A decade ago, art historian and impresario RoseLee Goldberg, who literally wrote the book on performance art -- “Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present,” first published in 1979 -- found herself being pushed by her publisher for an updated version to write less about history and more about the next big thing. Unfortunately, she felt “the performance scene was just rehashing what had been happening in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” recalls Goldberg. “If I saw one more monologue, I thought I would scream.”
On the other hand, galleries were showing sophisticated visual art -- some of which included live performance -- but “performance art” as it had been practiced in its heyday from the 1960s to 1980s had run its course. In addition, she and many of the artists she knew no longer liked the terminology. In her view, performance -- dating back to Leonardo da Vinci’s pageants -- had been central to the history or art, and not “an accessory to it.” As a historian, her mission was to bring it into the canon. As an audience member, she was seeking an extraordinary experience.
When she spotted “Rapture,” a film by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, at the 1999 Venice Biennale, Goldberg felt the work was screaming to step onto the stage. “All the elements were there -- visual storytelling without text, a cinematic eye, sound.” Goldberg persuaded Neshat to work with her to convert the piece for live audience, and her life changed from chronicler to producer. “Logic of the Birds” debuted in 2001 at the Kitchen space in Chelsea, where Goldberg had once been a curator, and was expanded and shown at Lincoln Center in 2002.
Goldberg began to envision a performance festival that would revisit seminal works, while reinventing the form for the 21st century by commissioning artists who may never have worked in the medium. This came to fruition in 2005 with Performa, an 18-day festival in New York of what Goldberg now refers to as “visual art performance.” It included a spectacular marathon by the veteran Marina Abramovic. This year’s incarnation here, Performa ’09, has been the third biennial, and bigger than ever. It kicked off Oct. 30 with a fundraising extravaganza created by Jennifer Rubell with several tons of food -- peanuts, honey-drizzled ribs and sugar cookies embedded in snowy drifts of powdered sugar. The first performance was a Times Square parade created by Arto Lindsay and set to a musical score played on cellphones. The festival culminates today at P.S.1 MoMA with an exhibition focused on documentation of a century of performance-based work. (Highlights are at https://performa-arts.org.)
In between, there will have been 170 events -- performances, screenings, lectures, exhibitions, conferences and cabaret revues -- put together with an international roster of 25 curators and more than 150 artists presented in dozens of venues. They’ve been as varied as Joan Jonas’ non-narrative work based on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and a group of writers reading their texts while pedaling furiously on stationary bicycles in a health club. The 11 Performa commissions included a new piece by Israeli video artist Omer Fast, who turned the talk show format into a circular game of telephone. Brooklyn Academy of Music’s executive producer, Joe Melillo, calls Goldberg’s feat “herculean.”
At the core of Performa ’09 is a centennial celebration of futurism, the Italian art movement that advocated an embrace of a new aesthetic of speed, technology and dynamism across all artistic mediums. Goldberg calls futurism “the first movement that insists on an art of action and confronting the public.” Her team expanded this year’s biennial beyond music, dance, narrative and non-narrative performance, spoken word and multimedia works, to include architecture, gastronomy and journalism.
Exhibitions and symposiums explored the legacy of one of futurism’s few female practitioners, Valentine de Saint-Point, who wrote manifestoes of lust and futurist women and an exploration of the unseemly mutual embrace between the futurists and Mussolini. In many ways, Goldberg, who taught at New York University for 20 years, sees futurism in the present tense. “We could replace the words of the futurists with our own obsession with speed and globalization,” she says.
Luciano Chessa, a scholar of futurist musician Luigi Russolo, worked with a musical instrument builder to lovingly re-create all 16 of Russolo’s infamous intonarumori, monochord instruments encased in plywood boxes that were designed to produce the new noise-based music of futurism. Chessa, also a composer and performer, then commissioned more than a dozen compositions for intonarumori, which he conducted on the proscenium stage of Town Hall with a group of young musicians turning the cranks and pressing the levers to produce a series of noises that included a wailing calf, an air-raid siren and a sputtering airplane engine.
There was also an emphasis on the transformative nature of the perfect venue, something that Goldberg insists engages the audience in a form of “urban activism” by forcing attendees to scurry all over the city to seek out events. One clever location was the setting of a live performance of “Nummer Elf: The King’s Gambit Accepted,” a musical score and performance created by Dutch artist Guido van der Werve for strings and a piano made from a chess board. It was presented at the historic Marshall Chess Club in Greenwich Village
Another apt location, BLANK SL8, an empty storefront in New York’s Port Authority bus terminal near the front door of the New York Times, housed Dexter Sinister -- the design duo of David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey, which specializes in “just-in-time” publishing. The duo set up shop to produce the First/Last Newspaper, a broadsheet designed to both provide a commentary on the state of newspaper publishing and an occasional chronicle of the festival.
Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley created a new dance work based on his video installation “Day Is Done.” He chose to work in the basement of Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, which he described as “just a little church gymnasium with this tremendous dance and performance history.”
Perhaps the most solitary performance of the festival -- one that seemed to produce a high level of vicarious pleasure in all but the most curmudgeonly spectators -- was executed by Amsterdam-based Spanish artist Alicia Framis, who roamed New York for a few hours each day in an authentic Russian cosmonaut suit, enacting a series of obscure actions directed by others, such as sharpening pencils in front of the New York Public Library or planting flags in a supermarket.
“Performa is working on a new model for presenting live work,” says Clara Kim, gallery director and curator at REDCAT in Los Angeles. It’s one that she would like to see come to L.A. to help reinvigorate a performance scene that she characterizes as having few institutional opportunities and an increasing number of small, artist-run venues.
For now, the festival is an ardently New York event. Throughout, Goldberg -- a dramatic figure stylishly coiffed in her signature pageboy and black leather pants -- zipped madly around rainy New York. She often arrived at the last possible moment, leaping onto the stage to introduce an event with, as she said, only “moments to spare, just like a good futurist.”