Since RoseLee Goldberg founded Performa, America’s first and only visual performance art biennial, it has continued to push the boundaries between high and low—bringing together fine art, popular culture, music, film, poetry, and dance all into the fold of live arts using alternative venues as exhibition sites. The lifeblood of Performa, which celebrates its ten-year anniversary this year, is the commissioning of artists who rarely, if ever, work in performance to conceptualize new works. Performa invites artists to push their own boundaries and research new technologies to make work into vibrant matter. Much like its founder, it has revolutionized the way we experience art into a collaborative practice.
A chance meeting with Man Ray in his Paris studio when she was 20 years old may have set Goldberg on the path towards cultivating performance art as a medium. Full of youthful uncertainty, she asked the only question she could think of: “What is the greatest art work?” His answer was full of wisdom: “Art, my dear, is like sex. There is no progress forward for better or worse—there are only different ways of doing it.” Through that meeting, Man Ray may have changed the course of her life; she found a “different way of doing it” that would open up the expanded field of art to an entirely new medium: performance art.
Goldberg wrote Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, the definitive text on the subject, in 1979 when it was still in its infancy. In it she reframed art history after 1900, placing performance center stage. She hails Charlie Chaplin as a founding father of performance art, bringing the highest level of movement choreography into such fine control that he could transfigure comedy into tragedy with the slightest change of affect and expression. The lineage of performance art can be traced historically to other new forms during the avant-garde, from Concretism, Fluxus, and Dada to the action art of Jackson Pollock and the composer of chance operations, John Cage.
Goldberg’s international perspective would go on to help her become a central figure in the globalizing art world. Born in South Africa, Goldberg studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London, and directly out of school she directed the Royal College of Art Gallery, placing it on the map by mounting modern and contemporary post-medium exhibitions. She relocated to New York in 1975 at the height of the alternative-spaces movement and became the figurehead of the leading experimental theater space The Kitchen at the cynosure of all the activity.
While at The Kitchen, Goldberg expanded it to include a gallery where she curated the first prominent exhibitions of artists like Jack Goldstein, David Salle, Sherrie Levine, and Cindy Sherman. She pioneered a video viewing room and performance series that presented artists across mediums: polymath Laurie Anderson, artist Robert Longo, composer Philip Glass, and experimental theater director and video artist Robert Wilson.
“What I get so intrigued by, working with an artist who hasn’t done performance before, is how it changes their thinking about their work.”
As a curator, Goldberg broke many of the norms of curating and art institutions. She brought forward new structures of signification around performance and its reception: experimenting with new framing devices, representations, presentations that de-fetishized the art “object.” She has since emerged as a force of nature to be reckoned with. She cleaved performance from its golden age in the 60s and 70s to its marginalization. Even in obscurity it never went away; Goldberg found it “hiding in plain sight” and almost singlehandedly dragged it back into prominence.
Museums have embraced the form, a sign that performance art has truly arrived. Spaces like The Tanks at the Tate Modern, the theater in the new Whitney Museum of American Art, and the “art bay” for performance at the current Museum of Modern Art expansion all attest to how the “avant avant-garde” of performance is increasingly relevant in contemporary art. The participatory nature of performance art allows for the viewer to experience art work directly, in some ways making it more appealing than staring at pieces hanging on walls. Performance art has finally come out of hiding—due in part largely to Goldberg and Performa. Shirin Neshat, an artist who Goldberg commissioned for Performa 11 in 2011, met the performance art maven at her downtown New York home, and the two discussed the biennial, taking risks, and performance art’s place in art history.
We were so ambitious. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing. We were just enjoying the process.
RoseLee Goldberg—We started our collaboration five years before I ever established Performa in 2000. I had been following your work when I invited you to do a talk at The Kitchen. Then I saw your incredible installation at the Venice Biennale in 1999. Turbulent was one of the biggest installations I have ever seen. It was in a giant space in the Arsenale. I literally sat there in tears thinking, “Why doesn’t performance look and feel like this?”
Shirin Neshat—Turbulent is two opposite projections of a woman and male singer. In the film the male singer has an audience all in white shirts buttoned up like him, and he sings a beautiful traditional Persian poem by Rumi. He gets a very rapturous response. The woman has her back to us singing to an empty room on the opposite side. When the man sings and finishes, she begins to sing. The camera revolves around her to see her face. Her music, which is by Sussan Deyhim, breaks all the rules of classical and traditional music. It doesn’t have words; it’s very guttural. But it is so powerful. It is so riveting that she becomes victorious, even though she doesn’t have an audience and she doesn’t have the traditional music behind her. So it really becomes this conversation about the place of music in relation to gender.
RoseLee—There is all this content you are talking about: East and West, men and women, gender—the man being able to sing in public, the woman not being able to—the sound. You had the cinematic choreography and were moving us in a way that a performance should, through time and space and touching you with just about every sense. I came down to see you on Canal Street and said, “Would you ever think of doing a live piece?” I carried on about how much I was moved by Turbulent, and what if people just stepped off the wall into the space. I was shocked you said yes.
Shirin—The next film I did was Rapture, which was really like a performative piece. There were a hundred women with black veils and a hundred men in white. The women were in the desert, but leading to the sea, and the men were in this fortress in Morocco. The short film was designed as a kind of dance choreography on two opposite projections. I remember vividly Turbulent and Rapture were the pieces we spoke about. I told you that is very odd because I never thought about it, but in reality I’m very interested in performance, choreography, and music. The piece we made together, Logic of the Birds, has a bit of Turbulent and Rapture in it.
RoseLee—I kept being excited about these layers and levels and making this new project. Suddenly that turned me into a producer when I co-produced Logic of the Birds, my first time producing anything, let alone a film. I had no idea how to raise money. We didn’t know how to start or what to do. We had never done a performance, so we had to start. You said let’s make a film.
Shirin—We were so ambitious. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing. We were just enjoying the process.
RoseLee—I get so intrigued working with an artist who hasn’t done performance; it changes their thinking and opens up the possibilties of the work they can do. So that is when you made that film that I have watched a hundred times. Then there was this moment when we asked, “What do you do now?”
Shirin—How to make this into live performance.
RoseLee—I knew this was extraordinary. For each part, we recruited people we needed like lighting and choreography. That was the first production and it took off. That’s where the commission idea began. Thank you for the imagination to say yes.
Shirin—That is what I love: You help artists become ambitious. Many of the artists you work with have already done performance, but many of them haven’t and you encourage them and sometimes really magical things happen, especially in a time when galleries are all about markets and commodities.
RoseLee—Today there are spaces in museums dedicated to performance restagings, collection videos, and photographic documentation. But the reality is that very little of this is ever going to sell.
Shirin—I certainly never have sold work related to performance.
The right space really enhances and is the frame that makes you pay attention. It stops time and you really look at this artist’s work. You come out and you won’t forget it.
RoseLee—The performance material has always been in the museum, but gets categorized as drawing or photography. If I was asked to design the same collection at a museum, I would show that it is actually a performance history. But it is called something else; it is performance hiding in plain sight. The 20th century has always been about multidisciplinary work—Duchamp, the futurists and Russian constructivists, Yves Klein, Allan Kaprow, Rauschenberg, and Oldenburg. It all comes out of performance, but it is not labeled that way. I think it is because of things like Performa that people are finally saying there are other ways of thinking about art history. Starting Perfoma, and the first round of commissions like yours, took me a while to understand where I wanted to go from our first powerful performance. People were just astonished by the work. But I thought I am not going to suddenly be a producer, I am much more interested in history and giving people context. It took me a while to figure out I was going to do a biennial. One reason for the biennial was, first and foremost, to put this history of performance on a much bigger platform where it could be deeply recognized and incorporated into the language of culture.
Shirin—People don’t necessarily need to see the performance to recognize its importance.
RoseLee—History is about telling the story. Conceptual art in the 70s was a very political stance against the marketplace, and that is another kind of politics. We are used to thinking about political art as being somehow so conceptual that it shouldn’t be seductive and beautiful. It doesn’t hurt to be critical and beautiful. The 70s was very much a reaction to Vietnam and feminism, the 80s saw the emergence of ACT UP, which was also performance related. Even Chinese material was performance-related, in part because they were not allowed to have exhibitions, so it was easier to mount a performance in someone’s apartment. That was very particular to a time and place and now in this country we are not really dealing with politics in that sort of way. After the 70s, we think of performance as very difficult and painful. I distinctly remember a wonderful series of comments you said to me.
RoseLee—I remember all sorts of things. You said, “Do I really have to go for a whole week of rehearsal?” I said, “Trust me you will be very happy.” I think the artist typically works like crazy—you are finished and send it off. Maybe you install it, but you don’t really have to be in the space. After [the performance] you said, “Thank goodness I had a week. I could have used even longer.”
Shirin—Nothing is scarier than live performance.
RoseLee—The other thing you said is you couldn’t get over the eye contact, this idea that you can see people’s reactions.
Shirin—Even with my photographs, there is a strong performative quality. I am talking about the simplicty of the gaze. The people all become characters, they all play a role. In all its subtlety it’s about performance.
RoseLee—Your work had the kind of theater I wanted to see. With artists there is a sense of abstract thought or feeling or way of looking at something they are trying to create in another mode. Most theater follows a text that is linear—a beginning, middle, and end. An artist typically does not tell you how to look at a piece, or what it means. Artists leave space for the viewer, hinting at certain elements: the look, or the gaze, or a light, or shape—there is room to co-create the work with your own understanding. In the 70s the artist, actor, and author were all one and the same, and it was a single vision that was non-repeatable, a non-scripted performance. In the art world you can just do it; you don’t have to wait for all the elements of theater: directors, actors, producers, writers. That’s changed a lot.
Shirin—It is interesting because I work in photography, video, film, and—at times—performance; the languages are very different. These various mediums carry a certain baggage, the visual language, which means that the majority of the ideas are expressed through the power of image first, music and words second. The level of abstraction you have in visual arts you don’t have at the box office. In theater there have to be desirable results with the public.
RoseLee—I remember Elmgreen & Dragset—Ingar [Dragset] comes from theater and Michael [Elmgreen] from visual art and poetry. Ingar said he couldn’t believe how quickly you can do something in the art world. You have an idea and you can find a way to do it. In 2011, I invited you to come back to Performa. Then you knew more or less what you were getting into [with your piece OverRuled].
Shirin—Turbulent, Rapture, and almost all of my work is about this notion of opposites. OverRuled was meant to be slightly more political: a court of law on one side with men of power dressed in white, who were doing absurd activities. It was very Kafkaesque. On the side of the table opposite the judge were two artists who sang songs by Rumi, a poet from the 11th century. Even though it was ancient, the judge found it subversive. It really touched on notions of censorship, but it was done so that it transcended even Iran. It was a parody where their crime was their art. The judge found it problematic because of the way they were talking about God, the dynamic between mystical Islam and political Islam—so often the current laws of the regime find spiritual Islam taboo. This idea of paradox on many dimensions, artists with imagination versus people with no imagination, people with power versus people who are disempowered, and finally this question of universality where under authoritarian power art is considered criminal.
RoseLee—I thought it was interesting how the performance came out of a video you did.
Shirin—That’s right, it came out of The Last Word, a video about an experience I had with the government. In the video a woman writer was being interrogated by this man of law. I thought it was interesting to take a video and actually create it live. It was really taken from our conversation to take something that is recorded on film and put the audience in the middle of it.
RoseLee—The stories were profound and layered, yet in the hands of the artist, it is less theater. In the end, it doesn’t look like theater—it looks like visual art.
Shirin—We as artists know what we are good at, and we could just continue to do that. When somebody asks you to do something you have never done, the risk of failure or mediocrity or being trite is very high. That is so necessary; as successful artists, a lot of people don’t take chances anymore because they are in a safe zone. When you came to an artist like me who has never done a performance, I am certainly scared to make something different but part of me feels exhilarated that you trust that I can do this. This does not mean it will be a masterpiece and this is unfortunately something that the art world does not understand or embrace—that an artist of any level, whether you are Jeff Koons or a student, should occasionally take chances and expand what you normally do. It is much safer for your reputation not to do that. So there is a lot of anxiety in the process that so many artists don’t even go near it for fear of criticism.
RoseLee—The very first night of Performa ten years ago we opened with Jesper Just. He was 30 at the time. I saw two videos of his and the first one I saw was this man climbing into the back of a truck and then stepping into a field of poppies. I just knew I had to commission him to do something. I had never met him, but got in touch with his gallery. He had never shown in New York either. I said, “I want to commission you to do a live work.” I just decided this is what has to happen, and now that I am describing it, what was I thinking? This was opening night of Performa.
Shirin—It was beautiful. What was the technology he used?
RoseLee—He used Pepper’s ghost, which uses mirrors and projections to create an illusion, in this case a 3D hologram. He had never done anything live and never rehearsed the piece, because it was done with a lot of computer-generated material. He said he was trembling all night. There was only one live person; everything else was projection. It was a 40-minute piece, and we were all standing there with our mouths open.
When somebody asks you to do something you have never done, the risk of failure or mediocrity or being trite is very high. That is so necessary; as successful artists, a lot of people don’t take chances anymore because they are in a safe zone.
Shirin—You couldn’t forget this piece.
RoseLee—The next one was Adam Pendleton. I had never met him. I had only seen these simple paintings with poetry, and went to a reading in a small gallery. I said, “I am going to commission you. What do you want to do? Be ambitious.” Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times that he was crying, people were so moved by his piece. It was a 30-person gospel choir. The text was an elaborate text on language poets from the 60s and 70s, Larry Kramer texts on the politics of AIDS. He had Jason Moran, a fantastic jazz pianist. It only came together at the last minute. It was a game changer.
Shirin—Each one has a different story. In all my work there is always the individual versus the community—for me space is very important. That is a key thing: always having an examination of what happens to the individual in these spaces, not only on the sociopolitical level, but also on the more existential level.
RoseLee—The right space really enhances and is the frame that makes you pay attention. It stops time and you really look at this artist’s work. You come out and you won’t forget it. I started Performa to stop time because we all race through Chelsea and never see anything in full. I wanted us to be really present with the work.
Shirin—Last year I was part of the Holland Festival, where I worked with the Dutch National Ballet to stage something. There were so many people talking about Performa, all wanting to do something with you. I am amazed how many, and how much, people know about Performa internationally. And how many people find they don’t really have the right outlet to do what they want to do. But the way Perfoma does their programing, they do major big things all the way down to small things and everything in between and at different types of locations. It is so attractive to many artists, because there aren’t many opportunities like that.
RoseLee—Well, Performa is the only international biennial in New York and the only one that is deeply international from the beginning. In 2004 there was such constant conversation around money and the market place. The first thing I did—which tells you everything about what I was thinking at the time—was create a series at NYU, where I had been teaching for 30 years, called “Not for Sale.” I felt it was time to get back to the artist’s voice and not just what the curators were saying. The first two years we were in my house having board meetings. Actually we started moving people to my daughter’s bedroom. And here we were and the board [of Performa] said, “We think you should wait another year and raise money.” I said, “With all due respect, no. You don’t raise money by talking about it; you have to do something.” We put that first Performa together in five weeks.
Shirin—I was here in New York in the 80s, it was so alive and then the East Village exploded, and we had people from dance, music, arts, and they all collaborated. Then came the market and everything became so sterile. We lost that sense of community and people coming together the way it used to be. [Now,] people are in their studios working and becoming rich artists and buying houses. And that is it. Money rules. When Perfoma arrived, it filled this vacuum, this need that people had to feel like they are part of something interdisciplinary. When Performa happens, the artists are in the audience, the dealers are in the audience, the curators, the critics, the students, and there really is a sense of community and a number of different layers. I think Perfoma is really necessary, now more than ever.
Performa 15 runs November 1–22, 2015 at various locations across New York City. For more information visit: performa-arts.org