This Is Film! Film Heritage in Practice: Film or Performance?

Presentations and panel discussion by Sanne van Rijswijk, Nicholas Carbone and Tulta Behm.
Summary and critical reflection by Tulta Behm.

Image: EYE College - This is Film! Film Heritage in Practice

Image: Guy Sherwin. Source: EYE College – This is Film! Film Heritage in Practice

On Friday 26 February 2016, a panel of graduate students on the ‘This Is Film! Film Heritage in Practice’ course at the University of Amsterdam took part in a discussion of “Film or Performance.” The discussion followed two prior sessions the previous week: a contextualised screening at EYE Film Institute, and a discussion in class, of Guy Sherwin‘s work on 16mm film – works that scrutinise the material basis of film in their production and performative aspect.

Presenting Sherwin’s work were Anna Abrahams, Programmer EYE on Art, and Simona Monizza, Curator Experimental Film Collection, EYE, along with EYE’s Chief Curator, Giovanna Fossati, who leads the This Is Film! course. Taking part in the subsequent panel discussion on ‘Film or Performance’ were Nicholas Carbone, Sanne van Rijswijk, and myself. The scope of our presentations and discussion were informed by the issues raised in the previous sessions, to do with performance and preservation of experimental, expanded, medium-specific artists’ moving image works.

Our discussion of “Film or Performance” split the topic into two broadly chronological concerns (in terms of the lifespan of film works); ‘film as a performance,’ and ‘preservation of a performance.’ My contribution to the discussion was inspired partly by questions arising from the Sherwin event at EYE which I felt were incompletely addressed at the time – primarily, how to preserve that element of liveness that characterises expanded cinema (understood as materially, spatially and temporally complex performances that trouble the classically cinematic environment).1 I spoke last, on preserving film performances. Carbone’s background as a projectionist gives him a special interest in the performance of works on film, and he presented on this topic. Van Rijswijk, who has a background in film studies, provided an introduction to the issues raised, and moderated the discussion. Her contribution moved beyond film theory to situate the topic within the technological and institutional changes affecting film heritage in practice. Drawing from the 2014 London International Film Festival ‘Experimenta’ panel discussion on presenting and preserving experimental film in a post-medium condition,2 van Rijswijk identified the need for strategies of performance and preservation which address the challenges and changes within the film archive itself. As the relocation of EYE evidences, film archives are undergoing a transition within cultural heritage institutions that necessitates a reframing of their institutional possibilities, as well as recalling historical debates regarding access. Spatial changes (as at EYE) create extra-cinematic environments for film’s presentation, whilst the shift to digital projection and film’s possible obsolescence lead archivists and experimental filmmakers toward increasing hybridisation.3 Carbone noted these shifting presentation aspects, and related them likewise to archival changes, arguing that the expanded possibilities in performance take on meaning in how institutions present works: as conceptual or materially based. Making use of media theorist Vinzenz Hediger’s model drawn from music’s regulative concepts,4 which posits the film as threefold – original, work (or score) and performance – Carbone considered the presenting institution’s ability to take into account cinema’s dispositif in defining or interpreting a work. Drawing on Pip Laurenson’s work with time-based media artists at Tate, Carbone explored the variable or conversely over-determined identity of film, using the single-channel 35mm preservation of Harry Smith’s multi-projector 16mm performance ‘Mahagonny’ (1980 and 2002) as case study.5

With reference to Margaret Parsons’ work as head of film programs, U.S. National Gallery of Art,6 Carbone charted the path by which experimental films enter the archival establishment – in contrast to film’s identity outside the archive – introducing the idea of connecting performance with a work’s own history. In his presentation, Carbone questioned whether experimental films can fit within the context of established institutions. Both the museal associations and their increased accessibility via digital media and online inevitably leads to changes in the perception of artists’ works, and so the question of retaining a work’s identity can lead to restrictions being placed on screening settings. Discussing Bill Brand’s work as both film artist and archivist,7 Carbone asked, should artists and institutions limit themselves or allow for various authenticities, when either approach might lead to a theoretical “loss” of the original?

Issues regarding the retention of film’s specific identity bridge the conceptual gap between the original performance of an artist’s film and the question of its preservation for re-performance, which is where I picked up the thread. Existing models for preserving film as performance drawn from music, memory and installation art also formed the basis of my presentation, which considered the necessity to adapt these to film’s threefold temporality as an artistic object with a cultural history and a future life yet to be performed. Throughout my presentation, I asked questions8 of the literature and practice in this area – such as that defined in the Variable Media Questionnaire of the Guggenheim’s Variable Media Initiative [VMI],9 and in Hediger and Flueckiger’s approached to the material original and the concept of the work.10 Underscoring my analysis of film’s identity when preserved for performance was the question raised by Julia Noordegraaf (in her study of the representation of van Warmerdam’s work in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in 2011),11 as to what extent documentation records performance, or defines it. Noordegraaf borrows from dramaturgy to posit a conceptual lack of causal relationship between the archival film (as either score or material), and the present-day re-performance of it. Rather than insisting on the original as “lost,” this approach enables the reframing of performance as something which accretes meaning to film in memory, reshaping its cultural, historic, spatial and durational parameters with every event. Thinking through preserving liveness in memory in this way brings film as performance into the present moment and the embodied space of the audience.

In adapting models from theatre or music, preservationists such as Noordegraaf12 and Pip Laurenson at the Tate argue that time-based media art can, within parameters, be divorced of original carrier, technology and conditions of display.13 Yet, these conditions are not incidental to film as performance but constructed, responding to the material’s own vulnerability. The choice to continue to work with the apparatus of film is one made self-reflexively; an aspect of performance which was discussed following the panel’s presentations, focusing on film at “the intersection between a recording process and its projection,” in Flueckiger’s words.14 As Carbone and I argued in our respective contributions, performance relocates film in time and space, and Noordegraaf and Laurenson’s focus on an art work at the point of entering the institution highlights not only the performed work’s temporality, but its vulnerability to its environs. Our discussion was not planned sufficiently to go into detail on this point of film’s necessary self-reflexivity and conceptual vulnerability, and scholarship or practice readily conflates film with other variable, temporal media.

Across the presentations and in our discussion, we encountered a difficulty in grappling the changing object-status of film, which returned the discussion to the theoretical, authorial and hypothetical. This, we felt, was reflective of the status of film as performance in scholarship, as well as the changing status of institutions of the moving image, from repositories to exhibiting bodies. Nevertherless, these same debates are finding some expression in practice-based analyses such as those undertaken by VMI, Laurenson, Monizza, Hediger and Noordegraaf, to which we made reference. The panel did discuss both Sherwin’s medium-specificity and van Wermerdam’s ‘pragmatic’ hybridity, as key case studies exploring the parameters of performance in a literature that commonly focuses on already diverse media such as installation and video art.

Coupled with its materiality or hybridity, the temporal and spatial parameters that characterise film performance also brought the panel to a discussion of whether a performance of film can exist without film as a text. Where film is defined by its dispositif, i.e. in the apparatus of projection – light, sound, time and space – the apparatus itself might fulfil the function of text, as in the iterative performance Hair in the Gate by James Holcombe,15 wherein the elements of projection enable the performance to be replicable, rather than any score. Within the concepts of variable media preservation, as much as within more traditional film preservation, there is always a source for re-staging the work, as this can be any form of recording or recollection that defines a work’s parameters and enables re-performance as conceptual piece. Our discussion also highlighted this in the references made to Noordegraaf’s concept of an “ecosystem” of preservation stakeholders; individuals and sources centred on the promotion, recording and inscribing of a film’s performance into memory.

Yet despite its asserted non-causal relationship with a material object, a performance of film’s medium specificity can only gain in meaning if audiences have access to and an awareness of the (conceptual) text. The contextualisation and active retention strategies that this would require have implications on the fluidity of performance, and thus we are left once again questioning how to safeguard access and enable performances of film to function as both film history and embodied critique. Drawing the discussion to a close was a consideration of the implications of artistic intention regarding medium-specificity, contextualisation and access via digital technologies. Whilst there was broad agreement regarding the right of the artist to dictate forms of access in order to uphold a nominal integrity in performance, the importance of vesting authority in intentionality, and the need for tailored contextualisation across all types of film preservation and re-performance, these conclusions could be criticised for failing to take into account the earlier claims made towards fluidity, ephemerality, theatricality and lack of score – thereby returning preservation to the fixed notion of an original and author. Can there be productive interplay between the ‘present’ moment of (re-)making, the intention of performance, and the ‘fixed’ time of preservation? And as digital technologies change the possibilities of recording and projecting a work, how should an archive relate to film’s different layers of time?

Like Flueckiger, Timothy Murray has also explored the future of film’s temporality in the digital era, and like Noordegraaf, he uses theatre as a model by which to do so. In Digital Baroque, he draws from Deleuze in positing “temporality itself as the fundamental framework for any thought of cinema.”16 By reference to film as both text, memory and virtuality, Murray considers that “the event within which we find ourselves, is itself something of the not yet and the no longer.”17 Constructed in this way, cinematic time is also reflexive of the task of preserving performance. Returning to Noordegraaf’s model of preserving within memory, the film performance passes into the personal and provisional spaces of the visitor’s body, which both disrupts and completes it. This notion can be concretised in the performed works of artists such as Anthony McCall’s well-known Line Describing a Cone and Lis Rhodes’ Light Music,18 yet suggests a contradictory indifference to the archival or medium-specific object of film, one which is paralleled by digital projection. Here, we enter into a strange ontological and phenomenological overlap between expanded cinema and digital media. In taking account of the temporality and materiality of the viewer, in audiences which are multiple and always different, how might we practice preservation informed by the presence of the audience, across iterative works?

With the shift from time to space that characterises expanded cinema, performance becomes imbricated with the lives of its audiences, troubling notions of a spatial or temporal whole. And in its preservation for re-performance, film is by necessity always remade. Reflecting this intrinsic duplicability, and in order to ensure the ongoing integrity of performance-based films, strategies for preservation in variance define the parameters of re-performance in an attempt to cohere the spatial whole of filmic practice, since its temporal, textual and material elements become indeterminate. 

– Tulta Behm


1For an exploration of expanded cinema in a gallery environment, see Clark, George. “How ‘expanded cinema’ rethinks the film screening.” Tate. 21 February 2014. <; accessed 29 February 2016.

2The Experimenta Archive Panel: Post-Medium Artists’ Moving Image. Organised by LUX for the BFI London International Film Festival [LIFF] Experimenta strand. 16 October 2014. <; Accessed 29 February 2016.

3Simona Monizza is forthright about the pragmatic impact of these changes on preservation and representation practice in “Stretching the Borders. Preserving the Installations of Marijke van Warmerdam.” Work/s in Progress. Digital Film Restoration Within Archives. Kerstin Parth, Oliver Hanley and Thomas Ballhausen (eds.). Vienna: Synema, 2013, 68-79.
For an analysis of strategies for preserving van Warmerdam’s work, and how these intersect with the variable nature of expanded cinema, see Julia Noordegraaf’s 2013 NeCCAR [Network for Conservation of Contemporary Art Research] conference contribution to Performing Documentation in the Conservation of Contemporary Art: Lisbon, “Documenting the Analogue Past in Marijke van Warmerdam’s Film Installations.” 20-21 June 2013. Published by UvA-DARE <; Accessed online 29 February 2016.

4Hediger, Vinzenz. “Original, Work, Performance: Film Theory as Archive Theory.” Quel che brucia (non) ritorna – What Burns (Never) Returns: Lost and Found Films. Giulio Bursi and Simone Venturini (eds.). Udine: Campanotto Editore, 2011, 44-56.

5Giovanna Fossati also uses the restoration as one of her case studies for preservation frameworks (4.3, ‘Film as Art: Convergence/Divergence and Simulation’) in From Grain to Pixel: The Archival Life of Film in Transition. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011. 225-231.

6Specifically, her contribution to Devin and Marsha Orgeron’s “Experimental / Avant-Garde Moving Images and the Archive: A Virtual Roundtable,” entitled “Still Separate … but Equal?” The Moving Image. 12:1 (Spring 2012). 87-104, pp. 89-91.

7Brand, Bill. “Artist as Archivist in the Digital Transition;” a contribution to the Oregon’s virtual roundtable, ibid. 92-95.

8How do you preserve a performance for representation?
How much is documentation a necessary part of representation?
To what extent does documentation define, limit or control the identity of the film as performed?
In preserving film as performance, is there loss or a necessary return to a conceptual original?

9Strategies employed by VMI: “the Initiative aims to define works according to medium-independent ‘behaviours’ (Installed, Performed, Interactive, Reproduced, Duplicated, Encoded, Networked) and, with the approval of the artists, to design preservation strategies appropriate to each artwork.” 9.
Sharp, Rebecca. “The Ephemeral Will Endure: The Future of Conceptual Art and Digital Preservation. An Interview with Jon Ippolito, Co-Ordinator of the Variable Media Initiative at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, August 2002.” DigiCult Info. 2:1 (October 2002). 9-11.

10For a strategy towards preserving film as performance following models laid down in music, see Hediger, Vinzenz. “Original, Work, Performance: Film Theory as Archive Theory.” ibid. For analysis of the material properties of film as performed in a digital context, see Flueckiger, Barbara. “Material properties of historical film in the digital age.” NECSUS. European Journal of Media Studies (Autumn 2012) <; Accessed 29 February 2016.

11Noordegraaf, Julia. “Documenting the Analogue Past in Marijke van Warmerdam’s Film Installations.” ibid, 120.

12“In the case of Van Warmerdam, the analogy with the performing arts is useful to understand the impact of digitization on the meaning and appearance of her film installations. In particular, the notion of “dramaturgy” can help to conceptualize the composition of Van Warmerdam’s installations as the result of a collaborative practice of human and non-human (technical) actors, and to distinguish between those elements that belong to the works’ core, and those that may be subject to change.” Noordegraaf, ibid. 119.

13Laurenson, ; “For the majority of traditional art objects, minimising change to the physical work means minimising loss, where loss is understood as compromising the (physical) integrity of a unique object. Where this conception of conservation is most contested is in ethnographic and contemporary art conservation.” 2, and, “The material object is the root of an aesthetic experience and the conservator is charged with being true to the ‘original’ work. As I have previously suggested, this conceptual framework does not sit well with time-based media installations which are in part, both temporal and ephemeral.” 4. In “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations.” Tate Papers.6 (Autumn 2006). <; Accessed 29 February 2016.

14Flueckiger, Barbara. ibid.

15Holcombe’s performance billed for Supernormal Festival 2014; <; Accessed 2 March 2016.

16Murray, Timothy. Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 239.

17Murray, ibid. 240.

18Rhodes’ 1975 performance work, “an innovative work presented originally as a performance that experiments with celluloid and sound to push the formal, spatial and performative boundaries of cinema. An iconic work of expanded cinema, it creates a more central and participatory role for the viewer within a dynamic, immersive environment.” Tate. <; Accessed 2 March 2016.


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