Performing arts venues as archives: how to fill in the blank?

During the pandemic many theatres and performing arts venues started their own streaming of mostly current, but also historic productions of their houses. They thus moved into the light of attention as bearers of the history of the performing arts alongside the institutionalised archives and collections of the performing arts.

This text focuses on the thought of how this new presence of the past in the venues might open up but also limit some of the work conditions of archival and cultural heritage institutions who are responsible for collecting and presenting the history and presence of the performing arts.

The significance of theatre streams and on demand availability of theatre recordings during the pandemic

Already in the beginning of march 2020, shortly after the first restrictions regarding traveling and working during the pandemic were introduced, nachtkritik.de, Germany’s main independent theatre critiques’ platform, started collecting and listing streaming offers of tv stations, theatre and production houses as well as theatre companies. The so called Nachtkritikstream provided a schedule of digitally available performing arts productions, performing arts events, digital conferences as well as discussions on usage of digital media. This offer was and still is highly frequented and is often the first point of entry for information about where theatre in Germany can be watched on the internet. 

As theatres and other venues had to close for an unpredictable time (however, after a careful restart in most of the Bundesländer, restrictions are starting to reappear) the question on substituting performing arts and performative events was and is intensely discussed. The most important missing aspects of the performing arts during this time seem to be highly deictic: their liveness, their temporallity and locality, their here and now as essential parts of the performing arts experience were often mentioned when conferences focused on the question of the why and the whereabouts of digital offerings in the sector. It is thus quite interesting how performing arts venues and companies tried to substitute this experience through and within digital media. 

An interesting way to examine such digital offers is to structure them by their (felt) proximity to the liveness of the event: trying to identify their temporal and local position and rigidness and the transfer to the digital when compared to a live event in a performing arts venue. A structure in this case might be: 

  1. Content produced for a live video audience performed on the original stage: This content was produced during the pandemic and was already intended to be shown in digital live form. It thus suggests to be locally and temporally close to a live experience. This digital approach is used as a tool to connect the intended stage performance and a displaced audience, not changing the original idea of the live event.
  2. Content produced on and for the stage, already existing on video, but produced for various, pre-pandemic reasons (rehearsal, documentation, presentation). Quality in this case is often very varied, some of the material being poor, some of it being TV- or cinema-grade. Time mostly isn’t mentioned (or of no relevance to watching it) OR it is mentioned as the video material shows an exceptional or especially notable (previous) event. However, this form of content suggests being locally close to the live experience.  In this case, the digital approach is used as a tool for visibility of the performing arts production and the performing arts venue, not changing the original idea of the live event.
  3. Content produced for a live video/online audience (might be on the stage but might also be at other places). This approach often works with experimental performative forms but also with experimental forms of contact with the audience. The local aspect is not necessarily close to a stage experience, however the temporal position is approximating the live experience. In this case, the digital approach is thought and realized as part of the production, often combined with a cultural and media-critical perspective.
  4. Content produced for the Internet/for special digital formats, not necessarily resembling a classic live performance (might again be on the stage but might also be at other places). This approach also often works with experimental performative forms, but the content often gets preproduced. Thus, the digital approach neither locally nor temporally is used to approximate a live (shared) experience, but works as an elementary part of the performing arts process. 

The question of displacement 

The discourse on streaming of performing art events mostly comprises the question whether the live experience, the place- and time-based localizing, can be shifted to the internet/to the digital space. This question is however very similar to the question that has since many years been directed at the archives and heritage institutions of the performing arts – it’s the question of displacement in the arts.

Archives and heritage institutions of theatre and dance often inherently delocalize and de- or retemporalize performing art events by putting and pulling them to another place and to another time. This aspect of the work of archives is a fact that characterizes their very existence, yet it is especially discussed when it comes to the archives of the performing arts. As the event-based liveness often is proclaimed as a key identifying element of performing and performative art processes, this creates a conundrum in how performing arts can be a part of and exist in archives at all. 

The current shift of bringing the performing arts events to the digital creates however a similar displacement to the events as does bringing them to the archive (locally and temporally skewing or even dissolving the event). 

By doing this, the theatres and artists themselves also became an important factor in the archival of performing art events. During the time of not being able to produce at a place with a live audience performing arts venues had to become an archive of their own kind, bringing their current and past to the digital public. But how did they manage these processes and how did they cope with questions of liveness and the possible mutation of their works?

What is the archive in this?

Mostly, performing arts institutions did their archival (home)work – giving access to the existing video material – seemingly much easier and faster than regular archives, being able to directly negotiate intellectual property rights and artist’s rights with the artists themselves who have worked or still work at the theatres. 

This is something which is most difficult for archives to do, as they often haven’t been the producers of the artistic processes or their corresponding documents and materials and thus have at least one or two additional steps to go (plus additional research to find contacts to involved artists and actors, in many cases rethinking the production process) to clear rights.

However, in some cases performing arts venues took their regular artists’ contracts as a base of having the right to publish produced (video-)materials. Even when artists had been asked, sometimes individuals involved in the artistic process, but not to be seen on the stage (and the video) –  as authors, composers, set designers etc. – were ignored during the rights management processes. Further, negotiations with collecting societies and publishing houses, tv stations etc. – the second layer of rights management – who represent rights of artists and authors and in some cases the creators of the documents, took place only to varying degrees. 

At the moment, this all happens in an environment where the European Union is changing its system of copyright, author’s and intellectual right rules – a reform which is still in the phase of implementation – leading to a crisis of the author’s rights and bringing uncertainty for archival and cultural platforms of digital cultural heritage all over Europe. 

Impact for archival institutions of the performing arts and impact for theatres’ archives

The activities of the theatres in the field of digital access to documenting materials of their productions creates of course a situation exerting pressure on archives and heritage institutions. These have to explain why they are keeping to the strict rules of author’s and intellectual property rights on their documents and objects. A situation, that – facing the newest developments within the field of the copyright rules – has become increasingly difficult. 

This pressure however is two-sided. The opening of new ways for accessibility to archive objects also raises the awareness of this existing and rich material in the archives themselves. 

Further this also opens new ways of negotiating with funding institutions. Often, funding institutions denied (or at least didn’t prefer) funding the digitisation of objects connected to the performing arts (with the archives preserving an inbetween of tangible and intangible heritage, with object groups being multi-materially based (paper sheets, costumes, art works, audiovisual), and with an art form being event-focused, not object-focused. As digitality becomes a major funding point in the culture departments of cities, municipalities and governments, it will hopefully get easier in the future to bring forward the urgently needed digitisation in the archives.

Likewise, the current visibility of the – no longer only internal – archives within the performing arts venues, helps fostering the visibility and the value of these venues’ own archives. Often forgotten and badly funded these sections of the theatres come more into the light of attention of the audience and thus get a more relevant position in the theatres themselves. For over ten years, this has been one of the central aims of the Round table of Berlin theatre archives, a network of theatre dramaturges, scholars and archivists in Berlin who want to help make visible the rich and important collections of theatres and institutions of the performing arts in Berlin as a common heritage.

Furthermore: by fostering the digital presentation and thus skewing the liveness effect within the performing art events the performing arts institutions create new realities. When liveness is something to be (again) discussed within the performing arts field – as new medialities create new opportunities to play with the idea of being or acting live – the frame for institutions, artists and scholars to act and think within the performing arts becomes less bound by aspects of time and location. In terms of the relation between archives and the performing arts this also gives a new direction of what an archival concept can represent and obtain with and within the performing arts.

C.H.

Christine Henniger

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