RoseLee Goldberg on 10 Years of Performa

Artsy Editorial
Nov 3, 2015 3:32AM

Last week, Performa founder and director RoseLee Goldberg sat down with the South African artist Robin Rhode to discuss his contribution to the latest, 10th-anniversary edition of the New York biennial dedicated to the performance arts. Rhode, who will take over Times Square with a reimagining of a Schoenberg opera for his Performa project, is known for whimsical, often ephemeral drawings that are the product of his performances—or simply the traces of his body and arms as they move, creating marks. “Robin shows that you couldn’t make those kind of drawings without the performance,” Goldberg explained to the audience.

Dissolving the perception of those two categories—of “performance” in scare quotes, and the production of art—is something of a preoccupation for Goldberg, who for over 40 years has been an influential advocate and catalyst for a medium that she sees as extending far beyond the limited parameters typically ascribed to it. Goldberg, who wrote the canonical book on performance, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (first published in 1979), would have it that all 20th-century artists in some way engaged this rich, interdisciplinary medium. I caught up with Goldberg before Performa 15 to discuss the increasing prevalence of performance throughout the art world, and what’s in store for this year’s biennial. 

RoseLee Goldberg on Performa 15’s opening night, featuring Performa Commission Fortuna Desperata by Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg. Photo by Max Lakner/, courtesy of Performa.

Tess Thackara: Where has your research taken you over the past two years, since the last edition of Performa? Have you discovered any new practices or threads across contemporary performance?

RoseLee Goldberg: You know, since we’re very driven by commissioning new work, I think it’s less about trying to assess what’s out there but rather to almost create a new direction for what could be out there. With a commission, it’s more that you’re looking at individual work and deciding that this artist could do something very exciting that somehow deals with a lot of the issues you want to be talking about right now. Sometimes biennials have a mission statement rooted in “taking the temperature” of the times, responding to what’s out there. It’s less of that, because the commission process is really about selecting an artist whose work you find very interesting, and then asking them to run with an idea that we will then work with them on for a two-year period.

As you know, we’ve always had a very strong historical aspect, where we, as curators, take a period in time and examine it very closely. We’ve looked at Futurism, Russian Constructivism, and Surrealism. And this year, I decided we would go all the way back and do research on the Renaissance, which has been thrilling. We establish this historical reference point as a way to educate everybody within Performa, but then—almost like the wave in the pond—our research has this ripple effect. Everyone we talk to, whether it’s artists, curators, or people like yourself in the press, is introduced to this very rich history of performance that’s possibly been misunderstood and not incorporated into art history as we know it. That’s really where our research has been this year.

Natalie Djurberg, Untitled (Working Title Kids & Dogs), 2007. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa.


TT: What are you looking for, in an artist? What might strike you about an artist’s work that would lead you to think they would create a great performance?

RG: Well, that’s a very good question. I think there is something that occurs when looking at work— whether I’m looking at sculpture, painting, film, video, or installation—there is somehow a theatricality in the work, or a sense that something could step out of the object or step out of the video and be a work that would make sense as live performance. I would say examples from the past include Isaac Julien or Natalie Djurberg—in both cases, there was a sense that the artist’s work itself is so inherently dramatic, and visual, and also deals with time. I’m looking for work that has a lot of content, with layers of meaning and information. But there’s also that instinctive response to seeing somebody’s work and thinking, “Wow, how would they approach those questions going live?”

TT: Could you speak to that process—of deciding you want to work with an artist and helping them shape a piece?

RG: Everyone is different, and every project is really a good story because they all evolve in very different ways. This year, because it’s our 10th anniversary, I went back to some of the artists who we’ve worked with before. Someone like Francesco Vezzoli, for instance, really responded to the Renaissance story and immediately went into a conversation about how he had been translating that into a contemporary setting.

Jérôme Bel is now in his third round of working with Performa. His project is the one that most reflects the knowledge of how biennials work in New York City, in that it takes place over a lot of different venues and responds to the the fact that people are asking questions like, “What does it mean to see dance in a museum?” The third time around, working with Jérôme is a whole other wonderful experience, because he’s really employing the elements of what we do best: producing new work and taking up the challenge to find new spaces in the city.

Jérôme Bel, Gala, 2015. Photo by Veronique Ellena, courtesy of Performa.

TT: But it’s a very collaborative process between artist and curator?

RG: This year is the first time the curators are working on projects from beginning to end. So somebody like Adrienne Edwards, one of our curators, is working with Edgar Arceneaux. She says she has the equivalent of over 90 pages of emails going back and forth—conversations and questions about the nature of the work. So there’s a lot of involvement in the whole curatorial process.

There are two or three things that make us very different from the usual biennial. On one hand, we deal with people working with a lot of different media; on the other hand, we have a continuity to our curators. We don’t change curators every year the way most biennials typically do, so there’s an accumulation of knowledge and expertise over time that the curators develop, working with artists. The third thing is we work with an artist over time, to be able to really keep a conversation going over many years.

TT: And in terms of addressing history, or evoking it through the anchor of the Renaissance, how will this manifest itself, aside from Francesco Vezzoli’s performance?

RG: In a funny way, all this research is an educational program for the organization and for everybody involved, but we don’t ask the artists specifically to respond to that. So they might or might not pick up a particular theme that comes out of that period. But looking back, there seem to be tendencies like working in puppetry, which was something very big in the Renaissance, or people doing more pageantry, or being out on the street. So I would say there are only two or three artists who really followed that thread—like Pauline Curnier Jardin, who looked at her work carefully and thought that she saw aspects that could be associated with Renaissance, like witches, and dealing with ceramicists from the 1500s. So she decided to go full-on into questioning other contemporary artists looking at the Renaissance.

PERFORMA 15 Opening Night | Featuring Performa Commission Fortuna Desperata by Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg. Photo by Max Lakner/, Courtesy of Performa.

TT: When you think of the history of performance art, certainly of the American ’70s generation, it was very much based in social and political urgencies, and a large part of that history was rooted in feminist art. Do you feel that contemporary performance art addresses social and political urgencies to the same extent?

RG: I think the contemporary art that you would be looking at from the ’70s would be conceptual art, and a lot of that, in and of itself, was kind of political with a small “p,” but it was a questioning of the art market, of commodities and so on. And so performance is of its time, and that work was the other side of the coin of a lot of conceptual art. Lucy Lippard said that conceptual art was the dematerialization of the art object, and I always thought that performance was the materialization of the art concept. This is what Performa’s role is—to really change people’s idea about what performance is.

People are very stuck in the ’70s, with this idea that that period is performance, and that’s like saying painting is only “x,” there’s only one kind of painting. Since the ’70s, performance has evolved the way all media that we can think of are shifting. Even in the ’90s, when you think of all the visual artists, from Matthew Barney to Pierre Huyghe to a lot of the relational aesthetics people, they were really making performance—it’s just performance by another name. Take Rirkrit Tiravanija—what are his pieces if not performance? But that wasn’t the name they used.

When someone says “performance art,” yes, indeed, I think of the ’70s, but I don’t think of that in 2000 as being a term that’s really appropriate. One of the goals of Performa and inviting artists to create new performances was to see how we could directly affect contemporary aesthetics. It’s a very different world that we’re living in, from the ’70s. So much of that work was politically oriented, but then so was much of the artwork. So it’s really of the period.

Typing Steps, 2011
Braverman Gallery

TT: In terms of the aesthetics of the moment that we’re living in now, there’s been a lot of talk within New York of a return to figuration in painting. Does that translate in any way to a return to performance that more explicitly addresses issues of the body?

RG: That’s interesting because, of course, all performance is figurative. And as you said, in the ’70s, that was a language that we would talk about, body art and artwork focused on the body. So I think there’s a crossover there, but in terms of painting and figuration, it’s less of an issue. The way performance is being used today has much more to do with new technologies, layered information—a multiple-screen kind of aesthetic. Each piece is very different, and because we do a highly selective group, it’s less about showing one tendency but rather showing 10 different examples of the way that artists approach life today.

TT: What do you think is driving that multi-screen aesthetic? Why are so many artists interested in working in performance, alongside other mediums?

RG: I would say artists have been working with different media for the entire 20th century, but somehow [art-making] became locked into painting and sculpture categories. Starting with the Futurists, the Dadaists, Hannah Höch in Berlin, to Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg—all the big icons of the 20th century—all their work was tied into performance, dance, and music. Think of the relationships between Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and Jasper Johns—writers and artists and painters. That’s the job of Performa, to make all these relationships more obvious, because I think it just gets forgotten in the traditional telling of art history.

If you ask me who, I would say just about everyone I could think of from the last 100 years of art worked between disciplines—from the ’70s onwards, people like Joan Jonas and Dennis Oppenheim, David Hammons. Most of the artists we care about have moved between disciplines, but we somehow get stuck talking about the end result, which is the big installation in a gallery. But so often, that same artist that we’re admiring in the gallery for their amazing installation has come to arrange different media. So I actually think it’s a 21st-century phenomenon that artists have that option to work in a lot of different media, just like how we’re all multitasking or multimedia-tasking on phones, on all the outlets that are available. We’re all so involved with so many different ways of expressing ourselves. I really think the 21st-century artist is an artist who can choose to do all these different things. 

Isaac Julien & Russell Maliphant, Cast No Shadow, 2007, A Performa Commission, Photo © Paula Court

TT: You’ve talked about there being a need for museum-worthy performance as institutions create more space for the medium. Are performances getting larger and more produced to keep up with a sophisticated art world? And is there a risk of losing anything in making performance more mainstream?

RG: I don’t think so. I think performance is still very experimental, because it doesn’t have the structure and traditions of those vetting processes that take place in painting or sculpture. By the time you get to a museum, there’s been a lot of steps along the way. And yet performance is still such an amalgam of things, and it’s never going to be just one thing or the other. Then again, with Performa, what I’m always proud of is that we do things that could be as big as Isaac Julien on the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or could be a Dave McKenzie piece where he’s sitting on a bench in Harlem talking to passersby.

We’re doing the same this year—we have Ryan Gander doing a kind of invisible, highly conceptual work where he’s sending an actor around for three weeks who will play Gander himself—an imagined version of him in 10 year’s time. So you’ve got this highly conceptual piece, you may or may not recognize it, you may or may not realize you’re standing next to the artist at the next performance piece that you come to. On the other hand, you have something that’s got a much grander—or not even grander, just on a different scale.

My point about museums is that once you go into a museum, there is a certain quality that occurs. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just like when you go to a wedding and you dress up a certain way. I don’t think that lessens the experience or makes performance mainstream. It’s not static. When I say there’s going to be more museum-quality performance, it’s because, in a way, certain artists get to that scale, which is typically what happens with the museums. When you put Marina Abramović in a museum, she’s not going to do the same piece that she did when she was 20 years old, in a truck, riding around France or Yugoslavia somewhere.

PERFORMA 15 Opening Night | Featuring Performa Commission Fortuna Desperata by Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg. Photo by Max Lakner/, Courtesy of Performa.

TT: With more experience behind them, artists want bigger challenges, too.

RG: This is the nature of maturity, and the nature of work reaching a certain place. So again, I think it’s almost unfair that Performa is held to standards that don’t exist. Of course work will change if it goes into a museum—that context is going to change the nature of expectation, and, you know, you can’t do the same piece that a young, emerging artist might be doing in a space on the Lower East Side that’s 15 feet by 20 feet. I think this is the nature of museums, too. And yet an artist like Tania Bruguera will turn around and surprise you and do a piece in the middle of Tate’s Turbine Hall and bring horses and policemen into it. There’s a level of work that an artist arrives at when there’s a mature quality to it—like Bruguera, who’s been working for probably 25 years already—which is very different from a piece that I saw of hers in ’97. So you’re talking about a maturation process. By the time she goes to do something at the Turbine Hall, there’s a certain understanding of people, of places, of spaces—from a visual artist’s point of view, what that’s going to look like, how it’s going to move people, how they’re going to relate to it.

You wouldn’t expect any less sophistication from anyone working in another discipline. It doesn’t make her more mainstream. Bruguera is never mainstream. She takes her idea into a big museum and can still be riveting and disturbing, and ask big questions, even though the work, in a sense, has this museum quality to it because it’s so expertly presented. You know, I could say the same about so many artists—Abramović, the early work of Joan Jonas, the current work of Joan Jonas. It’s really a process of moving from one context to the other that changes, but it doesn’t take the sting out of it.

Tess Thackara

Performa 15 takes place November 1–22 at various locations across New York City.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019