Interview: Robin Deacon, Chicago

by Anthony Romero, May 2012

How an artifact made by performance circulates, the opportunity it provides, where it lands, who controls it and how we access it is at the heart of the activity generated by Robin Deacon. A performer, writer and filmmaker, Deacon uses the material made by performance—namely its material and textual documentation—to rethink how we might approach the object and by proxy the archive. I had the opportunity to sit down with Deacon to discuss his evolving relationship with these issues.

AR: I thought we could begin with your relationship to documentation and your archive.
 I think the starting point for me in terms of dealing with documentation and my own archive was the question of full disclosure and the degree to which one feels comfortable with sharing everything you’ve done, whether or not you feel happy with what you’ve done or not. It’s there, it’s been done. So what do I do with this material?

A few years ago I started taking stuff off my website. I went through a phase of thinking I don’t want that out there. I wanted a more defined representation of what I was doing. I think any artist would categorize their works: works they feel are important to them and important to the development of their practice, works that are treading water or holding you in a particular place, works that you feel like you really kind of did and got away with. I think in that original editing process on my website I was only going to focus on the good stuff or the interesting stuff. And then as I went on I came back to this idea: it’s all going back as a kind of exploration of the archive where you don’t edit, where you say, “Okay I’ve done this I have to stand by it.”

A very interesting writer called Joshua Sofaer who’s an England-based writer talks about different forms of documentation. The one that I think is the most interesting is gossip: the idea that someone will see a piece of work and describe it to someone else and in that description you lose a certain degree of clarity or precision as to what the work was. Recently I have been more drawn to these notions of fictional representations of one’s work.

There is an idea about the object or document having stopped the performance event, or holding it still in some way, and this being necessitated by a desire to objectify the experience of performance. Do you see this as privileging of one kind of experience over another, the object versus the live event?
I really don’t care for the idea of my work sitting on a shelf in an archive where maybe someone occasionally checks it out when they’re doing their Ph.D or something. What else am I going do with it? I want people to see what I’ve done. It wasn’t much of a question in my head about that devaluing the work. When I moved to Chicago I got rid of quite a lot of my record collection because I didn’t want to lug this stuff around with me and lately I’ve been regretting that because there’s a part of me that misses the object. There’s a part of me that wonders about the materiality of the archive and how the process I’m going through is shifting away from that.

All of the things on my website are fragments from which you can approach the work. I don’t think there is necessarily an order of importance and maybe this is going back to my recent interest in verbal misrepresentation or forms of performance documentation that begin to enter the realm of the fictional. I think these things are sometimes tied to a desire for performance artists and discourses around performance artists to separate themselves from the notion of the theatrical because the sense of performance is the one off. The thing that just happens and the document is the only thing that you then have, but what can be generated out of that has this other kind of life.

Much of what we’ve been talking about seems to be circling this intersection of the fictional and the real, and maybe the moment that one is revealed to be the other.
I suppose it is a suspicion of authenticity. These documents are somehow authenticating what you’ve done and that you need them as some kind of record. I’ll give you an example of this. I did a performance where I appeared to urinate on stage. I hadn’t. I had a bottle of water in my trousers and I remember when I told a student of mine of this he was incredibly disappointed. There was a part of me that took a pleasure in saying, “Ha, I fooled you,” but with that is the reveal that I wasn’t actually doing that act and why is that a problem? I don’t have to do much to set up some kind of fictionalized sense to what I’m doing; my feeling is that happens anyway.