As galleries and museums around the world have been temporarily shuttered or postponed their exhibitions due to the pandemic, the art world has been forced to make dramatic shifts to accommodate these unprecedented changes. No medium more so, you might imagine, than that of performance art. Yet according to RoseLee Goldberg, art historian and founder of the pioneering nonprofit Performa, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this week, the possibilities for live performance in the age of social distancing and digital broadcasts are surprisingly varied.
“Despite everything, I am feeling optimistic about this moment as a time to be innovative,” says Goldberg of her outlook on the medium she’s celebrating this week with an eight-hour telethon fundraiser. “We’ve taken what we had as a given—no celebrating in person, only broadcast—and turned it into a thrilling event. It’s the most positive and uplifting response to our constrained lives that we could dream up, and it opens up so many possibilities for the future. Another amazing plus is inviting the whole world to attend.”
Taking its cues from a 1984 video work by the pioneering Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, “Good Morning Mr. Orwell”—a live broadcast which saw Paik subvert the doom-laden view of the relationship between technology and the arts expressed in 1984 as something fiercely optimistic—the performances will be streamed tomorrow afternoon from New York’s Pace Gallery, featuring an impressively broad roster of participants that includes Laurie Anderson, Ragnar Kjartansson, Lang Lang, Yvonne Rainer, and Rufus Wainwright. Alongside the performances, viewers will be presented with the option to purchase a number of limited-edition home goods created especially for the event by artist friends and collaborators of Performa, offered up in the kitschy environs of a classic QVC teleshopping presentation.
“I wanted to think about each of the artist’s work in a new way, by asking them to produce usable art, in the form of homewares or apparel—to make something they would not usually make,” explains Kathy Noble, Performa’s senior curator who spearheaded the editions series and has been working closely with the artists to realize them. “This idea reflects Performa’s ethos of blending art and everyday life; and making art objects to use each day is a form of performance in itself.” On whether there any particular standout pieces, Noble is diplomatic. “They are all my babies, and so I can’t have a favorite child,” she laughs.
The eclectic line-up of pieces includes a glazed porcelain vase designed by Barbara Kruger with “culture” emblazoned on one side in black and “nature” on the other in baby blue; elsewhere, there’s a hand-held mirror by Cindy Sherman printed with a digitally warped avatar of the artist’s face, in the style of those she regularly posts to her Instagram account. Anyone who picks up one of the limited run of funhouse-inspired mirrors will be able to look into its depths and see themselves essentially superimposed onto Sherman; in her own words, Sherman notes that she is “trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than me.”
This sense of playfulness and creative freedom across the editions neatly reflects Performa’s curatorial approach more broadly, something artist Kia LaBeija—who staged her first large-scale performance work, Untitled (The Black Act), at last year’s Performa Biennial—was intentionally trying to capture in the T-shirts she created for the telethon. “My commission for the Performa Biennial changed my body’s chemistry,” says LaBeija. “It gave me the opportunity to explore what it feels like to use every artistic discipline I love in one moment. It pushed me to work the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life and to bring people into my world in the most immersive way possible.”
The T-shirts, which feature LaBeija’s photographs alongside text advocating for Black individuals and people of color working in the art industry, speak to the exuberant outfits featured across LaBeija’s background in the New York ballroom scene, as well as the Bauhaus-inspired costumes she crafted in collaboration with stylist Kyle Luu for her Performa commission. “Costuming has always played a major role in my work,” LaBeija adds. “I’m interested in how we present ourselves to the world. I decided that I wanted to do shirts as my edition because of how key it is to how and why I make portraiture and performance. I wanted to dedicate one of the editions to the work I did with Performa and to the pieces Kyle and I dreamed up. For this image, I embodied a dressed down, remixed version of the spiral costume she created for me dripping with Swarovski crystals.”
For the artists involved in the live performances throughout the afternoon, the opportunity to participate feels especially significant at a time when many institutions are struggling financially—in particular, those like Performa that loyally support more esoteric, yet essential, corners of the art world like performance art. “I’ve always believed performance art must blur the lines between the mediated experience and live-action,” says artist Jacolby Satterwhite, whose piece for the telethon, titled Moments of Silence, pays tribute to figures including Paik, his mother, and the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, a member of whose company appears in the piece. “My practice thrives on using the archived digital performance as a material to thread together a visceral sculptural viewing experience in mediums like virtual reality, gaming, video art, and sculpture.”
For Goldberg, too, this mix of the live and the digitally augmented feels like a watershed moment for Performa, with the increasing intermingling of technology and performance art opening a wealth of new possibilities that will inevitably define Performa’s future. “We have long considered the screen, the laptop, the phone, as an exhibition space, and have been using our Radical Broadcast channel for museum-quality exhibitions curated specifically for this medium for some time,” Goldberg says. “Performa is a highly flexible organization, we are always responding to the times, and work with artists to find the most innovative and inspiring ways to produce and present their work.” What that might look like in another 15 years is still anyone’s guess—but for Goldberg, that’s exactly where the excitement lies.