Panel As Performance: Deconstructing The Performa Event

Ralph Lemon. Untitled. 2008. Performed at The Museum of Modern Art, 2011. With Okwui Okpokwasili. © 2011 Yi-Chun Wu/The Museum of Modern Art

“PANEL AS PERFORMANCE: DECONSTRUCTING THE PERFORMA EVENT” is the first section of a multipart essay I’m writing called “The Economics of Ephemerality” which examines the relationship of performance and visual art from a variety of perspectives including economics, curatorial practice and cultural ecology.

As a performance curator I spend a lot of time working with artists to develop theater, dance, live art and events. My education and training was as a theater maker and I bring that perspective to my work, as well as the writing that I do about performance. Of the many things to consider throughout the construction, implementation and analysis of performance, key among them are place, time, scenography, casting and content. One thing that theater and dance makers learn early on is that every element of a performance, by virtue of being on a stage or within a site-based frame, will have meaning and intentionality attributed to it.

Anyone who knows RoseLee Goldberg will attest that she is very knowledgeable about performance and is quite a show person herself with a wonderful personal sense of drama and theatricality. Given that, and her indomitable entrepreneurial spirit, I can only assume that the construction of the Performa event was  intentional and strategic. So let’s look at the event as if it were a performance and analyze the presentational aesthetics of the panel.

Place: Judson Memorial Church is iconic as the birthplace of the Judson Dance Theater, one of the most influential movements in contemporary dance history, the origin point for “pedestrian movement” and a set of theories that still loom large over choreographic practice 50 years later. Judson artists have history with the visual arts world – Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, etc. Many of them are still alive and have a lot to say but they were notably absent from the conversation. More on that to follow.

Time: The Performa panel was held on Monday, September 17 from 6:30PM – 8PM. To the outside observer this may not mean anything, but it is worth noting that Movement Research has, for more than twenty years, held their free performance series on Monday nights at Judson. This series has served as a space to share ideas and research, for emerging choreographers to show their work and, generally, as a platform for building community.  That same night across town, at the same time, Danspace Project was presenting an evening with Lucinda Childs showing films and discussing her work and history with Judson.

While Performa has no authentic history with Judson as a site or a movement, it managed to displace Movement Research from its long-standing, historical home and divert audience from Danspace Project, creating a direct negative effect to two organizations that are truly essential to the dance ecology in NYC.

Casting: The Performa event featured presentations by RoseLee Goldberg, historian Jennifer Homans, choreographer Ralph Lemon, MOMA curator Jenny Schlenzka and art critic David Velasco. Other than Ralph there was not a single representative of the dance world to provide historical context or divergent narratives to the one being presented. I saw Barbara Dufty, long-time Executive Director of Trisha Brown Dance Company in the audience. Why was she not onstage? Where was a representative from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company? Other than Ralph – who was obviously constrained in what he felt comfortable saying – there was no one with an authentic practical knowledge of dance making and presenting in the museum context. Homans, while deeply knowledgeable about history and a passionate advocate for dance, either did not have the opportunity or interest in interrogating the assumptions of the event.

Content: Jennifer Homans opened the event with a thoughtful and informative history lesson that actually contradicted a lot of what followed.  While the Performa event purported to affirm the long history of MoMA’s interest in dance, Homans pointed out that Lincoln Kirstein’s attempts to establish MoMA as a multidisciplinary institution were unsuccessful. MoMA’s dance archives, donated to the museum by Kirstein in 1939, were transferred to Harvard in 1946 and by 1948 the remaining archives were returned to being a division of the library rather than a discrete entity – hardly a ringing endorsement for historical and enduring institutional support of dance.

The evening was rife with problematic and misleading assertions. Homans, Lemon, Schlenzka and Velasco all referred to the Atrium at MoMA as “public space” which is fundamentally untrue. As a performance curator who focuses largely on truly public, free, site-based work, I know the difference between public, public/private, POPS and all the other kinds of space in the city. It costs $25 to get into MoMA, thus by definition it cannot be “public” space. It is private property, owned by an institution that requires the public to pay for admission. Not to mention that all of the artists being presented in Ralph’s platform at MoMA can be seen at The Kitchen, Danspace Project, New York Live Arts or Baryshnikov Arts Center for $20 or under for a full production – but more on that later.

David Velasco, either through ignorance or willful elision of facts, asserted that visual arts museums are increasingly supporting the creation and presentation of dance, citing the Walker Arts Center’s commissioning of work by Miguel Gutierrez and Sarah Michelson. Once again, this may seem to be true on the surface but is in fact wildly inaccurate. The Walker – not a visual arts museum, by the way, but a Contemporary Arts Center, deliberately multidisciplinary for over 40 years – did not commission Miguel and Sarah, Philip Bither did. Philip is the performance curator at The Walker and curates independently of the visual arts department. The commissioning funds come out of his budget, not the visual arts budget, and one can speculate that this is an ongoing challenge.

What’s more, the Walker was not the sole commissioner of either Gutierrez or Michelson’s work. Both artists create work of such scale and ambition that they require multiple commissioners. From personal experience, having worked on two Michelson projects that went to The Walker and provided not-inconsiderable residency support for Gutierrez’ current project, I can say confidently that these projects are expensive and challenging to produce, requiring a level of logistical and financial support that is unlikely at best to come from the visual arts sector, a point I will address in more detail later.

Dramaturgy: The Performa panel was characterized as a “discussion” when in fact it was a series of thematically related presentations. Prefatory framing remarks by Goldberg and a contextualizing keynote by Homans created the appearance of an informative and thoughtful conversation on dance in the art world – or specifically museums – when in fact it was little more than a publicity event for MoMA’s upcoming dance platform through which RoseLee brilliantly positioned herself and Performa as the authoritative voice on the subject.

The event was structured in such a way that no actual discussion was possible among panelists who were chosen to insure that there would be no substantial narrative differences or dissent.

Culturebot has previously discussed how the inherent formal structure of the panel discussion reinforces hierarchies of expertise and opinion that hinder actual discourse and prevent rigorous interrogation by the audience. This was certainly the case here where the event ran late with the “question and answer” period beginning at 8PM, allowing for only a few questions, mostly toothless and uninformed.

Insofar as the event served to reinforce Performa’s position as arbiter of taste and advocate for dance in the art world, it is worth noting that the most recent edition of Performa had not a single dance commission and that the Dance After Choreography series in Performa 07 (2007) featured presentations by choreographers Xavier Le Roy, Jérôme Bel, and Martin Spångberg – none of which were commissions. The only recognized dance artist that received a commission was Yvonne Rainer, in a co-commission with Documenta. I was unable to verify the commissioning and funding structures of Performa but anecdotally I am told that commissions – true commissions – go to a handful of prominent visual artists whereas choreographers are offered the opportunity to fundraise jointly, with no guarantee. Since Performa self identifies as a festival of “visual art performance” this is consistent, but as visual artists increasingly make work that heavily references and relies on the techniques of Theater and Dance, we are getting into a slippery slope of formal appropriation without actual skill or knowledge, thus Performa’s stance becomes problematic.

The general public does not usually look closely at festival language, but there are subtle and important distinctions between “commissioning”, “presenting”, “co-presenting” and other terms. A festival the size of Performa (with, admittedly, a modest budget) attains scale through partnerships. The core content is the most substantially funded and projects are funded in decreasing amounts as you move outward until the most peripheral events are merely included in the marketing and publicity efforts. This is not unique to Performa – it is a common structure and strategy. What makes it noteworthy in the case of Performa is what appears to be a significant discrepancy in funding and framing. Performa seems to substantially support visual artists making performance, but not artists with a primarily performance-based practice, while positioning itself as advocate and supporter of these forms. This is emblematic of the larger relationship between performing arts and visual arts sectors and is complicated by deliberate campaigns of misrepresentation and misdirection.

The only person on the panel at the Performa event who was empowered to speak without restraint also had the most incentive to dissemble and interestingly enough was the most candid and transparent. I was reminded of those moments in politics where a candidate is caught off guard or thinks they are in a safe environment and accidentally tells the truth. Jenny Schlenzka’s presentation at the Performa event was remarkable for what it revealed, whether by accident or intent, and that is what we will explore in the next section.

5 thoughts on “Panel As Performance: Deconstructing The Performa Event”

  1. David Velasco says:


    Happy you’re taking up a rigorous dissection of the Performa panel. I’d just like to quickly dispute your characterization of my contribution. You say that I “either through ignorance or willful elision of facts, asserted that visual art museums are increasingly supporting the creation and presentation of dance, citing the Walker Arts Center’s commissioning of work by Miguel Gutierrez and Sarah Michelson.”

    In fact, I cited the Walker’s co-commission (I was careful not to label them the sole commissioners) of works by these artists to help illustrate the very long and elastic history of dance at museums. (The Walker has multidisciplinary agendas, but it is a museum.) I also mentioned the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts’ commission of Merce Cunningham in June 1964 and moved through Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown’s performances at the Whitney Museum in the 1970s to Trisha Brown at Documenta 12 and Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark in the recent Whitney Biennial.

    My point was not that museums have lately been more active in commissioning dance—though there’s certainly been more museum _interest_ in dance as a subject; it was, in fact, the opposite: to show how far back these “interdisciplinary” conversations extend. If I was marking something, it was the movement of dance to the center of several important visual art exhibitions. (Case in point: Sarah Michelson receiving the Bucksbaum Award at the last Whitney Biennial.)

    In any case, I’m sure we can at least both agree that the Walker Art Center has long been a touchstone when considering how collecting institutions might engage with dance artists.


  2. Andy Horwitz says:

    Hi David! thanks for clarifying – I was seated in the back and might very well have misheard your statement. I actually had a long talk, subsequent to the panel, with Lynn Wichern of the Cunningham Foundation, about Merce's history of work with museums. As you mention it goes back a long time, but the impetus for these projects, the nature of the support and the relationship of the work to museums is incredibly complex, varying from institution to institution. My frustration was what seemed to be the implicit assertion of the panel that there was a history of support from museums, when in fact that support has been sporadic at best. Also – and this is something that I will address in a subsequent post – the museum's "interest in dance" I think is much less predicated on the form itself than how, as Jenny put it, "dance helps us re-envision the exhibition". This is a nuanced but important distinction. Dance in and of itself is of the body, even when it is the French Conceptualists – and museums have long had a conflicted relationship with the body as subject, not object. The museums have trouble with bodies as a site of labor, or work, which makes Sarah's piece so fascinatingly powerful. There is a reason why museums are attracted to choreographers like Yvonne Rainer whose "No Manifesto" is consonant with the visual arts rejection of mimesis, or the French Conceptualists whose work has such a strong theoretical component. It remains to be seen how authentic the museums' interest in dance as a form is – and that is a key issue I seek to learn about.

    Anyway – I appreciate you taking the time to respond and look forward to further conversations



    1. Philip Bither says:

      Hello Andy and David –
      Andy raises some important, resonant issues in his piece, as well as last year’s Visual Art Performance vs. Contemporary Performance article (which I have forwarded and discussed with so many). I would like to clarify a few things about the Walker – we do consider ourselves a hybrid, both a collecting contemporary art museum as well as a true art center – one committed to visual, performing and media arts. The use of the word “Center” at the Walker has been deliberate since it was adopted in 1940 and indicates strong institutional commitment to multiple disciplines. This commitment, stated forcefully in the first sentence of the re-drafted Walker mission more than 20 years ago, has only deepened. Past Walker directors fully supported these directions: Martin Friedman (1961-1990) approved the establishment of a full-fledged department of Performing Arts in 1970 and early commissions and residencies. Kathy Halbriech (1991-2007, now Associate Director at MoMA) boldly re-titled the department heads of Performing Arts and Film as full Curators, pro-actively supported the building of remarkable McGuire Theater as a home for Performing Arts in 2005 within the Walker, and re-framed the Perm. Collection Catalogue to include some performing arts and filmmakers as key contributors to our history/”collection(s)”. Current Walker Director Olga Viso (2007-persent) has further expanded these commitments, encouraging increased commissioning, expanding the number of performing arts-related and interdisciplinary exhibitions and publications, and guiding our visual art collecting into performance-related realms, with recent purchases of key works by Meredith Monk, Ralph Lemon and last year’s dramatic acquisition of the Merce Cunningham collection sets, props and costumes (all 2,300 pieces!). We continue to try to combine the best practices of both visual arts museums and performing arts organizations in one institution, not always an easy feat given the different cultures, and economies (not to mention timetables) at work. One last clarification — while it is true that I make the final decisions around which dance, theatrical or music artists receive commissions or presentations, it is with the full backing of the institution (and a department of talented perf. arts colleagues). Personally, I share Ralph Lemon’s view that MoMA’s current commitment to offering a new, highly visable platform for some profoundly innovative dance artists is a good thing, one that I trust will only add to the already vital work of New York’s many committed dance and performance organizations who support dance year-round. I traced the Walker’s history above in part to show that change is not an overnight process, that institutions evolve and adapt over decades. I appreciate the good words about the Walker’s efforts as well as the robust, ongoing discussion.
      Philip Bither
      McGuire Senior Curator, Performing Arts
      Walker Art Center

      1. culturebot says:

        Hi Philip,

        Thanks for taking the time to bring clarity to this conversation insofar as the Walker is concerned. I think you'll agree that the Walker is a very special and unique institution. I do think it is important to distinguish between Contemporary Art Centers with dedicated performance curators and museums in which visual arts curators are charged with selecting performance projects. As I'm sure you can attest, there is a significant and unacknowledged difference between curatorial practice in visual arts and performance – and a different body of knowledge required. Not to mention, as you put it, "…the different cultures, and economies (not to mention timetables) at work."

        That is why this is the first of series of essays I'm writing exploring those differences which demand interrogation. My subsequent essays-in-progress are "Curatorial Practice and Cultural Production", "The Economics of Ephemerality" and "Museums and the Crisis of Materiality". As you well know, but perhaps Mr. Velasco is unaware, Culturebot is my second, unpaid, full-time job, so these essays are slow in coming. But I hope you both will continue to read as I work my way through these issues.

        As I've been researching this topic I've been talking to producers, curators, presenters, audiences and all kinds of people. I had a wonderful discussion with Lynn Wichern at the Cunningham Foundation about Merce's long history of dance and museums, especially at The Walker. Through all my conversations the thing that really came to the fore was an issue of institutional culture. The Walker, as you say, continues "to try to combine the best practices of both visual arts museums and performing arts organizations in one institution…" which is admirable but hardly the norm. The Whitney, DIA Beacon, MoMA – each has a different culture -and different curators – that determine the tone and quality of the artist's engagement.

        One of my many concerns is that from where I'm sitting, visual arts curators frequently assume that because they know how to curate visual art, they know how to curate performance, but they don't. I don't think they even know how to really look at it and see it. At the Performa Event Jenny Schlenzka intimated as much when she said that she is interested in dance because it allows curators to “re-envision the format of the exhibition”. This was a welcome revelation insofar as it clarifies why dance is interesting to visual arts curators – not for any inherent value of the form but rather its ability to support the museum’s process of reinvention. But I will write more on this in an upcoming essay.

        And while I think there's some merit to Ralph's suggestion that MoMA's current commitment to offering a highly visible platform to dance may be a good thing, it doesn't make it any less problematic. First there is a question of WHY does dance so value the attention of the museums and what is the trade-off for that attention and visibility?

        (continued in next comment)

        1. culturebot says:

          Not to spoil my conclusion before I write the whole series of essays, but…

          Ralph knows as well as anyone that it took many years for artists like he and Sarah Michelson to develop their mastery of the form, and that development happened in a supportive but underfunded ecosystem. To build a full scale project with Ralph or Sarah now can take four years, hundreds of thousands of dollars and many, many co-commissioners. This is a massive investment of years, labor and money, not just by the artists, but by the sector collectively. It takes a village. One of my concerns is that after our poor little underfunded village has invested so much in supporting these artists, the museums will figure out how to "collect" their work and profit from it without the artists ever seeing a dime or any of those resources "trickling down" to the Danspace Projects, NYLAs and PS122s of the world.

          Unless we interrogate and question the museum's motives and long term strategies, until we really look at the economics of cultural production and the frameworks through which value is being created around dance – and performance generally – our sector is bringing a knife to a gun fight. I know this sounds alarmist, but the visual arts world is fundamentally a capitalist system about creating value around objects, and that system is voracious as it constantly seeks novelty and new markets.

          A Facebook commenter took me to task, suggesting I was being petty and that we should rather advocate to "develop solidarity among all creative people". That's nice but pollyanna. Artists of all stripes – visual, performance, etc. – get screwed on a regular basis. If we love dance and performance and the people who make it, we have an obligation to look out for their best interests as they move into an environment that is new and largely unknown to them. Visual artists know what they're dealing with, dancers and choreographers often don't. And it is impossible to create solidarity when there is systemic financial disparity. Put MoMA's budget next to Danspace Project's budget and it is like a whale next to a minnow. But it is the Danspace Projects and Movement Researchs of the world that are supporting, nurturing and building the next generation of Ralphs and Sarahs. Let's make sure that we keep our community alive for that next generation.

          More to come and I hope more discussion as well!



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