The Portal

Living Materials: Ethics and Principles for Embodied Stewardship

Simone Forti teaching Huddle at the Museum der Moderne, July 2014. Photograph by Megan Metcalf.

This conversation between artist and archivist Cori Olinghouse and art historian Megan Metcalf examines embodied conservation skills, which are essential for the preservation of performance and related mediums yet remain mostly invisible and under-theorized in visual art. The presentation begins from the premise that dance and other performance forms have inherent strategies for continuation that mitigate against their ephemerality. First the speakers lay out paradigms from dance and improvisation for originality, authorship, and continuity that are at odds with those of object conservation. This sets up an exploration of the care of live art at museums and beyond institutions through a “mutual interview” focused on each speaker’s experience with translating dance and performance works for the present and future. 

Olinghouse’s role ferrying embodied knowledge from artist to museum for Autumn Knight’s WALL (2016), acquired by the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2019, underscored the need for artist- and body-centered approaches to archiving and preservation. This need was also uncovered in the acquisition of Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions (1960-61) by the Museum of Modern Art (NY) in 2015, a process in which Metcalf participated. The curatorial framework and dramaturgy developed by Olinghouse in 2015 for Melinda Ring’s Impossible Dance #2 (still life) (1999) are instructive alongside older models for “preserving” dances such as Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A (1966), a critical piece of Metcalf’s research into continuation models for dance. And, the reconstruction and reinterpretation of Trisha Brown’s Pamplona Stones (1974) undertaken by Olinghouse in 2018 provides a foil for projects initiated under Merce Cunningham’s Legacy Plan, both of which offer creative approaches to the “afterlives” of performance. The Pamplona Stones project foregrounded collaboration and re-formulated its humor in order to enable the duet to endure in the present, while Metcalf’s research has shown that the Legacy Plan foreclosed such transformations of Cunningham’s work within the museum context, making clear certain expectations of the museum’s competencies.

From these vivid examples, Metcalf and Olinghouse offer guiding principles and ethics for embodied stewardship. These include ensuring a practitioner versed in bodily knowledge is part of the strategic process for conserving live works, while at the same time recognizing the embodied knowledge already held within institutional memory. These recommendations also include acknowledging the social “material” out of which performances are made, individuals who provide a foundational fabric for an artwork’s continuation. The conversation demonstrates how translating performance for the future can offer critical insight into an artwork; when undertaken with embodied conservation skills, it is not necessarily a project threatened by the rigidity of preservation or centrally concerned with loss. And finally, this discussion recognizes the generative performance stewardship taking place in community settings far away from institutional and academic structures. Together the speakers call for diverse, inclusive, and expansive approaches to preservation, which the longstanding field of performance can help inspire.