In the days before Paradiso: Performing the Renaissance conference at NYU Steinhardt, Performa Founder and Director RoseLee Goldberg sat down with the New York Observer to discuss the symposium. Read more about the conference in the Observer here.
Ashley Chappo: What makes this conference on performance in the Renaissance so special, and why should the public attend?
RoseLee Goldberg: It’s special because very few people are aware of how far back performance goes in the history of art. Most tend to think of performance as a recent phenomenon, but in fact artists have throughout history been involved in creating live work and working across disciplines. Leonardo da Vinci, Polidoro da Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, Georgio Vasari, and Guiseppe Arcimboldo are just a few among many artists of the 1400 and 1500s who created live events—pageants, tableaux vivant, wedding celebrations, triumphal parades, and tournaments—that were an extension of their lives as painters and sculptors and inventors, and were part of their job description as artists in the royal courts. It is an important part of Performa’s mission to make known the extraordinary history of artists’ performance—how it reflected as well as shaped the culture of the times and how it altered the aesthetics and artistic practices of each artist as well. It has broad appeal because the material is about engagement, interaction, public spectacle. Put simply, it’s inspiring and generates a lot of excitement when discovered.
How does this conference fit into the 2015 Performa biennial coming up in November?
Long before we start planning each biennial, our team begins with what I call a "historic anchor"—a period in history when performance was incredibly rich—such as Futurism, Russian Constructivism, and Surrealism, which have been our “history anchors" in years previously. This year, it’s the Renaissance. It is an exciting way for people to come face to face with history and for us to animate it in ways that are accessible, especially to emerging generations of artists. What they learn is that this material was truly radical and is indeed advanced, even for today. The conference creates an exciting way to introduce this new material, to confront history and to bring it into the present.
So this conference is a precursor to that event? And how are they related?
The conference launches some of the ideas that we’ll be investigating with the Performa 15 biennial in November (Performa 15 runs from November 1 to 22, 2015). We create a "reader"—a compilation of essays that we think are relevant—and we make these available to artists, curators, writers and all who are interested—to become exposed to this material. Some artists respond directly to material that they find in the reader—for example, Liz Magic Laser’s Performa Commission, I Feel Your Pain, for Performa 11 was a direct response to finding an essay on Living Newspapers in the Russian Constructivism reader. Others do not. But all the artists with whom we have worked always have something to say about ideas that might have been triggered by texts in the readers. They comment on how intriguing it is to learn about earlier periods in art history when artists made performance.
So is the conference more for the artists or for the general public?
The conference functions on many levels. It is for artists in all fields, for academics, for students, and for the general public. We design it so that it is a lively mix of presentations and performances, conversations and commentary, art history and contemporary art. Overall our goal is to make it engaging and illuminating for those interested in history as well as for those involved in contemporary society and culture.
So, it puts the Performa biennial into perspective?
Yes, it puts the biennial and the history of performance over the past several hundred years into focus from the perspective of now, in relation to contemporary art. The conference is presented by the Performa Institute, our education umbrella, in collaboration with NYU Steinhardt, where I teach. We run a series of events and conferences throughout the year dealing with current issues in visual art, or performance, or dance, and have done so from the very beginning of Performa, when it was launched in 2004. Events such as our Not for Sale series raised questions about the ephemerality of performance and the role of the museum in exhibiting and preserving it, more than ten years ago, before this conversation became so current. Another series, Portrait of the Artist, has focused on the work of specific artists whom we feel are important to highlight in this history. We make sure that each conference is event-driven, precisely to maintain a lively and animated approach to history. Get Ready for the Marvelous! on Black Surrealism in the African Diaspora, or Why Dance in the Art World?—that raised questions about a subject that has been on the minds of many museum directors and curators in recent years—were two incredibly popular conferences that delivered interesting scholars, artists and performers, and added enormously to our understanding of these subjects.
Is there anything else that we didn’t touch on that you would like to include?
It’s exciting to blend historical research and the current ideas—to hear from Renaissance scholars, many of whom have one foot in classical research and the other in contemporary art—and to give them the opportunity to present this to an audience that is not particularly focused on history. It’s rare that such scholars get to talk to audiences whose main interest is on the avant-garde, now, and we’re finding this clash of timeframes to be thrilling. The discovery for those of us concentrating on the present is how artists in the Renaissance worked across disciplines, as many are doing today; how globalization was so important to shaping art and culture and everyday life, as it is today; and how multicultural societies were operating around the world, as today.
What intrigues you about studying performance?
Studying the history of performance is a way of getting to know art and culture, and life, in the present as much as in the past, in a more integrated way, linking politics and sociology, visual art and economics, the history of media and new technologies.
It asks art historians, writers, students and the general public to think of art making in a much larger context. In many ways, approaching art history in this way is much closer to the way that artists live and work—few would say that they compartmentalize their working lives according to one discipline or medium or another. Studying the history of performance demands a fluidity, an intellectual curiosity that is layered and textured, and it is at last beginning to produce an entirely new kind of art history, as well as curatorial strategies in museums, as students and artists come closer to understanding the rich history and the possibilities of this material.