In 2005, RoseLee Goldberg made an impression on the avant-garde arts scene by presenting Performa 05, billed as New York's first biennial of "visual art performance" She had little staff, little money and no institutional support. Now, just four years and two biennials later, Performa has become something of an institution itself, with a full-time staff of five and a budget of $1.5 million (Dh5.5m).
Its founder is not surprised. "For me it happened from day one," says Goldberg, an independent art historian and curator. "Performa was ambitious from the moment I decided I was going to do a performance biennial. What we're seeing at the moment is expanding on that initial idea. Nothing has really changed." Performa 09, which runs until November 22, has a roster of more than 100 artists. According to its mission statement, it is "dedicated to exploring the critical role of live performance in the history of 20th-century art and to encouraging new directions in performance for the 21st century". It commissions new projects, presents the biennial, collaborates with artists around the world and educates the public about "this critical area of visual art and cultural history".
This month, that translates into a three-week festival of performance art, films, dance, exhibitions, installations, panel discussions and street parades. Many events are free and operate on a walk-in basis; others charge admission fees that are modest for New York: most are $15 or less, and few are more than $25. The Performa Hub occupies the lobby of the sleek, futuristic new academic building of Cooper Union, the venerable college of art, architecture and engineering in the East Village. From there the festival spreads out to established experimental art venues in the Village, Chelsea and the Lower East Side, major uptown museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Asia Society, and highly visible spots in midtown Manhattan.
On opening day, Somewhere I Read, masterminded by the composer and musician Arto Lindsay, drew more than 50 dancers to the Times Square area, performing to music played through their mobile phones. Even the Port Authority bus terminal has a Performa outpost: a storefront office where the performance duo Dexter Sinister is producing The First/Last Newspaper, a twice-weekly broadsheet focusing on themes of media and conceptual art.
So far, Performa 09 seems to be a dizzying, potentially exhausting array of cultural possibilities, many of them quick hits. Audience members may be spotted on the streets of the East Village wrestling with an enormous fold-out guide or stopping by the Hub for advice. And this year, there are several festivals within the festival. "When I started this," Goldberg says in a telephone interview from the Hub, "I had been teaching and talking about performance and art for the last 35 years, and I was banging this drum that people don't understand the history."
In a nod towards history, Performa 09 celebrates Italian Futurism, an art movement that valued speed, streamlining and technology above concepts such nature. Goldberg calls the movement, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, a starting point for the event. Programming includes exhibitions, films and discussions on Futurism and its influence. "We decided to use the Futurist template to look at all the arts," she says. "The expansion this year includes everything from poetry to fashion to architecture."
Art Must Move, a collaboration with the Amsterdam-based Khatt Foundation, is dedicated to design research in the Arab world. Jumping off from Futurist graphic design, artists from Europe and the Middle East - including Hisham Yousef, who is half Emirati - produced a series of 22 black-and-white posters in highly stylised typography, half in English, half in Arabic. The characters "play on the mosaic-based monumental Kufic Arabic lettering found integrated into architecture in many places around the Arab world", according to the project notes, and although the work itself does not move, its "repeated lines of alternating English and Arabic haiku-like poetry ... imply a certain movement in sound and visual arrangement".
Last weekend was designated The Lust Weekend. A loose collection of performances included a poetry reading by the British visual artist Tracey Emin, known for installations recreating her much-used bed. For the coming weekend, the Los Angeles-based visual artist Mike Kelley has organised two evenings of noise music entitled A Fantastic World Superimposed on Reality. Performa 09's strong component of Middle Eastern and Asian artists was curated by Defne Ayas, an Istanbul native who now divides her time between New York and Shanghai, where she is a director of Arthub Asia.
"At Performa we try to go across the spectrum globally," she says. "Who are the greatest thinkers, the greatest artists thinking about art and performance? We use the same criteria we apply to artists from London or Brussels but in some instances in Asia, political activism is very much entrenched in the visual arts. You see political activists turning into visual artists" in order to circulate their ideas.
"There are global thinkers from every region we're looking at," she says, citing Rabih Mroué, a Lebanese actor, director and playwright who leads workshops in Brussels. In Rabih Mroué's Gift to New York, an hour-long presentation seen last weekend, an actor reads a letter from Mroué, describing his excitement at his first visit to the United States - a visit he opted not to make, instead taking a virtual tour of New York to imagine his reactions. Mroué discusses his qualms about obtaining a visa, his phobia about airport security (men who fit his profile tend to be targeted for "random security checks", he notes) and the identity issues they raise. It was Ayas who asked him to write the letter as a prologue to the five short films that follow: "I told him: 'Your voice is needed,'" she says.
Mroué sometimes appears in front of the camera, and sometimes serves as narrator. One film incorporates audio tapes he made as a child to send to a brother abroad after their family fled Beirut during the civil war; another slowly zooms in and out on blurred black-and-white film of a street demonstration, with voice-overs from participants recording their memories of the day. In I, the Undersigned, Mroué apologises for crimes he thinks he committed during the civil war: using words without really knowing what they meant; taking excessive pride in his "Lebaneseness" while seeking asylum elsewhere; not having been kidnapped; plagiarism. On Three Posters, the longest of the films at 18 minutes, looks back at a performance piece Mroué based on video made by a suicide bomber preparing to strike against Israel. The two-minute What I Know of Beginnings shows a collapsed building putting itself back together, then wavering back and forth, up and down - Mroué's metaphor for "oscillating between remembering and forgetting".
Untitled, a seven-minute film by the Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner, runs on a continuous loop throughout the festival in a small walled-off screening area at the Hub. The filmmaker, who commutes between Tel Aviv and Berlin, conducts a phone conversation between the two parts of his divided self - a concept that will resonate with anyone who has led a migratory life. Wearing a T-shirt that says "I wish I were somewhere else", Ben-Ner in Tel Aviv speaks with Ben-Ner in Berlin, about work and love. He speaks in Hebrew, subtitled in English couplets: "A dialogue by phone upon which my film will feast/The first location Europe, the second Middle East." The film stays in his camera for a full year - "I plan to shoot a movie with no editing involved" - while he travels back and forth, constantly filming snippets of his dialogue with himself to produce "a parallel montage".
As part of The Lust Weekend, Einat Amir, a Jerusalem-born artist living in New York, contributed Ideal Viewer, a performance piece exploring themes of loss and conflicting authorship. A crying woman sits in the middle of the white-walled gallery floor; in front of her is a smashed flat-screen TV on which rests a portable DVD player that shows her sitting on the floor, crying. Two men greet visitors, who mill around the periphery of the room. One introduces himself as the ex-boyfriend, the other as an opera singer and actor, who shows video clips of himself in Mozart's The Magic Flute while berating the ex-boyfriend for his treatment of the woman. He also speculates on the reason for her weeping in front of the TV: perhaps she was watching it when the boyfriend phoned to break up with her and, in her anger, smashed it; perhaps she was moving and dropped it.
This week's performances include an evening-length dance, video and music production by the visual artist Keren Cytter examining the confines of social roles through a pair of inadvertent sex changes. Talk Show, by Omer Fast, applies the children's game "broken telephone" to a talk show format and, on another level, to the concepts of power and freedom in context of current global events. The Turkish conceptual artist Ahmet Ögüt pays homage to Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist murdered in 2007. Ögüt's piece will be presented at the Lower East Side space of Bidoun magazine.
You don't have to travel to New York to sample Performa 09. The festival's website, www.performa-arts.org, offers extensive blogs as well as Performa TV, a selection of videos, conversations with artists and Goldberg's daily commentary. "We're talking about a new kind of urbanism: culture as urban activism," Goldberg says. "We're an ideas place, a think tank of the highest order. The biennial is about ideas - not costs, not the marketplace, but what we as human beings need to intellectually challenge ourselves."