Bringing Life to Art

Paul Laster

In 2005, RoseLee Goldberg, one of the coolest, calmest women on the international art scene, managed to reinvigorate the relatively un-sexy medium of performance art when she launched Performa, a biennial visual art performance festival. Goldberg speaks with a voice of authority and her signature bangs and primarily black-and-white outfits give off a serious vibe. But beneath that persona brews a bubbling passion for the best and newest forces in the creative world. A former director of London's Royal College of Art, past curator at the Kitchen in New York and author of the seminal, 1979 book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present -- which has been expanded many times and remains the bible on the medium -- Goldberg knows more about performance art than anyone out there. Desiring more from the art world than simply a marketplace, Goldberg created Performa to give artists a chance to breathe some air into the stagnant gallery system. This year's Performa, starting November 1st and the fourth since its debut, will be bigger and better than ever, with more than 100 performances in countless venues throughout New York. We recently spoke with Goldberg about her obsession with sniffing out new talent while supporting artists that have been around the block with a little nudge.

Paul Laster: What is performance art?

Roselee Goldberg: It's live art by visual artists. It's been around at least a hundred years --  maybe longer. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci made performance art. I don't think about performance artists; I think of visual artists that also make performances.

PL: How did you first become interested in the medium?

RG: Like most things in life it's very autobiographical. I was a dancer and a painter with a fine art degree and was always conflicted: which path to take? I discovered Oskar Schlemmer, who was an amazing artist at the Bauhaus, an art school in Germany in the 1920s. He had exactly the same problem. I identified with him and started doing research and discovered there is a lot of work that deals with how art fits onto these different edges.

Pl: How did you turn an interest into a lifetime pursuit?

RG: I started out as an art historian. I'm interested in the history of the world, the history of culture, and that means the history of today. I'm obsessed with the now, but with a knowledge of the past. It's an ongoing discussion with understanding how art and culture work and trying to make things possible. It's about staying in touch with this new material, not because of what's in fashion, but because of the necessity to really understand the life that we're living everyday.

Pl: How has Performa progressed since the first biennial in 2005?

RG: In 2005, I wanted to make three points: There's this incredible history and you really need to understand it; we're going to make performance the centerpiece of the biennial; and we're going to commission new works. I was longing to see something that would turn me on. That was what drove me. It took off from day one. The first year we had three commissions; the second year we were up to 10; and the third year up to 11. This year we are producing 13 new commissions and a total of 30 events that are new to New York and really extraordinary.

PL: Are you surprised at the success of it?

RG: No, we work with great artists. We say to an artist, "Tell me your dreams. What do you want to do?" And they do it. It's all about the artists, giving them 100 percent support and doing it right.

PL: What's your criteria for choosing artists?

RG: I think it's desire. Sometimes you just fall in love. You see someone walking down the street and you're hooked. It's the quality of the work. Something powerful that moves me -- visually -- that moves me as an idea and has content. I also care about the audience. Performa is really designed for you to have enormous pleasure and to see work in an optimum
way, to try to put you in different settings, to take you around the town and to create an incredible community -- the way I knew the art community when we all lived below 14th Street in lofts. That was one of the reasons for starting Performa. New York was becoming too grown up, too expensive and too top heavy. Performa let a lot of air in again. I wanted to get back to ideas, back to the artists -- not just the collecting endgame of the story.

PL: What are you most excited about this year?

RG: Everything. It's like asking a mother, "Which child do you love the most?" Opening night is going to be Elmgreen & Dragset taking over Manhattan. They are doing a real play with Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards. It raises a legitimate question: What is the difference between performance art and theater? Well, it's a huge difference. There's a division of labor in the theater. In the art world there's one singular vision -- in this case, two.

When you flip on the other side, there's Shirin Neshat coming out with an entirely wonderful way of dealing with religion, politics and the repression of women's rights in the Middle East. It's sort of a response to the Arab Spring. It's layered and layered and it's going to be beautiful. There's an incredible singer and a band. You go from that to Simon Fujiwara, who's doing something on his own life -- a narrative in three parts that includes trying to write an erotic novel about his parents.

Then you flip that and you have a young artist, Liz Magic Laser, who is making a piece that takes place in a movie theater, where actors seated next to you are being filmed while reenacting texts from Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and others from the American political stage.

And another terrific one is by Iona Rozeal Brown, who comes with her obsession of mixing Kabuki and hip-hop. That just hints at the range of the different sensibilities and ideas. It's very rich.

PL: And James Franco and Laurel Nakadate seem like a fiery combination.

RG: It's definitely a fiery combination and I think it's going to be great. James has been paying attention to the history of performance and we talked about where he wanted to go with it. He saw Laurel's work and made this decision to work together. The miracle about Performa is that you really don't know until the night before what's going to happen, but that's also part of the thrill.

PL: What about Performa Ha!, a new element that you've added this year?

RG: It's our comedy club that will be in an actual comedy club in Times Square. We've previously done cabaret. We have a big food component -- this year it's home brewing of beer. We're also doing a radio program with writers and musicians at WNYC. We have an amazing film project with Guy Maddin at Lincoln Center. We cross all generations. There is such a range that no one will be able to answer your first question, "What is performance art?" because they will be so completely blown away.

PL: How much time did you spend traveling and researching over the past two years, relative to the ideas that have come to fruition?

RG: I'm not sure if traveling is really where the ideas come from. I think that ideas come from all kinds of places. I think traveling is really interesting and it often reinforces certain ideas, and I've done a lot -- from Moscow to Santiago to Israel to Belgrade to Berlin to London to Paris. But I also learned during the year that I wasn't traveling that you can learn just as much from staying in one place. As writers, as teachers, as critics, we listen and we hear a lot of things. We work with about 40 curators, so my ears are always to the ground. I don't really find works while traveling. I work with commissions. Most of the work at Performa is by artists who do commissions, and most of them have never done a performance before, so I'm not really out there looking for material. [The artist] Mika [Rottenberg] is a good example. I've been dreaming about doing something since I saw her first piece. I just sat there laughing and said to myself, "What could she do?" Elmgreen & Dragset, I told them two years ago or maybe more, "Look, whenever you're ready, let me know." And somehow, it all falls into place at the right time, and that's actually the beauty of Performa.

Stylist: Luigi Tadini
Makeup: Annamarie Tendler
Photographer assistants: Ricardo Napoli and Joey Popovich
RoseLee wears a jacket by Balenciaga, pants by Jil Sander and shoes by Prada.

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