– Spring 2010

Performing Histories: Why the Point Is Not to Make a Point…

Barbara Clausen

Babette Mangolte, photograph for Trisha Brown,

Babette Mangolte, photograph for Trisha Brown, "Roof Piece", dance performance, 1973. © Babette Mangolte, 1973

Only a few people were present to watch Trisha Brown's dance performance Roof Piece, high above the streets of downtown Manhattan in 1973. With fourteen dancers spread out between water towers and chimneys dotting the roofs in a line stretching from 420 West Broadway into an area just above Wall Street and back again, at best you would see a fragment of the action. The contact sheet of photographs taken by the French-American film-maker and photographer Babette Mangolte in July 1973 uniquely depicts the punctual concentration and simultaneous dispersion of the performers and spectators present at the scene. For one of the few chroniclers of the spectacle, Don McDonaugh, then-editor of Ballet Review, it was a unique experience: 'You were up in a completely different world, totally removed … and nobody even knew this event was taking place except for the few other people who happened to be on rooftops that day.'1 Similar to the children's game of Chinese whispers, Roof Piece consisted of a sequence of studied gestures, a kind of performative Morse code that travelled from one performer to the next. Independent of the spectator's spread-out position across various rooftops, Brown's choreography and its particular vocabulary of contradictory movement and repeated gestures subsequently faded away in the overlap of distance and duration.

Only one of Mangolte's photographs chosen from the contact sheet of Roof Piece was printed by The New York Times. It quickly became the poster image of the downtown New York art scene in the 1970s, despite the fact that hardly anyone saw the performance.2 The image captured the atmosphere of the event in a unique way

  1. Taken from the transcript of a lecture held by Don McDonaugh, in Henry M. Sayre, The Object of Performance: The American Avante-Garde since 1970, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p.140.

  2. Babette Mangolte's text about the making of Roof Piece, available on www.babettemangolte.com (last accessed on 4 November 2009).

  3. Wendy Perron, 'Exporting SoHo', The SoHo Weekly News, 30 December 1979, p.28. The image was incorrectly dated as 1971, though Mangolte's archival records and original contact sheets confirm it was made in 1973.

  4. A majority of the iconic photographs of performance art in the 1960s in New York were taken by Robert McElroy, who was later joined by Peter Moore. Moore continued to photograph performance art in the 1970s and together with Mangolte took many of the iconic images of the performance scene in New York from that decade. In the 1980s they were succeeded by Paula Court and Dona Ann McAdams.

  5. See Malcolm Turvey, ' A Neutral… Average Way of Looking at Things', Framework: The Journal of Cinema & Media, vol.45, no.1, Spring 2004, p.82.

  6. Mangolte's documentation of Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater started in 1970 with 'Total Recall' and ended with 'Boulevard de Paris' in 1978.

  7. Babette Mangolte, 'Balancing act between instinct and reason or how to organize volumes on a flat surface in shooting photographs, films, and videos of performance', in Barbara Clausen (ed.), After the Act: The (Re)Presentation of Performance Art, Vienna and Nuremberg: Museum of Modern Art Vienna Stiftung Ludwig, Verlag Moderner Kunst, 2006, p.35.

  8. Babette Mangolte, 'My History (The Intractable)', October, vol.86, Fall 1998, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, p.88.

  9. Ibid.,p.89.

  10. Babette Mangolte, 'Balancing act…', op. cit., p.39.

  11. Unpublished interview with Connie Shortes from 1996, from the archive of Babette Mangolte, New York.

  12. See Douglas Crimp, 'De-Synchronization in Joan Jonas's Performances', in D. Crimp (ed.), Joan Jonas: Scripts and Descriptions, 1968-1982 (exh. cat.), Berkeley and Eindhoven: Berkeley University Art Museum and Van Abbemuseum, 1983, p.9.

  13. Artist's statement on The Camera: Je or La Caméra: I, 1977, available at http://www.babettemangolte.com (last accessed on 10 October 2009).

  14. Minda Martin, 'Babette Mangolte: An Interview', Cinemad, issue 7, July 2003.

  15. Unpublished interview with Connie Shortes from 1996, from the archive of Babette Mangolte, New York.

  16. Jacky Lansley, 'Babette Mangolte: Cinematographer and Filmmaker in Discussion with Jackie Lansley', Dance Now, no.21, March 1982, p.4. Translated by Margarethe Clausen.