An interview with RoseLee Goldberg, director of Performa
On November 22, the sixth edition of the Performa Biennial drew to a triumphant close in New York, hailed by critics and public alike. One highlight was Robin Rhode’s version of Arnold Schönberg’s opera, Ewartung. Wrote New York Times critic, Zahary Woolfe: ‘This was not an Erwartung that did justice to the sensitive side of Schönberg’s score. Like Times Square itself, Mr. Rhode’s work wasn’t quiet, making its impact more with brashness than subtlety. The work, full of lunar references, was here illuminated by stories-high billboards shining brighter than any full moon.’
Before it all began, Sue Williamson interviewed RoseLee Goldberg, director of Performa.
Sue Williamson: RoseLee, on November 1, the sixth edition of Performa will open, with three weeks of original performances by artists from all over the world taking place in venues in every part of the city. It’s ten years and you’ve kept it up all the way. In fact, the momentum has increased. I wish I could stay long enough to see some of the events, like Robin Rhode in Times Square and Jesper Just.
RoseLee Goldberg: The important thing is, you were here to witness the beginning. But it has changed the New York art scene. It’s still the only thing that’s coming from the bottom, not from the top, not from the museums and the brands.
SW: Why has Performa become such a significant event on the New York art calendar?
RLG: Performa is so important because more and more alternative spaces are being closed down –real estate is just taking up all the spaces– and because it really is this very independent organization that shows new, young artists and is not about the market place in any shape or form. It’s about commissioning new artists. Everything we do is a commission. What that means is that everything is the best it can be. We don’t just make a proposal, it’s ‘what about this, what about that, how can we push it further?’
SW: Can you say something about the process of developing a project for Performa?
RLG: You recognize the talent of the artist but the proposal often needs to be taken to the next level. And artists get excited when the work is really pushed. They ask questions all the way. In my role as curator, historian and critic, I’m probably the toughest critic you know acting as a dramaturg, saying you know, ‘How do we make this really clear, what’s going to happen?” What is so important is that each work is fully developed. I really think of each piece as a one-person show.
If you go to any of the Biennials, you get this inundation of lots and lots of work. We have lots of work too, but you go to each one in a very dedicated one-on-one way –very different from seeing a lot of things just lined up in a massive space. I ask people, ‘Don’t try to see too much in one night.’ It’s real, real focus. There’s a team of producers that we work with, we sit down with every artist all the way, some of them for 2 years, going through, ‘Explain to me, how does the piece work? What’s the first 5 minutes? What’s the next 10 minutes? How do people go from A to B? What do you want people to leave with? What kind of feeling do you want people to have? What do you want them to understand?’
SW: How do you record for posterity all the events that take place for each edition of Performa ?
RLG: We do the book afterwards that contains interview and more thinking about the work so there’s an enormous amount of information about each piece. We use online as the best possible educational format and the best way to reach people. We have 5 million hits on our website during the biennial over the 3 week period!
SW: And how do all these amazing pieces get funded?
RLG: When we started, I had no idea what it took to really raise money but if you want to do what we do, it has to be done. It’s interesting, because from afar we’re compared to any other major biennial, but those biennials in Europe are paid for by their city starting at 5 to 10 million Euros –and then they raise more money. We get $15 000 from this city, so we have to raise everything just based on total vision and conviction that this has to happen.
Something might be a major piece and something else might be the smallest piece imaginable, a highly conceptual piece. It could be performed on the BAM stage, like we did with Isaac Julian the first year or it could be Dave McKenzie sitting on a bench just talking to people, to passers by. It’s the totality of the scale, the way the two complement each other, that works for me.
SW: And of course, you still have the Peforma Hub?
RLG: Yes, the Perfoma Hub … we always do it in the last three weeks because we can never get a space. It has to be donated, on the ground and central so that people can find us, so they are expensive spaces and we have to wait for the graciousness of real estate people to give us a very extraordinary deal so we can all move in. This year, we opened the design up to competition and incredible architects all agreed to compete and so the Hub itself is going to absolutely fascinating.
SW: So where is it going to be?
RLG: It’s going to be on Walker Street. You’ll be able to go there and kind of be in this object that keeps moving and turning and changing based on the different events on an incredible three week programme. Chimurenga is coming for a week and it’s an opportunity for them to think about the whole performance aspect to their archive and their work. Then there’s a Friday morning breakfast for curators, and with our Renaissance history theme this year there’s this artist that does Renaissance themed food and will be organizing the breakfast.
SW: And I’m sure the performances themselves are unique …
RLG: There are so many! But to mention one or two …The artist Wyatt Kahn is very interesting. He’s a painter who makes objects, so the last thing you might expect is for him to do a live piece, but he’s turned his paintings into puppets and the puppets are going to attack him and fight with him about what it means to be made by him. It’s very clever. Everybody loves Wyatt’s work. And then we always find an incredible space, the perfect frame for each work and so we found there’s a marionette theatre in Central Park called the Swedish Marionette Theatre, in Central Park. And actually, Wyatt says he grew up going there as a child, so there are all these connections.
(The French choreographer) Jerome Bel is on the dance front. This is his third Performa biennial so we asked him to do something especially for New York. So he is doing a piece that actually explores the city, the same piece but presented in three different places. Starts with the Marian Goodman Gallery in a white box; it goes to Merce Cunningham Studios on Bethune Street, now the Martha Graham studio, and then it goes up to this beautiful theatre at Museo del Barrio on 5th Avenue so you’ll actually be able to consciously explore what is the difference, what happens when you see the same piece in these different contexts –what happens to the dancers; what happens to us, viewing the work.
SW: This being your tenth anniversary, what do you see as Performa’s major achievement overall?
RLG: It’s to make it clear that performance is really central to the art history of the last 100 year, because it’s just been left out. The entire 20th century was multi-media. What was Hannah Hoch doing creating weird events in Berlin with things hanging from the ceiling? What was Max Ernst doing? Everyone has chosen Dada and they don’t know what objects to show because the whole thing was really live. Futurists were all doing performance with a couple of painters in it, one or two sculptures but the rest of it was all about live action and it was really the first call to say ‘artists get out of the garret, get out of the studios, get on the street, be activists and so on.’
To me, the irony is that it’s taken all these years!
I wrote the book in 1979 (the History of Performance Art) and it’s still needed. That’s why I started Performa too, it’s time people really recognized this as history. It’s not just something on the side ‘oh let’s just do a little performance on the side.’ It’s central to the history of art and especially 20th century art.
SW: And Performa, through its internships and curatorial programmes has brought so many young people into the field …
RLG: Yes. And I still teach at NYU so I created a programme called the Performa Intensive. Those students who sign up for class during the biennial actually work hands on with us at the office every day and that’s part of the class, so it’s both the history of biennials and the history of Performa and they can choose to work in development or prep or production or work the Hub, work closely with each of the artists, so it’s very exciting.
Another important point about Performa: unlike every other biennial that has a new director every two years and starts from scratch, our team has this accumulated knowledge gathered over all these years. For most of the new curators, this is their second or maybe, third biennial. There’s a continuity of knowledge and understanding of how to put this all together. It’s very complicated. Every piece has so many moving parts and so many moving people. So that makes this biennial very unusual. And then we’re looking across a medium which no biennial does, we’re always looking through the lens of the art world, of visual art. I’m an art historian that’s what interests me, but we’re looking at theatre and dance and film and architecture and food and poetry and sound and music and voice, so that’s also very unusual. We don’t just start with the object and it’s not just about performance art either, I mean I don’t separate that out, most the commissions are by people who’ve never done performance before.