A Miami based contemporary art newsletter / blog

Reflections on Performa 09

Joan Jonas performance.

Joan Jonas performance.

Performa 09, the New York based performance art Biennial sponsored by the New York organization of the same name, took place all over New York City this past November (1 – 22) and included 150 artists, 11 commissions by the Performa organization, and 6 premieres. The central highlight amidst a forest of events scattered all over Manhattan and other New York City boroughs for three weeks seemed to be the massive video/film exhibition at PS 1 called 100 Years (version #2) (open until April 5th, 2010).

Presenting influential moments in the past century of performance art history and including over 200 works of film, photography, documents, and audio, 100 Years (version #2) presented some rarely seen documentation and was intended to archive a century of art performed. Remnants and fragments of Italian Futurism and it’s eventual international adherents were widely evident and served as stark reminders of the innovative and open way artists and intellectuals greeted the dawning of the last century: ‘Progress’ was the keyword and it included social, technical, and intellectual advances that people optimistically projected unto the future.

It was impossible not to notice how our own reception of the 21st century seems somehow a bit trepid by comparison; as if fear and market concerns had at least somewhat preempted the freshness artists seemed to feel then: In 2000 instead of the dawn of a new era, fear of a computer-glitch disaster and social breakdown caused everyone to buy home safes, and stockpile food, cash, and firearms. Perhaps as a result, and perhaps thankfully, people’s implicit trust of technological advances was jaded. Where as before we would have seen progress, today we see threats to our own and our planet’s health. In addition, institutionalized poverty and debt have fostered a distrust of government motives and predictions of social breakdown.

Unknown performance.

Unknown performance.

It has to be remembered that Marx and Freud had really just finished modernizing our collective definition of what Human life meant by exposing the dark primal forces we’d always possessed, and the limiting regulatory systems that had controlled us. For the first time in living memory people were beginning to accept their fundamental desire for material and sexual gratification and throw off the yoke of ruling classes and controlling religious institutions. At the time that was progress. Now that that’s been done, and the new editions of the Red Book by Carl Jung, a more socio-spiritual interpreter of Human motivations, are selling out so fast they can’t be kept on the shelves, and in light of the return to ‘Fundamentalist’ religious practice among the larger and more politically-based world religions, it may be worth wondering whether our then-new-found brand of Humanism unwittingly came up short on including the Human aspect that so dominated earlier periods: the need for meaning, for myth, and for spiritual expression. Man may have created God, but having done this so universally, (s)he may have needed to. Did progress, as politics, social solidarity, or ‘modernist’ art give us the meaning we still needed? As the government became increasingly self serving instead of citizen serving, and as the world of art morphed into the market of art, the answer seems to be no, apparently not.

Alicia Framis ''Lost Astronaut" 2009.

Alicia Framis ”Lost Astronaut” 2009.

Digressing, one interesting case that this viewer caught at Performa 09 was the ongoing performance by Spanish Artist Alicia Framis, who dressed up as an astronaut, and walked around town executing daily agendas laid out for her by other performance figures like Marina Abramovic and Mark Beasley. If perhaps a bit self-referential in this regard, the piece nevertheless was inevitably somewhat interactive and spontaneous on the streets and subways of Manhattan, and seemed rather expansive in other ways: extraterrestrial travel as a 2-way street. Maybe we will see an inter-universe or inter-galactic art movement in this century. In any event, it was a worthwhile counter weight to the assumption that we’re on the verge of destroying ourselves along with our planet.

Dexter Sinister.

Dexter Sinister “The First/Last Newspaper Edits”

At the other end of technology, the future, and referential art, the work of  ‘Dexter Sinister’, a British duo, stood out for it’s more ambiguous approach and references to media past and present. In a storefront on the ground floor of the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 41st Street and 8th Avenue, the group created a sort of newsroom set up with folding furniture and a few people tapping away, heads down, at keyboards. Littered with printed copy, lay-out boards and remnants of takeout food, the space seemed anything but a performance: visitors weren’t acknowledged and ‘though it seems that one could ask questions, I did not as everybody appeared to be busy. Instead I checked out the copy –articles about media, the so-called 4th Estate (journalism), Ben Franklin as intellectual pirate, clever items on journalism, intellectual history, (“BLIND MAN IN DARK ROOM LOOKING FOR BLACK CAT THAT S NOT THERE”; “Our story begins in Ancient Greece, with Socrates announcing, “I know that I know nothing”; “Clearly, confusion has always been at the heart of wisdom”; and so forth).

The Performa 09 was the third performance art festival produced by Performa, a New York-based non-profit interdisciplinary arts organization created by groundbreaking author, curator and champion of performance art, Rose Lee Goldberg, and like Art Basel Miami Beach, where even more is compressed into one week, there was a lot that went on that this viewer didn’t see. Not including talks, lectures, symposia, etc there was already way more than one could ever realistically attend.

Food Installation by Jennifer Rubbell at Performa 9 Opening Reception.

Food Installation by Jennifer Rubell at Performa 09 Opening Reception.

The sense of disillusionment over the failed idealism of art and politics in the 20th century notwithstanding, the sheer freshness of videos at the Performa 09/PS 1 exhibitions do seem to suggest that the kind of conceptuality that the documentation of Performance Art inevitably is, does continue to thwart the ongoing attempt, usually completely successful, to turn our, and even it’s residue, into something that can be bought, sold, traded, and invested in. Rauschenberg’s erased drawings didn’t transcend the market because they remained objects, but a video or still photograph of a performance can never be more than a documentation of an art event (if this were as true for the erased drawings then a video or a before-and-after still would have been the result).

100 years (version #2) and the way last year’s Performa Biennial was spread out into unexpected public spaces indicated that the impetus behind the origins of Conceptual and Performance Art, to create art that could exist outside the confines of a distracting market structure that has so often disrupted art’s purpose to expand consciousness and provide spiritual nourishment, has been proven to be successful as one can only invest monetarily in the residual documentation of such fleeting immediacy[.]

This post was contributed by David Rohn.


  • Bob Petersen

    Looking at your website, Reflections on
    Performa 09 News Letter / Blog
    I like Photo of Joan Jonas performance
    & 2nd photo marked unknown performance
    Would love more information on
    these two photos. Thank you
    Bob P.

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Reflections on Performa 09