More up a Tree in action. Photo: Monia Lippi
More up a Tree in action. Photo: Monia Lippi
November 14th, 2015

Intersecting Landscapes: An Interview with Performa's RoseLee Goldberg

More up a Tree—opening at the BAM Fisher next Thursday, November 19—is BAM's third co-presentation with Performa. BAM spoke with Performa's Founding Director and Curator RoseLee Goldberg to get the inside scoop on the origins of BAM and Performa's relationship, the future of performance art, and more.

How did the BAM+Performa collaboration begin?

Joe Melillo and I go back a long way, in fact to the very beginning of the Next Wave Festival, in 1985.  The programming that he and then director of BAM, Harvey Lichtenstein, put together came directly out of the downtown scene and included many artists with whom I had been working at the Kitchen  — Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Trisha Brown, Laura Dean, Meredith Monk, Bill T Jones, and many more.  Joe and I have maintained a close conversation throughout the years; he was one of the first people with whom I shared my earliest ideas about Performa ten years ago.  Let’s say we’ve been collaborators in spirit all along.  Joe immediately said yes when I proposed a beautiful evening-length work by British artist Isaac Julien, “Cast No Shadow”, a Performa Commission that featured the work of choreographer Russell Maliphant and that we co-produced with Sadler’s Wells in London and presented at BAM in New York for Performa 07.  Alexander Singh’s visually stunning and complicated play-musical-comedy,  “The Humans”, another Performa Commission for Performa 13, was one of the first productions in BAM’s new Fisher space, and we’re onto our third project together, “More Up a Tree”, Claudia de Serpa Soares, Eve Sussman and Jim White’s collaboration. I can’t wait to see what we do next!  Joe and I both have a high tolerance for risk, and total trust in the artists with whom we work, as well as a profound understanding of the details of producing. He has so much more experience than all of us, and I would ask him a million questions if only he had the time to answer them. Above all, it’s thrilling and very moving to have another person with whom one can share every aspect of what it means to place vital ideas in the middle of a community, and to bring people together through the arts to become more sensitive, more deeply caring human beings.

What do you see as the key differences between performance art and the performing arts? Why is it equally important to present performance art at a venue like BAM?

There are so many different contexts, so many different audiences, so many different histories that make up the cultural worlds in which we live.  Theater, music, dance, film, visual arts, each have very different histories, different sensibilities, and different audiences and many gradations in between, modern versus classical, realistic versus abstract and so on.  BAM’s directors and programmers have always had an wide perspective of these many intersecting landscapes, and the visual arts, and performance by artists, has always been a part of their programming.  As mentioned above, the Next Wave Festival was designed especially to bring the downtown art world that had been throwing off the most extraordinarily inventive material throughout the sixties and seventies, directly to BAM’s stages, and it has continued to do so for the past 30 years.  Indeed, BAM’s Next Wave became the place to graduate after outgrowing the downtown alternative art spaces.  As you might know from my book, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, I have always looked across disciplines, have always included avant-garde music, dance, theatre, film, architecture, design, and poetry as part of the history of art— whether looking at Paris in the 1920s with Ballet Suedois, Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus in Germany or Vsevolod Meyerhold in theatre in Russia; New York in the 1950s and 1960s with John Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg, and in the 1960s and 1970s, with Judson Church, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Steve Reich, Phil Glass, and Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson, in dance, theatre and music, and more recently with Pina Bausch, Jerome Bel, or Boris Charmatz and so on.  The Performa biennial is the first in the world to look specifically at this extraordinary history, and to commission and encourage the work of visual artists in a performance context. With Performa 07, we focused on dance as a means to make the point about avant-garde dance and how it fits into the art world, introducing an entire section called "Dance After Choreography" with Xavier Le Roi, Jerome Bel, Martin Spangberg, Pablo Bronstein, Philipe Decoufle, Marie Cool, Yvonne Rainer, Min Tanaka, and many more. We don't merely address the crossover, we instigate it and we place productions in venues in such a way as to mix up audiences from different disciplines; for example, we presented visual artist and filmmaker Tacita Dean's compelling film on Merce Cunningham, "Craneway Event," in Danspace at St Mark's  for Performa 09, to capture a dance audience who would not typically go to see such a work in a gallery or museum, and an art world audience who would not typically go to Danscpace. On another occasion we put contemporary choreographer Boris Charmatz in the Performa Hub (in 2011), alongside an exhibition of Russian Performance since 1900, as a way to catch art world people off guard (they were!). From their programming, it’s clear that BAM producers and curators are very aware of these many intertwined threads.

Besides MUAT, what else can we expect to see from Performa 15 this year?

We are showing a broad cross section of new commissions, from Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg’s Fortuna Desperata that provided a window into early dance, pre–ballet, as it was imagined using Renaissance manuscripts; to contemporary choreographer, Jerome Bel, creating a work Ballet (New York),  that will play in three separate spaces — an art gallery, a dance studio and a proscenium theater — examining the different ways in which we as audience ‘read’ dance, and the way they, the dancers ‘feel’ it, depending on different contexts; to a Schoenberg opera, Erwartung by artist Robin Rhode, reimagined and scaled up for Times Square; and a work by Brazilian artist Laura Lima, whose elaborately structured installation provides inroads into traditions of carnival and festive balls.  The projects are all set in very different venues, taking viewers on a tour of discovery through the city of New York.  

Your seminal study of performance art, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, is now in its third edition. What additions (or edits) would you make to the fourth edition? Where do you see the field moving in the next fifteen years?

Since my book has been continuously in print since it first came out in 1979, and is now available in more than 14 languages, I am always at the ready to bring it up to date for a fourth edition. My job is to keep an eye on cultural, artistic and political developments around the world, and to attempt to make sense of changing sensibilities and concerns and the ways in which these ideas are expressed aesthetically. I couldn’t possibly predict fifteen years out, but certainly I can say that over the next five to ten years, live performance will be an accepted part of museum and gallery programs, as well as in art history and other academic departments.  Given the fast paced, media-drenched and multi-tasking world in which we live, live performance is the ideal medium for articulating responses to the many layered matrix that surrounds us.

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