The rise and rise of live art

Anneke Jaspers at Performa 05, New York

Performa 05, a dynamic multidisciplinary program of live performances, exhibitions, film screenings, lectures and symposia, marked the first biennial initiative of veteran performance art curator and historian RoseLee Goldberg under the auspices of the organisation Performa, which she founded in 2004. The scope and ambition of the program were undoubtedly impressive, with a total of 98 artists and 26 organisations involved in the presentation of more than 60 events. Produced on a shoestring budget with a tiny staff, and without major corporate or institutional sponsorship, the result was nothing short of revelatory. Performa 05 invigorated both the city and the dialogue around the ongoing significance of “new visual art performance” in the 21st century.


Under the artistic direction of Goldberg, the program evolved in collaboration with a consortium of independent organisers and curators at leading New York arts venues. Proposals were invited for specially designed exhibitions and events that responded to Performa’s objectives, which were then reviewed by Goldberg and a stellar Curatorial Advisory Council including the likes of curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jens Hoffmann, Chrissie Iles and Massimiliano Gioni, as well as artists William Kentridge and Joan Jonas. The program that materialised was dispersed across venues as varied as the Museum for African Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Kitchen, Bowery Ballroom, and a significant contingent of commercial galleries and alternative spaces.

With all events either free or affordably cheap (US$5-$15 or free with admission at museums), and with a palpable profile across the city throughout November, Performa 05 established itself as a truly accessible venture with the capacity to attract audiences outside of dedicated contemporary arts circles. One of the triumphs was that work by emerging artists was contextualised in relation to that of mid-career practitioners and performance art royalty, such as Marina Ambramovic and Yoko Ono. The result was a fertile exchange that highlighted the history and evolution of performance alongside currents and concerns now dominating this scene, drawing attention to the resurgence of performance in art over the past decade. Diversity was key. In addition to ‘live art’, the program explored performance as an integral element in video and film, installation, sound art, music, theatre and photography. Comprehensive as it was, Goldberg emphasised that the inaugural biennial focused specifically on performance in the context of the visual arts, and has vowed Performa 07 will expand to present a different perspective entirely.


An important aspect of Performa’s mission is to initiate and support the creation of new performances. Performa Radio presented works designed by artists for broadcast, investigating radio as a performance space in relation to issues of intimacy, placelessness, dispersion, and the ‘disappearance’ of actual experience. Francis Alys premiered his first indoor performance Rehearsal II the Slipper Room, selling out long before the once-only 6-hour performance featuring a striptease artist, pianist and singer (but unusually not the artist himself) took place.

Most impressive was Danish artist Jesper Just’s production True Love Is Yet To Come, presented on an intimately scaled stage in the Stephan Weiss Studio as the biennial’s opening affair. Renowned for his video practice, this was Jest’s first foray into live performance. The 22-minute opera continued the artist’s poetic investigation of gender and relationship dynamics, particularly aspects of masculinity, affection and loneliness. Utilising the effects of a newly patented computer program, the production was highly complex and layered: the lone ‘real’ performer—well-known Norwegian actor Baard Owe—interacted with holographic figures and landscapes, occasionally taking on an intangible presence himself by dissolving into the animated set projections, at which point the performance became cinematic. Cover versions of familiar love songs framed fraught exchanges between Owe and the silent transparent figure of a younger man whose identity remained ambiguous, and could have been either a son or lover. Huutajat, the Finnish Men’s Screaming Choir, also made a holographic appearance shouting “You Always Hurt the One You Love” in one of several intense climaxes of visual spectacle, tempo and emotion. A pioneering and stunningly complex work, True Love… made clear from the beginning Performa 05’s intention to challenge conventional notions of performance.

Not for sale

As part of an ongoing series titled “Not for Sale”, a one-day symposium held at New York University aimed to investigate different facets of “Writing on New Media and Performance”, from the integration of ephemeral works into ‘official’ contexts, to the multidisciplinary language required to engage with the research, development and presentation of visual art performance. The event covered familiar and fairly superficial territory, offering the audience descriptive accounts of professional encounters but stopping short of thrashing out new possibilities for instigating paradigm shifts. In the first of two sessions, curators Anthony Huberman (Sculpture Centre, Queens), Bennett Simpson (ICA, Boston), and Catherine Wood (Tate Modern, London) ruminated on the increasing presence of performance in museums and galleries and its incoherence with the strictures of institutionalised curating and collecting; nothing new. Wood’s presentation ironically dealt with the Tate Modern’s recent venture into collecting live performance in an event supposedly premised on the resistance of this medium to the market, while Huberman spoke of the way in which ephemeral works challenge the ‘exhibition logic.’ Bennett offered by far the most interesting paper, examining how the resurgence of performance art over the past decade has intersected with the new media ‘boom’ and its impact on ideas of interactivity, temporality and performativity. The most important effect of this conflation of performance and performativity, he argued, is not the demand that art take into account broader frames of reference—such as fashion, music and technology—but rather “the emphasis it now places on who the artist is, as opposed to what the artist does.” In view of the notion that “all artists are performers (if artists are people who perform art), what is the relationship between the inherent performativity of being an artist, and performance art as a medium?”

Retrieving history

In what was arguably Performa 05’s most ambitious and extravagant co-presentation, seminal performance artist Marina Ambramovic performed a series of 7 works on a circular platform in the grand rotunda of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. Wryly titled Seven Easy Pieces, the performance schedule was spread over 7 consecutive evenings and involved Ambramovic re-enacting influential works by her peers from the 1960s and 70s. Each of the unrehearsed performances ran from 5pm until midnight, extending and distorting the duration of the original pieces, and continuing Ambramovic’s career-long exploration of the mental and physical limitations of the body. Re-enactments of works by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, VALIE EXPORT, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys and Ambramovic’s own Lips of Thomas (1975) were concluded by a new performance created by Ambramovic specifically for the series, Entering the Other Side, which functioned as a contemporary point of reference from which to investigate the temporal dichotomy at the crux of the project. Seven Easy Pieces conflated past and present, commanding consideration, yet again, of fundamental issues that relate to ephemeral art.

Alternative network

Complementary to the scale and polish of the commissions, a host of modest projects were staged in New York’s premier alternative arts venues clustered around Soho and the Lower East Side. Much of the vitality of the program was derived from these events, which took a finger to the pulse of post-millennium performance practice with an emphasis on young and emerging artists. Art in General, Apexart, Participant Inc and the Swiss Institute contributed. As did Artists Space, one of New York’s oldest not-for-profit organisations, which staged a 5-week exhibition, Empty Space With Exciting Events, in which the empty main gallery became “a stage for daily action, performances, concerts and lectures”, while the Project Spaces hosted individual works with performative affinities.

At The Kitchen in Chelsea, Listen Up! Lectures as Performance offered a double bill contrasting a reworking of French conceptual artist Bernar Venet’s 1966 performance-lecture Neutron Emission with a new work by Coco Fusco, A Room of One’s Own. A product of the artist’s recent experience in a women’s interrogation training camp it highlighted the malleability and power of language as a tool for propaganda.

Co-presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council at Gigantic Art Space, Pablo Helguera’s one-act opera, The Foreign Legion likewise took on the politics of interpretive discussion as its theme. Merging scripted fiction, documentary narrative, hermetic thought, the lecture format and music, Helguera’s work aimed to “embrace the contemporary ambiguous threshold between reality and fiction” by confusing the audience’s perception of what was ‘objective’ fact and subjective intervention, creating a space for dialogue on how art might function at the interstice between the two.

Performing the city

Performa 05 cast a wide net both in terms of its interdisciplinary fervour and geographical manifestation. Stretching from Harlem all the way Downtown, and encompassing a vast array of venues in between, the program itself incorporated a performative sensibility in its distribution across the city. The decentralised format forged a rich conversation between diverse entities, from museum stalwarts, to commercial gallery heavyweights, and various constituents in the not-for-profit sector. Audience participation became a process of enacting a ritual of transit and mapping in the spaces of everyday life as people moved between venues and events. New York Times reporter Roberta Smith pointed out that although the difficult choices to be made often left one feeling as though great opportunities had been missed, and on occasions events did not quite meet expectations, there was ample room to structure a unique performance program of one’s own, fuelled by adrenalin, followed by fatigue, and underscored by the satisfaction of participating in a remarkable event.

Performa 05, various venues, producer Performa, New York City, Nov 3-21

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 34,

© Anneke Jaspers; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2006