Performative Collection

What is it?                                                         

A Performative Collection is a dynamic collection or archive of information, experiences, memories or practices as well as their mediated transmission.

In the context of academic and art-based research, the collection as a kind of living archive is considered as a methodological tool that not only preserves or stores knowledge, but also produces knowledge. What is often called for in approaches of the humanities around critical archiving is a differentiation between archives and collections. In this context, collections are described as more open subjective compilations, while archives, on the other hand, are subject to stricter, more systematic recording under conventional classification criteria (Lorey 2014: 101). The archive is an institution of knowledge production with practices of securing evidence; it stores and transfers knowledge on different media formats (see Wolfenberger 2015).

In its scientific institutionalisation in museums or libraries, the collection is above all a specific place for the selection and systematisation of information. Following Jacques Derrida, the (contemporary) critique of the archive (Derrida 1996) concentrates on the fact that it is not providing information without formatting it and without conditioning the practice of actualisation. A performative approach can focus on this aspect and explore it further: In the frame of PABR projects, the process of knowledge production can be based on practices of creating and framing a Performative Collection with its multi-layered processes of collecting and compiling information, for instance through interviews, recordings, and (re)enactments. Who is recording what and who is in charge of deciding what is deemed appropriate to be stored? At the same time, the focus is on developing performative formats that enable different ways of using the collection, so that the collected material can be (re)arranged, combined, and enacted by its users. The processes of both compiling and providing data and materials are central moments of knowledge production, for the researchers who collect as well as the users who combine the collected material in its reception. When the Performative Collection is performed by actors or performers as a carrier of meaning, the formatting character is further enhanced. Whose body is providing the information? What information is added when the collection is performed?

The Performative Collection is not a static container, but a living structure. It might employ diverse forms of performative presentations such as media installations, as in Stefanie Lorey’s Museum of Moments (2014), or Margarita Tsomou’s, Waste of History – A Studio Visit (2013). It can also be in action in (virtual or real) public space as in Katharina Kellerman’s How to Hear the Invisible (2016) or Call to Listen (2017).

What is researched?

With this approach to art-based research, the performativity of archives and collections is highlighted. Accordingly, the practice of the Performative Collection is employed primarily in dance, theatre and performance art. Performative Collections focus on the collection of materials that are based on embodied experiences and are therefore difficult to store. Strategies of collecting need to be researched that are specific to these kinds of experiences. The mediation and transfer of such experiences into diverse media installations or performance formats constitute further research aspects of this format (Lorey 2014).

An example of such a bodily experience in a Performative Collection can be found in Winks of Time, where Lorey investigated the relationship between individual experiences, the perception of one’s body, and biological age. The project was initially concerned with the collection of knowledge, experiences or even conceptual ideas of age and life experiences in the form of language, collected as conversations or interviews. However, Lorey’s focus changed in the processes of selecting and organising statements towards a juxtaposition between sound and image in a chance operation for Winks of Time, a preliminary output of her research project. The new connections between the individual elements established new links within the Performative Collection. In Lorey’s final version, Museum of Moments (2014), the dynamic processes of combining the voices with oversized portraits are handed over to the audience through the development of a technological organising structure, which is based on an algorithm that allows the audience’s eye movements to rearrange the interviews and link them with an image. To design collection and combination processes as performative acts is a main goal of the Performative Collection as a research format.

Artistic means

Collecting and arranging are, hence, understood as artistic practices. A first step is the choice of topic: The collection in artistic and art-based research processes usually engages with subjective, everyday or political issues that are not dealt with in conventional collections.

A main element of the Performative Collection is its set-up and its framing: What is archived or collected by whom and how? What are the methods of searching material, of recording, arranging, and actualising? How can the archive be searched? How can it be used?

The basis of many Performative Collections are interviews, which are recorded in qualitative research processes, following a specific research design of the project. However, the material is not arranged according to scientific taxonomies, but rather in relation to subjective and/or collectively developed categories. The invention of rules or classifications plays a central role in these processes. It is precisely by shifting and breaking through habitual classification criteria that other perspectives can be expanded, new connections established, new insights into the initial situation or the object of research gained.1 In doing so, it is not important to follow an initial structure, but rather to engage with diverse, complex, and sometimes contradictory compiling procedures and to allow multiple outcomes.

The inclusion of the interview partners as co-researchers, as in a collective development of organising criteria for the materials, offers the possibility of collective participation within the framework of participatory knowledge generation. Katharina Kellermann, for example, involved her interview partners in several workshops and listening sessions in the analysis and sequencing of the collected sounds in Call to Listen.

Although her method is oriented towards the qualitative sciences, in the following steps the developed material is  transferred into the Performative Collection through artistic methods of associative selection and musical composition. Accordingly, the development of organising principles through methods of compilation and composition might have participatory dimensions or it might be set up by one researcher. If the researcher intends for this process to be explicitly participatory, she has to devise it in a way that makes it accessible and transparent.

How to document a Performative Collection? Obviously, the archive/the collection in itself can serve as documentation. Beyond this, there should however be a concept for how users can document their enactment of the archive/collection.

Potentials, problems and outcomes

The format Performative Collection as an academic art-based method of knowledge generation stands precisely for an open, subjective, searching, processual and changing confrontation with established taxonomies. Materials are newly collected in an associative way and flow into the Performative Collection as experience. This aspect poses the problem that the underlying classification criteria of the archive are not necessarily comprehensible. Particularly when a collective presentation format is involved, the distinction between the archive and other forms of collections cannot always be drawn sharply.

Outcomes can include media installations of video interviews or sound compositions. Performative Collections that move around in space are constantly generating new constellations. In a broader sense, the Performative Collection explores discourses on preserving and publishing media artefacts as an artistic as well as a curatorial practice (Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst 2013).

Through the performative compilation of different voices and materials, Performative Collections repeatedly generate new constellations of memory that simultaneously challenge and question the classification criteria of a conventional conception of the archive. However, the head researcher still holds a strong position in the decision-making between the phases of collecting, formatting and arranging material. This hidden form of control needs to be eluded by insisting on the possibilities for the user to rearrange materials. This is not an add-on but a condition of this format.

Kathrin Wildner, Kerstin Evert, Sebastian Matthias


response by Stefanie Lorey

response by Katharine Kellermann (Pelosi)


1 This is reminiscent of a comment by the ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, when asked by Didier Eribon about his collection of field notes and index cards, said that these cards, covered in writing containing all kinds of information about his field research experiences – fleeting ideas, notes from readings, quotations, observations – are a central element of his knowledge production. When he was stuck in his thinking or wanted to understand something, he took a deck of cards and laid them out as in a game of solitaire. The continuous and random combinations helped him to reconstruct his memory and gave him a new view on the matter (Lévi-Strauss/Eribon 1988: 5–6)


Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst (eds) (2013): Living Archive: Archivarbeit als künstlerische und kuratorische Praxis der Gegenwart. Berlin: b_books.

Derrida, Jacques (1996):  Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude/Eribon, Didier (1988): De près et de loin. Paris: O. Jacob.

Lorey, Stefanie (2014): “Performative Sammlungen. Sammeln und Ordnen als künstlerische  Verfahrensweise – eine Begriffsbestimmung”, in: Burri, Regula V./Evert, Kerstin/Peters, Sibylle/Pilkington, Esther/Ziemer, Gesa (eds): Versammlung und Teilhabe. Urbane Öffentlichkeiten und performative Künste. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 97–112.

Wolfenberger, Rolf (2015): “Archiv”, in: Badura, Jens/Dubach, Selma/Haarmann, Anke/Mersch, Dieter/Rey, Anton/Schenker, Christoph/Toro Perez, German (eds): Künstlerische Forschung. Ein Handbuch. Zürich: Diaphanes, pp. 285–288.

Works / Projects

Kellermann (Pelosi), Katharina, How To Hear the Invisible, 2016, Hamburg.

Kellermann (Pelosi), Katharina, Call to Listen, 2017, Hamburg.

Lorey, Stefanie, Winks of Time, 2013, Hamburg.

Lorey, Stefanie, Museum of Moments, 2014, Hamburg.

Tsomou, Margarita, Waste of History – A Studio Visit, 2013, Hamburg