Skip to Content

Hole in the Dark: Archiving Queer Performance | Essay by Michael Connors Jackman

 When I think about queer art in St. John’s, many bodies and faces come to mind. Numerous innovative artists have passed through the city and left their mark. Their ideas and visions are reflected in films, books, portraits, landscapes, murals, and sculptures. Such artworks hold together elements of different creative processes and they serve as proof of artistic ingenuity. Such art objects persist as material entities and outline particular artists’ legacies. In the case of queer performance, however, it is more difficult to drum up a comprehensive list of brilliant works. The works exist–or at least they once did–but where they are now is unclear. Of course, no work of art lasts forever and many great pieces deteriorate over time or are destroyed. But performance is special in this regard, as it does not lend itself well to being archived. Performers do things with their bodies as others observe, respond, engage, and/or leave the room. Sometimes a performance begins and ends before someone can grab a camera, or before anyone recognises that the performance has begun and ended. Performance art happens, and though traces remain, they are often fragmentary. Video and photographs provide evidence of what happened, and such forms of documentation are valuable because they represent specific contexts of creative activity and shared experience, even if the stickiness, the smell, or the interactive elements of performance are lost. Indeed, many temporal, spatial, and sensorial dimensions of performance do not and cannot carry over into performance documentation. For this reason, the type of documentation that is produced and saved matters to the trajectory of a performance’s afterlife.

I was reminded of the trickiness of performance documentation a couple of months ago while making my way through an exhibition that featured work by acclaimed Czech artists and international art icons at the National Gallery of Prague. Two pieces drew my attention: Marina Abramović’s video installation “Dragon Heads” (1990) and Carolee Schneemann’s scroll from “Interior Scroll – The Cave” (1975). The former is a video compiled from various live performances which feature Abramović sitting still on a chair as a snake moves across her head, face, neck, shoulders, torso, lap, legs, and feet. The performances were recorded and reconstructed through editing to provide a selected set of images and narratives. In this way, the video installation does not document a performance, but constitutes another kind of work unto itself, produced from several performances. As unnerving as the video is to watch, the immediate danger involved in the actual performance has been dulled by the passing of time. Video documentation allows one to imagine a performance as it unfolds, but it limits one’s own participation in and presence at a performance to that of the work of cameras, editors, screens, and different gallery spaces. Put simply, the spatial and temporal relations that organised the performances at particular points in the past vanished into video.

In contrast, the Schneemann display included material from a performance in East Hampton, New York in which the artist stood naked, painted on her body, and slowly pulled a paper scroll from her vagina, which she read aloud. The scroll was exhibited vertically in a glass case attached to a wall, and the script was reproduced as a poem/performance text in another display case. The text was accompanied by photos taken by an uncredited photographer of the artist standing on a table and reading from the scroll (Curran 2015). The display of photos, the typed text, and the scroll itself allow the viewer to reconstruct a performance narrative, one that underscores themes of gender, creation, Platonic forms, and so forth. Such reconstruction on the part of viewers is not part of the performance itself, but a creative process through which a range of possibilities for the performance come to be imagined, and where documentation serves as a springboard for interpretation. Abramović and Schneemann are, undoubtedly, performance art royalty, and it is likely that their legacies will live on in ways that neither artist could have foreseen decades ago. Though it is impossible to determine whether or how an artist’s work will be understood in the future, performance and its careful preservation holds out the possibility of artistic immortality.

In the case of queer art in St. John’s, attempts to preserve artist legacies are beset by complications of location and history. Newfoundland’s cultural archive is deeply colonial and Canada’s newfound global image as an LGBT-friendly country par excellence raises endless questions about whose archives matter, to which ones artists should contribute their work, and which ones will count in the future. Such questions are of no small importance in finding ways to support political art, but the best approach to take is unclear. The demand for the removal and destruction of statues of colonial figures such as Gaspar Corte-Real in St. John’s is one example of how different forms of representation shape collective relationships to the past and how such forms present occasions for rewriting historical narratives. There have been no major calls for the destruction of other kinds of colonial records and few would hail the destruction of archives tracking colonial rule as an ideal means to decolonisation. Statues have been targeted, and rightly so, because they enliven the biography of colonists’ supposedly heroic actions. As physical monuments that commemorate events of the past, statues animate archives in ways that powerfully delimit history and install particular versions of what happened as essential to future archives.

Different forms of documentation similarly inform distinctive relationships between original performances and art archives, and amongst future artists, viewers, critics, and scholars. A perceived lack of performance documentation can be useful in imagining a gap between artworks and future publics. In many cases, however, it is not the absence of performance documentation that plagues archivists, but a reliance on particular kinds of documentation where records are treated as though they were the performance itself. A focus on lack also distracts from the breadth and depth of existing archival records, mistaking the conceptual limits of archives for the absence of records (Arondekar 12). On the contrary, archives overflow with possibilities for narrating histories of art and culture, whose potential can be harnessed if we avoid conceiving of archives as mere data banks.

Noting the potential of archives for social change, Ann Cvetkovich writes that queer archive activism “insists that the archive serve not just as a repository for safeguarding objects, but also as a resource that ‘comes out’ into the world to perform public interventions” (Cvetkovich 32). While this is true of queer archives, the same can be argued for all archives that anticipate future counterpublics beyond the identities, biographies, and attachments of a particular group. The investments of archives in potential futures are key to their constitution, and for this reason the production, collection, and preservation of performance documentation must be considered in dialogue, though not necessarily in agreement, with artists themselves. The physical elements of performance provide a vital link to the actuality of performance and they allow for new kinds of art-encountering spaces to emerge in the future. However, resistance to documentation must be understood as the prerogative of artists for whom performance is neither future-oriented nor intended to be reproducible. Perhaps in such cases, the narration of performance encounters needs to play a stronger role, wherein spectators take on the responsibility of providing a record of the event.

Two notable artists with connections to Newfoundland whose works have raised related issues about gender, sexuality, and performance are Mikiki and Irma Gerd. Each has offered unique perspectives on how issues of embodiment and temporality can be configured, and their practices of collecting and preserving their performances diverge considerably. Both artists have kept video documentation of their work and their digital footprints are considerable, but where Irma Gerd has invested in the preservation of queer history and physical performance art objects, Mikiki has largely eschewed the idea that performance might be transformed into archivable art objects.

Irma Gerd’s veils are an excellent example of how performance can give rise to other kinds of art-making which anticipate future archives. Produced by making imprints of her drag make-up on cloth, her “Irmagraphy” series recalls the Veil of Veronica, a relic which shows the likeness of Christ left in Saint Veronica’s veil after he wiped his face in it on his way to Golgotha. Like the Veil of Veronica, Irma Gerd’s veils capture an image at a particular moment in time which might serve as evidence of a presence. In this way, each veil can be considered a relic, defined as “a material object that relates to a particular individual and/or to events and places with which that individual was associated” (Walsham 11). The veils are not drag performance itself, nor do they allow spectators to enter into drag performances as they happened at particular times and in particular places in the past. Rather, the veils provide a physical connection, or at least the fantasy of a physical relation, to what came before.

Other artists have fought hard to decouple their art practices from the tyranny of the future, and no one looms as large in my mind as the artist Mikiki. A wandering star with their own sense of gravity, anyone who has been lucky enough to meet Mikiki will recognise their boundlessness and their ability to inhabit life as it happens. Their performance pieces have been, notably, grounded in the here and now: a piece in which they created a pop-up gloryhole booth and invited people for sex; a make-up library in which they invited people to exchange make-up items; their infamous champagne enema toast; their drag race in heels in St. John’s through the 2000s; and their work as a chef with June’s HIV+ Eatery, a collective of HIV+ chefs in Toronto. As with other kinds of politically-engaged art, their performances are guided by a sense of hope that their performances will influence the future in positive ways, but their work does not anticipate archives. If anything, the temporal dimensions of their performances and a resistance to the production of saleable art have made the preservation of their work difficult. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the impulse to archive Mikiki’s work is so strong. There is no shortage of video documentation or digital records of their work, but there are few tangible objects that one might place their hands on or study under glass. No champagne bottles, champagne flutes, serviettes stained with warm shades of gold and beige, bodily fluids, condoms, or syringes. Perhaps it is unfair to desire specific forms of performance documentation, especially when it runs against the current of an artist’s own artistic practice and politics, but such objects, if treated as relics, could provide future generations with a physical link to the artist’s energy and corporeality at a moment in time.

The practice of displaying physical artefacts from performances provides a set of possibilities for orienting oneself to the disappearing presentness of performance in ways that video and photographic records cannot. Documentation from performances by Schneemann and Abramović did not end up in museums by accident. The artists and countless people surrounding them painstakingly collected and preserved materials so that their performance careers would be immortalised. Contemporary performances that are recorded and uploaded to social media platforms have digital afterlives, but physical objects anticipate different relationships to and different places within archives. Indeed there are more records today than in the past, and indeed they take different forms. In this sea of information, the selection and preservation of particular forms of documentation matter to how we account for the past and to how we imagine different histories. The accumulation of records is vastly different from the creation and sustaining of archives, and by investing in the latter it would be possible to support future causes, actions, and interventions whose aims are beyond our current horizons.




Arondekar, Anjali. “Without a Trace: Sexuality and the Colonial Archive.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 14, no. 1/2, 2005, pp. 10-27.

Curran, Tony. “Picturing Performance Art: An Exploration into the Logic of Performance Documentation.” fusion, no. 7, 2015.

Cvetkovich, Ann. “The Queer Art of the Counterarchive.” Cruising the Archive: Queer Art and Culture in Los Angeles, 1945-1980. Ed. Frantz, David. Los Angeles, CA: ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, 2011, pp. 32-35.

Walsham, Alexandra. “Introduction: Relics and Remains Alexandra Walsham.” Past and Present, vol. 206, no. 5, 2010, pp. 9-36.