Performa 2021 BiennialOctober 12 – October 31, 2021
In a recent conversation, the artist Tschabalala Self told me that the best performances she’d ever seen were on the New York City subway. Freestyle subway dancers are my personal favorite in this genre. Groups of mostly young Black men glide up and down the thin space of the carriage with athletic dexterity in between commuters sitting on plastic seats, swinging off the ceiling rails and spinning around the poles to music. In April 2021 WAFFLE crew’s train performance to Missy Elliott’s Lose Control (2013) went viral and was reposted by Missy Elliott herself, who tweeted: “This video so much energy I was hyping them up through my phone but they SNAPPED Hard! I Love seeing so many of yall dance to my songs! I loved me some yall.” Their video is an expression of unadulterated joy, imbuing the pleasure that still exists in the performance of daily life of the city, even in the aftermath of the pandemic that has ravaged both its inhabitants and infrastructures.
Ideas of reclaiming and saving the city from the hands of gentrifiers, from the Capitalist elite, from the corporate takeover of neighborhoods, are constantly discussed. Yet the pandemic has offered us a few, likely momentary, gifts: rent across the city (temporarily) fell drastically and public space opened up in unprecedented ways. During the first peak of the pandemic, over twenty million people took to the streets across the country to protest the horrific never-ending treatment of the Black American population following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. I attended numerous protests in different parts of Manhattan; and as much as these mass gatherings allowed the expression of rage against these institutional murders, they enabled participants to feel the cathartic exhilaration of being together as a collective body of people, after we had lived almost entirely in our homes for months on end. No longer able to host customers inside, restaurants were offered the street in front of their space: there they built small shack-like wooden structures, some elaborately equipped with sound systems and heaters; others focusing on the basics—a roof to protect customers from rain and some tables and chairs. Exercise classes fill the city’s parks and plazas: older women doing Zumba, younger women and (a few) men doing HIIT, everyone doing Yoga. Alcohol laws were also relaxed to allow drinking in public, another moment of pleasure for many of the city’s inhabitants: older couples enjoyed park dates drinking rosé and twenty-somethings rolled around drunk in the grass.
All of this is to say that the pandemic radically changed the use of public space in New York and these changes are unlikely to revert anytime soon. Which leads me to the Performa 2021 Biennial. Our eight commissions are nearly all taking place outdoors in spaces across the city. The sites were chosen by the artists to best reflect the ideas in their work; each Performa Commission has subsequently been developed to respond to the characteristics and the community of the place in which they are staged. Some, such as Ericka Beckman’s and Tschabalala Self’s projects are spectacular pieces of theater, contrasting starkly with their surroundings, yet exploring ideas that are deeply rooted to the place in which they are situated. For example, Self’s Sounding Board is conceived of as a “kitchen sink” play in which a couple enact an argument repeatedly, reworking the same dialogue in very different forms—also referring to their presence on the void of the stage and their almost desperate need for attention as artists—across three acts. Self’s intention was to create an experimental Black love story, yet this work is universal in the emotion contained in the subject matter. In contrast, Kevin Beasley’s performance The Sound of Morning both blends into the street-scape and magnifies the sounds of the city as the performers’ and audience’s bodies come together in the streets to form one mass with no visible distinction between them.
If performance, theater, or constructed situations are a version of “reality,” the difference between them is a question of artifice. Yet when art breaks free from the confinement of brick and mortar institutions and exists in the real world, it offers audiences an entirely different experience—one that is less mediated, and perhaps ultimately more joyous, as it is no longer dictated or interpreted by the voice of an institution, rather it is offered purely on its own terms.