Performance, the document, and the digital: the case of Lynn Hershman Leeson's 'Robertas'

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Gabriella Giannachi

    University of Exeter

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Performance at Tate, an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project which run between 2014-6, set out to trace the history of performance at Tate from the 1960s to today by investigating practices of collection, display, documentation and exhibition in the museum. At the heart of the project was the desire to conduct a wider re-evaluation not only of the place of performance in the museum, but also of the specific role played by documentation, including digital documentation, as well as the documentation of digital works, within collections, archives and displays. Here, I explore what the introduction of the digital has meant in this particular field by conducting a close examination of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s
Roberta Breitmore (1972-8), in which the artist created a fictional persona and interpreted its role for a period of six years using surveillance technology to capture various moments in her life. I will also discuss her subsequent works
CyberRoberta (1995-8) and
Life to the Second Power (2007) in which the character of Roberta was re-invented across different media. Focussing on the different types of documentations that these works generated, including photos, drawings, a cartoon, a film, a second-life re-enactment, postcards, among others, I then establish a best practice framework towards their curation and preservation that will be applicable more broadly for digital art practice.

To establish the role played by documentation in this context, Performance at Tate aimed to move beyond existing debates on the ontology of the relationship between performance and documentation. These debates may be traced back to the 1970s when, writing on performance-based work, the art historian Douglas Crimp asserted that ‘you had to be there’, implying that performance needed the presence of the spectator to be activated and often required ‘that registration of presence as a means toward establishing meaning’ (1979: 77). This approach underpins the performance studies scholar Peggy Phelan’s well known assertion that ‘performance’s only life is in the present’ and that performance ‘cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations
of representations: once it does so it becomes something other than performance’ (1993: 146).
A different position was adopted by media studies scholar Philip Auslander who in his identification of different types of performance (and documentation) counter-pointed that ‘documentation does not simply generate image/statements that describe an autonomous performance’ and states that it can produce ‘an event as a performance’ (2006: 5).

Instead, Performance at Tate aimed to build on approaches initiated by Amelia Jones (1997) and, subsequently, Barbara Clausen, who challenged the positioning of the document as secondary to performance, as well as the positioning of the document as equivalent to performance suggesting that performance should not be seen as beginning with or ending with the ‘authentic experience’, or live moment, but rather that it should be seen as ‘an ongoing process of an interdependent relationship between event, medialization, and reception’ (2005: 7). In other words, performance, in the course of its transcriptions, is subject to significant shifts caused by the constantly altering reception of its documents over time. Performance documents should therefore be considered, utilising Suzanne Briet’s term from 1951, as an ecology of inter-documents, comprising primary documents, created at the time of an event, secondary documents, created from the initial documents, and auxiliary documents, created by a juxtaposition of documents. Rather than delivering remains of an isolated event, the document, for Briet, forms part of a matrix or network of signs. So, she noted, ‘through the juxtaposition, selection, and the comparison of documents, and the production of auxiliary documents’, the content of documentation becomes ‘inter-documentary’.
Performance and documentation have always been somewhat inter-dependent. So, for example, art historian and critic Barbara Rose pointed out the significance of Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Jackson Pollock’s work as
documents of his practice that radically affected any subsequent perception of his paintings (1979: 12). Likewise, it was performance studies scholar Philip Auslander who noted that Harry Shunk’s photographs of Yves Klein’s
Leap into the Void (1960), a photomontage, in fact constitute the work itself (2006). And it was Paul Schimmel who noted how Chris Buren’s actions, such as in
Shoot (1071), in which the performer asked his assistant to shoot him in his left arm, were ‘distinguished by their ability to be captured by a single photographic image and described in a brief paragraph’ (1998:97) almost as if to imply that the performance was designed so as to work for the photo. Most of these works nowadays exist primarily as documents. One such work is Hershman Leeson’s
Roberta Breitmore (1972-8) which comprises of a series of documents charting Roberta’s internal (i.e. a list of cosmetics for her make-up) and external transformations (i.e. a movement chart), testifying also to her social existence (i.e., she placed an advert, and underwent a psychiatric evaluation) and financial existence (i.e. she owned a checkbook). Nearly twenty years after Hershman Leeson exorcised the character of Roberta at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara in 1978, Roberta was re-invented as
CyberRoberta (1995-8), a tele-robotic doll who was dressed identically to Roberta, and whose fictional persona was, as in Hershman Leeson’s words, ‘designed as an updated Roberta’ who navigate the internet, and was described as a ‘cyberbeing’ (1996: 336). Roberta also appeared as a bot in the Second Life remake of an early work by Hershman Leeson,
The Dante Hotel, called
Life to the Second Power (2007-)
, which turned parts of the Hershman Leeson archive at Stanford Libraries into a dynamic mixed reality experience where visitors could explore digital reproductions of fragments of the original archive of
The Dante Hotel under Roberta’s guidance in Second Life (Roberta had started her existence when she arrived in San Francisco on board of a Greyhound bus and checked herself in at the Hotel Dante).

The first work,
Roberta Breitmore, consists of documents which are now preserved as the artwork in public and private collections (MOMA, SFMOMA, Tate, Walker Art Center, as well as the Hess collection, to name a few). Each museum also has a documentation of the work, which usually consists of gallery, curatorial, and preservation records. These may disclose significant information about how the artist wishes the work to be installed, for example, or about the work’s preservation strategy.
CyberRoberta, which is in the Hess collection, does not consist of documents, though, unlike in the case of
Roberta Breitmore, some documents were produced by users and are available on social media. These documents are not works, though it is only by seeing them that, if we have not experienced the work ourselves, we can understand how the work operated. No museum, to my knowledge, has been preserving these user-generated documents. Finally,
Life to the Second Power is available on Second Life and a set of photographic documents were collected by Exeter and Stanford Universities at the time the work was shown. Again, a number of visitors generated photographs (both in first and second life) but these were not collected. The work was shown as The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and at SFMOMA, so it is likely that these museums have kept a documentation of the work, though most museums only do so when the work entered the collection. In short, in the case of
Roberta Breitmore, the artist created the documents that are now known as the work. In the cases of
CyberRoberta and
Life to the Second Power, most documents showing the work in use were produced by users or viewers, and none of them are systematically preserved. In the case of
Life to the Second Power, the work is hosted by a commercial platform and may cease to exist once the platform becomes obsolete or is terminated by its owners.

I conclude by suggesting that Museums should draw from performance studies and digital humanities and create records documenting the experiences of these works, noting also how these have changed over the years. I also look into the challenges paused by their preservation, particularly in terms of born digital works. Finally, I show that by capturing this knowledge, Museums will not only preserve important historical information about the exhibition and reception of these works, but also create, to use Briet’s term, an inter-documentary ecology comprising ‘live’ performance (whether by the artist or the user), documents (created by the artist, the museum or the user) and the digital (showing the web and social media life of a work in different formats).

Auslander, P. (2006). The Performativity of Performance Documentation.
PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 84, 28(3): 1-10.

Briet, S. (2006). [1951]. What is Documentation? Tr. E. Day, L. Martinet, H. G.B. Anghelescu. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Clausen, B. (2005). The (Re)presentation of Performance Art.
After the Act, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, pp. 7-20.

Crimp, D. (1979). Pictures.
October, Spring 1979, pp. 75-88.

Hershman Leeson, L. (1996). ed.,
Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture. Seattle WA: Bay Press.

Jones, A. (1997). ‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation.
Art Journal, 56(4): 11-8.

Phelan, P. (1993).
Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York and London: Routledge.

Rose, B. (1979). Hans Namuth’s Photograph and the Jackson Pollock Myth: Part One: Media Impact and the Failure of Criticism,
Arts Magazine, 53(7).

Schimmel, P. (1998). (Ed),
Out of Actions: between performance and the object 1949-1979, London: Thames and Hudson.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO