Performance art has, as founder and artistic director of the Performa Biennial RoseLee Goldberg would have assured us, existed since the dawn of civilisation. Goldberg’s 1979 book Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present is known for having paved the way for a broader historical understanding of performance art’s development, and since then institutional interest in performance art has grown exponentially.
Since its first instalment in 2005, Performa has – at least, according to its own claims – engaged with a number of social issues. It has also acted as an incubator for emerging artists as they transition into a market-driven global ‘art world’ and a platform for initial forays into performance by more established artists.
Despite its connections to anti-normative, anti-institutional, and anti-material artistic movements and expressions, the performance format has grown more visible and widespread in step with neoliberal and globalist developments (not to mention technological developments) in what we refer to as the ‘art world’, from art fairs to art education and, not least, biennials.
On the occasion of the tenth instalment of the biennial, Performa was not noticeably concerned with referring to its own history, which has included more than a thousand artists, three hundred exhibition venues, and a range of dissemination activities and works that have explored the role of the performance medium all the way back to the Renaissance. Instead, the biennial seemed intently focused on its own curatorial production model, which is based on inviting visual artists who don’t primarily work with performance to create lavish commissioned works that engage with contemporary issues and the medium itself.
This framework appears to embrace trial and error and exudes a confident idealism with regard to its medium. But does it succeed in producing contributions to performance art as it exists within and outside of its own institutional walls?
A community of absence
Preceded by some well-promoted opening parties and galas, the opening of Performa 2023 premiered a new commission, The Malady of Death by Korean artist Haegue Yang. In the theatre inside the iconic Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the award-winning British actress Noma Dumezweni read a text by the French writer Marguerite Duras, and everything seemed to be in place for a magnificent experience. However, it turned out that the employment of so much pathos in every aspect of the production only served to heighten the confounding sensation of watching it unfold.
The text, which according to Yang’s interpretation is about “the impossibility of community in a divided world,” was presented through her own artistic focus on “communities of absence.” It was read both live and pre-recorded, while Dumezweni either stood still or moved slowly around the theatre, eventually accompanied by a huge video projection onto the round ceiling.
But in Yang’s hands, Duras’s warm and sensual prose was reduced to a banal and chauvinistic affair in which the actor more often than not seemed to get lost in the text, which typically indicates poor direction or insufficient preparation time. Dumezweni’s best efforts could not overshadow the awkward stage direction and incessant technical issues, including a dress that she constantly had to kick in order to attempt the long steps she had been asked to take. Lighting cues came across as downright amateurish, poorly mimicking platitudes such as oceans and sunsets.
From its outset, it became relevant to question whether the Performa commissioning model indicates a true commitment to experimentation, or rather to artistic and curatorial embellishment.
A Surrealist ghost
In contrast to the failed attempt to command the stage at the Guggenheim, another interpretation of a beloved author from the 20th century was far more compelling and assured in its delivery. Canadian artist Marcel Dzama’s To live on the Moon (For Lorca) took on the form of an early 1900s vaudeville theatre, loosely based on and inspired by an unrealised screenplay by the Spanish poet, playwright, and anarchist-socialist Federico García Lorca, who was killed by the fascist regime in Spain in 1936 for his political beliefs and homosexuality. The performance was a tribute not only to Lorca’s anti-fascist activities and martyrdom, but to an era in which the rise of fascism and capitalism inspired artistic forms of expression that might seem naïve and playful at first glance. But Surrealism’s aesthetic will to experiment and innovate neither deceived nor betrayed its profound existential anxieties – and neither did Dzama’s piece.
It centred around a silent film whose images were expanded into the theatre space by dancers, expressive, almost Dadaist props, a chamber orchestra, and a narrator. True to its “vaudeville cinema” style, the orchestra played music that was in equal measure melancholic and comical, enhancing the effect of the state-sanctioned violence that took place in or lurked at the edges of each frame. The fact that the narrator was introduced as one of Lorca’s descendants gave the performance a gravitas that it lived up to, thankfully, and through these elements, Dzama’s piece succeeded in facilitating a collective grief over the reemergence of fascist movements on the European and American continents less than a hundred years later.
“Lack lack lack tap tap tap”
In the middle of the festival’s second week, Croatian artist Nora Turato performed the commissioned work Cue the Sun in the auditorium of the Society for Ethical Culture, a 147-year-old organisation “dedicated to ethical relationships, social justice, and democracy.”
Against this backdrop, Turato entered the stage alone, wearing an outfit that resurrected one of the 21st century’s most iconic costumes: Apple founder Steve Jobs’s black turtleneck jumper and blue denim jeans. For approximately forty minutes, Turato ran a linguistic marathon during which she spoke almost without pause, transposing manic and positivist algorithmic feeds from screen to stage, invoking the days when Silicon Valley’s performative techno-optimism held us spellbound.
Obviously a satire, Turato’s monologue touched on many examples of personal advertising made possible by data harvesting, and by mimicking the pseudo-therapeutic language and affect that permeates it, Turato was able to address the heart of the problem: our increasing conviction that we are at fault for not meeting a techno-capitalist definition of our “full potential.” At one point, Turato’s voice and body became a pained transmitter of this cognitive infinity loop: “Lack lack lack tap tap tap, lack lack lack tap tap tap!” Throughout, she switched between voices reminiscent of, among others, Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, the latter whom became infamous for having lowered her voice register in order to be taken seriously by male investors.
As the repetition of mantras and affirmations reached a fever pitch, Turato’s self-assured algorithm gradually broke down, replaced by human self-doubt. Here, the reference to Steve Jobs was deepened by melancholy, as the tech guru’s early death was allegedly influenced by his faith in alternative methods and diets to combat cancer. The tragic irony is the fact that Jobs’s humanistic language today serves as the template for justifying the ongoing exploitation of humankind’s cognitive funambulism in the face of our own mortality.
Despite its impressive pace and many charming turns of phrase, Cue the Sun paradoxically remained as emotionally superficial as the quick fixes we are offered daily through our digital fingerprints.
Finally, a cry for solidarity
In quite a short time, Performa has achieved a level of brand recognition which, in the context of performance art, can be compared to the Venice Biennale and Documenta, established in 1895 and 1955. In recent weeks, we have witnessed fascinating evidence of even these institutions’ precarity in contemporary political discourse, specifically in the form of the widely circulated public letters of resignation from Documenta’s finding committee and the appointment of a journalist from the extreme-right wing of Italian politics as the new president of the Venice Biennale.
In light of this, the Performa organisation was probably nervous about statements and cries for solidarity that might force it to take – or publicly avoid taking – a position. Performa chose to remain silent about the ongoing genocide in Gaza even while peaceful demonstrations took place all over the world, making a public acknowledgement seem increasingly uncontroversial. According to rumour, the biennial organisers asked at least one artist not to address the ongoing conflict in any way. This despite the fact that the biennial had dedicated a whole series of events titled Protest and Performance: A Way of Life to “examine the use of art in protest movements and the ways in which protest and performance intersect.” But as we have witnessed in recent weeks, some protests and causes are treated as more legitimate than others – both in the art world and in the wider world to which it supposedly holds up a mirror – and institutions are not necessarily reflective of the solidarity movements in which artists, among many others, participate.
Having navigated the biennial primarily through its commissions programme for three weeks, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air to be present at the event Healthcare Not Warfare: A Tragi-comedy, which opened with well-known academic and artistic activists Gregg Bordowitz and Pamela Sneed stepping onstage with clenched fists and for several minutes making everyone present join in the battle cry: “Ceasefire now!” They went on to point out how most of the money that could be used to address the climate crisis in rich Western countries is currently being allocated to military operations rather than sustainable measures, and that the strategy appears to be to acquire land and more natural resources rather than to commit to reducing consumption and CO2 footprints. They also pointed to how both the HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics are still ongoing, and the fact that for those living as immunocompromised, the world has never returned to “normal,” as exemplified by the digital presence of one of the speakers.
That evening, which felt in equal measure like an academic seminar, a meeting of an activist organisation, and a late night at a seedy Brooklyn drag bar, was the only thing I saw in the entire programme that broke the fourth wall and immersed its physical audience in the kind of bodily political work that has determined performance’s evolution and contemporary position.
Without going straight for the jugular of the inviting institution, the event managed to articulate nodes between different areas of artistic and cultural production that share the common denominator of encouraging critical thinking and social engagement. If Healthcare Not Warfare had indicated a premise of the biennial programme in its opening weekend, it might have reminded audiences of how there is no such thing as political neutrality, and pointed out how the biennial in its current form seems strongly influenced by the conservatism of the global art market. On a purely speculative note, the festival’s artistic director left the performance during its first half, long before the artist Viva Ruiz entered the stage dressed as a papaya mimicking the female labia and holding a flag that read ‘ABORTION’. Ruiz got the audience to join her in chant “a free Palestine is reproductive justice!” bookending the event’s opening rallying cry and closing an evening that was unpretentious, collegial, poetic, and rightfully furious.
Healthcare Not Warfare was also one of the few projects shown that will continue after the biennial. Bordowitz and Sneed will produce and facilitate a long series of politically and poetically devised performances which will culminate late 2024.
“Free Lunch Talks”
Speaking of Performa as a brand, it’s worth questioning, from a Nordic point of view, why artists from Denmark and Finland – with funding by a conglomerate of public and private support structures – were so well represented in this year’s Performa programme. While seven artist projects were presented under the title ‘The Finnish Pavilion’, eight Danish contributions were presented through ‘Free Lunch Series’, a format for artist presentations that usually takes place at the institution for artistic development ArtHub in Copenhagen.
ArtHub’s programme was symptomatic of recent trends in Nordic cultural production, including long-successful exports such as heteronormative Scandinavian design and “New Nordic” cuisine as well as more recent norm-critical and postcolonial practices that call for accountability in the arts. ArtHub’s programming could, if taking an idealistic view, be read as a well-intentioned effort to utilise something widely accepted and known in order to bring attention to artistic work that counteracts a homogeneous majority culture in the Global North.
But in light of Performa’s aforementioned silence and – with few exceptions – the far from neutral silence of Danish and Nordic art institutions regarding the escalating genocide in Gaza, it is worth taking a critical look at whether this new structure for Danish cultural exports can operate with the integrity necessary to promote the more-often-than-not postcolonial and power-critical questions raised by the artistic practices presented here. It also raises the increasingly relevant question of whether adopting more hybrid and privately enabled funding models can lead to a more American paradigm of censorship of political expression in art. Taking a sombre view, this could be read as a kind of “artwashing” or “hygge-washing” that benefits both parties. Money talks, free lunch talks.
At the very least, by providing significant space to two wealthy Northern European countries, Performa has given us reason to question its notions of representation and the role that economic muscle plays in opening the door to “buying” a stake in such highly visible entities. As it is well established, the measure of success of such partnerships is not limited to the work and conversations on view, nor is this the first or last time that financially robust and willing organisations will gain access to structures that depend on extensive fundraising.
Hyped and prolonged techno-fetishism
Meanwhile, the Finnish contributions were more lavish productions taking place across various venues across the city.
Among these, one of the most visible and “hyped” contributions was Enter Exude by Teo Ala-Ruona, which premiered at the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art in July of this year. The ninety-minute work began promisingly: staged in a garage in outer Brooklyn, it featured performers who, through their slow movements and hushed speech drew us into a world behind closed doors: surreal, convincing, somewhat menacing, and highly sexually charged. Similar to Turato’s performance, it was explicit in its ambition to evoke a techno-fetishistic society.
But, as is the case with most sex, the performers eventually – after a strong start and confident flirtation – struggled to maintain the necessary tension as the scripted dialogue slowly and involuntarily transitioned from an effective satire on the gendered animism of industrial machines into a conceptually deflated burlesque.
Instead of machines, Finnish artist Niko Hallikainen evoked the ghosts of the parallel life-threatening HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics and their emotional and physical echoes and manifestations. With the performance Lavender Deal, Hallikainen was given the considerable and apparently somewhat dubious honour of closing this year’s programme, a fact which seemed to affect the artist’s already self-effacing style of delivery.
Almost exclusively text-based, the performance mainly took place on Hallikainen’s mobile phone, from which he read aloud, almost continuously, for eighty minutes before moving into the space and ending with a handful of gestures. Despite the frustration this created as a viewer, it made sense dramaturgically as the work was situated in the artist’s retelling and reflections on a romantic and sexual relationship he entered into digitally with a man based in Milan, the European nexus of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Eventually, it became clear that Hallikainen was interested in how his situation as an isolated single gay man during the Covid-19 pandemic could be related to the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US during the 1980s and 90s, when some of his artistic role models made art inspired by the virus and were also killed by it. This reflection appeared simplistic and almost juvenile to the extent that one had to hope it was deliberate.
Towards the end, the artist told a story about coming to New York and trying to find a venue to perform. Tibet House, a cultural centre dedicated to the survival of Tibetan civilization and culture, was the only organisation to host him. Fictionalised or not, it came across as a restrained yet scathing allusion to the festival’s seemingly opaque notions of hospitality.
Based on my own fragmented experience throughout three weeks of programming, this alleged lack of hospitality didn’t startle me. And nowhere else was the biennial’s lacking understanding of its responsibilities as host to a visiting audience as evident as in Performa Hub – also advertised as a Performa Commission, signed by the architect and curator Assaf Kimmel – in which events and parties were held. The temporary seating structure was borderline hostile, its architecture both aesthetically and functionally reminiscent of designs that exist in far more accessible formats. Additionally, there was only one publicly accessible restroom, and no option to purchase water, coffee, or other refreshments. The Performa organisers seemed to have forgotten that social gatherings require the presence of people who have physical needs.
It’s hard to not be left with an impression of a biennial organisation that failed to produce a consistent quality of work and basic hospitality in a way that corresponds with its exalted position. Performa was, in its tenth iteration, by no means at the forefront of producing or pointing out future directions for the performance medium. Moreover, it did the medium no favours with its choices of venues or its communicative texts, which all resembled press releases stemming from white cube gallery practices. Curiously, the organisation does not appear invested in incorporating its geographical context of New York City, which has historically been an incubator for pioneering practitioners and interdisciplinary developments in the performative arts. As a consequence, the biennial comes across as rootless, insistent, and lacking in self-criticality rather than deliberate and inquisitive in its curated nomadism.
In New York City, small and medium-sized institutions such as The Kitchen, Franklin Furnace, Danspace Project, Judson Church, Visual AIDS, Pioneers Go East, as well as countless others with shorter lifespans, have all worked for and shaped the development of time-based and performative art for many decades, disseminating the art form globally while maintaining New York’s position as one of its most important sites of production. These experimental institutions, often spearheaded by artists doing double-duty as curators and gallerists, are as dependent as Performa on the financial support of philanthropists, private funds, and foundations. They also require the vocal support of more powerful institutions and individuals in terms of purchases for collections, invitations to collateral programming, and, if necessary, politically concerned endorsements under the threat of defunding or censorship, for example. Yet there seems to be a stark contrast insofar as Performa’s model, based on costly large-scale commissions of works by artists who primarily work outside of performance, seems to be far from conducive to the artistic quality of its individual works and the biennial as a whole. In its tenth iteration, it seems as if Performa, in its relatively short lifespan, has become so convinced by its own self-image and status that it has forgotten to ask itself fundamental questions about what its curatorial model of production contributes to a now globally advanced and increasingly diversified field.
With a few honourable exceptions, Performa comes across as predominantly governed by a desire to maintain market value and visibility not only through its high-end curatorial model and strategic relationships with international galleries and financially robust organisations, but also by communicating itself through a politically performative and sterile language derived from the art historical canon and white cube context: a strategy and a vernacular that everyone in the art world, especially now, knows only props up unsustainable structures until they involuntarily collapse and create room for something new.