“You Had To Be There”: Diana Taylor at LSU

By Taylor Smith

This spring, Louisiana State University’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa hosted Visiting Scholar Diana Taylor. Taylor is a professor of performance studies and Spanish at New York University. In addition to having written numerous books regarding the sanctity of performance, including The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas and Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin America, she is also the founding director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. 

In her lecture entitled, “Saving the ‘Live’: Reperformance and Intangible Cultural Heritage,” Diana Taylor addresses the importance of preserving a live work of art not only by copying the actions and words of the original, but through preserving the meaning conveyed in the original performance. 

Taylor explains that the meaning and message given by a performance is “always in situ,” meaning that performances that are taken out of their original context have lost their potency in translation, even if the actions and words of the artists are copied exactly. Taylor rejects the idea that the original performance can be separated from the culture and time period and simply repeated to convey the original ideas. The piece’s cultural significance is inseparable from the performance. Reperforming is not just about replicating the actions or words, but about “transmitting the presence of the artist,” says Taylor, who seeks to preserve those practices within the broad scope of “intangible cultural heritage.” 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines intangible cultural heritage as including “oral traditions, performing artssocial practices, rituals, festive eventsknowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” While Taylor respects UNESCO’s effort to preserve cultural heritage, she is critical of its methods. Because UNESCO collaborates with national governments stakeholders in its cultural protection efforts, there are often economic concerns in play. With regards to this type of preservation, Taylor asks, “[When] turning it into an economically sustainable attraction for self-conscious performance of itself, has the convention succeeded in safeguarding it, or destroying it?”

The performance of Abramovic’s piece, “Night-Sea Crossing,” in which artist Marina Abramovic sits motionless at a table opposite her then partner Ulay, challenged the general public’s view of “live performance,” as the stillness gives the impression of “imminence and potentiality,” Taylor explains. A reenactment of this piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at an event titled “The Artist is Present,” succeeded in recreating the drama of the original piece by making changes that reflected the difference in time that had passed since the original was performed. In this reperformance, Abramovic sat at a table opposite a number of other participants who had waited in line for a chance to sit across from Abramovic in silence for as long as they wished. This piece, while mimicking the visual of the first performance, revealed entirely separate truths and a meaning different from the first. 

Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s original performance of “Imponderabilia,” in which the two naked artists stood opposite one another in the doorway to an art exhibit, was originally performed in 1977 at the Galleria Communale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna, Italy. This piece explored the audience’s feelings of awkwardness that surfaced when expected social constructions were suddenly broken down. In this performance, the artists stood in the only entrance to the exhibit, thereby causing the participants to make the decision of not only whether or not to enter the room, but also of choosing which person they would face as they passed. This piece was reperformed at the MoMA in 2010, but was met with much less success than the reperformance of “Night-Sea Crossing.” This time the two naked actors stood at an entryway to the exhibit, but it was not the only entryway to the exhibit, and therefore the key factor of social constructions being ignored was not present. The differences in this reperformance, rather than assisting in the modernization of the performance, merely stripped it of its meaning and the original edginess. This failure to capture the meaning in live artwork is also seen in Re-Akt!’s attempt at digitally preserving the image of “Imponderabilia.” Taylor refers to this kind of failure of preservation as “mummification”, because it renders the reperformance lifeless. 

The questions left by Taylor’s lecture are ones not easily answered: “How can we successfully reperform a work of art?” “Is the preservation of culture and live performance something truly attainable?” “How can a reperformance give an audience those same feelings as the original?” “How can a copy give new meaning to the original piece?” 

Taylor suggests that the preservation of performance is more complicated than preserving an original script or a video of the original. The definition of true preservation is difficult to determine. To be sure, true preservation of live performance, a preservation that continues to communicate culture and value to modern audiences, will mean cognitive evaluation of the meaning the artwork symbolized in its own time, and how the same piece will communicate to the modern audience. It will mean accepting the value of a moment rather than the value of the concrete, and recognizing the value in the art of discerning new modes of communicating to an audience rather than in the physical copy of the work itself. 

Diana Taylor succeeded in communicating this value to her audience, and finished her lecture with a statement explaining live performance’s elegant ephemerality: “Videos don’t do it justice; you had to be there. And that’s the beauty of it: You had to be there

Taylor Smith is a senior at Louisiana State University majoring in the liberal arts with a concentration in disaster science management. Louisiana State is home to the Beta of Louisiana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.