Performance is the Catalyst: RoseLee Goldberg on Her Passion for Performance Art

To celebrate the seventh outing of Performa in New York, the influential curator discusses the endless pleasure of performance.

RoseLee Goldberg: Patrick McMullan and Will Ragozzino/PMc

It is entirely possible that performance art would never have been treated with the seriousness and enthusiasm it is today without RoseLee Goldberg. The South African curator, lecturer and writer has been a central figure in the New York art scene since the Seventies. She moved to the city in 1972 after meeting Andy Warhol, Carl Andre and Robert Smithson on her very first visit. Once there, she made her name as curator of the renowned Kitchen space, where she gave Cindy Sherman her first show. In 2005, she started the Performa biennial and almost single-handedly made performance one of the central mediums in contemporary art. As her event geared for its seventh edition this November, the curator gave SLEEK the ins and outs on her career.

Anu Vahtra. Photograph: Paula Court

Why did you start Performa?

I just felt that the art world was too top heavy and everything was coming from above. I needed the New York that I knew and loved where things were cultivated from the bottom. I started with a series at NYU, where I teach, called “Not for Sale”. Right from the start, the place was mobbed. There was this real hunger to get back to what artists were talking about. I really was tired of performance always being presented as a sideshow. I wrote my book in 1979, and realised it really was a rewriting of the 20th century but sliding in performance where it was so critical for the way artists worked and thought. What it meant for Futurism, what it meant for Dada, Russian Constructivism, and how performance was always this catalyst. So, in some ways Performa is a museum without walls.

Teju Cole, Black Paper-2017. Courtesy of Performa. Photo:Paula Court

How has New York influenced the event?

New York is the matrix for [everyone involved]. It’s a phenomenal city. It’s full, as edgy as can be. Of course, I complain. Downtown used to be all the local buildings and now they’re putting up high-rises and every one for me is like stealing my sky. How do you take the sky away? But the starting point for Performa was not so long after 9/11, not long after Tate Modern opened. Everyone was saying the art world is moving to Shanghai, it’s moving to London, it’s moving to Berlin. My position was, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to make this town as edgy as I remember it when I came here, the reasons we all came here. It’s about the city that never sleeps. We also take things from [places] around the world and rethink how that particular city might be affected by this kind of collaboration. We work collaboratively with different institutions across the five boroughs. There’s a deep love and a deep sense of keeping New York on edge, irritable and honest.

Barbara Kruger. Courtesy of Performa. Photograph: Paula Court

There is an obvious documentation issue around performance, particularly the use of film and photography to capture it. What are your feelings on this subject?

It’s a great question, but the reality is performance is hiding in plain sight. It’s all there; it’s all integral. It’s just never been understood that way. No one ever knew how to explain Dada because it’s this weird thing that happens in the cabaret somewhere in the middle of Europe. What’s driving all that work is performance. You go through a room of Yves Klein and it’s just like, ‘Oh here’s a painting, how was this made?’ You go through a Rauschenberg room: ‘Oh, these are combines’. [But] how were they made? Through performance! Go through art history. Go through Picabia, Duchamp. All of these things are made by and during performance. [They] are all offshoots of performance. Historians didn’t know where to put it so they never discussed it.

Narcissister, The Body is a House, 2017. Performance view at Participant Inc as part of Performa 17 Biennial. Photo by Cameron Cuchulainn. Courtesy of Performa.

What maintains your passion for performance?

I forget who said it, I think it was Frederick Kiesler or somebody. You have one idea and spend the rest of your life perfecting it. You’re constantly measuring what is going on in the world right now, and finding ways to articulate it, looking back and forth at history and the present and where are we heading. In a way, my job is to stay ahead, always seeing where things are moving. It’s so exciting and it’s endless.

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