“It’s almost very personal to talk about,” Performa founder and curator RoseLee Goldberg says of commissioning live performances, “because I feel that commissioning is about desire.” In 1999, Goldberg saw Shirin Neshat’s video Turbulent at the Venice Biennale and imagined seeing the piece as a live artwork. That experience resulted in Goldberg’s first commission and Neshat’s first performance work, Logic of the Birds, the success of which fed into the founding of Performa, a biennial of live artwork and a crucial advocate for performance pieces.
Performa’s commissions often give a foothold in performance to artists like Neshat, who are not usually associated with the medium. Among the commissions for 2011’s festival, some artists, like Simon Fujiwara, are familiar with performance, but others are best known for working in media like video (Mika Rottenberg), film (Guy Maddin), painting (iona rozeal brown), or sculpture (Jon Kessler).
As an art historian, Goldberg is the author of a classic introduction to the field, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, and, as curator of Performa, Goldberg extends her scope from chronicling art history to adding new chapters to that history. Along with the new work at the biennial, the history of twentieth century art is also at stake: this year’s edition has a research theme, on the use of language in performance, as well as two historical focuses, Russian Constructivism and Fluxus.
For Goldberg, the role of performance is all too often elided from art history. As she tells it, her interest in performance began with how medieval cathedrals connect architecture, storytelling, and daily life, and then continued with Bauhaus painter, sculptor, designer, and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer. From there, Goldberg has remained intent on tracing live performance as a continuous thread running through the twentieth century, from Futurism and Fluxus to Vito Acconci, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Pierre Huyghe.
The fourth Performa biennial runs November 1-21 and includes performances by over 100 contemporary artists in over 80 New York City venues.