Performa 2021 BiennialOctober 12 – October 31, 2021
This spring, I visited the Edge, the panorama platform on the 100th floor of 30 Hudson Yards in Midtown. From there, you have a view of the entire city, and visitors brave their fear of heights to lie down on the glass floor, taking selfies or posting stories. But, while I was up there, one photographic record of my visit was already in development. Before I stepped into the building’s express elevator, an attendant ordered me and my friends to stand against a nearby gray wall; a flash went off, we carried on and forgot about it. Only on our way out, just before the gift shop, did we see the disturbing Photoshopped result: us, entirely alone on the Edge, despite the fact that there we had actually shared the space with many others. Our portrait had been inserted into the New York skyline and was available for download in two versions: a daytime option, with One World Trade Center standing proudly on the horizon, and a nighttime snapshot, with the Empire State Building glowing in the dark. We had been to the top of Manhattan with dozens of other people, and yet we left with a stock image of us alone that we could post.
Performance today in no way escapes this contemporary condition of customized reality; it exists in a constant state of arbitration between live experience and documentation. Through phone video recording and ricochets of likes and shares, performance no longer stands fully apart from our endless deluge of social media. And it’s probably no coincidence that the past two winners of the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion award were image-conscious works of live art: Faust, Anne Imhof’s cast of doomsday Berliners at the German Pavilion in 2017, and Sun & Sea (Marina), the climate-anxious opera by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Rugilė Barzdiukaitė, staged for the Lithuanian Pavilion in 2019. Both put a premium on giving viewers a chance to mediate their works by recording them: Imhof by adopting the aesthetics of a nonchalant Balenciaga-esque fashion show for the white cube, and the Lithuanians by placing the audience above the singing sunbathers, all the easier for us to get our shot.
Of course, performance art has never been divorced from image-based media, as art historian Isobel Harbison reminds us in Performing Image, with her study of the “intermedia relations” of Robert Rauschenberg’s early works from the 1950s.1 His Combines were a precedent for today’s codependency between performance and image: “In creating armatures to host objects and images of objects, armatures performers could actually get inside, Rauschenberg was both anticipating the infrastructures and the allures—that is, the complex—of online prosumerism, decades before it came into being.”2 Yet now, performance may even go beyond an exhibition of painting or sculpture in offering “assets” for the “entrepreneurship of the self,” to borrow David Joselit’s phrase, “in which one stages one’s self in order to increase its value.”3 Performance’s ephemerality becomes a mark of social distinction—in order to post it, you definitely had to be there.
Yet performance does make a claim on audiences that other media do not: One must leave home and enter a gallery or theater at a specific time. And it feeds on its spectators. If, in 2020, during lockdown, many brilliant minds found inventive ways to translate their works for Instagram’s grid or Zoom calls (and I remain indebted to Morgan Bassichis’s whimsical “quarantunes” for cheering me up during the first months of the pandemic), these experiments offered nothing like the intensity I relished earlier this summer at the Guggenheim Museum, watching a handful of musicians performing Ragnar Kjartansson’s Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy. The two dozen female and nonbinary singer-guitarists stationed throughout the museum’s empty rotunda sang songs by the likes of Eminem, Cat Stevens, and Bruce Springsteen, chosen for their misogynistic overtones—yet all mainstream hits. The singers were unmasked, and each confined to a socially distanced semicircle that the (masked) audience members could not step into.
We walked up the rotunda, stopping in front of each singer, who was performing without amplification. We pricked up our ears, straining to hear some of the performances in a balancing act of collective experience and the need to maintain our distances. The rotunda became a site of direct engagement where we slipped into a simple game of looking right at each performer, and either being looked at in return or being ignored as they kept singing. Kjartansson’s work placed front and center the contact and communication that had been abstracted though apps over months of lockdown and social isolation. It reinscribed life and all its complexities within the gallery: the melody of a song like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” pleased the ear even as its insidious banalization of male domination came to the fore. 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 no video could capture the exchange we were having in the rotunda, especially after a year deprived of live music and art.
The role of new communications technologies in assembly, of course, also defined the other epochal upheaval of 2020: the Black Lives Matter protests and fellow social justice movements that emphasized the centrality of the body in a city barely out of lockdown. Black activists used the digital tools so often described as alienating to bring citizens into the streets; physical protest commingled with online advocacy. These demonstrations reminded us that a city is not a city without bodies inhabiting it, and that the act of gathering and self-assertion has the power to reconstitute the body politic. Lorraine O’Grady’s gleeful street action Art Is… (1983), for which she encouraged Harlem residents at a parade to pose inside gold frames, had a whole new relevance when I saw documentation of it at her retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, the very location of the stunning 2020 rally in defense of Black trans lives. If the city is a container of history, performance provides the means to upset, reframe, and retell it.
Staging Performa, a biennial of live art, has always demanded a duty of care toward the artists, who expose themselves to physical and social risk in the creation of new art. For Performa 2021, our team has had to rethink and reformat not only what a citywide biennial should be, but how we can ensure the safety of artists (and audiences) amidst an unsettled health crisis and ongoing reckoning with structural racism. Most of this year’s programs will be livestreamed; the border between in-person and virtual attendance can be blurry. And yet, after a year and a half living on screens, this biennial embraces New York with a renewed directness; indeed, we chose to stage the majority of this year’s productions outdoors, prior to the Delta variant’s emergence. New York is not a stock image; it calls upon us—residents and visitors—to come together to inscribe new meanings and histories on its topography and breathe new life into this reemerging city.
- Isobel Harbison, Performing Image (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), 26.
- Harbison, 26.
- David Joselit in “Collective Consciousness: A Roundtable,” Artforum summer 2016, vol. 54, no. 10.