Performa is a renowned Performance Art biennial founded in 2004 by RoseLee Goldberg, an art historian, author and curator who arrived in New York in 1975 and continues to commission performance by international visual artists across an array of sites in New York City. For two to three weeks biannually, the city becomes a platform for showcasing challenging, engaging, perspectival shifting works by emerging and establishing artists, some often working with performance art for the first time.
Since its first edition in 2005, Performa continues to centre on, and make a valid case for performance art’s as a crucial aspect of art history. It has contributed significantly to furthering, legitimising and making visible artists working with live art practices, although at times, the biennial does seem to follow a canonical framework of promoting mostly established artists, some of whom are pioneers of the breakthrough period for this genre that began in late 1960s. To address this, and present to a more inclusive and thorough engagement with performances’ wider histories, Performa Pavilion Without Walls (modelled on Venice Bienniale’s pavilions) was established in 2013 to ‘showcase the most vibrant and significant art from a particular country or region, fostering cultural exchange and connecting international artists with global audiences and the New York City cultural landscape.’ Norway and Poland were inaugural countries, followed by Australia in 2015, and this year, South Africa and Estonia.
Performa 17 opened on 1st November and during its 18-day run for which I attended during the opening week. Three main areas are explored for this edition; the use of live performance as central to artistic practice in African art and culture, the intersection of architecture and performance, and the hundred-year legacy of Dada. Barbra Kruger’s signatory texts were most prominent throughput as she designed all of the visual identity for the biennial alongside commissions including a skate, park Untitled (Skate), a yellow school bus Untitled (School) that moved across the city emblazoned with highly charged slogan texts. Kruger also staged her first ever performance, Untitled (The Drop)! in the form of a (timed-entry) pop-up shop where visitors were allowed to buy two items from range that included t-shirts, hoodies, beanies, skateboards, and metro cards. Kruger herself was absent and the work expanded her ongoing critique of consumer culture.
Another huge presence were the multiple interventions by LGBTQI activist, Zanele Muholi who has long used photography and performance as a form of visual activism celebrating queer, black South African Black females, most of whom have been subjected to violent discriminations due to their gender and sexuality. Muholi’s works are about communities and creating platforms of visibilities for black female bodies that are rendered invisible and marginalised. For Performa, accompanied by her 23-person strong squad of performers, dancers, singers, poets and activists that travelled with her from South Africa spreading her #VisualActivism message. Muholi’s portraits were also staged as interventions, across the city as a billboard at Times Square and digital screens at six NYC subways and City Point at Albee Square in Brooklyn.
Other notable performances included Jimmy Robert’s poignant and moving piece Imitation of Lives which was part of Circulations, Performa 17’s architecture and performance program and took place in Philip Johnson’s stunning Glass House in New Canaan. Roberts together with collaborators, NIC Kay and Quenton Stuckey used the house’s transparent and reflective qualities to reflect upon architecture, visibility, and black representation, all confounded by an anxiety of looking and ways in which one sees. Narcissister’s one-hour performance, The Body Is a House, took us all on a journeying in dismantling what Stuart Hall calls “fixed and closed stereotypical representations.” Her collage-based approach to performance allowed for a presentation of multiple outfit changes using every available bodily orifice for sequences of a striptease and in some instances a re-clothing of her nude body. Hers was an elaborate costume change, humour and pop-music filled shattering of gender, racial identity, and sexuality. To further contextualise all of the commissioned works, projects and pavilions and Performance Art in general, Performa’s Biennial hub hosted a series of talks, workshops and conversations with artists, scholars, critics and academics.
100 years after the birth of Dada, the movement to with the current biennial anchors itself, Performa 17 reflects upon the need in our current times to question and push forward an anti-aesthetic, anti-rational, anti-idealistic, anti-establishment spirit.
Performa 17 continues until 19 November 2017