You Didn't Have to Be There, But It Helps

A feature of the exhibition Stage Environment at Contemporary Art Museum Houston, organized by Patricia Restrepo

“One of the goals of this exhibition is to demonstrate that these archival or ephemeral materials do not have to play second fiddle to the live performance that took place, hence the subtitle of the exhibition: You Didn’t Have to Be There,” Restrepo said. “While honoring the power of liveness, this exhibition also showcases the power these ephemeral works can have, thereby inverting the notion that archives are staid and dusty places.”

You Didn’t Have to Be There is a simple yet provocative statement when it comes to performance. Documentation and ephemera certainly play their roles in capturing the aesthetic and residue of actions, but many would argue that as performances are captured, reoriented, and written about, the narrative begins to shift. When you go to a live performance, you experience the artist’s intent, what they want to show you; whether it comes through is a different story. When you look at photographs or watch a recording of it, you experience it through the eye of the photographer, the lens of their camera. When an exhibition presents ephemera, it is the institution’s duty to provide the context, and visitors experience the work through the mindset of the institution.

These moments of presentation have their space in the art world. It’s impossible to experience every performance live, but we can try through these forms of documentation. This is something that Restrepo considered when organizing the exhibition, acknowledging the debate of archive vs. live.