“Each artist has reached beyond anything they have done before, in scale or complexity, orchestrating productions that each speak in very different ways about what we have all come through together.”
Performa 2021 BiennialOctober 12 – October 31, 2021
Since the first Performa Biennial in 2005 New York City has always been the star of the show. We dedicated all our efforts to commissioning and supporting artists to create startling new work for the new century, and to collaborating with curators in cultural venues up, down, and across Manhattan, and boroughs beyond, with the firm intention of putting a spotlight on the city as the performance capital of the world. We provided audiences with specially designed folding maps, each dot representing an event in the program, so that each person knew precisely where they were standing in relation to the city as a whole, and also, as was visually evident, how much of the map they would cover by biennial’s end. Audiences were taken into places they may never have entered before; a strip club on the Lower East Side, a comedy club in Midtown, an early twentieth century meeting hall-cum-rock-n-roll hang out, as chosen by each artist as the perfect frame for their work and ideas. With each landing, a new experience, a changed perspective; of the street, a building, a skyline. This is how memories are made.
And this is what Performa Commissions have the ability to do, add new rooms to the memory palaces of our minds. Who can forget Rashid Johnson’s version of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, in the infamous Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street, where we sat in bathrobes on wooden benches alongside two young actors whose dramatic and violent crescendo matched the rising heat of the sauna in the room? Or, the sight and sound of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera, Erwartung, on emerging from the subway in Times Square, to witness Robin Rhode’s ingenious adaptation of a 1909 Austrian narrative translated into a parable for women of South Africa under apartheid, which stopped passersby in their tracks. Or Barbara Kruger’s intervention into the skatepark under the Manhattan Bridge, where the walls and ramps were covered with her signature white font on red background, her messages Whose Hopes? Whose Fears? Whose Values? Whose Justice? writ large, as skaters sailed to and fro, back and forth, like endless waves at the seashore.
Each of these commissions, and many more over a period of sixteen years, have added layers of new content, sensations, and pictures to the urban fabric, radically transforming our understanding of its possibilities. With every biennial we ask ourselves how can we see the city anew, respond to the communities it encompasses, to the marches, in protest or celebration, that mark its avenues, and how do we make accessible the profound work of artists whose material provides an inclusive humanism for us all to absorb? With 2021, circumstances returned us emphatically to these roots, our focus once again: the city of New York. Though the commissions for Performa 2021 were in conversation long before the pandemic struck in March 2020, circumstances required some quick decisions and a new plan: We would postpone all international commissions, we would produce everything outdoors, performances would be live for the limited numbers permitted to attend, and streamed for those far away. Seven artists and one architect—Kevin Beasley, Ericka Beckman, Sara Cwynar, Danielle Dean, Madeline Hollander, Andrés Jaque, Tschabalala Self, Shikeith—have been extraordinary in their inventiveness and generosity, entirely reimagining their work according to these parameters. In so doing, each has reached beyond anything they have done before, in scale or complexity, orchestrating productions that each speak in very different ways about what we have all come through together. They have also stepped boldly into the unknown, not only to create live performances, some for the first time, but with an acute understanding that the success of their work depends, no matter how well prepared or rehearsed, on many unpredictable elements: the public, the weather, the hum of traffic or the obstructions of street furniture. Even so, their energies are on overdrive in anticipation, pulling us along in the slipstream, into their orbits.
My profound thanks to these remarkable artists, for their deeply imagined, complex, and unstintingly engaging material. Working closely with our team of curators and producers to realize the fullness of their vision, each has created a distinct world of their own—probing, expressive, visually arresting, and inspiring. Thanks to them, we get to see the city anew.