In Conversation

Roselee Goldberg with Praxis

(Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey)

Francis Alÿs. “Ensayo II,” 2001, still from 16 minute video. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner

PERFORMA05, the first performance art biennial, will take place this year from November 3-21, 2005 in New York City. A three week program of performances, exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, and symposia, it has been organized in collaboration with a consortium of international curators and artists to provide audiences with an overview of contemporary performance art. With more than ninety participating artists at over twenty venues, PERFORMA05 will articulate a broad range of ideas and sensibilities across disciplines and media.

The Brooklyn Rail spoke with Roselee Goldberg, the Founding Director and Curator of PERFORMA.

Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey (Rail): How did the PERFORMA05 Biennale begin?

Roselee Goldberg: I decided that it was time to give performance a biennial of its own. I was tired of performance being a “side-show,” whether at the Venice Biennale, at Documenta, or at the Whitney Biennial, when in fact it has been a central influence on the development of twentieth-century art—think Futurism or Surrealism, the early work of Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Vito Acconci or Joan Jonas. So much work today is performance or performance-related—think Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe, Sue de Beer, Candice Breitz—yet the historic thread of performance that runs through this material is barely understood..

Rail: Will this happen every two years?

Goldberg: Yes it will and we already have PERFORMA07 on the drawing board. It will be very different from 05, because it begins with a different starting point. The great thing about performance is that it includes all disciplines—dance, film, music, visual art—so we can shift focus from one biennial to the other. The good thing about every other year, as opposed to an annual festival, is that it gives us time to examine what is out there and to develop a curatorial perspective.

Rail: How does the curatorial aspect of it work?

Goldberg: Talking to a lot of people, curators, artists, writers, and inviting them to present their points of view. I see my role as chief editor more than chief curator and my working method is much the same as the one I apply to writing my books on performance—creating an extensive network of colleagues who I ask to be my “eyes and ears” and then acting as a filter in trying to understand what this accumulated information says about new directions and sensibilities.

Rail: How many people were you in contact with?

Goldberg: Many, in New York and elsewhere. I wanted to create a “brain trust”—a consortium of thinkers whose viewpoints are really interesting and whom I thought would have something really interesting to say about the current state of performance.

Rail: How many artists are there going to be?

Goldberg: We are up to ninety artists and twenty venues. It’s huge!

Rail: Wow. And all those venues are all over Manhattan?

Goldberg: Pretty much.

Rail: Are there a lot of European artists?

Goldberg: There are. And everybody is pitching in to make sure that we can get as many people here as possible. A bit like the old days—when having no money was standard, and everybody loved the idea and basically said, “Great! I’ll do it! I’ll be there.” New York is so grown up at this point in time. It’s top heavy with its focus on a very healthy art market, which also makes it intimidating for those who are just starting out at the other end. Performance has always opened doors and windows. It provides fresh air.

Rail: There’s something about that enthusiasm, although hard to maintain, that is wonderful and inspiring to everybody.

Golberg: It has to be maintained. That’s what we learn from living in the present. “The Contemporary” is always about energy, and about the impossible. The PERFORMA biennial is important because it creates a context for examining that energy, for understanding new material in a cultural context. Barbara Hunt at Artists Space said it best, when I invited her to participate in PERFORMA05. She said, “I’ve always wanted to do more performance [at Artists Space] but didn’t want to do it in a vacuum. PERFORMA provides a context.”

Rail: But also, you no longer have to be categorized. Now, no one is really a painter or performance artist. With the greatest of ease, you can be a multi-discipline artist without using that title.

Goldberg: Exactly. Borders between disciplines are entirely porous. Performance will be very “hot” again, for several reasons. One is the fact that the seventies are now history and young curators are discovering how much work of that period was actually performance. The other is that, as we discussed, performance tends to be an antidote to an entrenched art market.

Rail: Will you be able to see all ninety artists? Are a lot of events running concurrently?

Goldberg: We’ve done our best to space things so that you can see it all. I am very aware of not overwhelming people with an overcrowded program, because my entire life is juggling what to see each week! It will be quite intense getting to everything, but the program allows for breaks in between. There will be watering holes along the way, which should be very interesting.

Rail: Are the performances all in theatrical environments?

Goldberg: No, most are not. The events take place in all kinds of different spaces, which for me is really exciting.

Rail: Will you be writing a catalogue?

Goldberg: Yes. We’ll begin work on it the moment the biennial is over. There will be a lot of information about each program, including a symposium at NYU which means accessibility and ongoing discussion about the work presented in the biennial.


Rail: In terms of the format of how the media will view it, what do you expect the press or people to distill from the program as to where performance is at today?

Goldberg: I think inevitably a range of things: that performance is central to contemporary art today, whether in London, New York or Tokyo; that there is a new kind of conceptual performance driving young visual artists, which looks to the seventies for inspiration; that there is interest once again in the experience of the viewer, and less interest in the actual presence of the artist in a performance.

Rail: There are histories within histories of performance….

Goldberg: That’s why it remains so interesting for me after all these years. How many parallel histories do we need to understand in order to have a grasp of this area called “performance?” Let me count the ways! Dance, film, theater, architecture, music, poetry, graphic design, psychology, and more. These avant-garde “streams” line up side by side; and it is essential to understand how they connect. Whichever historic moment one chooses to examine takes one across a spectrum of disciplines. Mary Wigman or Rudolf Laban are as important to understanding Oskar Schlemmer’s work at the Bauhaus as is the work of Kurt Schwitters or Hindemith; equally Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Philip Glass, or Meredith Monk, or Eric Bogosian, Robert Longo and Bill T. Jones. And then there are histories within histories as you say, about performance in the seventies, or the eighties or nineties.

Rail: When we talked with Marina Abramovic about how to survive as a performance artist, she pointed out that nobody made any money during the seventies and that even today, in a very bullish art market, she has enormous difficulty putting money together as a performance artist. Her show, “House with an Ocean View” at Sean Kelly two years ago, got a colossal amount of press, which, had she been a painter, would have meant a sold out exhibition, yet as a performer she didn’t sell a single object from that show. She said she might, at a latter date, sell them to a museum.

Goldberg: This is changing for the same reason mentioned earlier—the seventies are now history and museums are finally taking this material into account historically. When the Whitney and Hirshhorn museums present a show of Ana Mendieta or Dia presents a retrospective on Robert Whitman that includes performances, it becomes very obvious to museums that there must be a way to acquire this material for their collections. The generation following Marina, Joan Jonas and others are aware of the videos and photographs of the earlier artists’ work and are building solid objects or images into their performances from the start. John Bock, Patty Chang, Pierre Huyghe, Zhang Huang are all artists who make performances, yet who have created films or photographs that can enter the marketplace as well.

Rail: One thing that interests me about the seventies was the amount of radical experimentation that went on, illegal performances such as those by Istvan Kantor, who I mentioned the last time we talked. How do you curate
material like that?

Goldberg: Such a level of radicalism is instigated by artists themselves. Such work does not need the “permission” of a curator to exist. It would be antithetical to the work to expect institutional funding and support. In fact the entire focus of seventies conceptualism was a critique of the institution, and artists turned their backs on museums. They took off in the opposite direction, downtown to empty parking lots, and happily ignored the uptown establishment. Since the eighties, museums have become cultural palaces for a much broader mainstream, and are more prepared to incorporate performance as an appeal to younger audiences.

Rail: But it’s a difficult mix in terms of a curator or director looking at the influence of such radicalism and knowing that there are artists who work like that today.

Goldberg: You have to separate history from the present tense. It’s possible to tell the story of a revolution in a museum context, in a book, or in a movie; it’s not possible to stage the revolution itself. That comes from “the people.” Curators are caretakers of history. The only aspect of curating performance that could be considered radical is the fact that one is mostly presenting material that one has never seen before. There’s an inherent risk to inviting an artist to present a work that will be seen for the first time at the biennial. But that’s also the beauty of it. One is curating “experiences” and the only sure thing is to expect the unexpected.

Rail: Right, that is what’s exciting about it.

Goldberg: I might see three or four performances in a week in New York and I never have any idea of what I am going to see beforehand. It’s always a surprise because the shape of the work is always different. In theater, on the other hand, you have basic givens.

Rail: I never really thought of it that way but it’s inherent in the medium that there is this surprise effect, almost like printmaking where you can only calculate the outcome, not predict it exactly.

Goldberg: Yes, and that is the challenge to curating performance. How does one put a program together that will still fall off the edge. You can do your best to organize a program, to make things stand upright as it were, but the tendency for such work is to fall over!

Rail: Right. That’s exciting. It takes so much work! And support isn’t easy to muster.

Goldberg: Yes, as a start-up organization, its difficult to get foundation support the first time round, but I’m pretty sure we’ll get it on the second round. It’s an endless process of talking to people, inspiring them by showing them material from this extraordinary history, showing them how different cultural histories fit together. It’s a matter of explaining the content and aesthetics of new work, of showing how performance material, live or in images, can change one’s mind, give one a new way of looking at the world. It might sound sentimental, but it’s all about connecting with people, and participating in a very broad educational process. I’m happy to do this. I love teaching.

Rail: Well, good for you; I’m glad you’re doing that.

Goldberg: How do we turn things around? That’s really what it’s about. That’s the big plan.

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