Documentation Diaries: Re-creating the Performance

Joan Jonas. Mirage (installation details). 1976/1994/2003. The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Richard Massey, Clarissa Alcock Bronfman, Agnes Gund, and Committee on Media Funds. Photos: Sydney Briggs

When the Department of Media and Performance Art collects and exhibits time-based media or performance, caring for and properly installing such work is a collaboration between the artist and the Museum. Time-based media commonly uses video, film, audio, and computer programs as platforms for creativity. Often such artwork is digitally based, and it depends upon technology that may become obsolete. In the case of performance art, the ability to re-perform the work mainly relies on the artist’s memory, with the aid of documentation. Both time-based media and performance are therefore mediums in which individual works are often replicated, migrated, or emulated in order to ensure their continued existence.

The inherently dynamic nature of these art forms naturally requires their caretakers to keep pace with the demands of evolving technology and methods of documentation. MoMA manages such challenges through the assistance of a staff group known as the Media Working Group (MWG). The group consists of members of the departments of Media and Performance Art, Registrar, Conservation, Audio-Visual, Information Technology, and Exhibition and Design Production. MWG’s role is to review time-based media and performance art in the collection to identify areas of risk regarding long-term preservation. Increasingly, this means identifying characteristics prone to causing the work’s demise, if not addressed in a timely fashion. It can also mean identifying elements that, if changed as a result of unpredictable technological or site-specific conditions, might alter the perception of the artwork in our collective memory. This is especially true when something new is introduced or some essential component inadvertently changed.

Our newly acquired Mirage is an installation originally conceived of by the artist, Joan Jonas, as a performance. Barbara London, Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art, worked together with Jonas to re-create from memory and documentation an installation environment evocative of the original live performance at the Anthology Film Archives in 1976. In our current iteration of this installation, the elements of time, memory, and setting, so crucial to the experience of this work, can also play unpredictable roles in how it is maintained and documented. To protect against changes that may alter the artist’s intent, MWG worked closely with the artist and curator to map the work’s current state through interviews, photographs, and note-taking. These efforts will guide our future stewardship of Mirage’s life.