“Visual and dramatic arts don’t talk to each other”

An interview with RoseLee Goldberg
 Zanele Muholi Masihambisane - On Visual Activism (2017) A Performa 17 Commission Photo: Paula Court; Courtesy Performa
 Zanele Muholi Masihambisane - On Visual Activism (2017) A Performa 17 Commission Photo: Paula Court; Courtesy Performa
 Barbara Kruger Untitled (Skate)  (2017) A Performa 17 Commission Photo: Paula Court; Courtesy Performa
 Julie Mehretu and Jason Moran MASS (HOWL, eon)  (2017) Performa 17 Commission Photo © Paula Court; Courtesy of Performa
 William Kentridge Ursonate (2017) A Performa 17 Commission Photo: Paula Court; Courtesy of Performa
 Roselee Goldberg speaking at Vienna Art Week 2018 Photo: eSeL

In a little less than one year Performa will begin its eighth edition in New York. Last month, RoseLee Goldberg, founding director and curator of the biennial for performative arts, attended Vienna Art Week and met with Maximilian Geymüller to give insight into Performa 19, talk about artists’ general attraction to performance, and Chris Dercon’s failure at the Volksbühne in Berlin.


Maximilian Geymüller: Let’s start with the topic of the talk tonight, which will deal with the difference between performative arts in Europe and the US.

RoseLee Goldberg: There are a lot of differences, but I won’t really be focussing on that tonight. It’s a short talk and that’s a long story. My new book on performance since 2000 looks at some of those differences in relation to dance history and performance history as well as funding and politics. Tonight I will talk about my work of the last four decades, including writing this book Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century, and the importance of performance as a bridge between cultures. I think of performance as a kind of passport ­to Brazil, to Dakar, to South Africa as a way to access different cultures.

More than other visual arts, you think?

Yes, because the history of visual arts as we understand it has had a Western bias for so long. It's very hard if you're a painter in Africa or in India to break into the history of modernist painting, to be acknowledged as a painter on the international circuit. If we look at Kabakov and the artists coming out of Russia in the 80s, there was a strong performance component; they didn't break into the art world with painting, which is a fixed language in many ways. The young Chinese artists whose work came to be recognised internationally in the early 90s also came out with performances, albeit much of it exhibited as photographs. I see performance as inherently part of global society, it somehow describes the migrating of cultures that make up the world in which we live today.

Every society is an amalgamation of many different cultures. Even though there are ingrained concerns, and national histories: France, for example is not only made up of French culture, Sweden is not just the old style of what it means to be Swedish. There are many different cultures existing within a single country, and performance allows artists to articulate these many layers, which you can't do in a painting. 




Because it's very physical, or very original –

Because it's physical, it's original, it can be very individualistic, and it's harder to pin down. If you’re doing performance, there isn’t the kind of critical language to limit it.

I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between dramatic arts and visual arts. If you look at Berlin, the visual arts entered the sphere of dramatic arts with Chris Dercon at the Volksbühne. Do you think there’s a narrowing difference between the two? 

No, they don't talk to each other. Theatre’s starting point is language, text, even if it's very abstract. Visual artists focus on the visual, they avoid narrative, and the work is often highly conceptual. There's a good reason why artists tend to like Beckett of all playwrights, and that’s because he doesn't finish a sentence, he doesn't complete an idea. Artists would rather leave a lot of space for the viewer to bring their own thinking to the work. It's almost too simple to tell the viewer, “The work is about this and here is a narrative.” Most contemporary art is non-narrative, and intentionally so.

Another obvious difference is that theatre is a work of many – the playwright has to find the director, the director has to find the producer, the producer has to find the stage designer, and the stage designer has to find the lighting designer in order to realize a work. In the art world, the work is the vision of a single individual.


The art world is a very permissive place and is more likely to welcome new ideas from other fields. However, it doesn’t work the other way.


But when you think about Matthew Barney for example, it is also a huge production, maybe similar to a dramatic production. 

Matthew Barney, of course is an exception. But even so, every aspect of the production is his vision. His approach is so unlike the way a film-maker approaches film. Barney has a woman walking around on glass legs, or he’s tap dancing under the sea. He makes films that don’t look like anything you’ve seen before. Steve McQueen has been able to crossover, making films such as Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave that work as narrative film, but that also are an indication of his powerful visual lens. Barney employs an art world brain where nothing is complete, everything remains disconnected.




But what do you understand about Dercon's move from the art world to the dramatic world? It didn’t work in a way.

The art world is a very permissive place and is more likely to welcome new ideas from other fields. However, it doesn’t work the other way. The audiences are very, very different and the Volksbühne in particular has a huge history that reaches deep in theatre history. There's a lot of very adventurous theatre, and figures such as Schlingensief or Castorf were able to move between the two. But it’s much more difficult to bring the avant-garde dance and performance scene into the world of theatre.

Do you think it has to do with the fundamental structural differences between theatre and the museum?

It's the structural difference of the brain! Artists think differently. I remember asking Laurie Anderson years ago what it was like to crossover into the music world and she said, “But I'll always think like an artist.” Without spelling it out, we know what she means – it's about working without any rules whatsoever. In a way, I could say that’s how we work at Performa. Experimentation has no direct precedent. An artist like Ragnar Kjartansson can say, “I want to sing the best song in the world, the last aria from the opera The Marriage of Figaro, and I want to do it fifty times, it will take me two hours.” I say, “Great, let's do it.” The next time we meet he says, “Maybe I want to do it longer than that, maybe five hours.” I say, “Fantastic, let's do it.” In the end, it was twelve hours. I don't know if he could take that to a theatre and have everybody not say, “What is he talking about?”

I have many similar examples, which is an indication of the way an artist thinks. The imagination of artists drives the work; rarely does an artist use a script or storyboard beforehand. And that's an interesting part about Performa: artists are glad to do something they've never done before. You won't find that kind of total daredevil mentality in another field.


Artists will use whatever latest device is available and they will pervert it.


Another question that I've thought about is related to a quote from Boris Groys, who wrote the book In the Flow in 2016. He says, “A digital image cannot be merely exhibited but always only staged or performed. One can argue that digitalisation turns visual arts into performing arts.” So what do you think about digitalisation in relation to performance art?

Artists invariably gravitate to the newest technology. And then they mess it up, they play with it so that it doesn't look like what the particular corporation who designed the technology has provided. A high school student sits with her laptop or cell phone during lunchtime fooling around with strange makeup technology and then we see Cindy Sherman taking the same app and creating a grotesquery; she uses the app to make an artwork of her own. Artists will use whatever latest device is available and they will pervert it. This is the reality of the matrix we're living in, and the physical body is always right in the middle. Ten years ago it was Second Life online, and now artists such as Bunny Rogers, Sondra Perry, and Ian Cheng are developing entirely new approaches with material that could be very alienating, very nihilistic, yet once you look closely, it is very lyrical, poetic, poignant. In the middle of this techno-described world where everything is data and pulsing at all hours of the day and night, there's an art, there's a text, there's emotion – and that's what we always look for, the sensitive artist who uses technology with ease yet who still moves us. 




So how exactly does Performa work? You think of a general theme and then you approach artists, or is there a curatorial committee?

There are no committees. We have curators who choose to work with an artist. It comes from a deep desire to see an artist produce something we’ver never seen before. Sometimes after an invitation to do a commission, the actual realisation might take a few years. For example, I'd been talking to Rashid Johnson – I just love his work, love what it means, love the sensibility – and for years I said, “Whenever you're ready, let me know.” Then one day he says, “I'm ready.” Most of the work starts like that, with a single curator deciding “This is an artist I really want to work with.” Then we work very closely with the artists over time to develop the subject. It's not suddenly like, “Okay, every artist gets $50,000, bye, see you in one year.” We're in dialogue the entire time, from beginning to end.

Have you experienced negative reactions, like you approach an artist, say you want to work with them, and they say, “I've never thought about performance and I don't want to do it”?

That hasn't happened because most of the relationships are longstanding and it's more like, “Let me know when you have an idea,” rather than “I want you to do something.” But sometimes we've been surprised by artists such as Candice Breitz and Omer Fast, who work almost exclusively in filmand video, and whose material is so much about editing. When they took on an invitation to go live, it’s unbelievable what they produced and how the live performance affected their subsequent work.

Can you tell us about the basic theme or subject of next year’s Performa? 

Not yet, we’re very much involved in research that takes us across a lot of different content. We always select a historic era to examine the important role of performance at a particular time and to really think through the material, both in terms of the present and also how it was misunderstood, as we did with Dada last year and Surrealism before that. For 2019, it is the Bauhaus, because next year will be its 100th anniversary and because performance and theatre were hugely important at the school.




I want to know if the current political situation comes into play at some point? Trump and political regression is obvious. 

Every day. 

Do you think you can react to it in the biennial format?

You know, the two-year gap actually works well in terms of tracking shifts and changes in politics and culture. As an organisation, we’re changing all the time, we’re very flexible. We're not an institution that is confined by a particular mission. Last year there was a strong thread of activism in many of the commissions – Barbara Kruger, Zanele Muholi, Kemang Wa Lehulere, William Kentridge – and a strong desire to take on the city, which evolved during the year of preparation. The biennial format works well for investigating ideas, and you can be sure that the moment the biennial begins in November, we're already on to imagining how we will approach the next one.




MAXIMILIAN GEYMÜLLER is a writer and curator. He lives in Vienna.