COLLECTING THE EPHEMERAL
Prerequisites and Possibilities for Making Performance Art Last

This project aims to develop conceptual and practical principles for the conservation of performance art in art collections while taking the unique constitutive parameters of the art form—presence or the experience of authenticity, the form’s own performative character or ephemerality—into consideration.

Currently, there is a growing interest in performative art practices. So far however, the increase in attention has only occasionally led to the artworks which result from them being purchased for public or private collections. This is as much to do with the self-conception of performance artists, who grasp the authentic experience of the performance itself as a central aspect of their intents, as with the assignments of the collections themselves, and the competences available at present. On curatorial, conservational and legal levels, the impermanent nature of the works brings fundamental difficulties with it. None-the-less, breakthroughs have been achieved of late: multiple exhibition venues, mainly in Great Britain and the USA, have made purchases of performative works and are pursuing solutions to the new challenges thus incurred. In Switzerland, the process is still in its infancy.

In terms of collecting, conserving and disseminating as the three main tasks of the museum, challenges present themselves in different—yet equally urgent—ways. The scope and format of a work must first be negotiated with the artist or artists. Strategies for re-performing, as a form of exhibition and dissemination of a work, must be defined. A new field of professional curatorial and conservational competence, one which includes both practice-based and theoretically-oriented knowledge, must emerge: collection strategies must be developed; the legal situation must be inspected for potentialities and limitations; institutional procedures must be adapted; new educational formats must be developed.

Alongside the development of new practical competences as a basis for negotiation processes that can lead to collecting performance art, it is likewise necessary to reflect fundamental parameters. This includes developing critical, academic terms of performance art which reflect its newest developments, as well as knowledge of historical practices of collecting art forms which, in their time, weren’t necessarily considered well-suited to collection or conservation in museums (e.g. photography, video, land art, concept art).

Close collaboration with artists, as well as with institutions and collectors, forms the basis of the project team’s research: with the first purchases of live performance art by museums, it has become evident that the competences described can only be guaranteed with an output of effort that smaller exhibition venues can hardly be expected to accomplish alone. Yet in the context of Swiss museums today, this is the norm. That is where our project comes in. Action-based research shall determine the approach; representatives of public and private collections and the authors of performance works that could be acquired by collections will be involved as participants. On the basis of model cases, new challenges will be identified and, in cooperation with international experts, examined. This method should ensure not only the project’s correlation to the Swiss situation, but also that it can benefit from innovative approaches from abroad.

The results will be collected in a compendium and, together with a series of foundational research texts, made available to specialists in the field and to a broad readership in an online publication.