Performa 13

Media Farzin

November 12, 2013
November 1–24, 2013

“It’s like watching paint dry,” you might say of something unreasonably boring. Watching an ice cube melt suggests the same thing. And a melting ice cube was the only thing happening onstage, for about an hour, during Florian Hecker’s commission for this year’s Performa Biennial. Luckily for the audience, C.D. - (A Script for Synthesis) (all works 2013) had much by way of distraction. The austere set, comprised of pink and green lighting and a few dramatically lit speakers, made excellent use of the Guggenheim Museum’s modernist auditorium. A group of performers chanted and warbled like broken records, their vocals designed by the grande dame of experimental voice, Joan La Barbara. The script, written by the impenetrable philosopher and purveyor of “theory-fiction” Reza Negarestani, was frequently interrupted by mechanical crackles and drones, which gave the piece an intriguing techno-futurist texture, but an uncertain sense of theoretical ambition. The program, printed in a tiny font, did not encourage close reading; it was much more fun to sniff at the plastic medallions left on our chairs, which supposedly smelled like a pink ice cube (very synthetic). Other details have escaped this critic’s performance-addled mind—then only halfway through a five-event evening—but I suspect that not much else happened beyond the melting of the ice cube.

And yet perhaps I’m being unfair, and not just in my resistance to theory-librettos. My one-week immersion in Performa 13 may have left little room for abstract thought, but it was also full of energy, surprise, and just plain fun—things often lacking in the more staid realm of visual arts proper. And what about that rare combination of intellectual rigor, formal diligence, and sensory potency? With two more weeks to go in the packed program, the verdict is still out.

Ryan McNamara and Cally Spooner’s projects are strong contenders. McNamara’s MEƎM: A Story Ballet About the Internet aimed to recreate the logic of online viewing in a traditional proscenium space: as the audience was deep into watching the dancers on the stage, they found themselves wheeled, one by one, to various other spots of the dark theater, including the stage. The spectacle had separated into several different performances, with “people movers” dictating the viewing experience until the very end. MEƎM offered a smart take on the internet as a viewing space by dispensing with any illusion of agency or participation. In its place was distraction, stylistic variety, and great energy—a fitting metonym, perhaps, for Performa itself.

Spooner’s And You Were Wonderful, On Stage was originally commissioned by Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and was redeveloped by the artist for its new setting, the National Academy Museum. The “musical for an a capella music line” had no seating; audience members were ushered into the stately galleries, where the singers walked around enacting several dialogue-based vignettes in BBC-worthy accents. The theme was public scandals involving failures of authenticity—Lance Armstrong admitting to doping, or Beyoncé to miming the national anthem. “In chaaaarraaage! Of the answerrrrrs!” the ladies trilled, veering from gossipy tones to gospel music to Broadway musical. The finale was a grand chorus of “Need to finalize! ASAP! ASAP!” from the spiral staircase—capturing the hollow intersection of media jargon and corporate speak with sharp humor.

Performa, now in its fifth edition, is known for the marathon of performances it offers during its three-week-plus run. This year’s calendar-like program booklets have made planning one’s schedule easier, though taking in the full constellation of events is still pretty intimidating. Performa has always positioned itself as a global event, like the Venice Biennale or Documenta of New York performance, drawing visitors from all over the world for a packed tour of events and spaces. (The price of tickets, a frequent point of contention, speaks to the challenges of producing an event on this scale with no steady public funding.)

While some programs are ambitious spectacles, the intimate modesty of others can be lost among the multiplicity. Only a few members of Hecker’s Guggenheim audience walked the short blocks to Derrick Adams’s Once Upon A Time… at Salon 94, where a makeshift stage had been built for three young readers to recite a selection of Harlem Renaissance poems, interspersed with a musical score by Adams’s collaborator Phillipe Treuille. The event—like the music and the voices—was both moving and refreshingly straightforward (though the connection to Alexander Calder, whose handwritten notes appeared on a screen behind the readers, was unfortunately not quite so clear).

Performa’s events follow a complicated curatorial scaffolding, with programs variously tagged as “Commissions,” “Premieres,” “Projects,” “Institute,” “Hub,” “After Hours,” and “Consortium,” and include this year’s new addition, two “Pavilions Without Walls,” a series of extended curatorial exchanges bringing artists from Norway and Poland to New York (highlights included Polish artist Katarzyna Krakowiak’s sound installation in the old midtown post office and Norwegian composer Maja Ratkje’s manipulated-voice performance). The Consortium events are proposed to Performa by other institutions, while the Commissions are the festival’s “centerpiece.” Commissions often feature visual artists who have never worked in performance, or never on quite this scale (such as Hecker or McNamara), and are frequently defined by their ambitious site-specificity: Rashid Johnson’s restaging of Dutchman (1963–64) by Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) in a public bathhouse is very much in this spirit, although the contours of Paweł Althamer’s month-long, communally-built sculpture behind Williamsburg’s Biba bar remain somewhat elusive.

Ultimately, it’s the very range and liveliness of Performa that makes any vagueness hard to criticize. With each edition it seems closer to an expanding, ephemeral archive than a definitive curatorial statement; it may be a museum without walls, but it’s a highly inclusive one. Is that such a bad thing? Subodh Gupta’s Celebration, also a Performa commission, was an exquisitely prepared, six-course Indian dinner, served in a room dominated by his enormous and incredibly shiny chandelier of Indian lunch pails. The dinner was so elaborate, the artist so dedicated—and the revelation that I was celebrating Performa founding director and curator RoseLee Goldberg’s thirty-fourth wedding anniversary with her family so surprising—that I couldn’t muster up the courage to interrogate anyone on, well, the point of presenting all this conviviality as performance (let alone invoke a certain maker of Thai curries).

And we could similarly debate the relevance of any number of beautifully executed but conceptually vague works, where the intensity and commitment of the performers—and the enjoyment of the experience—heads off larger questions (say, Maria Hassabi’s subtle Premiere, or Philippe Quesne’s ethereal Bivouac). Then again, the interrogation could very well be turned back on the audience, and Performa gives us ample opportunity to do just that: to consider how we might begin to describe and analyze the heterogeneity of performance today, and the stakes of its contemporary relevance. And yes, what a melting pink ice cube sounds like.

Performance, Music
Sound Art, Biennials, Food & Cooking

Media Farzin is a New York-based art historian and critic.

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November 12, 2013

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