Why Performance Artists Need an Inventory System

Emilie Trice | August 18, 2022

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

Performances can become legendary works of art through documentation.

Community engagement with the arts is an integral part of a cultured society. Performance artists—including poets, dancers, and choreographers—all contribute to a multi-dimensional arts landscape, but their work is less likely to be inventoried than more traditional artists, such as painters. 

That tendency, however, can disrupt a performance artist’s ability to create a lasting legacy around their work. It can also lead to a less structured professional practice which can, by extension, hinder their ability to effectively scale-up their creative practice, earn more money for their work, and grow their careers.

Documentation of ephemeral performances, happenings, readings, and theatrical stagings could be the difference between a piece being forgotten or becoming an immortal pillar in the arc of cultural history. 

David Hammon’s legendary performance on a sidewalk in New York’s East Village, in which the artist sold snowballs in the dead of winter, has become one of his most important works—thanks in no small part to a series of photographs his friend, artist and MacArthur fellow Dawoud Bey, took of the artist during the piece.  

In an article for Frieze, writer Steven Stern declares that documentation of the artwork, entitled Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), now represents far more than one single act. “The photos portraying Hammons with his neatly arranged rows of snowballs for sale are probably the most frequently reproduced images in the artist’s oeuvre,” Stern writes. “The piece has become iconic, the single ephemeral work – a work that is essentially about ephemerality – that has come to stand for his entire practice.”

Marina Abramović is another one of the best-known performance artists of the contemporary era. Her work often includes feats of endurance, as well as moments of pain, danger and fear. The Artist is Present, her 2010 solo show at the Guggenheim in New York, memorably engaged viewers one at a time in an emotionally-charged staring contest with the artist.

Decades prior, Abramović and partner Ulay, concluded their artistic and romantic relationship by walking the Great Wall of China from opposite ends of the wall. When they met in the middle—a symbolic and ritualized performance meant to represent their overlapping journeys—their collaboration ended. The images and video documentation capturing these performances have since become sought-after artworks in their own right. 

Alan Powell is an artist and professor of media and communications at Arcadia University outside Philadelphia. Powell’s video art, created in collaboration with his late partner Connie Coleman, has been exhibited at institutions including The Kitchen in NYC, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Long Beach Museum in California, and the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, among others. 

A longtime Artwork Archive subscriber, Powell was an early innovator in media arts—after graduating from RISD, he established Electron Movers, the first Media Arts Center in Providence, Rhode Island. He started his career during the era of happenings, a highpoint in the history of conceptual performance art. 

Powell is also an avid documentarian of the avant garde. For one project, he interviewed twenty major choreographers of modern dance, including Anna Sokolow and Merce Cunningham. That project’s archive is now housed at Rockefeller Center in New York City. 

Powell talks about how migrating the data from his archive has been an ongoing process. “I have bins of harddrives that go back 15 to 20 years,” he says. It’s a far cry from the open access, digital archives of today and the push for museums to publish their collections and archives to the web. 

“Surprisingly, it's my oldest stuff in the archive—stuff from the 1970s, documenting those early performances—that’s looked at the most online,” Powell says. Scholarship relies on access to data, so establishing your archive early in your career, especially if you work in ephemeral performative work, will only benefit your practice in the long run. 

Alan Powell, Her Voice in the Air, Experimental Dance Video choreographed by Eva Gholson and performed by Marla D. Eist.

An inventory system helps standardize the archival process.

Putting systems in place for consistent documentation may sound easy, but it can be difficult to maintain one system without the proper framework. Artwork Archive’s relational database means that artwork documentation can link directly to contacts, as well as to venue and exhibition records, partner agreements, and other important aspects of performance-based artworks. 

Getting your data into the system is the first step. Powell outlines some of the best practices he uses when documenting work for upload for his digital archive.

  • Document in the highest-quality tech-medium.
    Photograph in raw format and film in 4k. 

  • Establish a naming process for your files.
    Include your last name, date, title of project, inventory number and the file’s resolution. Example: Powell_18Sept2017_ProjectTitle_Inv204_300DPI

  • Always save two versions of every file.
    Save one version for print (TIFF, PSD files, 300 DPI) and a web-optimized version (JPEG, PNG files, 72 DPI).

  • Edit your documentation on a computer, not your phone.
    “Your phone is a little production video facility far better than anything I had in the 70s," Powell says. "But to really edit your videos and even photos, you really need to take it to a computer. This is where my students fall apart." Powell says it's critical to invest in the best computer possible and don't rely solely on your phone to edit your documentation.

  • Your personal website is about the narrative. The archive is about the database.
    Powell believes even ephemera like posters or emails should be digitally documented for your database. In Artwork Archive, additional documents such as scans of invitations, press clippings, etc. can be uploaded to artwork records, contacts, and locations, so all ephemera can be captured and centrally-compiled.

  • Distribute your documentation as widely as possible across all social media and video platforms, while also keeping it all linked and anchored in one place online.
    You can link artwork records to your videos on either YouTube or Vimeo, and embed those videos when publishing your works to your public profile. Artwork Archive’s public profile can also be embedded into your personal website, so you only have to update your work once, it will auto-populate on your site. “Your archive is only as good as your ability to keep uploading data,” Powell says, so linking your portfolio to your website is a useful tool to cut down on the time needed to keep your archive up-to-date. 

  • There are free versions of expensive editing software available online. 
    Powell cites Photopea as a free alternative to Photoshop, and DaVinci Resolve’s free version for video editing.

  • Don’t be too precious when it comes to copyright.
    For documentation provided by a third party, Artwork Archive has a caption line option, so you can make sure to give credit where credit is due. You can also add a copyright line in the details whenever publishing your work to the web, but don’t let fear of copyright theft keep you from distributing your work across as many online platforms as possible. “It's more important to get the work out there so it can be seen,” Powell says. 

An inventory system simplifies accounting and provides fiscal clarity

Keeping track of revenue streams, receipts, and expenses is rarely top-of-mind when preparing for a performance, but solid accounting is a necessary part of creating a sustainable artistic practice. 

Artwork Archive has an accounting feature so you can compile all your financial records in one place, categorize expenses, as well as generate invoices that can be paid online. 

Traveling to international festivals, paying collaborators, equipment rentals, and all the other aspects of being a working performer are tantamount to being a small business owner. Artwork Archive is a way to keep your focus on your art, while still managing the financial aspects of your practice. 

Photo by ketan rajput on Unsplash

An inventory system saves time when applying to opportunities.

Creating and submitting applications to artist opportunities can be a time-consuming process that’s rarely rinse-and-repeat. Make the process easier on yourself by standardizing as much as possible, including your branding. 

Some calls request a PDF, others just want to see a website, still others will request stand-alone images or video links. There’s deadlines to keep in mind, application fees to pay, and that’s on top of actually creating the work!

Having an inventory system will allow you to keep track of all the moving parts that go into applying to opportunities. Set up your profile with a logo and automatically generate PDFs and reports with consistent branding. Presenting your work as professionally as possible is one proven way to help you stand out from the crowd. 

Application fees might seem nominal, but they can add up over time. To have a fuller idea of your ROI when it comes to applying to opportunities, enter each application cost in Artwork Archive’s income tab as an expense. The system will automatically tally your revenue and costs, and you can filter by date and/or expense category to get more granular analytics. This data can also help you better understand if you’re putting your energy (and money) in the right places. 

Keeping track of all your application deadlines can also be challenging. With Artwork Archive, you can add submission deadlines to your schedule and you’ll automatically receive an email every Monday that gives you an overview of the upcoming week—so you won’t find yourself rushing in the 11th hour to complete your application.

An inventory system centralizes operations so you can scale-up your creative practice.

Links to audio files, scans of poetry drafts, backstage and behind-the-scenes candids—there are many different kinds of media that can effectively tell your story as a performer. As explained by Powell, your website is an obvious place to archive your creative output, but should really be a curated version of your practice and focus on telling your story. Everything else might be spread across multiple computers, your phone, social media channels, loose USB drives and who knows where else.

With an inventory system like Artwork Archive, you can bring order to chaos by compiling all your documentation, contacts and data in one place, accessible from anywhere on any wifi-connected device. That way, if your laptop is stolen, or some other tragedy strikes your harddrive, you'll still have access to all of your data. You can add additional users to your Artwork Archive account as well, which can help you scale up your practice, apply to more opportunities, or even take the headache out of tax time. 

If there ever comes a time when your performance documentation becomes for-sale artworks, a la Marina Abramović, having an inventory system in place will allow you to seamlessly transition into that stage of your career, without having to migrate to another system. Choose an inventory system, like Artwork Archive, that can grow with your career and manifest the success that you deserve.

Artwork Archive is the solution trusted by artists working in all disciplines in over 160 countries. Try it free for 30 days.

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