Today’s performance in no way escapes this contemporary condition of personalized reality; there is a constant state of arbitration between lived experience and documentation. Thanks to video recording over the phone and the ricochets of likes and shares, the performance is no longer entirely different from our endless flood of social media. And it is probably no coincidence that the last two winners of the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale were live works of art concerned with their image: Faust, the casting of apocalyptic Berliners by Anne Imhof at the German pavilion in 2017, and Sun & Sea (Marina), the climate anxious opera by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzd ?? iukaitė, staged for the Lithuanian pavilion in 2019. Both focus on giving viewers a chance to publicize their works by recording them: Imhof by adopting the aesthetic of a nonchalant Balenciaga fashion show for the white cube, and the Lithuanians by placing the audience above the singing sunbathing, all the easier for us to pull our Pin.
Of course, performance art has never been separated from image-based media, as British art historian Isobel Harbison recalls in Powerful image, with his study of the “intermedia relations” of Robert Rauschenberg’s early works of the 1950s.1 His Combined were a precedent for the current codependency between performance and image: “By creating frames to house objects and images of objects, frame artists could in fact go in, Rauschenberg anticipated both the infrastructure and the allure, that is, the complex, of online prosumerism decades before his birth.2 However, today, the performance can even go beyond an exhibition of painting or sculpture by offering “assets” for “self-entrepreneurship”, to use the expression of David Joselit, “in which we put ourselves on the stage to increase its value ”.3 The ephemeral of the performance becomes a mark of social distinction – to publish it, you absolutely had to be there.
However, the performance claims the audience that other media do not: you have to leave your home and enter a gallery or a theater at a specific time. And it feeds on its spectators. So in 2020, during the lockdown, many bright minds found inventive ways to translate their work for Instagram’s grid or Zoom calls (and I remain indebted to Morgan Bassichis’ fanciful ‘quarantines’ for putting me back together morale during the first months of the pandemic), these experiences offered nothing comparable to the intensity I savored earlier this summer at the Guggenheim Museum, watching a handful of musicians perform Ragnar Kjartansson’s work Romantic songs of the Patriarchate. The two dozen female, non-binary singer-guitarists stationed in the museum’s empty rotunda sang songs by Eminem, Cat Stevens and Bruce Springsteen, chosen for their misogynistic overtones, but all mainstream hits. The singers were unmasked and each confined to a socially distant semicircle that members of the (masked) audience could not enter.
We went up the rotunda, stopping in front of each singer who played without amplification. We pricked up our ears, trying to hear some of the performances in a balance between the collective experience and the need to keep our distance. The rotunda became a direct engagement site where we slipped into a simple game of looking straight into each performer, and either being looked back on or being ignored as they continued to sing. Kjartansson’s work brought to the fore contact and communication that had been abstracted through apps during months of lockdown and social isolation. He was reinscribing life and all its complexities within the gallery: the melody of a song like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” appealed to the ear even as its insidious trivialization of male domination took hold. Hundreds of clips of these singers exist online (at the Guggenheim, visitors frequently pulled out their phones). Yet even as we recorded these singers, we knew that no video could capture the exchange we had in the rotunda, especially after a private year of live music and art.
The role of new communication technologies in the assembly, of course, also defined the other epic upheaval of 2020: the Black Lives Matter protests and social justice movements that underscored the centrality of the body in a city to barely out of lockdown. Black activists have used digital tools so often described as alienating to take citizens to the streets; physical protest mixed with online plea. These demonstrations reminded us that a city is not a city without bodies that inhabit it, and that the act of gathering and asserting oneself has the power to reconstitute the body politic. Lorraine O’Grady’s cheerful street action Art is … (1983). trans lives. If the city is a container of history, the performance is the means to upset it, to reframe it and to tell it.
Staging Performa, a living art biennial, has always demanded a duty of vigilance towards artists, who expose themselves to physical and social risks in the creation of new art. For Performa 2021, our team had to rethink and reformat not only what a city-wide biennial should be like, but also how we can keep artists (and audiences) safe in the midst of an unstable health crisis. and a continued consideration of structural racism. Most of this year’s programming will be broadcast live; the line between in-person and virtual presence can be blurred. And yet, after a year and a half of life on the screens, this biennial embraces New York with a renewed frankness; in fact, we have chosen to stage the majority of this year’s productions outdoors, before the emergence of the Delta variant. New York is not a stock image; it invites us, residents and visitors, to come together to inscribe new meanings and stories on its topography and breathe new life into this city in full renewal.
- Isobel Harbison, Powerful image (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), 26.
- Harbison, 26.
- David Joselit in “Collective consciousness: a round table”, Art Forum summer 2016, vol. 54, no. ten.