John Cooper, a fellow convener of the PSWG and research assistant to Joe Roach at the Yale Center for British Art, presented a talk entitled Art / Performance / History. This deliberately broad set of categories set the stage for John’s close readings of several specific images – mostly paintings and drawings – that depicted dance and performance in India, England, and the Caribbean. These images, which he writes about in his dissertation project Imperial Balls: An Art History of Sex, War, and Dancing in India, England and the Caribbean, 1800-1850, are also part of an online archive that John is creating to make visible the history of art and performance of British imperialism.
John introduced the cultural background of the paintings he would read by describing Imperialism as the substance from which these paintings and performances emerged. The paintings were “history made visible,” as conditions of imperialism and the mixing of cultures convened in these material objects and plastic gestures (paraphrased from John’s talk). The paintings that John chose to show us were ephemera of dance and performance in India, drawings and paintings that he had collected from national galleries in the UK, India, and the US. While these paintings had been preserved in various galleries, they have not been gathered under a cohesive frame, an archival architecture that would somehow legitimize them as part of the history of dance and performance that circulated within and between colonial India, England, and the Carribean. John intends his online archive to provide such a frame, establishing an alternative historiography for these paintings.
The online aspect of his project – and more specifically the process of building and using a digital archive – is what I will focus this post on, even though his project is interesting in many other rights as well. Of particular interest is the opportunity that John’s digital archive provides for creating new taxonomies for analyzing colonial art, as well as new taxonomies for analyzing images of dance. For example, early in his talk John focused our attention on the word ‘adornment’, using it to classify a structural quality of performance that would help us read the images of dance. Linking the etymology of ‘adornment’ to ‘performance’ and its derivatives through Latin, John established the notion of ‘adornment’ as a category of analysis that could be used to connect the images across the disparate continents, cultures, and bodies they portrayed. At another point, John paired images of dancing bodies with images of other objects in motion, in order to set in motion new ways of seeing the depictions of cultural dances. Images of traditional Indian dances, as well as British ballet dancers, were paired with a bronze sculpture of a dancing Shiva, a photograph of an Indian hill town, botanical illustrations, textiles, and a chart classifying different hand gestures or mudras.
These strategies re-organized and multiplied the frames through which we could read these images of dance. By applying a different key word or image, as it were, John could extract, re-group, and pair different images according to different categories of analysis. From an historiographer’s perspective, the ability to sort and group such images, previously housed in random personal collections around the globe, according to different categories of analysis is highly useful. These processes of digital sorting and re-grouping are exciting in that they can unsettle established hierarchies of analysis and provide new frames through which to view the evidence and ephemera of colonial performance. The question that I will leave readers with, then, is about the politics of digital archiving. If national galleries and personal collections can be critiqued for solidifying certain (dominant) historical constructions of imperialism and performance, what are the politics of creating a more fluid, sortable digital archive of images? What new models of usership (as opposed to simple viewership in a brick and mortar gallery) does it imply? What new territory does digital archiving open up to perforamance historiographers in the 21st century?