Philip Bither — Collecting


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Philip Bither

Philip Bither is William and Nadine McGuire Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

To collect simply means to assemble, accumulate, or group together items that are seen to have a connection, to be something of a whole. Visual-art museum collections, ideally driven by precise acquisition policies, try to make sure that a purchase or an accepted gift fits into a larger narrative that the institution is trying to present through its collection. It is hoped that each new object has a relationship not just to art history but to the other objects in the collection as well.

Until recently, museum collection committees and associated curators thought that the real-time, ephemeral nature of performance rendered it “uncollectible,” thus leaving a big part of recent art history unexamined and therefore undervalued. While the twentieth century was chock-full of conceptual and performance-based art practices and the disciplines of visual art, music, dance, and theater were at key moments intertwined and mutually influential, the resulting “live” works were generally collected only when there was a strong physical component that demonstrated value. Value could be historical (determined to be important artistically and worthy of being preserved and displayed into the future, long after the creators and/or original performers were gone) or monetary (able to be bought or sold) or, ideally, both. Yes, material aspects of works by artists such as Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, and Yoko Ono and the work of the Fluxus, Gutai, and arte povera artists, among others, were actively collected and shown but often stripped of the performative context from which they sprang.

The early twenty-first century has witnessed a dramatic surge of interest within the visual art world in performance-based works, sparked not only by the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of art today but also by larger social shifts toward a digital culture (and an associated diminished attachment to the physical) and a heightened societal valuation of the experiential. Yet despite the acceptance of performance as an essential form of contemporary art practice, museums continue to grapple with the inherent questions and contradictions of collecting it. How does an institution acquire, preserve, and display work that was built for real time and space, that essentially disappears after its time has expired? The best-practice jury on this remains out. Performance-collecting strategies are currently all over the map: they include acquiring documents (photography, video, film, etc.); securing artists’ instructions for execution (primarily through future “reperformance”); and collecting the associated physical elements (remnants) of what is left in the wake of the live performance experience—sets, scripts, costumes, props, videos, scores, and designs for lighting or sound.

Examples worth considering are the strategies of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Tate Modern, London; and my institution, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. In 2008 MoMA established its Media and Performance Department and began to aggressively expand its performance collection; an early acquisition was Tino Sehgal’s Kiss (2003). MoMA consciously prioritized work that could fit well in its museum galleries, and it defined ownership as the holding rights to reperform the works it purchased, works that ideally came with a score or set of instructions that would facilitate reperformance. MoMA attempts to capture video documentation of artists describing in detail how they want the works to be (re)performed in the future.

In the United Kingdom, documentation and scholarship of “live art” have had a longer history. Yet the act of collecting performance work remains equally unresolved. In 2012 Tate Modern launched a research initiative called Collecting the Performative, rooted in the idea that “traditional approaches to conservation and . . . management of collections—based on the assumption that a museum object is materially bound and fixed—need to change,” yet readily acknowledging that the very essence of performance “is at odds with long-established systems and processes for managing art as a material object.” The Tate initiative actually looks to how “dance, theatre and activism practice” document and attempt to conserve their histories to see if some answers might lie there.1

As an art center (as opposed to a museum), one with a long-established Performing Arts program that supports contemporary dance, experimental theater, and new music of many stripes as well as interdisciplinary and performance art, the Walker attempts to approach the different histories/orientations of the performing disciplines it serves in ways fairly distinct from the way it approaches the visual art it collects. Thus, it has long “commissioned” rather than collected live art; this means that the Walker has financially invested up front in these works and attempts to retain some documentation for, without claiming any ownership of, the nearly three hundred pieces in its commission history. While the Walker has chosen to ensure that artists retain the actual rights to and ownership of their own work, the institution still sees its commissions as a type of collection. Yet it is also clear that this “collection” really behaves more like an activated archive whose relationship to the Walker’s Visual Art Collection (once called its permanent collection) is appropriately being questioned.

In addition to commissioning, the Walker sometimes acquires performing art–related objects for its Visual Art Collection as well, a practice that began with the purchase of Jasper Johns’s Walkaround Time (1968; based on Duchamp’s Large Glass) in 2000. At the time Johns himself said he didn’t consider the piece “a work of art” but rather “just” a stage set (for a Merce Cunningham dance of the same name). Since then the Walker has gone on to purchase physical elements of works by Meredith Monk, Ralph Lemon, and in 2011, the entire set/prop/costume archive of the Cunningham Dance Company, comprising more than four thousand objects. In this latter realm, the Walker has chosen the strategy of acquiring physical elements (often created by leading visual artists) of live performances rather than purchasing “the performance work itself” for future reperformance. It is hoped that these objects, in consort with the ongoing commissioning “collection,” will combine to tell a rich story.

In addition to these two approaches, the Walker is considering a somewhat unorthodox third stream: on occasion, to fully “collect” a performance without claiming exclusive ownership. Some artists (the interdisciplinary artist Ralph Lemon comes to mind) are deeply exploring what it might mean for an institution to “acquire” but (unlike in Sehgal's case) not exclusively own a work or an edition of a work. In this instance, “ownership” would not consist of exclusive rights to show, reperform, or buy or sell these rights but would instead relate to the Walker acquiring its own experience of the work it “owned,” its own documentation, its own collective and individual memories, recorded and not. While admittedly a somewhat subversive (or anti-market) gesture, it also serves as an effort to raise the value of the performance moment, the temporal performed experience, perhaps through oral histories of participants, collaborators, and viewers; it would chart process beyond the norms of standard documentation, for example, undertaking the intellectual and emotional mapping of the performance creation and experience by artists and viewers alike. Can an institution divorce the notion of “ownership” from exclusivity? Perhaps it is time to attempt to transform the lexicon of the museum, further challenging the disciplinary lines that continue to feel rigid, as well as examining the distinctions of value that populate the visual and performing art worlds in such different ways.

It is an intriguing moment, resting on more questions than answers: How can a set of memories, a collective experience, be preserved? Can an ephemeral work live on as a respected part of a museum’s “holdings” after the last person who saw it is gone but without material items or standard documentation from that live artwork? What are the various means by which an institution or, for that matter, a community might continue “to hold” a performance work? These questions and others will continue to pervade future efforts to “collect” performance.

  1. Tate, “Collecting the Performative: A Research Network Examining Emerging Practice for Collecting and Conserving Performance-based Art,” April 2012–January 2014,

For Further Reference

Yves Klein, Suaire de Mondo Cane (Mondo Cane Shroud), 1961.

Kazuo Shiraga, Untitled, 1959.

Jasper Johns, Walkaround Time, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, 1968.

Robert Rauschenberg, costumes and cotton canvas drop for Summerspace, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, 1958.

Trisha Brown, It’s a Draw/Live Feed, 2002.

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being; I/You (Her), 1974.

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, premiered 1966, Judson Memorial Church.

Ralph Lemon with Jim Findlay, Meditation, 2010.

Ralph Lemon, Scaffold Room, 2014. Commissioned by the Walker Art Center.

See Also

Live — Philip Bither

Choreography — Sabine Breitwieser

Prop — Carlos Basualdo

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Trisha Brown, It’s a Draw—For Robert Rauschenberg, 2008. Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Julie and Babe Davis Acquisition Fund and the Miriam and Erwin Kelen Acquisition Fund for Drawings, 2008.

Ralph Lemon, Scaffold Room, 2014. Film still by Andy Underwood-Bultmann. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being; I/You (Her), 1974. Number 2 of 10 black-and-white enlargements of machine-made portrait photograph, overdrawn with gouache and tempera and pasted up with paper label. 8 x 5". Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1999. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hopscotch, 2015. Directed by Yuval Sharon. Produced by The Industry, Los Angeles. Photo: Dana Ross.

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Tania El Khoury, Jarideh, 2010.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Dictaphone Group, This Sea is Mine, 2012.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.