Panel As Performance: Deconstructing The Performa Event
“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.