- Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation by Philip Auslander
Foregrounding “our” experience, Philip Auslander’s Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation incisively argues that documents are not secondary to the objects they re/present, but are in themselves sites of performance. Taking issue with Diana Taylor’s sense that “the allegedly ephemeral aspects of performance can only be reproduced through performance rather than documentation” (2), Auslander hews to Rebecca Schneider’s resistance to this “bifurcation of the way performance remains into the two categories of the arti-factual (the archive) and the corporeal (the repertoire)” (3). For Auslander, when “we” encounter a performance document, “we” reactivate the performance the document assembles, “reproduce for ourselves the thing reproduced [...and] bring it to life [...] so as to be able to experience it in our present moment” (97–98). And since “our” perception is bound to embodied selves, evolving across and being in time and place, the complex constellation of performance, document, and document-performance is—like performance itself—always differential, new.
Building on his influential 1999 book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture and reengaging writings published over the last decade, Reactivations’s succinct three chapters, framed by an introduction and a conclusion, are illustrated with examples from the New York performance art scene from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Turning away from the focus on the performance and its documentation to attend instead to the rapport between the document and its audience, the first chapter, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” utilizes J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory to go beyond the “traditional perspective” subordinating the purchase of the document to live performance, to “an event that has its own prior integrity” (24, 28). The ideological distinction between “theatrical” records (such as Cindy Sherman’s 1989 Untitled #199) or “documentary” records (such as Chris Burden’s 1971 Shoot) finally makes little difference, Auslander concludes, for at the phenomenal level, “our” sense of the performance’s “presence, power, and authenticity” results from “perceiving the document itself as a performance that directly reflects an artist’s aesthetic project or sensibility and for which we are the present audience” (40).
“Reactivation: The Complex Temporality of Performance Documentation” then rereads Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” considering Benjamin’s sense of the “reactivation” of the original mediated by reproduction, and rethinking [End Page 175] it through Hans-Georg Gadamer’s understanding of the interpretation of texts in Truth and Method (1960), not as an act of historical recovery but as a “conversation” enacting a “fusion” of temporal horizons in the “contemporaneity” of the encounter between the beholder and the document. To reexamine the dichotomy between the auratic original and its reproduction, Auslander draws attention to Benjamin’s claim that “reproduction ‘enables the original to meet the beholder halfway’” (46; Benjamin  1969:220). Putting pressure on that “halfway,” Auslander sees the original to be “reactivated through interaction with the beholder” mediated by the reproduction (47); in conversation, so to speak, “the reproduction discloses the original as an event occurring in the here and now” (48). Reproduction is neither a prosthetic, a replication, nor a substitute for the original; as a “conduit,” the reproduced image has, nesting within it, its own gesture toward the future, summoning “our” desire to experience, to know, its object as “real and present” (47, 53). Benjamin here anticipates “the temporal complexities” Auslander finds in performance documentation via Gadamer: “performances are documented in their present, with an eye toward the future that becomes the present of the beholder who reactivates the performance from its documentation, thus experiencing it in the present while acknowledging its connection to the past” (101). The question, for Auslander as much as for Gadamer, has to do with what that acknowledgement entails.
The third chapter, “Surrogate Performances: Performance Documentation and the New York Avant-garde, circa 1964–74,” expanding Austin via John R. Searle’s revision of illocution as a world-making act, traces a history...