Oral History Society Seminar: Performance art in Wales

Posted on 17/02/2014 by

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Heike Roms, professor of performance studies at the University of Aberystwyth, led the most recent Oral History Society/Institute of Historical Research seminar in January where she discussed her creative approach to oral history interviews.

Public conversation about the international performance programme at the National Eisteddfod Wrexham 1977 with John Chris Jones, Timothy Emlyn Jones and Andrew Knight, interviewed by Heike Roms, Cardiff 22 February 2007. Photo: Phil Babot.

Public conversation about the international performance programme at the National Eisteddfod Wrexham 1977 with John Chris Jones, Timothy Emlyn Jones and Andrew Knight, interviewed by Heike Roms, Cardiff 22 February 2007. Photo: Phil Babot.

Roms talked about her research into performance art in Wales between 1965 and 1979 where she has conducted more than 40 interviews with artists, administrators and audience members and set up a database of more than 650 events.

She said that studying performance art presented problems because, by its nature, it is ephemeral and largely unrecorded.

She chose to use oral history because she said it was an interesting methodological tool and a way of sharing memory.

“I never thought of oral history as an intimate one-to-one conversation. I always thought of it as a way of making public memory,” she said.

She talked about the “performative” element of oral history, where the interview itself is a kind of performance and where there is a sense of a future audience.

“Oral history is a particular kind of public speech where you are thinking about who might be listening in the future,” she said.

Her approach to interviewing is not oral history in its purest sense, she admitted

“I have explored a whole range of different formats for conversation, some of which you might think is stretching the definition of oral history too far,” she said.

Some of her oral history interviews or conversations were staged in public, some took place at the sites of performance and she even re-enacted some events and then interviewed the participants afterwards.

“I have done a lot of group conversations which are not straightforward life history interviews but are often focused on an event. I’m interested in the way that memory is negotiated between different participants,” she said, adding that when discussing some contentious events the tension in the room was palpable.

Her public interviews/conversations always attracted audiences of about 200 to 250 people and she liked the idea of bringing the “future audience into the room”. She added that the audience’s presence highlighted the fact that “memory doesn’t necessarily belong to the person that remembers”.

Roms also interviewed members of the audience and last year arranged a coach trip around Cardiff, taking artists and audience members back to the sites of performance art. She wanted the audience to become a “co-interviewer”, she added.

  • The next OHS/IHR seminar takes place on March 20th at the Institute of Historical Research in London and will be led by Molly Andrews, professor of political psychology and co-director of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London. Andrews will be talking about her new book, Narrative Imagination and Everyday Life. For more information about the seminar click here.
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