The Biennial Questionnaire: RoseLee Goldberg

The founding director and curator of Performa, the New York biennale of live art, talks national scenes, the changing face of performance art and Jay Z

Ryan McNamara, A Story Ballet about the Internet, photo the artist Pawel Althamer Common Task, Brodno district, Warsaw, 2008, Courtesy the artist; Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Open Art Projects, Warsaw RoseLee Goldberg. Photo: Patrick McMullan

In this year’s programme there are quite a few artists who one would not usually think of in terms of performance – Subodh Gupta, Rashid Johnson and Marianne Vitale for example. Could you tell me a little about their projects and their initial reaction to being asking to make work for a performance-focused biennale?

Performa commissions visual artists whose sensibilities and body of work suggest that they may indeed produce something magical in performance. Many, or rather most, of our previous Performa Commission artists — Omar Fast, Nathalie Djurberg, Jesper Just, Mika Rottenberg, Francesco Vezzoli, Candice Breitz, Adam Pendleton — had never worked live before, and yet they stepped into this entirely new arena and produced works so stunning and powerful that they changed the very idea of artists' performance and the trajectory of its history.

So too with this year's line up of amazing artists, including the ones you mention above. Each artist has said how much they like the fact that they are able to layer live projects with a concentration of ideas that might not be possible in the object making that they're known for; they mention the experience of watching the work alongside the audience and creating a community of conversation around the piece; and they get to enjoy the adrenalin of stage fright, something they can mostly avoid in hanging an exhibition.

Each artist has said how much they like the fact that they are able to layer live projects with a concentration of ideas that might not be possible in the object making that they're known for

What are the pros and cons of having a biennale that looks at performance as a discrete medium?

There are only pros to a biennial that looks at performance as a discrete medium. Firstly, historic context is essential for the audience as background and reference, for the public to understand the importance of performance throughout the history of art. So the Performa biennial always provides extensive programming and events around an historic anchor, with exhibitions and recreations of past work, as with our focus on Futurism in 09, Russian Constructivism in 11, and Surrealism this year.

Second, we have an expertise and knowledge producing performance that is unmatched by any other organisation; we work with the artists for more than a year parsing out ideas, acting as a sounding board, and asking questions to make sure that the artist's vision is fully developed and supported curatorial and materially. We find the right space — the ideal 'frame' for the work — and we ask questions about the actual experience; what will the viewer, the audience experience coming into the space and during the performance, and take away when leaving? We find the optimum way to present and contextualise each performance. We work across disciplines — looking at 'the live' in music, dance, architecture, film, design, food and poetry, and we have done so since the very beginning.

What do you see as the current relationship between ‘performance art’ and disciplines such as dance, theatre and music? How does Performa seek to address the inevitable crossover?

As you might know from my book, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, I have always looked across disciplines, have always included avant-garde music, dance, theatre, film, architecture, design, and poetry as part of the history of performance, which for me is the real history of art — whether in Paris in the 1920s with Ballet Suedois, Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus in Germany, or Vsevolod Meyerhold in theatre in Russia; New York in the 1950s and 1960s with John Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg, and in the 1960s and 1970s, with Judson Church, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Steve Reich, Phil Glass, and Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson, in dance, theatre and music, and more recently with Pina Bausch, Jerome Bel, or Boris Charmatz and so on. This is not a 'current crossover' but one that has entirely marked the history of art in the 20th century, which has been multidisciplinary throughout.

The history of art in the 20th century has been multidisciplinary throughout

With Performa 07, we focused on dance as a means to make this point even more strongly, introducing an entire section called "Dance After Choreography" with Xavier Le Roi, Jerome Bel, Martin Spangberg, Pablo Bronstein, Philipe Decoufle, Marie Cool, Yvonne Rainer, Min Tanaka, and many more. We don't merely address the crossover, we instigate it and we place productions in venues in such a way as to trip up people from different disciplines; we put Tacita Dean's beautiful film on Cunningham, Craneway Event, in Danspace at St Mark's theatre for Performa 09, to capture a dance audience who would not typically go to see this work in a museum, or we put Boris Charmatz in the Performa Hub last year, alongside an exhibition of Russian Performance since 1900, as a way to catch art world people off guard (they were!).

What is the purpose of the national pavilions that are being introduced this year? Thinking about art in terms of nation-states could be seen as retroactive, so what have you identified as being the advantage of looking at Poland and Norway as discrete ‘scenes’

Pavilions Without Walls is an extensive research program that has taken us far into our inaugural featured countries. We engage fully with the cultural community of each country — our curators and producers have visited Norway and Poland more than once, and we've met artists, curators, museum directors, and government cultural organisations to fully investigate the current state of the arts as well as the history that produced it. We also have built into the programme a line for several practicing curators to join us during the final six months of preparation. It's been an extraordinarily profound cultural exchange, more layered and meaningful than we could have imagined at the start. Although we use the Venice Biennale’s pavilion structure as a jumping off point, we do not have a single artist, selected by a curator, 'represent' that country as occurs in Venice, but rather investigate the ways in which culture is shaped and represented by artists as described above. We're very aware of the history of 'nation states' or of 'immigrant nations' as is the more accurate description of global migration and the combination-states produced as a result. Pavilions Without Walls has been incredibly illuminating — politically, culturally, socially — and we're excited to build on this programme going forward.

How has the profile of performance art changed in the nine years the biennale has been going? Is there a noticeable difference in the interests of the younger generation of artists using performance in their work, to that of a generation before (perhaps in terms of technology or politics for example)?

Performa showed that performance art could be many things. It broke the idea that most people had of performance art as "happenings," "endurance art," and 1970s conceptual gestures. Performa connected the dots with the past — Dada, Futurism, and so on, and with recent history — what is 'relational aesthetics' except performance by another name? We produced material of substance by working with artists over a long period of time and allowing them to fully realise their ideas and to make truly remarkable work. Performa also showed that this material is accessible and that it can draw large and varied audiences with more than 40,000 international and national visitors, and more than 4,000,000 hits on the Performa 13 website three weeks into its launch.

Performa showed that performance art could be many things

Performa likely played a role in encouraging the establishment of performance art departments at several museums, encouraging their curators to look back on the history of their own institutions and recognize the extent and richness of their own performance history, and also showed that performance could be many different things; fun and quirky, conceptual and complex, spectacular and home made. Now that every major museum is building dedicated spaces for performance (The Tanks in London, or the new Whitney’s several theatres and floors designed to convert into performance spaces if needed), there will be a need for 'museum worthy' performance. Performa as a production house is able to produce such work. Performance also perfectly suits a generation that intuitively works across disciplines every day — with iPhone video and cameras, recordings, sound, picture-making of all sorts. Yes, performance is a natural place for such multitalented contemporary artists to focus their broad spectrum of ideas that cross high art and popular culture, and that allows them to think of sculpture in terms of installation for a performance, painting as something that can move, and sound and scents to accompany all of the above.

You appeared in Jay Z’s Picasso Baby video and you’ve written in support of Marina Abramović’s collaboration with Jay Z; why do you think it’s been criticised so much?

Jay Z is an interesting figure who has a full grasp on contemporary pop culture. I was intrigued that he chose to take one of the most visible and in a sense radical art events of recent years — Marina Abramović sitting for more than two months in a museum, morning to night, committed to eye contact one-on-one with her audience — and to use it as the basis for making a video to accompany his new single Picasso Baby. Jay Z typically performs in front of 30,000 plus people so it was interesting to me that he picked up on her idea of a one-on-one performance and decided to try it out for himself. He was riffing on her work, not attempting to make art. He was respectful of the author, inviting her to join him. The lyrics contain a strong critique of what art collecting represents, and of the state of race and class in this country. He essentially says, I can buy all the art I want, I can have a Bacon in my breakfast room, but “you will still put on the cuffs." When Madonna or Lady Gaga use performance art as a model for their work (Madonna's photographs in 2003 with Steven Klein, Lady Gaga's meat costume that was based on Zhang Huan's "meat suit" at the Whitney Museum in 2002), they are similarly recognising the originality and inventiveness of visual artists and reusing their work in a pop context.

Performa 13 opens today, with events to 24 November, various venues, New York