The Storming of the Authoritarian Archive – Doing Performance Archiving As an Artistic Act

Kata Krasznahorkai
Tibor Hajas; Eastern Europe; self-archiving; performance; archivisation; re-performance; re-enactment; body archive.

Self-archiving both as an artistic process and as artistic material is at the core of archiving performances in Eastern Europe since the 1960s. If archiving becomes an artistic process, how can we relate this phenomenon to the debate sparked by the controversy between performance theoreticians who are archive-phobic (e.g. Peggy Phelan) and those who are archive-philic (e.g. Jose Esteban Muñoz, Rebecca Schneider and Diana Taylor)? The archive-phobic narrative dominated archiving strategies in the majority of those cases where the ‘uniqueness of the moment’, the singularity of the bodily presence at the specific event later became part of a heroising narrative and the mythisation of performances. Following this narrative of suppressed underground secret performances realised in a single historical moment, bodily presence as part of a historical scenery seemed to be irreproducible and unique. All the more so, as these events were, in the majority of cases, only accessible to a certain, carefully chosen community, usually of artists and art critics, and were generally invisible to the general public. Archiving in the moment of performing became a theoretical act addressed at a specialised audience, who were also responding to these theoretical acts in performances with their (bodily) presence. In many cases it is these theoreticians and artists, who are vehemently against archivisation as an ongoing bodily process after 1990. They insist on the concept of the original ‘first’ performance that has to be preserved in exactly the same way it was performed at that specific historical time in that specific historical context following a certain linearity in time and space, claiming the present as being their presence. It is them, claiming today with Phelan that “performance's only life is in the present”1 and that performances “cannot be saved, recorded, documented”2 – nor archived. This vehement exclusion of future audiences and their holding archival power is a major problem for whole generations of researchers on performance art, as these ‘original’ sources are often kept under the heavy lock of those single, individual historical actors, who do not allow access to these materials unless their imposed narrative of this uniqueness in time and space is followed. The best-known example of this artistic self-archiving strategy through insisting on the ‘original’ performance is the practice of Marina Abramović through her self-fetishisation as a performance-object. Similarly, the missing research on Tibor Hajas, one of the most influential performers for generations of artists shows the extensive and fatal dimensions of this problem.

For the archive-philic standpoint it is crucial to focus on the context of bodily presence in semi-public spaces as being part of a performance. Due to state repression and intense surveillance of the performance scenes in Eastern Europe, this unique presence at the specific time and space truly had a dimension of preserving personal memory versus state memory: as both were bodily present at these events – the actors of the performance and the actors of the state. This way, memory becomes an “archive for performance”3. Archiving, in this context, becomes not only a historicising process of performances, but also a political act. As textual presence was not accessible for possible archivers, nor for the audience addressed by these archivists because of state restrictions on performance art especially, the bodily transmission and bodily memory became central to archiving and self-archiving performances. All the more so, as archiving was in the hegemonial power of the state. And through the network of agents – often artists themselves – this archive-fever of the state is manifest in the hundreds of meters of written text-material in form of surveillance files on performance artists in most Eastern European states.

So, body archives as living archives were counter-archives to the states’ archive-fever. While Western marginalisation results in the body being excluded from the archive, in case of Eastern European performance (self) archiving is the body-archive that becomes the space where the negotiation of the body in relation to history is executed. The archival information remaining in the body leads to bodily transmissions, re-enactments and self-archiving, which becomes a continuous artistic phenomenon, dissolving linearity into a circularity of time and space. Hereby further artistic concepts from remediatisation to reenactments – also within the single artistic oeuvres – are part of this artistic process of self-archivisation.

The diversity of these archiving strategies compared to the amnesia of historicisation and contextualisation, shows the diversity of form in archives of Eastern European performance art. From artistic archives, that are still self-archiving their work also with remedialisation, re-performances and re-enactments, (e.g. Tamas St.Auby or Ion Grigorescu) on to semi-institutionalised personal-archives such as Lia Perjovschi, Julius Koller, KwieKulik to the institutionalisation of personal archives to state archives as is the case with Artpool Art Research Center – Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. The Artpool Art Research Center, one of the most important sources of non-state artistic archiving practices, was founded by the artist György Galántai as an unofficial archive 1979, and from the 1990s onwards became a state-supported private institution open for public research, until its current restructuring as an autonomous institution within the Museum of Fine Arts. The storming of the ‘authoritarian’ archives is a strategy by doing performance art history through the body archive. The storming is based on the archive-philic performance theoreticians who gained victory over the ‘paternalist’ archive by focusing on the body as a document of performance art history (Schneider). The theorisation of bodily-archives led to a reconsideration of archives of performance in museum-collections: the museums turn also to ‘bodies’ which hold permanent cross-temporal traces of performances. Archives’ documents are the “bones”4 of performance research, where the “fleshy kind of ‘document’”5 can be reconstructed and re-visioned. In recent decades, major museums in Eastern Europe have begun intensifying their efforts to collect and archive performances due to museological standards as part of the collective cultural memory.

But artists’ counter-archiving-strategies also go against the narrative on performance art in the museum context. So for example, the parallel chronologies project initiated by, sheds new light on performances left out of the official historical museum narrative, and in Tamás Szentjóby’s Portable Intelligence Increasing Museum filling the gap of the official narrative is an artistic act, that is truly continuing the tradition of performance-archiving as a political counter-act to the official archive-fever.

This ongoing artistic force of archiving performances as an artistic act shows the vast potential of deeper examinations of these diverse archival strategies of performances in Eastern Europe as, through this, new horizons will appear for the general history and theory of performance archives as well.

Kata Krasznahorkai
University of Zurich


1 Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York and London: Psychology Press, 1993), p. 146.

2 Ibid.

3 Dorota Sajewska, “Memory as an Archive of Performances. World War I in Contemporary Polish Theatre and Visual Arts”, online: [14.04.2020].

4 Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 103.

5 Ibid, p. 37.


Gerda Henkel Senior Researcher at the Slavic Department of the University of Zurich. Artists & Agents. Performance Art and Secret Services (ed. with Sylvia Sasse, Leipzig: Spector Books 2019). Forthcoming: Operative Art History or Who is Afraid of Artists? (Spector Books: Leipzig 2020).

Suggested Citation

Krasznahorkai, Kata. 2020. “The Storming of the Authoritarian Archive – Doing Performance Archiving As an Artistic Act.” 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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