Between Tragedy and Farce: Short Takes on the Performance Archive

Memory and Power
Memento Mori
Performance Art
Judgment, Remembering, and Dismemberment: Forgetting...
Performing Documentary
The Problem of Determining Quality

Ray Langenbach poses ontological and epistemological questions on representational technologies and performance archiving.


A Brief Background: For the past 22 years, I have been documenting Southeast Asian aesthetic performance (theatre and performance art) and social performance (demonstrations, elections, riots, daily life) and the contexts in which they take place. I have recorded events on a number of video formats, including PAL and NTSC U-Matic, VHS, S-VHS, 8MM, Hi-8, Mini-DV, and 35 mm still photography, and I have collected contextual information, such as schedules, documents, interviews, artifacts of the events, mass media electronic mailings, and print news, etc. I have also written articles and a dissertation on the topic. This collection has been digitised and is now housed on the servers at the International Institute for Social History (IISH) Amsterdam, which joined Asia Art Archive to fund the preservation of the material. This documentation related to performance art is to be housed at Asia Art Archive, while the theatre works of theatre director of Krishen Jit, and other Malaysian performances are archived at the Five Arts theatre company in Kuala Lumpur.

IISH, which houses such icons of leftist and progressive European culture as an early draft of the Communist Manifesto, has more recently been focused on preserving cultural materials in Asia and elsewhere that are in danger. The Institute decided to preserve this particular collection in the aftermath of a police raid of Satu Kali International Performance Art Symposium in Kuala Lumpur, which Malaysian artist, Liew Kungyu and I curated a few years ago. Kungyu and I were advised by our lawyer that the police might attempt to collect any documentation relevant to the case, which could put the entire collection in danger. I immediately hid the collection—about 1000 hours of documentation—in the apartment of a friend.1

I am now annotating, editing, and crediting the videos on two systems—Media 100 and Final Cut Pro—and combining video with photographs of materials, catalogues, and posters, along with documents written by me or others. It is an excruciatingly slow process which will take years to complete, and, in fact, the more I do this work, the more I realise that it will never be complete.

Every hour I spend shooting and editing performances, I am forced to think about what it means to be doing that. I think not just of the instrumental questions of what is the best way to document events, but of other, more epistemological questions: What marks the performance of documentation? How is memory ‘framed’ by technology? How is history constructed through technological memory? What sort of ‘beingness’ is it that we find in the frame, or that constitutes the surplus that cannot be framed?

The ontological and epistemological questions surrounding representational technologies have changed far less over the years than the technologies themselves. As space is limited, I will reflect on these overarching questions with seven snapshots of performance archiving—an activity I approach with considerable ambivalence.


Karl Marx’s comment on a phrase by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the former’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, famously reads:

'Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.'

Can Marx's quip, referring to Louis Napoléon-Bonaparte’s repetition on 2 December 1851 of his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup-d’etat (9 November 1799), say anything to us now about historical representations of live events etched by light onto emulsion, electronically patterned in a field of magnetic particles on analogue tapes, or inscribed in binary streams on digital tape or hard-drives?

Memory and Power

Marx was referring to the historical repetition of power-plays in the political landscape. And perhaps not surprisingly, the archive stands at this crossroads of power and memory: its Greek verb root is arkhein, to begin, rule, command. Of probable Indo-European origin, arkhein is associated with the remembrance or replay of an initial taking of power, and is the etymological root of architecture, archaeology, archaic, patriarch, matriarch, and autocracy.

There is, of course, no exercise of power without memory, and there is always a struggle over which memory is to be recognised and preserved as official memory (the historical narrative of the people and the state). Social networks coalesce around historical narratives that relate the story of how various tribes, clans, and groups coalesced into ‘the people’. The stories about this amalgamation of the polity are told to subsequent generations and are used by successive governments to justify, effect, and maintain their exercise of power.

The positioning of Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong is, of course, not just of significance for performance art and memory; it is an event of significance in the regional politics of memory and history. This centre for the accumulation of knowledge-power documents is formed at the southern-facing edge of the next economic and military super-power—China—in a city with colonial roots, that served for centuries as a kind of revolving door or shutter, oscillating between Western and Asian cultures. A shutter in a projector, Hong Kong’s openings and closings in one direction and then another are synchronised with the frames it projects onto the global screen.

For now, Asia Art Archive seems to be largely independent of proto-hegemonic governmental desires and initiatives. But artists, musicians, architects, and archivists have always been the ‘dressers’, of power, designing, choreographing, and scripting state spectacle. The patronage, collections, and libraries of the House of Medici in Renaissance Florence, MOMA and the CIA-funded heroification of the New York school of painting in the 1950s and 60s, and the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, designed by Zhang Yimou, are all cases in point. The list of artworks, public spectacles, collections, and libraries riding in tandem with the vicisitudes of economic and political power is endless. This collection at AAA—a concentration and memorialisation of Foucauldean knowledge-power in Hong Kong—is positioned in this historical tradition.

Memento Mori

One of our species’ fundamental spectacles is that of the funeral and the memorial, linking death, war, cultural annihilation, and the perrenially unfulfilled search for peace. This current and future collection at AAA offers a memento mori of the tragic limit to the lives of our performances (as well, eventually, of our lives), as a tragifarcical act of remembering. The performance archive is a battle against the entropic forces of cultural amnesia. Eventually everything human will be dismembered and forgotten. We all know this...but it is something we want to forget. While they look like staid repositories, the library, museum, and archive are actually zones of frantic rebellion against entropic amnesia, war, and nihilism, where valued cultural memes are unnaturally selected and preserved from generation to generation. Hence, the inclusion of a new category of cultural memes (such as performance art), or a new technology (moving image or hypertext) into the archive is a significant event.

Performance Art

The inclusion of moving-image documents of performance art works represents the arrival of performance art to the status of mainstream convention. No longer offering resistance to the prevailing narratives of society, performance art has not only found its way into the library, but now also finds the library developing to accomodate its artefacts. Preserving performance is now the purpose of a rapidly increasing number of libraries and collections, each with its own set of local dynamics and relationship to power.

Judgment, Remembering, and Dismemberment: Forgetting to Remember and Remembering to Forget

One result of information digitalisation is the loss of our capacity to forget. On the one hand, digitalisation makes information more fragile (one virus or neutron bomb can wipe clean all the hard-drives of a nation), and on the other, our information technologies, in their infinite capacity for perfect replication and simulation, do not allow us to forget. The archive is, as Marx also put it, the site where ‘grotesque mediocrity’ can ‘play a hero's part’, preserved in our collective memory banks. Certainly many performances are undeservedly preserved when they would be better off decaying naturally in the audience’s collective consciousness. What is the relationship between the manner that events are recalled and the structure of carbon-based and silicon-based memory systems? How should an archive or a library be structured? And, since we are speaking of works of art, what does memorialisation in an archive have to do with aesthetic judgment?

Performing Documentary

As someone who performs, but also regularly documents the performances of others, I have had to focus on the cultural ramifications of what is saved and what is eliminated, and the manner in which the documented performance and the performance of documenting are related, overlap, and converge. I am aware, for example, of how my presence as a US citizen in Asia is historically defined by a post-colonial script inflected by orientalist traditions of ethnographic, anthropological, sociological, and military surveillance. Such issues influence the manner in which I surveil the performance of others, and how my surveillance is viewed by others in the region.

The Problem of Determining Quality

Prevailing aesthetics of the documentary genre influence where the camera is placed and how it is held; the appropriate depth of field, aperture, and shutter speed; whether or not a tripod is used; and when to press the little red button. The editor’s imperative over what is or is not eliminated is determined in part by intended subsequent use of the recorded materials, but also by prevailing aesthetic judgments. When I record a performance festival, decisions of when to turn on the camera are influenced by my aesthetic predisposition and my ‘read’ of the cultural codes in play. Whether or not I, as documenter, understand the spoken language recorded isn’t important, but there are many codes that may be inaccesible to me, including local conventions and rituals determining audience response or the selection of site and the organisation of space, chronotyping, choice of materials and artifacts, the choreographing of behaviours, etc.

Mary Douglas’ observations of how vernacular conceptions of dirt (that which is thrown out) produce societal order (that which is retained) are useful in understanding these dynamics. There are powerful subliminal forces at work in the documentary form which determine the parameters of what is to be preserved. This horizon of possibility is intuitive, unconscious, and epistemic.

I am not so consistently egalitarian when it comes to aesthetics. I deploy my aesthetic judgments as a defense against the despotic desire to capture everything for history: the technocratic tendency to produce a perfect representation—a map at 1:1 resolution with the landscape it maps.2 I want to bring this dialectic between aesthetic nihilism and documentarian priggishness into the open. Aesthetic judgments, cultural presumptions and epistemic hegemonies have always had a profound but largely invisible effect on what we remember of the past. And in this case they may determine when I turn the camera on and off. If I consider a performance to be a ‘stupid piece of crap’, depending on my mood, I may well turn off the camera. (‘After all, it is one thing to waste time on a bad performance, but to waste tape and money, and storage space in the archives, well, that would be idiotic’, I might muse to myself.) But, clearly how that evaluation of ‘piece of crap’ is brought into play has a lot to do with culturally-determined notions of aesthetic order and dirt, ala Mary Douglas. This is a largely unspoken complexity in all forms of cultural documentation. If it is social or daily-life performance that is being documented, these decisions may be even more complex, requiring the sort of ‘thick description’ of the documentary moment described by Gilbert Ryle and famously brought into play in anthropology by Clifford Geertz.


This leads us to a final consideration: If information artefacts go missing, what are the best ways to fill in the gaps? The theorist, Heike Roms, at Aberwystwyth University in Wales has developed a very productive technique of interviewing local performance artists in a public setting as part of an oral history project entitled What is Welsh for Performance? As I understand her method, these interviews are recorded with the corrections and discussions generated by other people in the audience, some of whom participated in the recalled events. Such a methodology could also be used to help fill gaps around the camera-memory of events. What was happening outside the frame and off-camera? What needs in the community (or personal relationships) motivated the works to begin with? The University of Bristol Live Art archives project, described by Paul Clarke at 'Action Script', is exploring methodologies for event annotation that may prove useful in filling in such contextual information.

I began this article with a quote from Marx on the farcical nature of historical repetitions. The archive stores both the farcical representations of aesthetic and civic performances and provides the active memory storage and research zone that makes farcical repetitions possible in the first place. In an epoc that has been described as a steady state of war broken by intervals of peace, our awareness of the demise of so many libraries of the past such as those at Alexandria, Antioch, and the recently destroyed collections in Jaffna (1981), Sarajevo (1992), Abkhazia (1992), and Baghdad (2003) certainly provide us good reasons to avoid war.

However, it is precisely the accumulation of contested national or regional narratives at a particular site that in some cases provide the justification for war. The human impulse to preserve lineages of practice and information flow...the flow of memes through countered by our other libidinal needs to wipe the hard-drives clean.


I wish to thank the participants of the recent Action Script symposium for their comments and feedback on an earlier version of this text.

The paper published here represents about half of a paper I presented at the 'Action Script' conference. I have used those sections that are more instrumentally relevant to Asia Art Archive. I have left out most of the philosophical underpinnings, and the theory of memory that is presumed in the archival process. The full paper will be published elsewhere later following further editing and development of the arguments. If anyone is interested in the full paper, when it is completed, they may contact me at


1. This was not the first time videos from the collection had to be hidden away. During the court trials in Singapore of Josef Ng and Iris Tan, some of the documentation of the Artists’ General Assembly (1993-94) was hidden under the floor-boards of an out-building on the campus of the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

2. Exquisitely lampooned by Lewis Carroll (and subsequently by Jorge Luis Borges):

That's another thing we've learned from your nation,’ said Mein Herr, ‘map-making. But we've carried it much further than you. What would you consider the largest map that would be really useful?’

'About 6 inches to the mile.'

'Only 6 inches!’ exclaimed Mein Herr. ‘We very soon got to 6 yards to the mile. Then, we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!'
'Have you used it much?' I inquired.

'It has never been spread out yet,’ said Mein Herr. ‘The farmers objected and said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.'

—Carroll, Lewis, 'Sylvie and Bruno Concluded' (1893), cited in Patrick Hughes and George Brecht, Vicious Circles and Infinity, Penguin Books, London, 1975, 66.

Ray Langenbach is a Research Fellow at the Finnish Academy of Fine Art where he supervises Doctoral candidates. He holds theStar Foundation Professorship of Creative Industries at Tunku Abdul Rahman University, Malaysia. He serves on the Board of Directors of Performance Studies international, and Broadsheet art magazine, and is Vice President of the International Association of Art Critics (Singapore). His installations and performance art works have been presented in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific.




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