Future Imperfect

New York

Left: Artists Isaac Julien and Jesper Just. Right: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg with artist Francesco Vezzoli. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)

NEW YORK is the city of the future.

You heard it here first. Unless, that is, you happened to be one of the fabulously dolled-up folks who braved the heavy rain (and a little economic free fall) last Saturday to attend the Metal Ball, the Performa fund-raising gala held at Cedar Lake in Chelsea. The “city of the future” declaration was made by RoseLee Goldberg, the art historian and Performa’s founding director. The live art biennial will have its third iteration next November, and the theme is “Futurism.” This fact half accounts for Goldberg’s claim; the other half is a sort of defiance in the face of reality.

“I’m not moving to Dubai. And I’m not moving to Shanghai or Berlin,” she announced at the ball. “New Yorkers are survivors. I came to New York in the ’70s, when New York was bankrupt and there were fifteen-foot piles of garbage on the sidewalk. We’re going to be fine.”

These are strange times for artists in New York. On the one hand, there is fierce joy over Barack Obama’s impending presidency, in terms of what it could mean both for the country and for themselves. (An arts plank, including health care for artists!) On the other, of course, there is the worsening economic crisis, which puts a bit of a damper on the shiny/happy shtick.

Left: Zoe Jackson (left) with designer Zac Posen. Right: Musician Rufus Wainwright and Watermill creative director Jörn Weisbrodt.

I’m not sure what to say about the happy, but the Metal Ball, which was “inspired by” the Bauhaus’s 1929 Metallic Festival, took care of the shiny, in DIY fashion. The dress code was metallic attire, variously interpreted by the star-studded art crowd, which included everyone from David Byrne, Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ligon, and Francesco Vezzoli to MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach and New Museum director Lisa Phillips. Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and Studio Museum director Thelma Golden went topical, sporting bejeweled Obama shirts; designer Zac Posen donned a mask of chain mail; and artist Cory Arcangel chose the metaphoric route, dressing down in a concert hoodie for the metal band Trivium.

Less creative attendees were invited to visit Issey Miyake’s flagship store, the temporary home for Performa’s Metal Shop. (Art and fashion—how did they ever get along without each other?) Others made use of fanciful accessories handcrafted by the on-site “Emergency Sewing Project.” These included artist Isaac Julien, the night’s honoree along with philanthropist Toby Devan Lewis. Each received a unique present from Adam Pendleton (whose Revival was one of Performa 07’s commissions), and the usual bubbly tributes that abound at such gala-cum-lovefests.

Amid the talk of “creative people shining in tough times” came more sober analysis of what lies ahead. “It’s going to be very tough for everyone,” said Salon 94 owner Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. “Artists are going to go back to having second jobs—the way it used to be.”

Left: Artist Glenn Ligon with Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. Right: Artist Cindy Sherman with musician David Byrne.

Try third and fourth jobs: This was the response of several choreographers at the ball. As Performa evolves, it is attempting to draw in artists from dance as well as the visual arts, leading to some fascinating cultural clashes. Though the resulting art occasionally bears similarities, the two worlds don’t often see eye to eye.

“You hear about the economy impacting those parts of the art world,” said Sonya Robbins, of the performance duo robbinschilds, after someone mentioned the somberness at the recent auctions. “It’s hard to see a direct comparison in the dance world.” Her partner, Layla Childs, put it a bit more pointedly: “We’re already living a subsistence existence.”

Robbinschilds gave one of the several brief performances sprinkled throughout the evening, along with the Stumblebum Brass Band’s welcoming music and a collaboration between Jesper Just and the enchanting theremin expert Dorit Chrysler. Dressed in shiny green-blue tights and skimpy duct-tape tops, their faces covered in metallic paint, robbinschilds attempted to lead the crowd in a “two steps backward” Prop 8 dance. The performance was fabulous—streamlined and funny and strange. The participation, not so much; robbinschilds, apparently feeling generous, gave the crowd a B for effort. More effective in getting people involved was Zach Rockhill’s low-tech “ride” in which participants, flanked by fantastical Oskar Schlemmer creation look-alikes, were pushed through a small paper-enclosed chute. Unlike our present economic woes, there was light at the end of the gauzy tunnel: showers of silver paper, honking, and the flash of cameras, of course.

Left: robbinschilds performs. Right: Curator Nick Hallett.

Left: New Museum vice president Laura Skoler with New Museum director Lisa Phillips. Right: Artist Adam Pendleton with Performa board member Toby Devan Lewis.

Left: Musician Dorit Chrysler and Jesper Just. Right: MoMA's Angela Goding in Zach Rockhill’s ride.

Left: Dynasty Handbag. Right: Carlton and Kyle DeWoody.