Gianni Jetzer: You got involved with performance in the early ’70s when it was low on the totem pole of the art world. How did that come about?
RoseLee Goldberg: I wrote the first history of performance art [Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present] in 1979 when, as you say, few people regarded performance as a legitimate history. I was a dancer from an early age, in South Africa, and studied Fine Arts and Political Science. These elements played into how I understood art and culture as something to be viewed in tandem, and horizontally, across disciplines, ignoring divisions of art into objects or movement or music. I moved to London, studied art history at The Courtauld Institute, and wrote my dissertation on Oskar Schlemmer and performance at the Bauhaus.
GJ: How has the perception of performance art changed since the late ’70s?
RLG: Performance in the ’70s was the flip side of conceptual art — it was the “materialization of art ideas.” The aesthetic was bare, black and white, based on lists and instructions. It was about experience, about exploring perception. Both opposed art as commodity. It took place “downtown” — when there was still a downtown, mostly among other artists or musicians or filmmakers. Performance was considered difficult, an acquired taste. In the ’80s, when the art market came back with the Pictures Generation and New Painting, performance took on an ironic twist with cabaret-style monologists (Karen Finley, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray) and generally was more accessible but still it stayed on the edges, in the downtown scene. In the last decade it started to appear regularly at biennials and art fairs, but always as a sideshow, something to see at the end of a long day of looking at art. Few people understood its direct connections to visual art or were knowledgeable about its long, continuous history. Or they called it by another name, such as “relational aesthetics.” In my book I made the point that performance is integral to art history. Artists have always made live performance: Leonardo da Vinci created live events for the Medicis, the Russian Constructivists were famous for public spectacles. Until I published my book, performance had been totally buried within art history — surprising because the entire 20th century from Dada and Futurism to Surrealism and Happenings has been a century of multi-disciplinary art.
GJ: What was your vision for Performa back in 2004?
RLG: I established Performa to make this history known on as broad a platform as possible. In that sense, Performa is a museum without walls. We are a research engine for performance around the world, examining its origins and how it shapes or is shaped by particular moments in time in different cultural contexts. Secondly, at that time in New York, there was so much talk about the art market, and I felt the need to focus on work that was not for sale, that was about a world of ideas and values, about humanism and larger cultural concerns than collecting art. The art world felt top heavy — everything trickling down from above — and it was necessary to do something outside of the institution. I wanted to find a way to bring back that sense of a creative community, pulsing from the bottom up, which was the New York I knew and loved in the ’70s. The third idea was that I wanted to create a specialized biennial specifically to look at art across disciplines and in the most optimum way. And, importantly, we would commission new works, often from visual artists who had never worked live before, opening entirely new directions for performance.
GJ: Can you outline highlights of Performa’s fifth edition that will take place this November?
RLG: There are many thrilling productions, so of course it is difficult to highlight just a few. Some of the venues this year will take people to surprising parts of city, to Williamsburg at the water’s edge where Paweł Althamer will be living for three weeks with his two sons, making sculpture, cooking dinner, creating a community around Biba, a Polish center that he found there; Marianne Vitale will build a work in her own vast studio in Queens, creating a full-on environment for what she’s calling The Missing Book of Spurs; Rashid Johnson has decided to use the famous Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street as the setting for a fiercely disturbing work of theater from the ’60s civil rights era, Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman; Philippe Quesne will create a series of dramatic tableaux vivants in Red Hook, further out on the Brooklyn harbor. We will again have a very strong component of new dance, with Maria Hassabi, Noé Soulier and Boris Charmatz; and we will present Jérôme Bel’s remarkable work Disabled Theater that was seen at dOCUMENTA last year.
GJ: Performance is very present these days. Museums such as Tate Modern and MoMA program performances and seem to attract large crowds. How do you explain the increased popularity of performance at the beginning of the 21st century?
RLG: I would say that Performa has had a lot to do with this new popularity. The other important point is that the ’70s is now history, and the fact that so much of the work of that period was performance or performance related means that museum curators and historians have had to finally incorporate performance into the timeline of contemporary art. Thirdly, the nature of museums themselves has changed; they are places of action, designed with large spaces where thousands of people might gather. The new Tate Tanks, specifically for performance, will increase the demand for a new level of “museum worthy” performances. Similarly, the new Whitney Museum currently under construction will have dedicated theaters and flexible exhibition spaces, so we’ll be looking at entirely new kinds of performances designed to fill those spaces.
GJ: Has the presence of electronic communication and the fact that many of our observations take place on screen today have an effect on the virulence of live performance?
RLG: Absolutely. Coming together in a live setting is a powerful antidote to electronic communication, but it is also an extension of that communication.
GJ: Hip-Hop artist Jay-Z invited protagonists from the art world to be part of his video Picasso Baby. It created quite a stir in the art world. Why did you decide to be part of it?
RLG: I didn’t hesitate for a moment to be part of Picasso Baby. Jay-Z is an interesting figure who has a full grasp of contemporary pop culture, and I was intrigued that he chose to take one of the most visible and in a sense radical art events of recent years — Marina Abramovič sitting for more than two months in a museum, morning to night, committed to eye contact with her audience — as the basis for making a video to accompany his new single. I have always looked for connections between so-called high art and popular culture. In the ’80s it was central to the discussion about contemporary art, but these days it is very difficult to make that separation since those borders seem to have been erased by constant crossing. Everyone should read the lyrics of Picasso Baby. They contain a strong critique of the art world, of race and class.
GJ: Are there private collectors today who are solely collecting performance art?
RLG: There are several who specialize in such material. The question of collecting comes up a lot these days now that more museums have performance art departments. But collecting is one thing, and having a market for performance is quite another. A lot of museums already have fairly extensive performance art collections, but they are hiding in plain sight, catalogued under another name. The work might be found in the drawing or video or photography or even painting departments — works by Yoko Ono, Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas or Pipilotti Rist for example.
GJ: What is the most common way to materialize or preserve performances and make them collectible?
RLG: Films, still photography, objects, drawings, scripts, maquettes of sets, sculptures made after the fact to represent the event. In 2009 I curated a show entitled “100 Years of Performance Art” (timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto of 1909) and it showed the extent of this kind of material. It was surprisingly visual, and very beautiful as an installation. Not only were we able to look at 100 years of performance by artists such as Fernand Léger, Frederick Kiesler, Oskar Schlemmer, Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and many more, but what we saw also was a history of documentation and how that changed over the century — from rooms of photographs of Schlemmer’s performances, to early black and white video of Yoko or Yves Klein, to HD videos by Allora and Calzadilla or Francesco Vezzoli.
GJ: Do you see any conflicts in the re-enactment of historical performance?
RLG: Not at all. It is both educational and revealing, and can also be compelling in its own right. It all depends on the experience and knowledge of the curator and of the performers. Some work lends itself to re-enactment better than others. Restaging is itself an art form nowadays. Artists such as Derrick Adams or Clifford Owens have restaged work from the past, although they might reinterpret and give it an entirely new form in the present.
GJ: Marina Abramovič was the first performance artist to have a retrospective at MoMA. A lot of historical work got restaged on that occasion. What used to be a single-night affair turned into a constant show on display. Isn’t that a dramatic shift?
RLG: It is totally different indeed. The context, the politics, is very different from when the work was first performed, but for the next generation it is a revelation. My students found it exciting to have a chance to see so many restaged works within the same exhibition. They were surprised by its impact. A different kind of surprise from what it might have been forty years ago, but nevertheless people are changed by experiencing this work. We can try to be purists, but a lot of what we know about art of the last 5000 years is from reproductions and remakes. We think we’ve seen the real thing, but in many cases it is only a small photograph in a book that we’ve actually seen. Restaging is part of an intellectual conversation, about how best to recall history, and about how art changes our perception. And it might be a remake or a rumor that changes it.
GJ: Will performance art be included in the art market, as happened with video 20 years ago?
RLG: Is there an art market for video 20 years later? There are video collectors and collections, but as to whether their material changes hands in auctions or in secondary markets, I am not sure. Similarly, there will be performance art collections and collectors, but I believe they are a rarified group, like people who collect manuscripts or hand-written notations by Mozart. It is the old style of collecting — for pleasure, not for investment.
GJ: What are the most crucial performance works of the last ten years?
RLG: Too many to mention: Marina Abramovič’s The House with the Ocean View; Shirin Neshat’s Logic of the Birds; Tino Sehgal’s The Kiss; Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On; William Kentridge’s I am not me, the horse is not mine; Jesper Just’s True Love is Yet to Come; Andrea Fraser’s Official Welcome; Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss.
GJ: What is your vision for future editions of Performa?
RLG: Performa is always changing and responding to contemporary art and politics, aesthetic shifts and new directions in media. There’s continuity to our program; we essentially pick up where we left off before. We’re the only biennial that has a commitment to history at its heart and to building an archive of historical and current material from around the world. At the same time, we’re not bound by institutional history or to selecting a new curator every two years like most biennials. Our curatorial team is ongoing, so knowledge and expertise are accumulated. For Performa 13, we added an exciting new initiative, Pavilions Without Walls, which involved an 18-month exploration into the art and culture of Norway and Poland. Our team now has a rich general knowledge about this material and we have brought a curator from each country to work with us in New York. We are always uncovering the new and finding fresh fields to investigate.
Gianni Jetzer is a freelance curator based in New York.
RoseLee Goldberg is founding director and curator of Performa.