Performa 2021 Is a Chance to Reconnect With Performance After Quarantine, But Also a Tribute to the Small Joys That Got Us Through

The ninth edition of the Performa Biennial opens this week with a slate of free, outdoor events.

Medeline Hollander, Review (2021). Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. Film still of rehearsal, July 2021. Photo by Romke Hoogwaerts.Medeline Hollander, Review (2021). Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. Film still of rehearsal, July 2021. Photo by Romke Hoogwaerts.
Medeline Hollander, Review (2021). Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. Film still of rehearsal, July 2021. Photo by Romke Hoogwaerts.

Not that long ago, the prospect of gathering for a piece of live performance art seemed unthinkable. Yet even then, the organizers of Performa, New York’s scrappy performing arts biennial, knew this year’s edition would go on.   

“We didn’t think for a minute that we weren’t going to do it,” said RoseLee Goldberg, the event’s founder and chief curator.

To meet that goal would require some improvisation—and you’ll see evidence of that this week, as Goldberg and her team opens their ninth Performa biennial with new commissions by Sara Cwynar, Tschabalala Self, and others.

The event is smaller in scope than in previous years, and it comes a month sooner than usual. But it won’t be unrecognizable, either. Improvisation, after all, has always been fundamental to Performa’s identity

“We’ve always tried to find the most creative solution,” said Goldberg. 

Whereas past events have featured dozens of artists from all over the world, just eight artists were commissioned to make pieces this year. All hail from the New York region. (International travel restrictions limited participant options.) Each was asked to stage their creations outside, in an effort to limit any possible exposure to COVID. 

 

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These were practical decisions, of course, but also conceptual. New York’s streets are more than the site of this year’s artworks—they’re the inspiration, too. 

The pandemic drastically redefined our relationship to the city’s public space, Performa’s senior curator Kathy Noble explained. “We ended up using [these sites] so much more, eating outdoors, gathering in parks.” In a time of profound isolation, she went on, “those were small joys.”

The theme also harkens back to the tradition of “radical urbanism” from 1970s-era architectural discourse, Goldberg added, “this idea that you can change the nature of the street through action.”

Kevin Beasley’s The Sound of Morning is perhaps the purest distillation of this. A dance piece and “sonic sculpture,” the artwork will be soundtracked by the ambient noise of the Lower East Side walkways on which it will take place.

In other cases, the connection to New York is indirect. The great Madeline Hollander, for instance, will pay tribute to the city’s dance communities with Review, a staged compilation of gestures from performances canceled during the pandemic. 

There are some other differences with this year’s biennial too. For the first time ever, each event will be live-streamed via Performa’s website, giving out-of-towners the chance to tune in. And for those that can make the trip, the performances will be free of charge. 

“It has to do with offering people something they haven’t had in a year and half that feels meaningful,” said Noble. “We wanted to do something for the community here.”

The Performa 2021 Biennial will take place across various locations in New York, October 12–31, 2021.


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