Performances for camera

Seeing a beautiful still image with a girl lying in the sand in something that looks like dunes in the desert reminded me of some performances for camera on the dunes of Maspalomas at Christmas time 2007 and inspired me to return to an old text describing those experiences. The image turned out to be from a video by Sara Pathirane called Shipwreck, which was performed in the Sahara in 2013.

With a recorded moving image, the performance is divided in two – first a performance for the camera and then a performance or re-presentation for the viewer. This makes the performer–environment relationship slightly different than in a traditional live performance. The performance is created in one place and presented in another place. Miwon Kwon (2002) has analyzed this division within site-specific and situation-based contemporary art. Although the physical site of the artistic intervention and the discursive site of reception and effect are still considered as a continuum, they are nevertheless pulled apart. (Kwon 2002, 29) Evidently, the site for performing and realizing a performance and the site for reception and effect are, to a large extent, moving apart, as we can see in international touring productions and films.

In performance art we mostly assume that the performance takes place in the same location and in front of the eyes of the spectators. Performance art has been called the ephemeral or disappearing art, which cannot be recorded without losing its character (Phelan 1993; Erkkilä 1999, 2008) and the difficulties of documenting it have been debated. (George 2003; Maude-Roxby 2007) On the other hand, it has been argued that performance art is not so much an ephemeral and embodied art form, but “a conceptual art form that is especially well preserved in documents.” (Mäki 2005, 369) Moreover, Philip Auslander (2006, 5) claimed that documenting a performance as performance is precisely what makes an event performance art. Moving images have been used together with photographs to document performance art, and since most performances are never repeated, the documentation has several functions like serving as evidence, producing an object for the art market and providing access to the work for the secondary audience, those not present at the performance event (McMurry 2007).

Performances or actions are created directly for the camera as well. The so-called d2d (direct to documentation) events[1] or screenings in the context of performance art festivals[2] are examples of a growing interest in performances for camera. As is for instance the international series Performance Voyage, produced by Artists Association Muu, which is now touring with its fifth edition.[3] In presenting an anthology of performance art videos for the AV-archive a few years ago, Kari Yli-Annala noted: “Performance art is a performance, which reaches its real mode of being only when taking place. A performance video creates gestures, which turn towards the spectator and show the change that the medium brings into the live situation.” (Yli-Annala 2008)

We could probably analyze the relationship between live performance and video on a continuum with a) performances that stress the live moment and insist on not being documented at one end and b) video works where we no longer distinguish who or what or whether something is actually performing or not in the work at the other end. A rough continuum could include for instance these steps: A live performance not documented – a live performance documented real time – a performance documented and edited for video viewing – a performance performed real time directly for the camera – a performance for the camera edited into a video work – a video with some elements of performance – a video or film. Besides this continuum we could of course think of the relationship of video and performance in another way, since a video can be material for performance, either live or recorded, and the presentation of a video can include a live element as in so called expanded cinema. (Iles 2000)

When working with performances for the camera one almost inevitably enters discourses related to documentary film, video art or moving images, as fine artists call their films today. By calling my works documentary rather than experimental, for instance, I resort to an everyday definition of documentary as “not a feature film” or “not a movie”. (Aufderheide 2007, 1) I have tried to distinguish them from the many video works that play with narrative elements as the cases mixing fiction and documentary explored by Susanna Helke, who notes: “Films born in the border zone of fiction and documentary – acted documentaries as well as half documentary fictions – deserve a place in the history of film genres.” (Helke 2006, 205) And from works that are documentary in the sense of the diary based or auto-ethnographic video works created and discussed by for instance Pekka Kantonen (2008).

In his doctoral dissertation Todellisuuden vangit vapauden valtakunnassa – dokumenttielokuva ja sen tekoprosessi (The Prisoners of Reality in the Realm of Freedom: Documentary Film and Its Production Process) Jouko Aaltonen (2006) references the debate among documentary film-makers concerning the strategies of perception and representation. He opens an interesting point of view to consider in discussions centered on actions and interventions in public space, which are documented as performances.

According to Aaltonen, the strategies of documentary filmmakers can be divided into basic strategies of perceiving and representing. “Each author is forced to make choices concerning both of these questions, either consciously or unconsciously: How to perceive and encounter the world and how to tell about it to others?”(Aaltonen 2006, 10) He maintains that all theoretical discussion concerning documentary film circles around these concerns: “The study shows that the making of a documentary film is a process, in which the filmmaker takes a stand in relation to two basic factors: to the surrounding socio-historical world on the one hand, and to the traditions and conventions of representation on the other. The former is called the reality aspect, and the latter is called the representational aspect.” (Aaltonen, 2006, 246-47).

This simple division seems rather problematic at first; how could you separate perceiving reality and representing it? Nevertheless it can be quite useful. With the help of this division, we can distinguish on one hand the experiential dimension of the work at the moment of performing and video recording (perceiving and encountering the world) and, on the other hand, the communicative and creative dimension when editing the material into a video work for the public and presenting it as an installation or a single-channel video (how to tell about it to others).

The division into perception and representation can be linked to the drifting apart of the site of action or intervention and the site of effects/reception in contemporary site- specific or site-oriented art discussed by Kwon (2002, 29) The two versions of Sitting in Sand (2008) can serve as examples of this division. They were created at Christmas time in 2007 among the sand dunes of Maspalomas in Gran Canaria, with the camera on a tripod and shown later in Helsinki. In the first edited version, Sitting in Sand – Short (15 min.), a human figure is sitting in the landscape at various distances. In the second version, Sitting in Sand (27 min.) the human figure steps into the image, walks into the landscape, sits down for a while, and then returns back behind the camera.  At the level of encountering the landscape, both versions rely on the same event. Interesting choices occur during the editing process at the level of representation. These two ways of telling others about the same event of perceiving and encountering the world can be considered in relation to the issue of reflexivity as well.

According to Aaltonen “[t]he author is always forced to make choices concerning the visibility of his or her narration; is it traditional, as inconspicuous as possible, or visible and reflexive.” (Aaltonen 2006, 229) In the invisible narration of mainstream cinema the spectator is supposed to concentrate on the depicted world and its characters, while reflexivity refers to all the techniques that are utilized to remind the spectator that a film is a constructed representation; for example, the showing of video recording or filming in the film, referring to the film in the dialogue, emphasizing the materiality of film or video and all methods that are used to break the unbroken space-time continuum of the film. (Aaltonen 2006, 229)

Reflexivity has been justified both ideologically and practically. A filmmaker has an ethical responsibility to remind the viewer of the phantasmagorical character of film. Documentary film produces and constructs reality by showing things as natural. “Language is power and the language of cinema, which seems to be life like, is especially powerful.” (Aaltonen 2006, 230) Reflexivity has been suggested as a solution to the legitimacy crises of documentary film, when the era of digital images has changed its indexical status. “[R]eflexivity is more important for documentary film, positioned in the tension between the reality aspect and the representational aspect, than for fiction”, Aaltonen maintains, since  “reflexivity seems to be a narrative device for bringing the relationship to reality, the reality aspect into the work as a visible means of representation.” (Aaltonen 2006, 234)

How could reflexivity be visible in my examples? Using a video camera on tripod enables functioning both as a camera operator and a performer; I can edit out the sequences where I change place before and after the image. In this case, I became interested in the movement into and out of the image, which is usually not included in the work. Should I skip the movement, or should I show the movement, thus revealing personal details, while also emphasizing real time and the scale of the landscape. I could not decide and made two versions.

The immobile first version could be compared with invisible narration; the construction of the images is not shown. The spectator is supposed to forget the presence of the camera and identify with the human figure. While immobile, the human figure merges with the landscape, becomes visually a part of it. The grey scarf stands out from the sand but blends in with the grey shades of the pebbles. The falling form of the scarf repeats the sweeping slopes of the sand dunes. The images are arranged as poses, almost like still-lives, and, as such, they have no specific duration; they are basically timeless.

The movement-based second version, however, shows how the images are produced; entering and exiting the image exposes how the image is constructed. Movement reveals the identity of the human figure and draws attention to the person. On the other hand movement brings depth and scale to the landscape, when the human figure gradually recedes and shrinks or approaches and grows taller. The human figure performs the landscape through movement..

Movement brings in real time. Walking into the landscape and returning to the camera takes time, and the action is shown from start to finish. Real time stresses indexicality and evidential value, reduces the imaginary or timeless aspect and links to the documentation of performance art, which often uses un-manipulated real-time footage to strengthen the documentary feel, or clearly indicates the difference in duration between the actual performance and the video documentation. Using real time is also typical for performances for camera, although the action, unlike in this case, is often addressed directly to the camera or the viewer.

We can assume that stepping in front of the camera and returning behind it show the process of production and functions as a reminder of the fact that the image is constructed. However, with movement the complete action is shown in its total duration and, thus, the unbroken space-time of narration is emphasized. Showing the movement “naturalizes” the situation and strengthens the impression of a document, the evidence of something that took place. Thus we could equally well argue that the immobile version shows a fragment of an event, whereas the second version shows the action completed, and thus resembles traditional invisible narration.

The question of reflexivity is beautifully exemplified in two video works or performances for camera by Sara Pathirane, who has explored immobility and movement among the dunes in Sahara, with Henri Amberla behind the camera. Her two video works from 2013 exemplify in their own manner the difference between immobility and movement, between invisible and visible narration. In Shipwreck (5 min 36 sec.) a human figure lies immobile on the dunes, while the wind blows sand across her body. The image is timeless; the camera is a silent, invisible witness. In Scarabée (2 min 20 sec.) the performer is moving across the dunes while the camera follows her movement sideways. She is pushing the frame of the image, almost as in a pantomime, and finally falls down exhausted and remains lying on the dunes. The illusion of pushing the frame is indicated through exaggerated effort and the camera movement is synchronized with it in a slow movement of the “heavy” frame. The artist literally shows us that she is showing, playing with the idea of framing and reflecting on the construction of the image.



Aaltonen, Jouko. 2006. Todellisuuden vangit vapauden valtakunnassa – dokumenttielokuva ja sen tekoprosessi. (The Prisoners of Reality in the Realm of Freedom: Documentary Film and Its Production Process) Keuruu: Like.

Arlander, Annette 2012. Performing Landscape – Notes on Site-specific Work and Artistic Research. Texts 2001-2011. Acta Scenica 28. Theatre Academy Helsinki.

Aufderheide, Patricia. 2007. Documentary Film – A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Auslander, Philip. 2006. “The performativity of performance documentation.” Performing Arts Journal 84 Vol. 28, N 3. September, 1-10.

Erkkilä, Helena 1999. “Performanssitaiteen monimielinen ruumis” [the multifaceted body of perfromance art] in Erkkilä, Haapala, Johansson, Sakari. Katoava taide – Förgänglig konst – Ephemeral Art. Valtion taidemuseon museojulkaisu. Helsinki: Ateneum, 33-57.

— 2008. Ruumiinkuvia! Suomalainen performanssi ja kehotaide 1980- ja 1990-luvulla psykoanalyysin valossa. [Body Images! Finnish performance art and body art in the 1980s and 1990s in light of psychoanalysis] Helsinki: Kuvataiteen keskusarkisto.

George, Adrian. 2003. (ed.). Art, Lies and Videotape: exposing performance. Liverpool: Tate Liverpool.

Helke, Susanna. 2006. Nanookin jälki – Tyyli ja metodi dokumentaarisen ja fiktiivisen elokuvan rajamailla. (A Trace of Nanook – Cinematic Methods Intertwining Documentary and Fictional Styles). Taideteollisen korkeakoulun julkaisusarja A 65. Helsinki: Taideteollinen Korkeakoulu.

Iles, Chrissie 2000. “Video and Film Space.” In Erika Suderburg (ed.) Space, Site, Intervention – Situating Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 252-262.

Kantonen, Pekka. 2008. “Generational Filming. Experimental and participatory research on video diary.” Mustekala. No 5/08 Volume 30. (11.10.2012).

Kwon, Miwon. 2002. One place after another – site-specific art and locational identity. Cambridge, Massachusets – London, England: The MIT Press.

Maude-Roxby, Alice. 2007. (ed.). Live Art on camera: performance and photography. John Hansard Gallery. Southhampton: University of Southhampton.

McMurry, Jamie 2007. The Role of Documentation in Time-Based Work. MA Thesis in interdisciplinary practice. Donau-Universität Krems.

Mäki, Teemu. 2005. Näkyvä pimeys – esseitä taiteesta, filosofiasta ja politiikasta. [Visible Darkness – essays on art, philosophy and politics] Jyväskylä: Academy of Fine art and Like.

Phelan, Peggy. 1993. Unmarked. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yli-Annala, Kari. 2008. “Reversed Gestures – käännettyjä eleitä,
antologia performanssivideoista ja taiteilijoiden performatiivisista videoteoksista Suomessa.” (anthology of video performances and performative videoworks by artists in Finland) Muu ry. 26.5. 2008. (11.10.2012)

Video works mentioned:

Annette Arlander (2008) Sitting in Sand – Short

— (2008) Sitting in Sand

Sara Pathirane (2013) Scarabée,

— (2013) Shipwreck



[1] The first time I encountered the term was on the program of the festival 7a11d

[2] Recently I have participated with video in screenings of performances on video at performance art festivals like Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival, Chicago, 8.6.2014 or Cyprus International Performance Art Festival, Nicosia 27.6 2014.

[3] Performance Voyage 5 premiered in den Haag