In 1909 Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti launched a new art movement with the publication of the Futurist Manifesto in a Parisian newspaper. The Futurists worked in a variety of mediums and themes; they basked in the art of painting, architecture, writing, gastronomy they played with religion, attire, dance, and cooking. A heavy influencer of the later Dada movement, Futurism re-introduced the endless possibilities of the performance as an artistic medium. Now, in November 2009, the theme of the third annual Performa is Futurism, celebrating the 100-year anniversary of this groundbreaking movement. Performa 09 celebrates the architecture, performance, sound and the way of future as homage to the legacy of Marinetti.
Performa was founded in RoseLee Goldberg in 2004 as a non-profit interdisciplinary arts organization to establish a Biennial specifically for performance works of visual artists from around the world. The first Biennial of its kind, Performa was launched in 2005, and dedicated itself to the charge of offering a program of performances, exhibitions, symposiums, and films in venues across New York. Museums, galleries, and public spaces opened their doors to the Biennale, creating a collaborative venture between artists, curators, and the city. This Biennial aimed to enhance the position of the live performance in the contemporary art world, and open accessibility of this form to public. In 2005, over 90 artists works were shown in over 20 venues around New York, culminating in Marina Abramović’s piece Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum.
Marina Abramović, the self-proclaimed grandmother of Performance Art, paid homage to the heavyweight of the form (from the ’60s and ’70s) in Seven Easy Pieces, in which she recreated Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure Yellow Body, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, among others. As Abramovic stated, this work showed her respect to the past as something to be duly noted and notated. The first Performa heralded the bigwigs of the form, as well as the up-and-coming contemporary Contemporary Artists—and from there, Performa only continued to grow.
The third Biennial, Performa 09 premiered last Sunday, November 1st with a big splash, with the Performa Commission by Arto Lindsay Somewhere I Read, featuring over 50 dancers and performers proceeding down 7th Avenue as a sort of marching-band parade paralleling the earlier days New York Marathon. This year, Performa’s three-week run includes more than 150 artists in more than 80 art institutions and more than 40 curators from around the world. This year’s Biennial includes 11 Performa Commissions (including the Princeton professor Christian Tomaszewski) and 6 Performa Premiere’s including the works of Tacita Dean’s beautiful film on Merce Cunningham Craneway Event.
A sort of CMJ for art, Performa is a giant festival with art events happening at all times around New York City (as well as Brooklyn and a few venues in Long Island); and like any festival, this one is a mix of the Good, the Bad, and the Good in just as overwhelming. Having previously spent an embarrassing amount of time on the Performa website, I felt fairly comfortable with the program in theory, but looking at the map I had a feeling of elation and exhaustion: too much to see, too little time to see it.
Week One of Performa went by in a flash, and out of the sea of events, it was only physically possible for a single person to attend so many. But nonetheless, I was able to see a smattering of pieces including a few of Performa Commissions and Premieres. Overall, I was more than impressed with the showing. All but one work piqued my interest in a sustainable way, and so I have created a sort of run-down of the goings-on for those less interested in decoding the mess of events.
The Performa Premiere of Meg Stuart’s work Auf den Tisch! (At the Table!) was last weekend, with two sold-out showings at the Baryshnikov Art Center. This work was a true Happening, an event in which conditions were set to instigate action and reaction. A cast of performers, writers, dancers, musicians and actors were invited by Meg Stuart to attend this curatorial-improvisation project to talk, dance, interact, and generate chaos. As the piece tottered somewhere between improvisation and pre-arranged interaction, a delicate balance of animosity, and true connectivity was formed.
In the center of the room was a giant square table at which four microphones were placed, instigating the conference-like format of this piece. The audience was seated at and around the table, blurring the line between cast and audience, participator and voyeur. A small man dressed as a bumblebee ran around the table, a 56-year-old man performed a breathtaking modern dance, a story was told, secrets were shared, and guilt and forgiveness were discussed… and much more. At times interactions dragged on or became stilted, as action turned to theater, but then there were bursts of almost tangible clouds of tension (good and bad) that shined through, surprising even those involved.
And then, as surprisingly as it started, it ended. The performers no longer wanted to perform, and a yawning void of expectation loomed, both the cast and the audience seemed unsure of the finality of this ending. Brief thanks were said, and again, silence. “Why are you still here!” the performer Janez Jansa demanded of us. Silence. “You can go!” Each time Janez spoke, the heavier the silence became, until finally another cast member interceded and the tension broke.
The chaos of this piece created a feeling as if one were lost in a foreign environment without a dictionary to help translate the surroundings into the language of the established cultural norm. The precarious structure of guidelines we adhere to as part of an acceptable society was thrown up in the air as money was ripped and clothes were shed. At one point Janez Jansa chastised another performer, “You rely too much on history,” he said, “you should rely on intuition.” This piece was dictated by intuition, not by the usual knowledge base through which we filter every moment of our lives; and I left considering the what, where, and why, of… everything. And at the end, I left feeling as if I had been thrown out of a tornado, a bit overwhelmed, battered, but ultimately better for the ware.
This chaotic chance-driven piece was a type of performance much in the vein of the Happenings of the Fluxus movement or the events of the Futurists. A set of conditions was decided upon, out of which a variety of interactions and recreations occurred. But this is only one way to approach the endless possibilities that the medium of performance art has to offer. Another piece that took an approach somewhat similar to this work by Meg Stuart (albeit with much less success) is Alicia Farmis’ piece “Lost Astronaut.”
In this two-week performance-installation piece, Framis explores the potentials of voyage to the moon. Forty years after man first arrived on the moon, woman has yet to make it there, and so like all women, Framis is left on Earth. This work is meant to create a speculative discussion, as Framis aims to launch a new form of Moon society. Each of Framis’ 14 days on Earth is scripted by different artists and writers, which are compiled in an instruction booklet that allows the public to physically or theoretically follow the lost astronaut’s journey.
The first page of the Lost Astronaut Instruction Book states, “Left on Earth like all women who were never part of the moon race, Framis takes on the multi-year task of changing life and behavior in aerospace by launching her lunar mission—a new Moon society. She does this by investigating a new score each day, scripted for her female astronaut alter ego by an exciting group of artists and writers.” The gendered focus of this piece hits a conceptual wall in execution, for curiously enough artists and writers of both genders script the “female astronaut alter ego.” For a work that has stated to be a communal voice to call into question the male-dominated world of space travel, it is questionable that men have been given the opportunity to dictate the female persona (yet again, I might add).
Framis’ instructions for Day One of her exhibition state, “The “Lost Astronaut” must attend the opening party event of the performance-installation ON NOVEMBER 3RD and socialize with those present, and dance.” At some point, amidst the wine and hummus and hum of the Lower East Side art scenesters the astronaut enters. The astronaut moves slowly pushing a black recliner Eames lounge chair around the cramped room and then out the door onto the street. There is a bit of confusion, and the general consensus seems to end with RoseLee Goldberg, Madame Performa herself, plopping herself onto the recliner which is then pushed by Chauffeur Astronaut down the street around the corner and into the center of a parking lot. A group huddled around to take photographs, and the Lost Astronaut, seeming to forget the fundamentals of space travel, lifted up her visor and chatted with RoseLee Goldberg. And that seemed to be it.
There was no dancing, there was no engagement, and even worse, there was no commitment to the character. Casually talking with RoseLee in the parking lot, Framis seemed to congratulate herself for the good idea, and at that moment it was over. It was almost as if all energy was placed on the planning and theorizing of the piece and by the time the actual performance began, the energy had reached a plateau.
The script of the last day of Framis’ voyage, Day 14, November 17th, is not included in the instruction book. Unlike the first 13 days, the author of the script of day 14 was decided through a contest announced on Facebook. At what point does the line blur between the communal voice and a lack of inspiration on the part of the artist? There is an unfortunate miscommunication between the woman-focused sentiment of the artists intentions; the male and female voices of the instruction manual; the chance-nature of the decision making process; and the haphazard execution of the script.
The idea is nice, but that is all it is, a nice idea.
While this particular case of artist as character was unsuccessful, every once in a while, something magical happens and the artist becomes the character, like in the case of Nikhil Chopra’s five-day performance-installation Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing IX. In this work, displayed in the New Museum glass gallery, Chopra takes on the character of Yog Raj Chitrakar, a Victorian draughtsman based partly off of his grandfather and largely off of his imagination. During the five-day performance, Chopra travels to Ellis Island and document of the New York skyline from East to West, and slowly transforms himself and his living space. At the end of the performance, the gallery is left as an installation of the remnants of his journey and a collection of films from earlier installations will be displayed in the space.
The beauty of this piece is the silent calm surrounding Chopra as he goes about his business, committed wholeheartedly to the character. His aura is strangely alien and something I cannot relate to; even as I follow Chopra day-after-day, I cannot be sure if the person inside this presentation of Yog Raj Chitrakar is even aware of my presence. While I was standing on firm ground in the New Museum lobby or Ellis Island in November of the year 2009, I cannot be sure where Nikhil Chopra or Yog Raj Chitrakar is, but he is not in the same place or time as the rest of us.
And this is one of the cruxes of performance, when a person becomes unrecognizable as artist and instead is structure, world, and installation. This piece is a perfect demonstration of what Performa aims to do; it brought performance into a more approachable realm.
It was fascinating to watch the public interact with Yog Raj Chitrakar on Ellis Island. The 14-year-olds on their eighth-grade field trip ran up to the very edge of the canvas on which the NYC skyline was sketched, and always made a sudden stop. The rules of how one is supposed to relate to art have been engrained on us from an early age: do not touch! These children and their teachers sit carefully watching Yog Raj Chitrakar drawing, and yet, they do not seem to see any connection between the Victorian dress and determined but silent stare of the young man and the sketch on the canvas. As they each attempt to interact with him, he sees right through them without saying a word. The questions range from “What are you working on?” to “Are you a magician?”
At one point, one young boy shouts to his friends, “He’s a fucking mute!” and with that as the general consensus, the children surround him, signing away. It is moments like this when it is painfully evident that art is still a strictly defined category of the Fine Arts to most. And so while the canvas was a work of art, the silent Victorian-clad man is nothing but a funnily dressed man (to the students, teachers, and general visitors of Ellis Island).
This is a difficulty that will continue to face performance art. It is not a question of legitimizing the form as art, for this is not even a question to those invested in the form, but how can this be transferred to the general public. To relay the idea that all movement, sound, figuration can be and is art is a question of changing viewpoints and moving the subconscious rules and definitions of art, life, and interactions.
Overall, the first week of Performa was a success, events were sold out, turn-out was high, and RoseLee Goldberg seemed to have a mirthful smile floating below the curtain of her dark bangs, and so by all appearances, performance art has finally carved out its legitimized place among the supposedly higher forms of art. And looking at the cultural landscape around these events, a different image began to form, an image in which the ripple of Performa barely moved passed its milieu. While those who know and love performance art are showing in high forces, this number is just a drop in the ocean.
But in the end, as great as this festival is for the exposure of performance art, there is a fundamental issue with the concept of this Biennale. The spontaneous, free-floating, anti-established nature of performance art is contrary to the hyper-planning necessary for a festival. And more importantly, by necessitating the re-creation of some performance pieces (like Alan Kaprow’s Happenings in Performa 05), the very principle of the performance is at time, killed. Kaprow’s Happenings were Happenings, meaning they only happened once, but for the sake of exposure, a group of artists took his legacy and used it for this greater purpose of the performance as “art.” This blurs the line between theater and performance in a detrimental way; theater is the imitation of life, but performance art is life. And life needs no explanation: you may not think it’s art, and maybe it is not art, but what is art anyway? People often say that art imitates life, what could be more life than life itself? Whether or not you like Performa, it does make one thing clear: art or no art, performance art is here to stay.
Pieces to look out for:
· Christian Tomaszewski and Joanna Malinowski, Mother Earth Sister Moon— Installation on view until 11/22; Performances: Sat 11/14 and 11/21 at 6pm & 8pm at 679 Chashama, $12
· Wangechi Mutu and Imani Uzuri, Stone Ihiga— 11/13 – 11/15 at 9pm at Saatchi & Saatchi, $15
· Mike Kelley, Day is Done Judson Church Dance— 11/17 – 11/19 at 8pm & 10pm at Judson Memorial Church, $25
· William Kentridge, I am Not Me, The Horse is Not Min—11/9 – 1/10 at 8pm at Ceder Lake, $30
· Joan Jonas, Reading Dante— 11/10 – 11/13 at 8:30pm and 11/14 at 5pm & 8pm at The Performing Garage, $20
 As those versed in art-speak know, Contemporary Art does not mean art being made now, but is a subset of art movements roughly defined as being from the 1960s-1990s. And so I say contemporary Contemporary art to mean art made now that holds true to the values of the subset of the Contemporary Art movements.