Reassessing the Roles and Values of Art Documentation in the Context of Environmental Practice

Gabriella Giannachi*


This article analyses how best to document complex performative artworks that have variously engaged with the environmental crisis. These include pioneering works from the 1960s and 1970s, often defining the terms and aesthetics of ecological practice, as well as more recent works looking specifically into climate crisis communication, mitigation, and adaptation. The article starts by assessing the values of existing performance documentation strategies used in the museum context, including those adopted at Tate and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, showing how these organisations document a work’s iterations, identity, history of interaction, and change. The article then moves on to assess the changing roles and values of art documentation within the context of environmental practice, looking also at practices adopted by other individuals and organisations, such as the Centre for Land Use Interpretation. Finally, the article suggests a possible framework for the future documentation of works dealing with ecological and environmental art, and art about the climate crisis. Case studies include works by Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Rimini Protokoll, Superflex and Climavore.

Keywords: documentation, conservation, care, presence, performance, time-based media, ecology

Debates about the role and value of performance documentation have been long-lasting, involving often diverging points of view. In Performance Studies, the emphasis has usually been placed on the ontology of performance, so much so that Peggy Phelan famously stated that performance “cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations” (146), producing a reading of performance grounded in presence, in relation to the live event, and “in absentia,” in relation to the aftermath of the live event (Westerman qtd. in Giannachi and Westerman 2ff). New media studies researchers have tended to favour phenomenological readings of performance, building on Philip Auslander’s proposition that “our sense of the presence, power, and authenticity of these pieces derives not from treating the documents as an indexical access point to a past event but from perceiving the document itself as a performance that directly reflects an artist’s aesthetic project or sensibility and for which we are now the present audience” (9). Hence, documents resulting from performance can be treated in loco of performance, allowing performance to persist as documentation. However, some forms of performance only exist as documentation, in that no “original” performance ever took place. Finally, art historians have brought to our attention the changing roles played by documentation, especially in the museum context. Thus, Barbara Clausen, for example, noted that documentation plays three roles within the museum: “initially as a press image, then as a historical document, and finally as a work of art” (qtd. in Giannachi and Westerman 94). It is in the latter context that several advances made specifically at the Tate, as part of a series of consecutive research projects,[1] changed not only the ways in which museums document performance but also how they conceive of the relationship between performance and documentation in the first place.

Since museums started to acquire performance, there has been a significant shift in their documentation practice. No longer considered as something purely concerned with an initial or original performance, documentation started to be used from the moment of acquisition throughout the life of the work, primarily to facilitate its possible future activations. Key parameters became the tracking of the work’s variability and change. In the aftermath of Tate’s Head of Collection Care Research Pip Laurenson’s key paper “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations,”  in which she suggested that instead of preserving a work’s authenticity, conservators should focus on its “identity,” Tate introduced novel documentation strategies through the Live List (Laurenson et al.) which identified a series of key “prompts” to consider while documenting live works. The Live List was subsequently developed into the Strategy on the basis of three key frameworks, The Performance Specification, Activation Report and the Map of Interactions (Lawson, Finbow and Marçal).

The Strategy aims to document performative, time-based and new media artworks so that they could be activated in subsequent years. It entailed information about the identity of the work, its potential for change, its behaviour over several iterations and the details of the stakeholders who may need to be involved in subsequent activations, facilitating the tracking, so to speak, of the life of the work over time, therefore also pinning down the museum’s responsibilities in relation to that. Hence, documentation, within the museum context, is both past- and future-facing, aimed at preserving not only documents about a version of a work but also offering information for the work’s future activation. In this sense, museum documentation maps not only the museum’s work of care for the artwork but also what is entailed in activating the work over time. These practices signal that within the museum context no performance is privileged, as an original, over another.

Here, I wish to show that in the context of work dealing with ecology, the environment and the climate crisis, some of the primary values of documentation also reside in the inclusion of the audience’s perspective as well as in the identification of the work’s “network of care.” This expression, coined by curator and new media researcher Annet Dekker, recognises the roles of those who look after a work over time, whether in an archive or a collection or in a physical environment.  

As documentation started to proliferate in museums, internal management systems dedicated to the structure and facilitation of the flow of documentation became a necessity. The Team Media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which had been set up in the early 1990s, was one of the first museum teams to attempt to create a stronger cohesion between various forms of documentation that had been scattered among different departments by introducing the MediaWiki in 2012. This platform offered “navigation through documentation” as well as “support for documenting decision making,” “linking components” and “version control including history of changes” (Barok, Noordegraaf and de Vries 494). In the words of Martina Haidvogl, who at the time was Associate Media Conservator at SFMOMA, the MediaWiki thus showed that “a multitude of voices can lead to richer, more complex, and arguably more comprehensive artwork records” (qtd. in Haidvogl and White). In fact, interestingly, the MediaWiki entails a range of parameters for documentation, including research, from both inside and outside of the museum, and iterative development, incorporating findings from loans to other museums. Hence, the SFMOMA MediaWiki constitutes not only a tool for preserving knowledge about individual works but also a tool to look at the behaviour and care of works across departments, sites and organisations, ensuring that the practice of documentation would remain “open,” mapping the life of the work and its history of interaction across sites. Here, documentation functions not only as a strategy used to capture the museum’s own practice of care but also a mechanism for sharing this practice across various organisations and their respective communities. It is this mechanism that is at the heart of the documentation framework I propose in this article.

I argued elsewhere for the recognition of the importance of documenting what I have called the “environment” of a work, by which I mean the position of the documenter and wider context in which the work takes place (qtd. in Hölling, Pelta Feldman, Magnin). Here, I wish to show how the practice of documentation has the potential, by asking of us that we position ourselves in relation to a work, to reshape our relation to our heritage (tangible and intangible), as well as our lifestyle, and facilitate the understanding of what the heritage means to us and who we are in relation to it.

By documenting, or working with documentation, we may, in fact, gain a new sense of place and revisit not only the identity of a work but also our own position and presence in relation to that. Caring for a work is, therefore, not only a way of preserving a work or facilitating a future activation of it; it is also an epistemic and phenomenological strategy for constructing our changing identity in relation to that. In other words, the roles and values of documentation go well beyond the material care for the work and have wider societal benefits, especially when they are community-led and community-facing and the care is, so to speak, shared.

Within the context of environmental performance, or art dealing with ecological and environmental factors, including the climate crisis, documentation plays a significant role in climate change testimony and its communication. Elsewhere, I have shown that art that has been dealing with the climate crisis can often be grouped under one or more of the three categories of representation, performance and mitigation (Giannachi) and that the involvement of these categories has tended to facilitate changes in perspective which, in turn, led to environmental changes. I, subsequently, found that this framework had inspired the Climate Stories Collaborative at the Appalachian State University to creatively reflect on climate change through climate stories which allow participants to “care for, respond to, and become responsible to one another” in that “[s]torying climate change activates empathy, agency, and collective action-skills necessary for responding well to climate change” (England et al.). The conjunct presence of qualities pertaining to these categories can lead to a “repositioning of the viewer from spectator to participant . .  or activist” (131).

Thus, here I wish to show that by documenting and/or caring for a work, whether through storytelling, image or video capture, we engage with a work and its environment, and by positioning ourselves in relation to it, we become implicated in it, and experience it from a different perspective. It is this opening up to other ways of seeing and perceiving that can produce a change in us. Hence, it is possible to infer that one of the most significant and yet still underrated values of documentation lies in the actual act of documentation itself—in its potential as a knowledge-gathering exercise that teaches us (documentation derives from the Latin doceo) to look at an object, place, act or work, to track not only it, but also ourselves, in relation to it.

The Centre for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), funded in 1994, has been working as a pioneer in this respect. CLUI, an educational organisation involved in examining contemporary landscape issues in the U.S.A., hosts a rich online archive and database, which it uses to produce exhibitions, online tours and lectures. CLUI also acts as the lead agency of the American Land Museum, constituting “a network of landscape exhibition sites being developed across the United States” whose aim it is to “create a dynamic contemporary portrait of a nation, a portrait composed of the national landscape itself” (“The American Land Museum at Wendover, Utah”). Described by the writer and curator Lucy Lippard as “a tantalising liminal space (that) has opened up between disciplines, between the arts, geography, history, archaeology, sociology,” CLUI hosts a database that has been created by CLUI participants to reveal how sites change over the years. Thus, in San Francisco alone, the database shows a number of sites, including a NIKE launch site that has been restored for public viewing just north of the city, past the Golden Gate Bridge, which used to protect the Bay area during the Cold War between 1954 and 1974, and, near Bayview, Hunters Point, a heavily industrialised and contaminated Navy shipyard, which operated from 1941 to 1974 servicing submarines as well as aircraft carriers, that has been converted to civilian use and is used by a large arts community who are able to sublease the area.

CLUI also hosts a number of programs and projects and is engaged in research and exhibitions which are thematically or regionally focused on themes such as agriculture, energy, excavation, habitation, industry, water, waste and so on, so all land use forms documented fit into one or more of these categories. Especially interesting, perhaps, is the 2016 CLUI research project mapping “Middles of Nowhere: Dry Lakes of the Mojave,” which shows that dry lakes are places in deserts where drainage had stooped, “landscape dead-ends,” attracting “activities that are drawn to nowhere.” Many of these environments have no name and are marked as “alkali flat, salt flat, sink, mudflat, wash or playa.” The exhibition of the CLUI site covers around 70 of these sites in the Mojave, concluding that the nowheres shown in the exhibition have, thanks for the mapping, became somewhere.[2] These examples of land use documentation show that land can be repurposed or found and reclaimed, and that community care and its documentation can be at the heart of this process.

Survival Piece V. Portable Orchard. 1972 California State University, Fullerton, CA. 2016 Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, MN. Photo: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Harrison Studio

Many eco-art pioneers have offered inspiring examples of how documentation can be used to promote environmental awareness and change. Among them is The Harrison Studio and Associates, which holds the collection of the work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. The Harrisons have been pioneers in the eco-art movement and have collaborated for over four decades with biologists, ecologists, activists and curators, nationally and internationally. At the heart of their work has been the aim to support biodiversity and foster community development, often through the use of documentary materials, such as maps, collages, photomurals, drawings, storytelling and performance. Their projects included watershed restauration, urban renewal and communication of agricultural and forestry development related to environmental change and they led to policy changes. In the 1980s, The Harrisons formed the Studio to foster collaborative work in the U.S. and in several European countries, and they work collaboratively with artists there.

Their website hosts materials from several of their works, including photos, videos, interview materials, publications and documentations of works spanning from the 1970s to 2010, as well as materials about The Lagoon Cycle and The Time of the Force Majeure.

The Lagoon Cycle (1974–78) is about estuarial lagoons; places where, in their words, “fresh and salt waters meet and mix,” “a fragile meeting and mixing not having the consistency of the oceans or the rivers” whose existence is at risk due to heavy rains, forest fires and so on. Like the nowheres documented by CLUI supporters, estuarial lagoons are a reminder of how we perceive the transitory and ephemeral nature of the environment. Keen to use their art as a mechanism for the communication of ecological priorities, their Portable Orchard (1972), commissioned by the Gallery at California State University, Fullerton, was composed of 12 boxes planted with assorted citrus trees. Because of the loss of orchard and farm to ongoing suburban and industrial development, the work was anticipated to be the last orchard of Orange County. The work was, in fact, part of a series of what they called Survival Pieces (1070–74), which started with Making Earth (1970) and was followed by a Portable Fish Farm (1971) and Portable Orchard (1972). Their own documentation of the projects, published in The Time of the Force Majeure (2016), illustrates, for each of the works, its conception, research, production, reception and learning inferred, including what went wrong (in the case of Portable Fish Farm, a negative reaction from the British press that almost led to the closure of the gallery in which the work was to be shown). The work of the Harrisons has, literally, mapped the field, establishing the parameters for an interdisciplinary, intermedial and community-facing ecological art practice. Their work is highly influential, and their use of documentation of the environment as an art form has played a key role not only in terms of conservation and mitigation but also as a strategy for the creation of a “network of care” that could inspire others to continue in their path.

Portable Orchard. Installation detail, California State University, Fullerton, 1972. Photo: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Harrison Studio

Another pioneer in the use of documentation as a strategy for the creation of site-specific works is the Bay Area artist Lynn Hershman Leeson. The Floating Museum (1975–8) was a curatorial work in which she commissioned several artists to create works in the city of San Francisco, during the first phase of the project, and in Europe, during the second phase. The first phase was inaugurated on 6 November 1975 by two performance pieces by Southern California artist Eleanor Antin, who presented King’s Meditation at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and Ballerina, the following day, in the eighteenth-century galleries of the California Palace of the Legion of Honour.

In 1978, the activities of the second phase culminated in an exhibition produced in collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art titled “Global Space Invasion (Phase II),” which featured the work of over one hundred artists at public spaces throughout the city, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit, a courtyard on Sacramento Street and the landscapes of Fort Point. Throughout both phases, artists were encouraged to use several media, including video and performance, soundscapes and installation. Artists that participated in The Floating Museum included Michael Asher, Eleanor Antin, Peter d’Agostino, Newton and Helen Harrison, Douglas Davis, Judith Barry, Paul Cotton, Gordon Matta Clark, Robert Harris, Richard Kamler and Bonnie Sherk.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. The Floating Museum (1975-8). Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Hershman Leeson

The Floating Museum was “integrated into everyday life” (Fowley 42), aiming, in Hershman Leeson’s words, “to recycle space that already existed, using what was already there, the environment” (qtd. in Loeffler and Tong 383). In fact, with the exception of a mural built at San Quentin prison, The Floating Museum intended to facilitate the development of “temporary projects” and was “in itself only temporary,” creating work that was “either situational or environmental,” by which Hershman Leeson referred to “work made for the specific place in it, shown with the political, social and psychological positions incorporated into its construct” (qtd. in Loeffler and Tong 383). Hence, The Floating Museum’s “fundamental concept” was to transform the city, “to recycle existing spaces and resources as well as to transform local areas into temporary exhibition sites” (Hershman Leeson, “The Floating Museum”). Documents about the city’s past were often used to inform or draw inspiration for the work, as in the case of Richard Kamler’s “An Environmental Installation for the Transformation of the Old Sutro Bath House Ruins” (1978).

The Sutro Bath House were opened to the public in 1806 as the world’s largest indoor set of swimming pools, but it was destroyed by a fire in 1966 and never restored to its former glory. The ruins, however, remain open to visitors and form part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. For Kamler the mark of time was significant:

The patina of antiquity is already visible: partially submerged walls looming through green slime coated waters, barnacles clinging to worn concrete surfaces, the ocean constantly attacking and threatening to reclaim it all, the dunes and walls of sand shifting and sliding in response to some timeless rhythm from the past.

Like other works in The Floating Museum, Kamler’s installation was built for a particular community. This vision motivated him to give his audiences a shared task; so, the work used a number of bales of straw that had been purchased from a series of farms in Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin countries. These were loaded on barges and towed out and under the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco Bay,  where they were anchored for a period of time to become “a momentary part of the bay seascape” (Kamler). The barges then moved to the Embarcadero where the bales of straw were donated and removed by community groups who had expressed a need for it.

The Floating Museum, whose documentation features in Hershman Leeson’s own book of the same title (2021), was an experiment in curation that asked for artists to reinterpret urban space. The documentation, preserved at Stanford University, shows just how significant a legacy the project had in terms of the community of artists it brough together and the effect of their work on the city, largely achieved through the reframing of everyday spaces by a conceptual structure, that of a floating museum. Here, the overarching conceptual approaches created by Hershman Leeson and Kamler, both documented within the project, literally defined the environment within which the work took place, showing that the apparatus of the museum can produce (or change) a sense of place even in its absence.

These works engage with sites, places, urban spaces, environments, “nature,” both performatively and through documentation. Here, documentation forms part of the work and constitutes its legacy. This is not only because documentation constitutes the axis around which the work occurs but also because documentation makes it possible to continue to care for the work over time. Documentation here is both the artwork and its strategy of care. It is not just the aftermath of a work or what remains of a work; it is also the environment of the work shown changing over time.

Hershman Leeson’s pioneering use of the museum and archival frame in The Floating Museum shows that the apparatus of documentation, prominent in both, can be used even when the latter is only present conceptually. This presents an important finding for the documentation of work dealing with the environment, ecology and the climate crisis; namely, the fact that the construction of a network of care, even when this is minimal, can foster creativity and change in a sector. Building on this, I will now argue for a documentation framework that not only captures artistic intention and reception, or how a work’s identity may be preserved over time, but also attempts to understand the wider environment of a work, which includes the position of the documenter, their work of care, as well as the context of both the work and their work. To establish the importance of these parameters, I will briefly introduce the work of three further artist groups whose innovative work illustrates the difference art can make to communities and discuss them in relation to their ability to facilitate a representation, performance and mitigation of climate change, often in conjunction with each other.

Rimini Protocoll. Cargo Moscow. Photo: Alexander Anufriev-Afisha

Rimini Protokoll is a German Theatre group founded in 2000 by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel, known for interventions, theatre work and radio plays which often have an interactive nature. The company specialise in what could be described as a form of documentary performance, frequently working with non-professional performers and researchers or experts, such as their 2006 Cargo Sofia-X,which was described by Kaegi as a “Bulgarian truck-ride through European cities,” or “site-specific performance for European and Bordercities.” The work, in fact, took “place” on a Bulgarian truck which had been converted with a one-way mirror and which was “carrying stories instead of goods,” with the audience sitting where products are normally stored to see what the driver saw while being on the road and hear what they heard through cordless microphones, generating, in Kaegi’s words, a form of “road movie which is no movie.”

The work, which toured Europe and Asia, lasted approximately two-hours, but its fictional time was a long-haul journey from Sofia to the host city that the drivers narrate with the help of video footage and commentary interweaved with the drivers’ personal narratives of their “real life”  journey experiences. Here, literally, the audience bears witnesses to the travel of goods and people in Europe, learning about the goods they consume in their everyday lives. The work operated as a vehicle through which to experience the economic and geographical journeys of goods before they reach our tables in the words of those who transport them, the three drivers Ventzislav Borissov (Vento), Svetoslav Michev and Nedyalko Nedyalkov. Trapped in the cargo, whose original function had been to keep the goods refrigerated, audiences learn about freezers, containers, cranes, boxes and stacks, as well as the lifestyles of those who produce them, who are often unable to afford them. Auto-ethnographic documentations such as those offered by Sara Brady describe the audience’s own helplessness, the sense of being trapped, “nauseous” even (163), as they learn about the politics of food production and consumption.

What can be inferred from this work, whose focus is on representation and performance, is that while the work retraced the journey of the drivers, using video documentation as a setting, the documentation generated by its audience, whether by the press or researchers, focused on the experience of being inside the lorry. The latter illustrates not only how the audience arrived at building an understanding that it too was trapped by and so felt helpless in relation to the inhumane mechanisms of food production as the end user of this chain of exploitation, but also that this understanding could in fact lead to changes in behaviour which in turn could be affecting the ways in which food is produced. Documentation here is both the mechanism through which the work is brought together and the strategy used so that the audience might consider redefining its position not only within the work but also more widely as a prosumer within the economy.

Mitigation has been at the heart of some works by the Danish art collective Superflex, which has, since its foundation in 1993, been working with a wide range of collaborations, including gardeners, engineers as well as members of the public, aiming to produce “alternative models for the creation of social and economic organisation,”[3] creating public spaces as well as sculptures, beverages, plant nurseries and so on. Superflex’s work is participatory and often involves multiple media and the use of innovative design for the production of ground-breaking social spaces and products.

Founded by Jakob Fenger, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen and Rasmus Rosengren Nielsen, Superflex has, for example, been producing biogas units for domestic use (cooking, lighting) in Cambodian, Mexican and Tanzanian villages, based on the cultivation of methane gas from animal manure. The system, run on organic materials such as human and animal dung, produces three to four metres of gas per day, enough for a family of eight to ten people to cook and run a gas lamp in the evening.

In 1999, Superflex developed a Superchannel project by training communities in Liverpool, including residents of the oldest tower block, Coronation Court, to produce interactive, non-commercial television programs on the internet. This included Tenantspin, commissioned by the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) in partnership with the Housing Association Trust (HAT), a pilot internet TV project with city-wide high rise tenants in Liverpool, a broadcasting channel debating regeneration and social housing in which participants were responsible for research, camera work, presentation, publicity and so on. More specifically, HAT, which had been active between 1993–2005, aimed to regenerate 67 of the city’s tower blocks, working with 4,000 elderly tenants who had often moved to the buildings in their young age. The context was that the HAT was in the process of planning a project of urban renewal, demolishing the blocks and replacing them with low-rise developments. The idea of the Superchannel was to reach residents and give them a voice in this process. There are now more than twenty Superchannels worldwide, making it possible for communities to stay connected outside of expensive mainstream channels.

Superflex’s work Interspecies Campus (2022) extends the notion of a network of care a step further. Here, Superflex reimagines a campus as a space for interspecies living that must acknowledge all species. The campus consists of a pink sculptural infrastructure aimed at creating news perspectives and paths made of sandstone in reference to the underwater world that constitutes both the past and likely future of the land. The work entails also a contract written with the participants and legal advisor Katarina Hovden, which aims to establish the conditions for interaction among species by setting an obligation for the human, the commitment to interspecies living, which means humans must live, as stated on the project website, in “caring relationships with All Species,” as part of an “expanded collective,” and a remedy in case the human breaches their obligations, to ask all species “what they would do differently” and not leave the Interspecies Campus until an answer is received.

Superflex’s work reminds us that the environment is subjectively experienced and that humans ought to start acknowledging and even documenting the perspectives of other species. Focused on raising awareness and producing change, these works operate as environments evidencing that the human perspective is not the only one worth documenting.

Cooking Sections. Salmon: a Red Herring. 2020-21. Tate Britain. Photo Gabriella Giannachi

Finally, the Salmon: A Red Herring exhibit (2020–21) was shown at the Tate as part of Cooking Sections by Climavore, a company examining the systems that organise the world through food by using site-responsive installation, performance and video. Established in London, in 2013, by the artists Daniel Fernándes Pascual and Alon Schwabe, the company explores the boundaries between art, architecture, ecology and geopolitics. Since 2015, they have worked on their long-term project Cooking Sections, which explores the relationship between how we eat and the climate emergency. The project recognises that new seasons are emerging and droughts, fires and pandemics will become more prevalent.

In collaboration with experts in ecology, marine biology, agronomy, nutrition, Climavore proposes an adaptive form of eating. For example, their Salmon: A Red Herring explores what is behind the colour “salmon pink” in salmon, generated by adding synthetic pigments to the feed of farmed salmon to produce “the colour of a wild fish which is neither wild, nor fish, nor even salmon,” questioning “what colours we expect in our ‘natural’” environment. Because of the exhibition, Tate has permanently removed farmed salmon from its menus and food outlets across the U.K., illustrating the potential impact of art on other spheres of life.

Cooking Sections includes a variety of site-responsive iterations, which are either self-initiated or commissioned by cultural institutions, such as the work on the Isle of Skye (in a project initially commissioned by ATLAS Arts) aiming to pivot from an economy dependent on polluting salmon farming to one based on filter feeders and seaweeds, which are crucial in maintaining robust and healthy intertidal ecosystems. Collaborating with farmers, restaurants and local stakeholders, Climavore have set up a Climavore Station on the island, which includes an Apprenticeship Programme. This started with the installation of an oyster table in the intertidal zone in Portree that served as a multispecies home for other bivalves and seaweeds at high tide. At low tide, it was activated through public workshops and performative meals to discuss alternative aquacultures for the island. Cooking Sections’ Apprenticeship Programme creates a network of care focussed, among other things, on mitigation, using art as a catalyst for change.

These artists have shown that their audiences can become witnesses, broadcasters and participants, who can actively shape not only the artwork but also the environment created by and through it, often through documentation. The works created by these artists can make a difference and persuade even the most powerful organisations to change their practices. As these works are hybrid, involving performance but also product design, new and social media, ethnographic observation is often used within the design, research and development phase, as a retrospective documentary exercise and as part of the work’s conservation. It is not only crucial that these works are documented, and that these iterations are part of the documentation, but also that audience documentation is included in what is preserved about these works.

By looking at current museum practices of documentation of performance and time-based media, I have identified some key parameters for the documentation of environmental practice which include the documentation of the artist’s intention, as is standard practice, but also the work’s reception and its changes over time, tracking how these changes can be managed so that works can be activated in subsequent years. Hence, for the documentation of environmental practice, these key parameters should also include the work’s wider community of care and the environment of the work, making explicit the role of the audience/participant/documenter and even the impact of the work on its audiences and their lifestyles.

The article has shown that interdisciplinarity and collaboration (The Harrison Studio), co-curation and documentation (The Centre for Land Use Interpretation) and the use of the museum frame and archival documentary materials to prompt the development of new work (Lynn Hershman Leeson and The Floating Museum) are key parameters tracking the development (process), experience (aesthetics) and legacy (impacts) of environmental works. Hence, to document environmental works which variously engage with communication (Rimini Protokoll) and mitigation (CARNIVORE and Superflex), it is crucial that on top of the artist’s intention, the work’s reception, its changes over time, the communities (whether human or other) involved and affected (as co-curators, co-creators, participants or beneficiaries) are also included in the documentation to track the environmental impacts of the work and to establish a legacy for future audiences.

As the practice of documentation is in itself a practice of care, I suggest that any framework for the future documentation of works dealing with ecological and environmental art and art about the climate crisis must recognise that documentation is a way for us to relate to a work which repositions us as carers and possible agents of change in the context not only of the work but also of the environment and society at large. Hence, by documenting, and especially by documenting collectively as part of a community of care, which may include perspectives by other species, we learn and teach others not only to preserve and care for these works but also to preserve and care for our planet and our place within it.

Documentation, therefore, functions not only as a strategy used to capture the museum’s own practice of care for art but also as a mechanism for sharing this practice across various organisations and their respective communities. It is this act of care, of conviviality among species, that ought to be at the heart of any documentation framework for the conservation of art about ecology, the environment and the climate crisis and for the conservation of what we know about our planet overall.


[1] Collecting the Performative (2012–14); Performance at Tate: Collecting, Archiving and Sharing Performance (2014–16); Documentation and Conservation of Performance (2016–21); and Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum (2018–21)

[2]Middles of Nowhere: Dry Lakes of the Mojave.”

[3]About Superflex.”


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*Gabriella Giannachi is Professor in Performance and New Media at the University of Exeter, U.K. She has published a number of books including: Virtual Theatres (2004); The Politics of New Media Theatre (2007); Performing Presence: Between the Live and the Simulated, co-authored with Nick Kaye (2011); Performing Mixed Reality, co-authored with Steve Benford (2011); Archaeologies of Presence, co-edited with Michael Shanks and Nick Kaye (2012); Archive Everything (2016 and, in Italian translation, 2021); Histories of Performance Documentation, co- edited with Jonah Westerman (2017); Moving Spaces, co-edited with Susanne Franco (2021); Technologies of the Self-Portrait (2022 and 2023, in Italian translation) and Documentation as Art: Expanded Digital Practices, co-edited with Annet Dekker (2023). She has written papers for several humanities and science journals and has been involved in a number of AHRC and RCUK funded projects in collaboration with Tate, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, and LIMA.

Copyright © 2022 Gabriella Giannachi
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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