse.
The apparent requirement for documentation is found to be particularly accute when dealing with promoters, curators, folk who'll give you the opportunities to get your work out there. We currently use documentation more for marketing than any other purpose. Some of this is for the end consumers (to give audiences their marketing name) but most acutely for the immediate consumers. Promoters are most interested in our documentation. "Can you send me a video?" being the dreaded request. Yes we can but you'll hate it.
Simple Maths was a difficult show live. An hour of people standing up, sitting down and swapping chairs. No text, no narrative, no dance, no mime, no video projections. The pleasure of the piece was the fact it sat back and invited you to explore it's choreography of scratches, twitches, looks and mood changes. The audience were asked to perform their own editing task in the watching. They were required to find their own journey through the mass of details and lack of plot. I say it was a difficult show live because it didn't do any work for you. If you were up for it it was great, people were absorbed, moved, overcome by the quantity of detail, finding philosophical and personal connections with the piece. If you weren't up for it was a nightmare, unrelenting tedium, a show in which nothing happens. Documentation was a clearly going to be a problem. A static shot wide enough to get everyone in would result in the detail and hence the show being utterly lost. The selection and editing of close ups in a more intimate version of the documentation video would take the editorial control out of the audience's hands and again lose the show. Our solution was to make a five minute version of the show for video in which images of the performers are layered, often three deep, in resonant combinations, time is looped in on itself. The result is not just a beautiful little video work but to our minds an excellent analogue for the show. But of course no one would book the piece on the strength of that tape because although closer in spirit to the full length video it is more conspicuously not the show than the full length version.
More successful was a piece of documentation made by Carlton television for It's Your Film. This piece is also nightmare to video as again the audience's position is embedded in the live experience. The lighting levels, and depths of fields are such that the human eye is far more effective than any sane kind of cameras at seeing what's going on. Carlton put a successful little package together, mixing images from the show with audience vox pops and an interview with me explaining how clever the show is. It's a mini documentary and if we had unlimited resources maybe we'd commission documentaries about all our shows.
For The Black Maze, a piece based on touch and claustrophobia as much as sight or sound, documentation is clearly problematic. Though we do have a Blair Witch kind of walk through recording, the audience comments book does as good a job as any in capturing the live experience.
In a way I like these forms of documentation because they continually highlight the fact that you are looking at the record not the art. You get a sense of the piece without ever making the mistake of judging it as if it were the piece. We're going to have another go at doing Good and True, possibly by chucking a bit more money at it. My one fear is that it lends itself to looking like a weird TV cop show but in getting the documentation more slick it may start being critiqued in that frame not it's own theatrical context.
I'm here because of The Carrier Frequency and what to my mind is one of the best arguments for documentation there is. The 80s festival in Birmingham last year gave us the opportunity to have a go at restaging this piece from 1984. This prospect was greeted with some incredulity but, having seen a documentation video, I knew it was possible. There was a static recording of the show made in 1986 at The Place in London. We just copied the video sound and action, move for move, with whatever mistakes and idiosyncrasies were recorded on that particular run through. Russell Hoban had the text, which saved us transcribing it and indulged us in its fantastic spelling. Fortunately Greame Miller was able to remaster the soundtrack. We spent five days learning it, four days forgetting their version and making it ours. It was straightforward.
Our project with The Carrier Frequency was to restage the thing to see what it was like, so we did it straight. A different, braver, possibly more interesting thing to do would be to have been to restage something that was under documented, work from the myth or photos, reviews or verbal testimony. This wouldn't be an exercise in theatre archeology, like building passion wagons or rebuilding The Globe, it would be a looser more imaginative process, more akin to remixing or recreation than revival. There are lots of discussions which could start here but this is a conference about documentation so lets leave them.
We sensed some nervousness that translating The Carrier Frequencey's grainy black and white video into a live performance would somehow destroy its myth. Impact's work dealt in myths and with the passing of time became themselves mythic. But the idea that performing the show would destroy the myth underestimates both the durability of the piece and the emasculating quality of video. It is a durable show and even I, great video cynic that I am, wasn't prepared for the gulf between the live and the recorded versions. I spoke to a series of people afterwards who said they'd never been able to watch the video through to the end who were blown away by the live show.
Now the two performances are well past and maybe we're a tiny addendum to the myth. All that's left are the stories, some sexy slides and a colour version of the video.
As the next generation of lecturers move into The Academy (as I'm learning to call it) a new demand for documentation has broken out. We are regularly sending out videos as raw material for the critical mill. As no one ever follows up their promise to forward copies of their research. It remains a little unclear what theories we are helping to prop up. As opportunities for presenting work continue to decline documentation may increasingly be called upon to substitute for our live presence. I feel like Canute but being in this situation makes me want not to make more, better documentation but to swing the other way, make myths around the live work and present other documents as art works in their own right.
That's kind of the end of my paper but I made a new, very personal, discovery last September. I bought a point or shoot camera for the first time. My new obsession is documenting the periphery of our art, us red eyed in bars around the world.
James Yarker 1.3.0