Media of Documentation

Media of Documentation

Sabine Hänsgen
Performance; Collective Actions; Moscow; Eastern Europe; documentation; performance art history.

Performance art, which is determined by transience, uniqueness, and a shared presence with the audience, has also always faced the task of reflecting on its own documentability within the artistic process. In Eastern Europe, however, the documentation of ephemeral events took on a very special meaning. As in the case of Western performance art, it reflected the problematic nature of passing on traditions of actions, happenings, and performances; but self-documentation was moreover a strategic means of compensation for having been excluded from the general public and the mass media within society.

Thus, Eastern European performance art has made an important contribution to the development of alternative spaces of communication beyond market economy and state culture to which access was regulated by censorship. It mostly evolved in subcultural, unofficial ‘underground’ cultural scenes and here, forms of artistic self-organisation developed parallel to the initiatives of samizdat, the movement of self-publishing in the fields of literature, philosophy, or science.

Unlike performance art in Western Europe and the U.S., which primarily aimed at an institutional critique of the art market system, artists in Eastern European were especially concerned with creating organisational forms for institutionalising the art context in order to establish a framework for their activities. In connection with this, artists turned into their own documentarists, and documentation became part of their performance practices, but also art historians as participating observers started to apply artistic methods of documentation within their research practices. In the subcultures of socialist states, a new constellation of actors and observers occurred, which tended towards a dissolving of the boundaries between these different roles. Posing a challenge to traditional art historiography (art history, its institutions, and its concepts), this new constellation provided a prerequisite for another kind of “performative art history,”1 connected to a change in perspective from a distant observer to a participant who is involved into the aesthetic processes of contemporary art.

On the basis of these considerations, it is interesting to further ask how the use of media in the process of documenting can be conceptualised as a performative act: “doing” in the sense implied by the title of this issue. In this regard, I take theoretical inspiration from the work of media philosopher Vilém Flusser, in particular his book Gestures.2 In this book, Flusser identifies an array of media gestures that are also crucial to the process of performance art’s documentation: the gestures of photographing, filming, videoing, of listening to music, but also those of writing, speaking, and of searching (in the broader sense of re-searching).

What makes Flusser’s phenomenological account of media gestures interesting for our line of questioning? With this in mind we can better approach the use of media in the situative context of a performance documentation, as it is not only the technical-instrumental requirements of a recording or their discursive framework that are taken into consideration here. At the centre is a human being, who orients him- or herself in a given situation with a media apparatus, and who seeks a position in, and from which to view the surrounding world with respect to things and people. Flusser is in particular interested in this specific apparatus-operator-complex.

In the following section, the performative aspect of those media gestures that are concerned with technical images will be discussed more closely. The gesture of photographing thematises the photographer as an active subject who, in observing a situation also alters that situation. For Flusser, the gesture of photographing is a bodily movement within space and time composed of a series of tangential decisions to release the shutter.

In contrast to the gesture of photographing, which jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint in the search for a suitable shot and is based on a ‘categorical’ apparatus for producing discrete images, Flusser sees the gesture of filming as one based on a ‘process-related’ apparatus, “with the goal of capturing the world as a stream of indistinguishable images (indefinable concepts).”3 The gesture of filming is characterised through the shift from the recording act to the act of processing the recorded material, to its montage or editing: “[T]he temporal dimension of the depicted scene is represented by the unspooling of the filmstrip. This is what lets us see the essential thing about the filmic gesture. It is the gesture that makes strips intended to represent historical time.4

Finally, the potentialities of video as a new medium at the time were notably developed in practicing performance documentation. The gesture of video is characterised by the fact that the creation of a certain situation in a performance and the process of its reproduction are very closely intertwined. The observer, the person recording is at the same time also an actor participating in the unfolding situation. As Flusser puts it: “[W]e will be dealing with a gesture that no longer attempts to produce a work whose subject is the maker but rather with one that attempts instead to produce an event in which the maker participates, even if he is controlling it.”5

In this introduction only a few clues can be provided as to how the use of media in the process of documentation – and as a part of performance – can be understood. In the available performance documentations from Eastern Europe, there are examples in which one or the other media gesture predominates; there are, however, also examples that are characterised by their interrelation of various media gestures. In these corpuses of complex documentation in particular, a meta-level of artistic investigation of possibilities and limits of documentation is introduced. A prominent example of this can be found in the documentations of the Moscow performance group Collective Actions.

Minimalist activity on an empty snowy white field stimulated the participants of Collective Actions to create a massive documentation corpus. By the final days of the Soviet Union, the group had published in samizdat five documentation volumes, each encompassing several hundred pages, in the form of typewritten texts bound together in book form. These volumes comprise descriptive texts, narratives written by participants, theoretical speculations, discussions, diagrams, maps and photographs that were complemented by video and audio recordings. In the case of Collective Actions, such multi-perspective documentation – where the process of communication within an unofficial cultural scene became the material of art – not only set out to record the traces of past events, but it is to be understood as part of the process creating an event, and documentation is even able to generate new actions in a future perspective. In a series of self-reflexive actions (with titles like Reproduction, Discussion, Library, Video, etc.), documentation as such became an issue. Conspicuous in this kind of documentation aesthetics is the excessive significance it places on writing/text/literature, which appears to be almost specific to the region in light of international comparison. On the one hand, this can be seen as a dispute arising in reaction to ideological culture – as a culture of texts, manifestos and slogans – as well as with state bureaucracy practices of organisation, administration, and documentation. Conversely, the elaborate medialisation of documentation in written and visual media can be questioned with regard to its potential for generating evidence. Likewise, it makes perceptible a distance from the shared experience in the situation of “live performance,” and finally lends the term “liveness,” on which Philip Auslander so intensely reflected, its actual meaning.6

Sabine Hänsgen
Slavic scholar, cultural and media historian


1 Cf. Philip Ursprung, “Performative Kunstgeschichte”, in: Verena Krieger (Hg.), Kunstgeschichte & Gegenwartskunst. Vom Nutzen & Nachteil der Zeitgenossenschaft (Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau, 2008), pp. 213–226.

2 Vilém Flusser, Gestures, translated by Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

3 Flusser, p. 80.

4 Flusser, p. 87.

5 Flusser, pp. 145-146.

6 Cf. Philip Auslander, Liveness. Performance in a mediatized culture (London/New York: Routledge, 1999).


As Sascha Wonders, ed. with Günter Hirt: Lianosowo. Gedichte und Bilder aus Moskau (1992); Kulturpalast. Neue Moskauer Poesie und Aktionskunst (1984), Moskau Moskau (1987), Präprintium. Moskauer Bücher aus dem Samizdat (Bremen: Edition Temmen 1998); Sovetskaya vlast i media (ed. with Hans Günther, 2006), Der gewöhnliche Faschismus. Ein Werkbuch zum Film von Michail Romm (ed. with Wolfgang Beilenhoff, 2009), Yuri Albert. Elitär-demokratische Kunst (ed. with Sandra Frimmel, Köln: Snoeck 2018), Poetry & Performance. Die osteuropäische Perspektive (ed. with Tomáš Glanc, Dresden: Motorenhalle 2019).

Suggested Citation

Hänsgen, Sabine. 2020. “Media of Documentation.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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