Art Papers  

more feature articles from July/August 2012 issue:

Rita Ackermann
and the
Traumas of War

by Gean Moreno

Radically Unbound:
Catherine A. Hollingsworth in conversation with
Performa 11 Curator Mark Beasley

Toward the end of Performa 11's marathon schedule in New York City [November 1–21, 2011], I found myself in Ragnar Kjartansson's Bliss, 2011 . A cast of opera singers with live orchestra accompaniment had been delivering the final two-minute aria of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in endless repetition since noon that day for what was to be a twelve-hour cycle. In this closing scene, the count begs forgiveness, which his countess graciously grants him. No matter when the transient audience wandered in, or how long they stayed, the performers sustained the ecstatic heights of this peak theatrical moment ad infinitum. By the time I arrived at six o'clock, the performers were already pushing the limits of their endurance. They were also rather tipsy. As part of the performance, everyone, including the orchestra, was drinking wine.

Kjartansson's absurd rendition of Mozart's confession scene pacified me in a way that had nothing to do with objectivity, or art history, or any other pre-existing filter. As it so happened, I had just endured an extended argument with someone and would have loved nothing more than a delirious, sincere apology. Bliss went right through my critical shield. This wasn't the only time during the three-week biennial that I was caught off guard. My passive role as observer was interrupted when a charismatic performer in Boris Charmatz's Musée de la Danse: Expo Zéro, 2011, coerced me into teaching ballet to some onlookers. A few days later, Shirin Neshat's inspired depiction of mystic poet Mansur al-Hallaj in OverRuled, 2011, brought me to tears.

Ragnar Kjartansson, performance view of Bliss, 2011,
a Performa commission (photo: Paula Court; courtesy of Performa)

Performance has historically aimed to penetrate viewers as deeply as possible, often jumping the distance between artist and audience. In the early twentieth century, the Futurists declared their intention to "liberate intellectual circles from the old static pacifist and nostalgic" performance tactics, sometimes to the point of inciting a riot.1 A hundred years later, Performa 11 was far less subversive. It's hard to imagine anything inciting a riot in the art world. But Performa 11's expansive schedule still offered unexpected encounters with something raw, vulnerable, and human.

Performa Director and Curator RoseLee Goldberg, who founded the biennial in 2005, describes perfor-mance as "a way of bringing to life the many formal and conceptual ideas on which the making of art is based. ... Whenever a certain school, be it Cubism, Minimalism or conceptual art, seemed to have reached an impasse, artists have turned to performance as a way of breaking down categories and indicating new directions."2 Drawing freely from theater, dance, film, and pretty much every other genre, performance provides a framework to bleed the logic of one language into another. With over a hundred artists jammed into three weeks, 2011's Performa bordered on chaotic—any sense of a coherent whole was literally impossible. An alliance with historical groundbreakers, including Russian Constructivism and Fluxus, was acknowledged through the biennial's graphics and supporting exhibitions. But these themes didn't usually surface in the work, and no overarching thesis about contemporary performance could be traced.

As an individual observer, I tended toward the highly produced Performa commissions, with a stop through the more casual Performa Hub, a temporary, central headquarters and performance space built into an old school building on the Lower East Side. In the end I saw only a small fraction of the festival, in which any number of divergent performance itineraries could have been charted. I found in conversations with friends that none of us saw the same set of events, and no one agreed on which works were good. As I later learned, my disorientation could be traced all the way back to the curators, including Goldberg, who planned the festival. Each curator had an independent organizing theme, and the program seemed to combine multiple visions. In an effort to find the shape of the festival as a whole, I sought out one of the Performa 11 curators, Mark Beasley, for some insight.

Boris Charmatz, performance of Musée de la Danse: Expo Zéro, 2011, a Performa premiere (photo: Paula Court; courtesy of Performa)

Catherine A. Hollingsworth: How does Performa 11 compare to the previous one in 2009?

Mark Beasley: Performa produced more projects this time—there were fewer consortium projects. And for me personally, I had a clearer sense of how I could organize the projects that I was working on and flesh out a central theme that passed through all of them. This time, I looked at the use of the voice in performance art—whether in stand-up clubs, with Performa Ha!, or the Performa Radio program that was simultaneously presented live at WNYC's Greene Space and "on-air" on the Performa website. We also worked with Robert Ashley, who is the grandfather of the use of the voice, and dramaturgy and opera. His influence is manifest.

CH: Was the other curator, Defne Ayas, working with a totally separate thesis that was overlaid with yours, or was the idea of the voice everyone's guiding principle?

MB: That's my interest—I need an organizing principle. Defne was key in the development of the Performa Institute model. I'm writing a doctorate about the use of the voice in performance art, so it connects with research I've been doing over the last three years. And I guess I wanted to be less didactic about it. There's nothing more deadening than the rhetoric of a curatorial statement. So I didn't want that to be there necessarily. It might aid the work, it might not, and I wanted each of the projects to be considered on its own basis.

Cockadoodledon't!!!: On Humor and Language, lecture by Nathaniel Mellors and Mark Beasley, part of Performa Institute (photo: Paula Court; courtesy of Performa)

CH: What was RoseLee's role as an organizer?

MB: RoseLee selects most of the commissions, and she set the broad-based themes in relation to the biennial. So this year it was Constructivism and another theme based around Fluxus, which [general manager and producer] Esa Nickle, curator Anthony Elms, and I developed. And then a big move for this year's Performa was the inauguration of the Performa Institute. So every day there was a class situation. Some of the artists from the biennial came in and did a one-hour session—which I think provided a richness, a cerebral background or carpet to anchor everything else.

CH: And were those considered performances?

MB: Straight classes. The one I ran with Nat Mellors was called Cockadoodledon't!!! and it was about humor and language. Nat is obsessed with a certain kind of comic language and satiric nonsense-speak. He talked about what he thought humor, and the twisting of language and class, could offer to art and artists. But it was a class. We screened films; we took questions. And the Performa Hub is an old school, so it seemed perfect for that situation. I think the ambition is to have off-year programming and on-year programming around the Performa Institute.

Eric Steen, Brew Pub, 2011, a Performa project (photo: Elizabeth Proitsis; courtesy of Performa, Frances Stark)

CH: And then you had the Brew Pub there at the Hub. Where does that fit in?

MB: That was Esa Nickles' program. As well as being an incredible cook, she has a keen interest in projects that connect art and food. It was led by Colorado-based artist Eric Steen as a continuation of a home-brewing conference he organized. A number of local brewers produced beers throughout the biennial and we drank it all about five days ago [November 2011].

CH: So what was the connection between the beer and the biennial?

MB: It was more social, more communal. Brewers from around America had gotten together and shared their interest in couture brewing. It was like a community of people that love the fine art of beer-drinking, I guess.

CH: That's kind of on the edge of performance.

MB: I wouldn't want to make a huge claim for it as performance other than, as a British guy, I like to drink—and sometimes the dialogue from that ends up generating new projects!

Liz Magic Laser, performance view of I Feel Your Pain, 2011, 1 hour and 21 minutes, a Performa commission (photo: Paula Court; courtesy of Performa)

CH: The original idea for this article was to examine the definition of performance that the biennial was putting forth. But I actually ended up having a rather subjective experience. There was such a massive amount of work to see that any attempt to control it, or to take all of it in, was literally impossible. Looking for a definition seems to goes against the very structure of the biennial.

MB: And I also think that one of the wonders of performance—why it is such a radical form—is that it tries to break form. Or break with histories, which I find fascinating. It bleeds into this idea of Andy Kaufman doing odd, weird stand-up surreal moments, or the Cabaret Voltaire or Dada back in the day. And I think the further we've separated different forms, the more we've broken them down and boxed them. Sometimes that's not so useful, and we should respect this blurring, the gray areas between forms. I like the idea of confluence, of things meeting and changing. That's how history moves and new forms are born.

CH: If you are orchestrating this whole thing, once you've imposed a rule, then you've shut something down in terms of the potential that it has, or the purpose that it serves. So I'm curious, from a curatorial perspective, how can you set up a situation where an artist is able to have that kind of freedom?

MB: A simple example is the stand-up club. We adopted a frame, a comedy club off Times Square. You're literally dropped into this ready-made. When I spoke to each of the acts, I asked them to consider the potential of performance through this frame. So Hennessy Youngman did a lecture on performance art. That was his kind of Spinal Tap satirizing of performance, but also revealed how strong, unwieldy, odd, weird, and satiric performance art can actually be.
    What I would hope for is that, perhaps, in doing a commission or a new piece of work, that the next day the artist goes into the studio, or the dance space, or the band room, and something about their practice has changed, or been reconsidered. For me it's about artists trusting that we will privilege their vision, that we can create a supporting frame like a basketball backboard for them to bounce off of and out into some other interesting space.
    I see that with Frances Stark. This is the first big live piece she'd done. And I think it's pushed her writing somewhere else. Those things interest me. I don't believe in a full stop—it's a continual working process. You know, that's what artists do, and I think it's quite an interesting situation for an artist. Let's put it like this: For the stand-up club, I realized last minute that I couldn't be the curator that went out there and went, "Hello, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my curatorial conceit." It would just kill it. So for each session, I wrote a five-minute stand-up piece myself—it was the most ridiculous shtick. But I remember two of the acts who were super-nervous said, "At that moment, you as the curator did stand-up gags and got laughs, and it was okay." And I really like—because I want to be challenged as a curator as well—that it could be something other than this kind of stiff, professionalized, rather rigid curatorial frame that artists have to break away from.

Tyler Ashley, performance view of Half-Mythical Half-Legendary Americanism (photo: Elizabeth Proitsis; courtesy of Performa)

CH: Performance art has historically served as an opportunity for artists to test out new ideas and push their own boundaries. What kinds of boundaries are being pushed here? Where is that unsure space?

MB: For me, it's about boundaries and the naming (or not naming) of things—that we can discuss stand-up comedians like Andy Kaufman or Reggie Watts in the same breath as a performance artist like Mike Smith. Robert Ashley described it to me one time. He said, "Back in the sixties in Detroit, you had what I did, and you had Motown musicians. I played on Motown records, and they played on mine, and we never knew we were different. We just made music. And then at a certain point, people worked out they could make money out of rock 'n' roll, and the Beatles turned up, and the Rolling Stones. And then I was told I was different from pop music, and we got separated."
    I really love that idea that at some point there was an avant-garde in music and art that knew less about its boundaries. And I think those boundaries are always economic somehow. If we can move toward breaking those things down, then we find those odd little moments where worlds meet and some other thing happens.

CH: It's great to talk to you because my perspective was really different than yours, even just in terms of what I was able to see. I wish that I had three or four of me, so that I could have seen everything! I'm curious, why isn't this program stretched out over the course of a year so that someone actually could see everything?

MB: That's a good question. I have no clear answer for it. To concentrate it in this period, and to create a focus for this kind of practice for twenty-one days, is kind of a marathon, absolutely. I can only speak for myself because I didn't program the whole thing. But I think of it as an opportunity to pick some stuff that you know already, pick some stuff you don't, and just see how they combine. Just practically, running a biennial over a whole year would be tough for the organization. But I understand it's a little hard for the audience. I get where you're coming from.
    There are the larger projects like Elmgreen & Dragset and Shirin Neshat that draw one kind of audience. But then there's the project that I've been involved with at the stand-up club, or in a concert hall on the Lower East Side, or in the Westway, or at the Kitchen, where I see another much quieter form of cerebral activity. Something less spelled out, a little more complicated. People look for different things, and that's okay. And so the need to see everything, I don't think one has to do that. I think RoseLee's vision for it was to present a number of voices and different kinds of work. Between me, RoseLee, Esa, Defna, and Dougal, the other assistant curator, there were lots of different paths that one could take.

1. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. "Manifesto of Dynamic and Synoptic Declamation." 1916.
2. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, 2nd ed. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 7.

Based in Miami and New York, Catherine A. Hollingsworth is a performer, arts writer, and frequent contributor to ART PAPERS. Her work focuses on dance, visual art, and the space between them.

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