Performance art blossoms with modernity – Russian Constructivists, Futurists, Dadaists, the artists of the Bauhaus, all have performance at their core. It is a way to interrogate our human condition in a fast-changing century in love with the machine. It is a way to experiment. The medium is the body, and its nature is interdisciplinary. So exploratory, and combining so many different activities, and so much of a force behind the movements of the 20th century, yet it never really entered into the mainstream of art history as a thing in itself. The term wasn’t even coined until the 1960s, when minimal and conceptual artists in the US started to turn to the idea of the live event, in lofts, gallery settings (like Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery), theatres or on the street. Life in downtown New York at that time was a cross-pollination between dancers, musicians, filmmakers, playwrights, poets and visual artists, who were all using the everyday as a source of inspiration, attempting to both revitalise and desacralise the art world and its commodification. Although many new terms came to be used to describe these events, such as actions or happenings, there was very little weight given to how these actions actually changed the approach to ‘solid’ art objects – paintings and sculpture – that remained the focus of art history and museum display.

It’s no stretch to say that it wasn’t until the publication of the seminal book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present in 1979 that performance art was finally given its own place in art history. Written by art historian, writer, curator and producer RoseLee Goldberg, who was adamant that this material be considered as integral to art history, not apart from it, Goldberg’s book was a rewriting of 20th century art history. Today, departments of performance art are now in major museums of contemporary art, universities and art schools offer academic and studio programmes in the field, and galleries and mainstream art circuits regularly present performance as part of their programming.

The artist Francis Picabia (1879 - 1953) used to say ‘New York is the…futurist city,’ so it might not be by chance that Goldberg, a South African and New Yorker, finally summoned up all her years of expertise and knowledge to create Performa, the performance biennial that first appeared in her adopted city in 2004. DAMN° met up with her at the Bowery Hotel a couple of months before its 7th edition, which this year focuses on three main areas of research: performance in five different African countries (Ethiopia, Morocco, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa), architecture and performance, and Dada. It was the architecture and performance component of this years’ edition of Performa that inspired this interview.

DAMN°: Let me first ask you about this love for architecture. How did it begin?

RoseLee Goldberg: My undergraduate degree in South Africa at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg was in fine arts, art history and political science, including a focus on Medieval and early Gothic Architecture. The art and architecture departments on campus shared a single building, and some classes were mixed with architecture students, as in the Bauhaus Foundation Courses. I was always interested in architecture – for me it spoke of the history of ideas, of politics and of different cultures, just as much as art did.

DAMN°: Very interdisciplinary already...

RLG: Yes, always. I was a dancer from a very young age (tap, ballet, modern, Spanish, Bharatnatyam), and at college I was in the painting studio as much as in the dance studio. In London for my graduate degree at the Courtauld Institute, I discovered Oskar Schlemmer’s work and was completely taken by the fact that he considered himself as both dancer and visual artist – his Apollonian and Dionysian sides as he described it in his diaries – which became the subject of my dissertation. The Bauhaus, of course, was based on the idea of an architecture school that would encompass all the arts (although the architecture department came quite late in its history). Interestingly, it was also the first art-architecture school to have a stage department at its heart, and Schlemmer used it as a way to investigate space, as both sculptor and painter, for his figure drawing class, and to explore his Dionysian side, which also spilled into the famous Bauhaus balls.

When I became director of the Royal College of Art Gallery (1972 - 75), I envisioned the gallery as the pivotal hub through which to look at all disciplines. The RCA is a graduate school with many departments, and so I found a way to work with most of them: I engaged the art history students to write gallery essays; the graphic design department to design the gallery identity, exhibition announcements and publications; and the interior design students to design the installations. We had weekly talks and performances, including Christian Boltanski, The Kipper Kids, Nice Style, Willoughby Sharp of Avalanche magazine, and architecture presentations as well, with Peter Cook, Germano Celant. The exhibition programme was built around interdisciplinarity, or interdeparmentalisation, which, as it turns out, the administration was trying very hard to achieve. I was just doing what came naturally, looking at art, architecture, dance, film, music, poetry, with the same intensity.

DAMN°: Why was it difficult to grasp?

RLG: Looking across disciplines involves a lot of work! Essentially it means that one needs to have knowledge of many different histories – all the media we’ve been talking about, including dance and theatre and film and music, and new technologies, in order to fully understand how they all connect and thread together. Art history has long been told as the unfolding story of painting and sculpture, even though the entire 20th century has been multidisciplinary, starting with the Futurists, Dada, Russian Constructivists, but also with Alfred Jarry, Satie, Raymond Roussel, Picabia, Apollinaire, Duchamp, and so on. Poetry, film, dance has all fed into that history, but art historians mostly haven’t known what to do with it, where to put all those amazing actions and events. As a result there are big holes in the history of art, which need to be filled with the interaction of artists using a broad spectrum of disciplines, and for art historians to begin to realise that it is that community of ideas that brought about the big shifts in culture and concepts that we know of as the ‘narrative’ of European art history. I remember when studying Dada, there was always this struggle to find objects that could legitimately be referred to as ‘Dada art’; but the art was in the performances by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hannah Höch.

I wrote my book on Performance Art nearly 40 years ago, and in a way I am still banging that same drum, explaining that performance is not a sideshow, that it is integral to the history of art, that in fact performance by artists is the avant, avant-garde. It’s always ahead. It’s why I started Performa, to tell the story on as public a platform as possible.

DAMN°: Let’s talk about architecture and performance now.

RLG: Besides directing the RCA Gallery, I was also teaching at the Architectural Association, when the director was the extraordinary Alvin Boyarsky. I was actively programming between the two institutions – bringing architecture students and events to the RCA, and bringing artists like John Stezaker and Victor Burgin, and musician Brian Eno to the AA, working with Bernard Tschumi and the students of his ‘unit’, Nigel Coates and Jenny Lowe amongst others. We were actively looking at the relationship between architecture and performance, how space was the gel holding them together. Rem (Koolhaas), Peter (Cook), Cedric (Price), Joseph (Rykwert), Will (Alsop) and Zaha (Hadid) were all incredibly active and very present at the AA, it was a thrilling time. The conversations were driven by intellectual enquiry. Architecture was polemical, political, a place to investigate the social. It was not about building. It was pre-theory in a way. Rather the ‘society of the spectacle’, ‘instant cities,’ and ‘68’ shaped the arguments. We weren’t yet in the deconstructivist mode that made everything so heavy. Rather, the 1970’s conversation was about being outside the market place, which was so limiting, that making art could not possibly be interfered with by the concerns of commerce. 

I curated the exhibition A Space: A Thousand Words (1975) with Bernard, which comprised 15 architects and 15 artists; it was also my final exhibition at the RCA before I moved to New York. It provided the opportunity to talk about conceptual art and conceptual architecture. We held the two sides up to one another, as mirrors. The similarities made it clear that it was possible for young architects to make work that did not have to be a building, yet it was still architecture, as the conceptual artists were doing.

Interest in architecture and urbanism has threaded through Performa from the beginning, and became more prominent with Performa 09, which marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Futurist Manifesto. Futurism emphatically incorporated all the arts under its umbrella, which led us to incorporating architecture projects in the Performa 09 biennial. Feeling the need for a public space during the biennial (Performa is located in a 5th floor office on Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street), we commissioned Markus Miessen in Berlin to create our first Performa Hub. We found the space (the ground floor of Thom Maine’s Cooper Union building, which had just opened that fall), and created the Hub in just three weeks. ‘Instant architecture’ I call it. Just add water. This year I wanted to get back into that conversation, and examine what we mean by performance and architecture.

For me Performa is a form of radical urbanism, rethinking the city, using it to frame spaces, inserting new memories into its fabric, trying to override the relentless chains of fast-food eateries, pharmacies and banks that dominate block after block after block of New York city streets.

DAMN°: About your non-profit organisation and the biennial. It surprised me that there are only seven people running the organisation. Such a major endeavour, with such a small team…

RLG: It’s called complete obsession. And it continues to be the case. We are one of the very few biennials in the world – I believe Istanbul is in a similar position – where there’s no government or official support; we do not have a major donor, or major corporate sponsorship behind us, which means that we raise every dollar through foundations and private support. Yet we have created a globally recognised biennial, that has changed people’s minds about the meaning and possibilities of live performance and is a kind of ‘museum without walls’, providing a deeply historical investigation into the role of live performance as a visual art medium, reaching back to the Renaissance, and in countries around the world. Our small team are as obsessed with, and as committed to our mission, as I am. In the process, we have created an incredibly flexible and agile institution. We do exactly what we want to do, and what is necessary to do in our ever-changing political and economic climates.

C: Why and how did it all start?

RLG: I felt that I didn’t have a choice. It’s probably something I’d been dreaming of for years after I left The Kitchen [the non-profit multidisciplinary art space where Goldberg was curator from 1978-80]. I spent the 80s and 90s teaching, writing, guest curating. 2004 was a now or never moment. New York was getting so top heavy, so market driven. The conversation was about how the art world is moving to London, to Shanghai, to Berlin, but, my feeling was ‘I am not going anywhere’, so let’s stir things up and keep New York on edge. The very first event I did was a series that I launched at NYU (New York University), where I teach. It was called Not for Sale, which said it all. Enough. No more conversations about money or marketplace. Let’s get back to the artists. Let’s get back to the world of ideas.

DAMN°: Can you talk about this idea of the commission?

RLG: Looking at the visual arts of the late 90s and early 2000s – Stan Douglas, Isaac Julien, Gillian Wearing, Steve McQueen, Douglas Gordon, Shirin Neshat, Pierre Huyghe, and many, many more – with their pristine, visually delicious projections and installations, that were also intellectually profound, narrative, non-narrative, abstract, political –I felt, why doesn’t performance look like this? Feel like this? It was getting tiresome going to broken-down spaces in the Lower East Side to see work that had been already done in the 70s. Performance seemed to be turning in on itself. Hence the decision to approach artists whose work I was so profoundly moved by, and to ask ‘would you consider doing a live performance?’ Shirin and Isaac were the first to say yes, and thus the commissions were born.

So, yes, commissioning is a critical part of the Performa concept, to ask artists to imagine another direction for themselves, to push the excellence of their ideas in one area, into an entirely new one. And they do, which speaks of the incredible imagination of artists. We go through a long process together, working closely from start to finish. And it shows. I think it’s one of the reasons behind the excellence of Performa Commissions, the time that is taken to build a work, the support that we give, not just financially but in the long conversations, exchanging ideas, finding tech support and collaborators as needed.

C: Why Africa also as a theme this year?

RLG: When people ask: ‘How did you get involved with performance?’ I finally realise that it must have a lot to do with growing up in South Africa – seeing the arts as a profound expression of a continuum, of not separating art from politics, from society, from dance, from film. Growing up there, in that particular setting during apartheid, and its daily horrors, yet having this extraordinary sense of being African, of being in Africa, shaped my obsession with art’s capacity to reach people in profound ways. Across the continent, art is in the day-to-day, on the streets, in ceremonies, in political demonstrations, in gestures, dress.

We’ve presented South-African artists with every biennial, and I felt it was time to look at this material more closely, to attempt to understand why there’s been such strong work coming out of South Africa for so long. We also looked to artists working in Kenya, Tangier, Ethiopia. It’s a tight focus but each project reveals so much.

Part of me, of course, protests and says, ‘No, no, no, this is not about me,’ but in the end there’s a lot of personal history in why we choose to do certain things, and how we approach the doing of them. Maybe this year’s programme comes with a kind of recognition as to how much of that childhood has played into my work and the necessity of doing it. So in a sense, it’s my coming out as a South African.

This article appeared in DAM65. Order your personal copy.