Re-Visions: Body archives and archival bodies in motion

Julia Wehren

How can bodies be thought of as archives? Dance scholar Julia Wehren writes about embodied knowledge and about the archive as a figure of thought in which bodies are read in terms of their ‘deposits’. Conversely, she also understands archives as bodies and asks herself what a living dance archive needs and what it could look like in concrete terms.

I : Dance histories are body histories and are based on body archives

Around ten years ago, I proposed the concept of ‘choreographic historiographies’ in connection with artistic reflections on dance history. (annotation 1) I wanted to place practices of reenactment and reconstruction, as well as the physical and choreographic appropriation and articulation of dance knowledge in the larger context of (academic) historiography. I was interested in the (self-)reflexive gesture, the search for new formats and, above all, the function and significance of the body as an archive in motion’.

I understood bodies as historically and culturally formed bodies that have become multilayered through dance techniques, styles, choreographies and movement patterns, and which can be questioned in terms of the emergence of physical and sensory states that bring about body images, techniques and concepts. In doing so, I struggled with categorical contradictions to psychological-physiological approaches to bodily processes of memory, appropriation and perception. I also struggled with archival and historiographical vocabulary, such as ‘source’ and ‘document’, which can be utilized in relation to a body of memory in ‘choreographic historiographies’, but which are always insufficient and categorically different as terms. A body is not ‘object’, nota ‘source’,nor is it a ‘document’. It is not the physical body itself that I subsequently understood as an archive, rather, its function as archival. My aim was to find a term that defines body knowledge asa conceptual prerequisite for the archive.

Archives of the body are process-oriented. They are only created in tandem with the body, actions and articulations, transformation, perception and reflection. Therefore, in order to make bodies tangible as archives, movement is required between what has been remembered (the body) and present articulations, perception (through our bodies), imagination and reflection in both analog and virtual spaces.

II: Bodies as archives are part of dance archives

The archive is a figure of thought. The archive allows me to at the same time understand the body as a formation of knowledge and expand the definition of the archive. Bodies can be read in terms of their ‘storage’; their embodied knowledge is informative to cultural history. Bodies as ‘archives of experience’ are central to learning, perceiving, remembering and transmitting dance. They incorporate dance knowledge that they are able to re-articulate in movement and transform into action.

Archives are concrete. I go to archives, speak to dancers, record conversations and place them in a long-term digital archive. I search for documents, watch bodies and trace them, I listen and perceive, and I move my body. These are performative voices and actions that remain simultaneously both in and outside of the archive; in the form of audiovisual media, conversations, narratives, memories, movements, choreographies and performances, (self-)representations as well as collective, singular and virtual encounters.

Archives as bodies in motion are dynamic, contingent, implicit and performative and at the same time explicit, discursive and articulated. Making archives comprehensible in their physicality also means ascribing their performative actions a place, be it physical or virtual, imaginary or sensory. Dance archives contain knowledge about dance. They preserve it and prepare it for research and further handling. To do this, they must first find the material, record it and give it space for an indefinite period of time (long-term). In this sense, archives are passages of knowledge, hubs that provide sources and offer access to dance. Such bodies of knowledge are also physical bodies, bodies of experience, dancers’ bodies. Dance knowledge exists in the memories of participants and observers and is expressed not only in bodies in movement but also performatively in narratives. Archives are bodies.

III: Dance archives are bodies

  1. Wehren, Julia: Körper als Archiv in Bewegung. Choreografie als Historiografie, published in 2016 at Transkript Verlag.