door Jennifer Steetskamp

This article has been written on the occasion of two Peter Bogers retrospectives, presented at the Netherlands Media Art Institute, Amsterdam, in 2006 and at the Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, in 2006/2007. Both institutions have been looking for possibilities to show a series of installations that have been exhibited before. By being repeatedly re-created under different circumstances, the installations often changed considerably over time, both on a visual and technological level. In Amsterdam and Stuttgart, they have been adapted for the specific spatio-temporal situation. In these two contexts, different decisions were taken with respect to the question in what way they should be re-presented. The article is not so much an attempt to evaluate the practical aspects of preserving multimedia installations, but addresses questions surrounding the preservation and presentation of installation art on a more theoretical level, starting with an analysis of the work itself.

The video installations of Peter Bogers constitute an interesting context in which to discuss problems related to documentation and conservation, raising questions that are at the very centre of what concerns the preservation and presentation of contemporary art: what is the work in question, where are its limits and what exactly has to be preserved? What if the work consists of ephemeral actions or materials that are subject of accelerated decay? How to preserve something that seems to be destined to disappear? These questions have been frequently discussed in the context of preserving contemporary art in general, and, more specifically, in relation to conceptual art and performances. Due to both their site-specificity many installations, too, are questioning traditional strategies of documentation and preservation in a rather profound way. A common diagnosis is here that the fundamental challenge of preserving installation art – apart from the obvious physical challenges1 – is to accurately re-present the original installation. Installations, like “live” events, can only be experienced within temporally limited boundaries and in dependence of a specific set of spatial parameters. If the piece is not exhibited, it is in fact no longer visible and cannot be experienced the way it was before. In order to make re-presentation possible, documentation has to be at the centre of any preservation strategy concerning installations. As in theatre or performance art, this documentation may in the most extreme case be the only remaining trace of the work. The particularly “performative” character of installations is quite paradigmatic for a lot of work that is generally classified as “media art”, that is, art that has a temporal and processual structure and exploits the aesthetic and technological possibilities of the mass media.2

The video installations of Peter Bogers could be called “performative” in several respects. Being trained in a sculpture department as well as having a profound interest in body and performance art, Bogers turned to video quite early in his career. In his interviews, he frequently states that, while starting off with “live” performances, he soon decided to do video performances (i.e. performances in which the designated audience is replaced by the video camera) because he felt uncomfortable performing in front of a public. His media art practice does not remain restricted to the two-dimensional, “cinematographic” images of single-channel video, but is extended into the space of presentation itself, allowing for a different type of experience. Many of his installations include object-process hybrids, investigating the relation between space and moving image, represented bodies and present bodies, rendering strict divisions on this level problematic. One could say that his video installations allow for the label “performance” in a way that is quite close to what is generally understood as a “live” body art pratice.

The idea that conservators ought to find a way of re-presenting the “original” installation in the most truthful way possible partly relies on the assumption that there is a clear-cut distinction between “work” and “ document” or “re-enactment”, i.e. original presentation and secondary re-presentation. The work of Peter Bogers does not seem to affirm the division between “originary” works and “supplementary” re-presentations, as many of his installations – presented as the designated work of art – are based on “secondary” images of a performance that took place earlier, in a different setting, in which he uses his own body as point of departure. This especially applies for his early works, ranging from Portret (1992) and Sacrifice (1994) to Retorica (1992) and Play Rev Play (1999).3 The images are not to be considered mere “documentation”, but are configured to function as works or events in their own right. Furthermore, the artist himself denies the possibility of a hierarchical division; the different manifestations of the work are equally valuable. In the case of many of his installations, there is no ultimate “work” to be referred to in the first place -- the work is the total series of realizations and, in this way, has an open-ended structure. It could be regarded as an “open system”.

Preservation strategies that maintain the distinction between the original work and secondary re-appearances find themselves in a rather paradoxical place: at one hand, they presuppose the work to be something essentially unrepeatable, and at the other hand, they aim at the re-creation of the unique moment, to preserve what cannot be preserved. The work of Peter Bogers fundamentally challenges the concept of an “original” work as well as the idea that performativity is mostly determined by ephemerality and disappearance.4 The question is then, whether a different understanding of the “performative” character of body art, multimedia installations and media art in general could lead to a situation in which the paradox of preserving the assumingly unpreservable (i.e. the ephemeral, the medium- and site-specific) could be resolved. If recognizing the fact that any attempt to re-install an installation implies preservation and alteration at the same time, preservation theory could open itself up for new possibilities of formulating the relation between work and document, performance and re-enactment, installation and re-installation. The tension of fixation and change, i.e. the paradox of fixation by change, could be used in a productive way, such that it provides a new set of questions, if not answers, in the field of preservation.

A first step could be to have a look at the art of performance and installation to see whether the notion of performativity can be reformulated in accordance with the characteristics of Bogers’ work, which relies on repetition and repeatability in various ways. Three works will be discussed against this background: Sacrifice (1994), Ritual (1997) and The Unified Field (2006), which were selected because they each represent different moments and phases in the work of this artist; they all raise different questions surrounding the preservation of media art and multimedia installations in particular. Whereas Sacrifice problematizes the distinction between “performance” and “document”, Ritual mainly addresses the variability of multimedia installation when realized at different occasions. More than the other works, The Unified Field focuses on the relationship between viewer and work, and the way that members of the audience become “performers” within the context of the installation.