In 2004 the art historian RoseLee Goldberg founded performa, a biennial of performance art, with three primary goals: to secure performance’s place in the canon; to reignite civic and cultural activism by creating a forum to present non-commercial works; and to ‘provoke the future’ with original commissions by visual artists. The first biennial, performa05, appeared from nowhere and exceeded expectations with its combination of historical retrospection and innovative new creation. Hal Foster aptly captured its wonderfully unwieldy, indefatigable and sometimes terrifying nature by describing performa as a ‘hydra’ (the many-headed mythological beast). Indeed, the unpredictable and unstoppable quality of the series had the city quietly abuzz.
In contrast, performa07 began with a star-studded spectacle, Francesco Vezzoli’s presentation of Luigi Pirandello’s play Cosìè (se vi pare), or Right You Are (If You Think You Are) (1917), performed in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. The Gagosian Gallery, the underwriting sponsor, served as the mercurial ticket distributor, and on the mobbed opening night a line of black-clad guests snaked around the museum well past the 10pm start. When the queue hadn’t moved by 10.30pm rumours began to fly and there was palpable anxiety that performa had become just another élitist art-world production.
Fortunately, the reality was more nuanced. For one thing, there was much in Vezzoli’s hoopla to admire, including sharp and well-cast actors, among them Elaine Stritch, Abigail Breslin, Natalie Portman and the regal Cate Blanchett (present but silent). For another, the evening’s tedious orchestration, replete with VIP lists, hype and rumour, made it impossible to separate the spectacle of the event from the content of the play, which addresses similar themes. With audience members literally implicated in the performance through live video relay, Vezzoli’s Cosìè... mirrored the crowd of gossipy and self-important art-world insiders.
Moreover, subsequent performa07 events were happily void of such over-produced, elaborate hysteria. Although this biennial had a decidedly more mainstream presence than its predecessor, by and large the content remained deliciously quirky. The programme passed in a blur of impressive and inspiring projects, with the only real disappointment being the inevitable frustration of missing many things.
Goldberg speaks about performance as a genesis for avant-garde production, and performa07 celebrated significant historical works, among them Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts (originally 1959). Although the actual ‘Happening’ was a boring but earnest presentation, it underscored the need for a younger generation to pay homage to innovative elders. Similarly, well-deserved attention was showered on Carolee Schneemann’s seminal film works, including Meat Joy (1964), Fuses (1965–7), Snows and Body Collage (both 1967). Now 40 years old these pieces still feel innovative and radical, and the relationship between Schneemann’s transgressive collage aesthetic and contemporary art practices – particularly sculpture – was provocative.
Schneemann’s passionate anti-war sentiment also made me long for equally fervent and raw contemporary artists, and I found them in Japanther in 3-D (Dinosaur Death Dance) (2007), a raucous rock opera. Japanther (Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly) exploded in an outrageous collage of music, spoken word, film and dance that was collaborative to the core. Dan Graham designed a set that recalled the optical refractions of his architectural pavilions; Dawn Riddle played with the band; Penny Rimbaud, spoken-word poet and co-founder of the anarchistic Punk band Crass, excelled as a shamanic narrator; Robbinschild dance company writhed and rocked; and Conrad and Doyle BLBC designed a massive animatronic dragon that swung maniacally through the crowd (which, incidentally, filled every remaining space in the small, sweat-filled room). Japanther’s noise is infectious, and audience members were spinning and circling around the band as they played. A few took flight, momentarily surfing the willing crowd, and the room was jubilant, communal and full of life.
performa07 took advantage of any and every available space, from galleries and museums to warehouses, clubs, bars and restaurants. Carlos Amorales installed Spider Galaxy (2007) in a midtown atrium where the self-conscious piece vied unsuccessfully with a host of other civic goings-on. In contrast, Ulla von Brandenburg’s La Maison (The House, 2007) brought viewers to a strange storage area whose neutral anonymity was a surprising success. Von Brandenburg, who traffics in the occult, had installed fabric panels (chosen to match Max Lüscher’s psychological colour test) as a series of rooms that visitors walked through. Inside, the film of an unsettling tableau vivant enhanced the disquieting mood.
Von Brandenburg’s project could have been set in a gallery and, as such, represented one end of the performa07 spectrum. Isaac Julien’s brilliant transition to the stage anchored the opposite pole with Cast No Shadow (2007), his first evening-length performance shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The work united three collaborations with choreographer Russell Maliphant: True North (2004), Fantôme Afrique (2005) and Small Boats (2007). In each, Julien presented an achingly beautiful cinematic journey (through Sweden, Burkina Faso and Sicily respectively) while a group of dancers responded to the imagery both in front of and behind the screens. While the earlier works were an engaging, if conventional, exploration of the relationship between live and recorded action, Small Boats was exceptional. It opened with footage of brightly coloured fishing boats shown on a screen that completely covered the foreground of the stage. Slowly, emanating from a slim vertical axis in the centre, the image began to dissolve laterally, and as the performers appeared behind the scrim, their movement seemed to force the picture apart. For several minutes the image and the dancers grappled back and forth in an extraordinary push-and-pull that came to a climax when the image finally retook the entire screen. A man in the audience shrieked with delight, and I shared his euphoria. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
The pieces put forth by Von Brandenburg and Julien also reflect performa07’s spectrum, which embraced a broad definition of performance. Linking firmly to the field of visual art, the biennial positioned performance as an extension of visual arts practice that could illuminate or complement gallery projects and thereby forge deeper connections between artists and their audiences. Presenting art as a visceral experience to be absorbed with all five senses and carried away through memory and inspiration, performa07 focused on the act of making rather than the act of consuming (except, of course, for Serkan Özkaya’s culinary sculpture Bring Me the Head of …, which was added to the dessert menu at Freeman’s restaurant). It demanded focus and commitment from both the artist and the audience, and this condition led to just rewards.
In the process performa07 has encouraged performance’s expanded presence in New York. Distinct from the localized, artist-run downtown scene of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, today’s performance community is characterized by international exchange, institutional participation and gallery and philanthropic support. In a city that is generally conservative about performance, New York’s warm – and wide – welcome of performa07 attested to a large population in search of creative fulfilment, and future accommodation – as with the upcoming Whitney Biennial – will be interesting to watch.