New York, New York

Feature in Issue 24-1 | Spring 2012

New York City remains at the forefront of contemporary performance art. Long-time resident Robert Ayers names the names.

Perhaps there’s no better place than New York for thinking in terms of a world view, because this city is one of the world’s great cultural crossroads. Artists and audiences are constantly moving in and out, and that makes for a mix so rich that it is sometimes beguiling. So, in attempting this glimpse of what is happening here, I decided I’d seek opinions from three of the most influential performance people in the city.

Martha Wilson is Founding Director of Franklin Furnace which, since as long ago as 1976, has been ‘making the world safe for avant garde art’, and – probably more than any other institution – has kept the spirit of performance art alive and well in New York City and beyond. Nowadays they support artists through the open-entry Franklin Furnace Fund, which you will see referred to below.

RoseLee Goldberg is the celebrated author of Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present and Founding Director and Curator of Performa which, since 2005, has worked with almost every other forwardlooking arts organisation in the city to put together its enormous biennial.

Sabine Breitwieser has, since October, been Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at one of the most important museums in the world, the Museum of Modern Art. Her department has existed in its present form since 2009.

Predictably, each of these three highly individual individuals responded to my enquiry about the best of current performance in the city in their own way. (And of course they all enthused about work that they’d been involved in.)

Martha actually gave me a top eleven of things she’s seen recently. Let’s begin the countdown with her numbers 11, 10, and 9:

‘11. Michael Shannon’s Mistakes Were Made was the best theatre piece of last year. There was a puppet fish in an aquarium.

‘10. In 2011 David Herskovitz’s Target Margin Theater did The Tempest and their own piece Second Language. They’re always up to great stuff.

‘9. David Greenspan did a piece entitled Go Back To Where You Are, which I thought was strange. He was great as the bad guy in Coraline at MCC Theater a couple of years back.’

Sabine drew my attention to a piece that underscores New York’s status as an international nexus. Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954–003064: A Public Reading is a first collaboration between a group of German, Danish, and American artists – Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander, and David Thorne. Staged at MoMA’s Bauhaus staircase as part of Performa 11 in November 2011, this was a four-hour public reading of unedited transcripts from the review tribunals held at Guantanamo Bay in 2004 and 2005. According to Sabine, who was responsible for presenting the piece, ‘This was an amazing experience for the audience – some of the people quoted are still in prison – but also quite magic for the readers, who switched into the roles of the different protagonists as the performance proceeded.’ She goes on: ‘I believe Sharon Hayes is the most interesting young performance artist in New York today – and probably in a wider geographical context as well. In her work she is re-enacting historical public events by not just simply revisiting them as is often the case now, but by examining the state and the contemporary relevance of these public actions. In a very interesting way she is also connecting a public action with the private, thus demonstrating how much these formerly two separate spheres got intertwined.’

Martha’s countdown continues:

‘8. Elevator Repair Service did a great re-enactment of The Great Gatsby by reading every single word in six-hour marathon performances at the Public Theater.

‘7. More in the direction of theatre, Young Jean Lee did an Untitled Feminist Show. The New York Times called her “hands down, the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation”.

‘6. Holly Hughes did a great show at Dixon Place called Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony), which was about lesbianism among many other things.’

The Performa biennials have evolved into what many people regard as the most important performance festival in the world. RoseLee told me, ‘I think of a work as being exciting in relation to its context. The Performa Commissions come about as much because of an artist’s past work, as for the potential that seems to be built into their ideas. It’s the success of what they make during Performa that is so special.’ She cites Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘stunning’ piece Bliss from Performa 11 by way of illustration.

‘He came into my office to discuss his commission and said, “there’s no more beautiful song than ‘Contessa, perdono’ from the end of The Marriage of Figaro, where all the characters ask each other for forgiveness.” He started singing the tenor role in my office, and told me that: “It would be absolute bliss to hear this song over and over.” (Hence the title!) The result was a live, twelve-hour loop, in full costume, with full orchestra of the single three-minute song sung by five opera singers. It was stunning! I had imagined that by the end they’d all be falling apart, with their hands around their throats. But no, twelve hours later, they were at full throttle. At midnight the audience was up on its feet, cheering and clapping for ten minutes!’

More from Martha:

‘5. Franklin Furnace Fundwinner Dread Scott makes ‘revolutionary art to propel history forward’. Money to Burn was enacted on Wall Street last June. He burned $500, $5 at a time, while asking traders to join him.

‘4. Pablo Helguera was Franklin Furnace’s Performa Fellow this year. The Well-Tempered Exposition (structured around Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier) undertakes a comprehensive study of the dialogic forms of performance. Book I (of 24) of this performance was presented at Performa 11.

‘3. Over the past year Liz Magic Laser has been working with actors on a project called Flight, a performance based on on-foot chase scenes from popular cinema that occur on stairs. The first version of Flight debuted at P.S.1 this past April, with scenes from Battleship Potemkin, M, Niagara, The Shining, and 28 Days Later.’

RoseLee is also a big admirer of Liz Magic Laser: ‘She created something quite extraordinary, a piece called I Feel Your Pain, which takes place in a movie theatre. It is both a clever take on American politics and a surprisingly theatrical play on the intimacy of the movie theatre. There are eight actors – four couples – planted in the audience and a small film crew that moves around the theatre to capture their conversations in sequence, which are projected live onto the screen. Liz was inspired by the “living newspapers” of the Russian Constructivists,’ RoseLee explains, ‘which was news produced each day by actors, and she looked into what might be the equivalent of our daily news in America. She came up with the chatty broadcasts of TV news and transposed the texts of interviews between the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Their words, taken verbatim from a broadcast, becomes a scene between a young couple. It’s very, very clever.’

Martha’s top two:

‘2. Dynasty Handbag (Jibz Cameron) is another Fundwinner whom I love. Her Oh, Death is a non-linear trek through encounters with death and dying. She “observes, investigates, and participates in conventionalities surrounding death with the aid of the many voices in her head and the hopeful objectivity of a true outsider”.

‘1. Room for Cream was an episodic lesbian soap opera which occurred every month for three years, ending last summer. It was written by Fundwinner Brooke O’Harra, founding director (with composer Brendan Connelly) of The Theatre of a Two-headed Calf, who performed it. It opened up a conversation about performance, humour and queer identity, and it was very good.’

We’ll give the last word to Sabine, who, like Martha and RoseLee, is constantly looking backward and forward at the same time. ‘Andrea Fraser was already engaged in performance at a time when hardly anyone was doing it. I can’t wait to see her new work that’s just been announced.’

Robert Ayers interviewed Martha Wilson, RoseLee Goldberg and Sabine Breitwieser for Total Theatre Magazine January 2012.

Founded in 1976, Franklin Furnace is a physical and online archive dedicated to ‘serving artists by providing both physical and virtual venues for the presentation of time-based visual art’. Each year its Franklin Furnace awards offer grants of between $2,000 and $10,000 to emerging artists to allow them to produce major works in New York. www.franklinfurnace.org

Performa is an international biennial of new visual art performance. Performa 11, the fourth edition, was held 1-21 November 2011 in New York City. www.performa-arts.org

Founded in 1929 as an educational institution, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is one of the world heavyweights among art museums. It houses an extensive Media and Performance Art department with holdings dating from the early 1960s. www.moma.org