How does an object in a museum accurately depict its lively performance history? Consider the costume of late 19th / early 20th century Canadian Indigenous performance poet Pauline Johnson: just seeing it on display at its current home in the Museum of Vancouver tells the viewer nothing about the vibrant part it once played as part of Johnson’s live performances, which were never recorded.

Pauline Johnson’s performance dress (City of Vancouver Museum)

While artists have galleries, musicians have recordings and authors have books, theatre and performance artists and dancers have been grappling with the issue of how to accurately archive the “lightning in a bottle” of live performances for decades.

But now, UVic Theatre professor Sasha Kovacs is gathering artists, curators, performers, researchers, archivists and arts enthusiasts together in a unique two-day free public event, Preserving Performance in the Pacific Northwest, running Feb 20-21 at UVic and the Royal BC Museum.

Reanimating performance history

While Kovacs’ own research focuses on Pauline Johnson’s performance history, the Preserving Performance event hopes to highlight the vibrant performance history of the Pacific Northwest by gathering together many of the region’s leading voices in archival knowledge, performance research and artistic practice.

“It’s such an eerie thing when you see a costume that’s fundamentally about life, about action—yet you see it completely still, in a museum space,” says Kovacs, a co-investigator on the Gatherings: Archival and Oral Histories of Performance project, which is providing principle funding for this event.

“Preserving Performance is about reanimating those performance elements of the past that we’ve forgotten about as soon as they’re put in the archive. They go to the archive because we want to remember them, but it also means they’re being released to forget.”

Theatre historian Sasha Kovacs

This curated series of conversations, gatherings and discussions looks to connect museum and archive specialists with performance historians and professionals to consider the political and pragmatic challenges of archiving performances. They will also look to the future, with an eye to collaborating and building networks to ensure the rich activity of performing artists working in this region have the contacts—and appropriate methods available—to ensure that legacies are preserved.

This event highlights the vibrant performance history of the Pacific Northwest region and will gather together many of the region’s leading voices in archival knowledge, performance research, and artistic practice. Goals of the symposium include:

  • deepening knowledge related to the performance activity of the Pacific Northwest region
  • imagining best practices for the preservation of performance materials by surveying and discussing the approaches currently used by local, regional, and national performance organizations and publics, and
  • highlighting the significant role of archives in creative production by inviting some of the region’s celebrated artists to reflect on the impact of archives on their artistic process.

“For so long, theatre artists have romanticized the idea that we’re the magical art form that exists and then disappears, but now there are issues of legacy, of how people remember that work,” says Kovacs. “It makes these huge contributions, but we can’t talk about it if there’s no material.”

Changes in technology and society

“I don’t want to create arguments about which art forms get more funding or attention,” says Kovacs, “but for performance, one of the reasons we’ve had a hard time generating public understanding of how important performance has been to our cultural, political and economic development is because of the challenge of creating any sort of record of it. And even when it is held in a memory institution like a museum or archive—like Pauline Johnson’s dress—it’s lost something.”

Henry Savage’s “King Dodo”, Vancouver Opera House, 1903 (RBCM)

Yet even when performances are recorded, those recordings don’t capture the essence of a living performance, and viewing them seems hollow in comparison to the live event. And recording technology continually changes (stills, film, VHS, Beta, DVD, Blu-ray, digital), which can make watching it in the future difficult.

“Performance forces us to reframe our understanding of what the archive is as memory,” says Kovacs. “If you think of it broadly—in terms of an audience’s memory—then there is a living archive of every performance. But that’s part of a larger conversation about the space performance gets, and some resistance to the art form.”

Defining performance, describing archives

There’s also the issue of what constitutes live performance. “Is Indigenous ceremony performance? Are the materials related to the potlatch ceremony considered performance? If it is, then the RBCM has a lot of materials.”

Danette Boucher of Histrionics Theatre

Participants in the symposium include Fine Arts alumni Danette Boucher (of Barkerville’s Histrionics Theatre), Matthew Payne (Theatre SKAM) and Lindsay Delaronde (Victoria’s first Indigenous Artist in Residence), plus representatives of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, the Royal BC Museum, the Burke Museum of Natural History, UVic’s Archives and a number of Pacific Northwest universities. See the full list and register for the event here.

“Part of this is also about bringing the leaders of these museums together to say what’s in their collections that is performance-related, to develop an inventory of where performance sits in these memory institutions, and what the challenges are that theatre artists are facing with archiving their own work,” says Kovacs.

“For me, it’s about bridging these two worlds—what’s happening in these museums and archives; they’re really interested in performance, and we need a lot of help figuring out what to do with all these materials. Can there be some kind of cross-fertilization between those two fields?”