BY Isabel Parkes in Opinion | 08 MAY 24
Featured in
Issue 243

How to Survive Staging a Performance

What are the questions that you should ask yourself and your curator before sharing your artwork?

BY Isabel Parkes in Opinion | 08 MAY 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 243, ‘Behind the Scenes

Hosting performance in institutions, particularly those that have historically presented more traditional formats, is both tempting and tricky. Tempting in that, in an era propelled by visibility and all things social, performance offers a fully-fledged public programme: a moment for artists and audience alike to see and be seen, to socialize and be on the socials. Tricky in that, despite how well performance often presents on Instagram and TikTok, grand museal halls are just as frequently ill-equipped – acoustically, spatially – to host the performance, let alone care for the performers.

To a large extent, performance artists require exposure to both disseminate their ideas and maintain their livelihoods. For those not bolstered by, say, a tenured teaching position or a robust, adjacent painting practice, their performances pay for their lives; this reliance translates to a precarity most recently exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Performance artists rarely have agents or managers, as musicians might; few even have gallerists. Frequently, this leaves them without advocates, in radically unmediated contact with institutional curators or project managers who, even if well-meaning, are bound by bottom lines.

But it’s not all bad news: performance continues to enliven and challenge the walls and ways of institutions. Today, having a dynamic live programme – a pulse or lifeline to the world – is essentially a mandate at publicly and privately funded institutions alike. As Gen Z retreats from civic spaces into digital ones, performance bridges the two, drawing young people into museums. Lately, performances – whether planned or impromptu – have also provided a stage for politics and protest. Having produced performances and managed artists in a range of institutional settings, I’ve seen my share of disappointment and triumph in these processes. Whether one is commissioning a performance or being invited to perform, setting expectations by way of a spoken conversation in which notes are taken is a good, albeit not failsafe, way to prepare everyone for the inevitable twists and turns of imagining, rehearsing and presenting performance today.

Here are some questions I like to suggest artists ask when planning a performance; these questions remind me that artists really can be the catalysts for institutional change:

Is there a curator, or am I the curator?

Do you have a green room or other space for me to change in that is not a closet?

What kind of documentation are you able to provide?

Where do my ‘thank-yous’ go?

How many performances will there be?

Is that my fee for one performance or for all of them?

Are we prepared for how it might feel if the last performance is the best but also feels like the first?

Who will be calm when I am stressed?

Who will be stressed when I am calm?

Is there an outside eye, or am I the outside eye?

Why are you inviting me?

Is it because I fit into your programme or because I don’t?

Are you interested in legibility?

Are you trying to silence me?

Can you hear me in the back?

Where is the shower?

The writer would like to thank and credit Morgan Bassichis for their work, which has inspired the format of this piece.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 243 with the headline ‘Open Invitation’

Main image: Commissioned illustration by Stella Murphy, 2024

Isabel Parkes is a writer and the deputy director of Callie's. She is based in Berlin.