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What comes after the event?

Brith Gof was founded in 1981 by Mike Pearson and Lis Hughes Jones. From the beginning its theatre was focused on physical performance rather than the dramatic text, and it rarely worked in the conventional theatre with stage, proscenium arch and auditorium. A shift to explicitly site specific work occurred in 1988 when Clifford McLucas joined the company.

By 1993 Brith Gof were facing an issue common to many performance based companies and artists: the event-based nature of their work was often associated with ephemerality. Their work didn’t last, little was left after the event; or at least there was a major question of representation and documentation. How might a performance whose location and historical context were constituting moments be translated into a durable medium? The nature of the performances meant that an apparently simple option like making a video or printing the scenography and script were not acceptable – too restrictive and distorting. This conundrum of the document of event-based cultural phenomena led Mike Pearson, who had degree in archaeology, to imagine an archaeology of performance focused on the traces of event. It was this that brought him to talk to archaeologists - Julian Thomas and myself at Lampeter.

By 1993 postprocessual archaeology had made an issue of writing the past. On the one hand ideology critique made archaeological writing an issue, even a problem – how, for whom, with what interests was archaeological discourse operating? On the other hand, a linguistic turn had made of archaeological sources a semiotic field whose representation was always a question of interpretation. Just as with performance-based work, there can be no bottom line to the event now over, whether a performance or some cultural past. What happened? It depends. And most media fail to do justice to the complexity of event.

And place. Contact with archaeology also opened up many questions regarding the nature and temporality of place, already a concern in works by Brith Gof like Gododdin and Haearn. A common interest in what may be called temporal topographies became a project of deep mapping by the publication of Theatre/Archaeology (Pearson and Shanks 2001). It was the explicit focus of The Three Landscapes Project at Stanford, from 2000. Again an underlying question is that of the representation of place and event.

Brith Gof found much common ground in my book Experiencing the Past: On the Character of Archaeology (1991) which attempted to lay some foundations for an interpretive practice of archaeology based upon a conception of the archaeological as an aspect of the social fabric. Archaeology is not the discovery of the past so much as the articulation of past and present. The book proposed some techniques for a non-representational approach to complex phenomena like cultural pasts. these techniques were drawn from modernist aesthetics as well as continental philosophy and historiography. Many of these had actually already been developed to a high level of sophistication in the work of Pearson and McLucas.

In the more conventional field of Classical Archaeology, my book Art and the early Greek state (1999) developed the critique of what I called the representational or expressive fallacy (that there can ever be anything other than a radical discontinuity between past, trace and representation). It also explored a highly empirical research methodology, seen as a method arising from the object (outlined in my book with Chris Tilley, Reconstructing Archaeology, 1991, and in Experiencing the Past, 1991). Its techniques of assemblage are a focus of the book Theatre/Archaeology.

What had been an interpretive goal (seeking sense in the traces of the past) widened in the project of Theatre/Archaeology to include not only this epistemological will to understand, but also a more ontological interest in disclosure, in opening up the textures and empirics of the past. A predisposition now not just to simplify and reduce to essential forms, but also to enrichen and make complex. This was part of the performative definition of Theatre/Archaeology as the rearticulation of traces of the past as real time event.

So what happened here back then? It may not be good enough or even appropriate to simply say, on whatever grounds, “I know that this is the way it was”.


For another anapproach to this topic of performance and archaeology - see The Presence Project - a major collaborative effort with sixteen perfomance artists to address the concept of presence, its mediation and documentation.

See Some remarks on archaeology and performance, in relation to my historiographic experiment Three Rooms

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