PRINT September 2005

US News


“PERFORMANCE IS CRUCIAL TO THE HISTORY of visual art, and yet it’s always been kind of a sideshow,” says art historian, curator, and critic RoseLee Goldberg, who has spent her career making a case for the genre’s rightful place under the art-world big top. This fall, she finally takes on the role of ringmaster, organizing PERFORMA05, the first edition of a new biennial dedicated to performance—or “live art,” as she often refers to it. Taking place in venues around New York this November, the biennial will feature new works, film and video programs, panel discussions, and symposia bringing together a host of critics and curators. (Producing many of the events, either on its own or in partnership with other presenters, is a nonprofit umbrella organization, PERFORMA, newly founded by Goldberg.) Among the highlights: Christian Marclay debuts a musical score comprised of moving images to be interpreted by live musicians at Eyebeam; Francis Alÿs stages a pseudoburlesque number featuring a singer, a pianist, and a stripper; Berlin- and New York– based artist Jordan Wolfson curates an evening of simultaneous performances (meaning just what it sounds like—they all take place at once) at the Swiss Institute; and the Kitchen looks at the burgeoning genre of the lecture-as-art. Meanwhile, spaces around town will organize their own presentations of the works of a generation-spanning group of practitioners, from Laurie Simmons to Sharon Hayes.

At the core of this wide-ranging program are two new projects commissioned by PERFORMA: Young Copenhagen-based artist Jesper Just’s opera featuring the Finnish Screaming Men’s Choir and a high-tech projection system that produces life-sized holographic images; and Isaac Julien’s The Ice Project/Fantôme Afrique, a multimedia amalgam of film, dance, and music. (The Ice Project’s debut is scheduled for October 2006, but Julien will give a work-in-progress presentation during the biennial.) Significantly, both Just and Julien are more accustomed to the controlled studio environment for making moving-image works than to the vagaries of live performance, but for Goldberg this is all to the good. Part of her motivation is to push artists beyond the common phenomenon of ten- to twelve-minute films presented in gallery installations—what she calls the “the hors d’oeuvres stage”—and toward ambitious, fully realized multimedia performances with the potential to “really change the idea of twenty-first-century theater.”

As Goldberg observes, the kind of high production values and unabashedly seductive aesthetics exemplified by Just’s and Julien’s projects are no longer taboo, and, in fact, are increasingly apparent in contemporary performance. But she notes a contradictory trend, too—namely, younger artists’ ongoing fascination with Conceptual art, and Conceptual performance in particular, in all its antispectacle grittiness: “Everyone is looking at the ’70s and realizing that most of this work is performance. The current generation is feeding on that material.”

In the latter regard, says Goldberg, an across-the-board resurgence of live art seems to be underway. “I see performance usually as a response to entrenched economics in the art world,” she says—and certainly art-world economics have seldom been more entrenched than they are right now. For many contemporary artists, the performative gesture once again seems a viable alternative to convention and commodity. And yet this resurgence, says Goldberg, “is not something that has been entered into head-on. Very few curators are really looking at performance.”

In the broadest sense, then, the raison d’être of PERFORMA05 is to facilitate that head-on encounter, to lead by example in the effort to locate curatorial strategies for presenting live art and to formulate new critical frameworks for discussing it. The notion of a performance biennial may seem paradoxical: As Goldberg pointed out in her pioneering history Performance Art (1979; rev. ed., 2001), there is an inherent subversiveness to live art, which tends to thrive on the margins, while biennials have collectively become a pillar of the art-world establishment. Indeed, in this era of proliferating arts festivals, it often seems that the biennial, like the porno movie, is an inherently limited form: You can change the scenarios and the sets, but the basic moves are still the same. That’s why Goldberg plans to make sure each edition of PERFORMA is completely different from the last. “I want to surprise people, myself above all,” she says. While PERFORMA05 focuses on the relationship between performance and visual art, the 2007 edition, for instance, could “focus on dance—but dance in a very broad sense. Dance as it relates to Paul McCarthy.” (If that doesn’t cure biennial fatigue, nothing will.)

In any case, the open, even freewheeling style in which PERFORMA05 was curated seems to hold true to an old-school downtown spirit. Goldberg organized it with the input of a fourteen-member advisory council of artists and curators (including Marina Abramovíc, William Kentridge, Jens Hoffman, and Chrissie Iles), and she stresses that the process was informal, one of e-mails and conversations with numerous colleagues, especially curators at nonprofit performance spaces around New York. “What I’m trying to do is put together curatorial heads and use the brainpower that surrounds us,” she says. The result, she hopes, will be a biennial that “shakes things up” at a moment when “New York has become very grown-up. I was trying to think in a more ’70s mode”—particularly in terms of venues, which will “pop up all over town. If somebody wants to do something in a phone booth, we’ll use a phone booth.” An attitude that is clearly in line with the spirit of the Superman era.

Elizabeth Schambelan is editor of