Interview with RoseLee Goldberg

by Kate Watson January 25, 2010

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

I had the opportunity to sit down with RoseLee Goldberg at the start of the Arthouse Visiting Lecturer Series. Arthouse is currently closed while undergoing an epic remodel that will transform their Congress Avenue home and the Lecturer Series aims to fill the hole in Austin’s art scene created by Arthouse’s temporary closure. Goldberg is the Founding Director and Curator of Performa, the wild, New York-based month-long biennial that showcases the newest and best in performance art. Much cudos to Arthouse for bringing visionaries like Goldberg to Austin. Upcoming in this stellar series are Hou Hanru, the Director of Exhibitions & Public Programs at the San Francisco Art Institute, on January 26 and Sina Najafi, Editor of the genius publication Cabinet, on March 11. Don’t miss these wonderful guests!

Kate Watson: I’ve been researching you and there’s a few standard lines of biography that come up, but I’m interested in hearing more of the narrative about how you got interested, how you got your start.

Roselee Goldberg: Life is always very autobiographical. I was a dancer since I was four years old, everything from tap dancing to classical ballet to Spanish, but I also always loved painting and drawing as well. And I got my fine art degree in college but I was still dancing and trying to decide between being a painter and a dancer. And then I discovered the work of Oskar Schlemmer of the Bauhaus. I saw this wonderful exhibition of his diaries in London and I instantly identified with this artist who was also a dancer. I ended up writing my dissertation on those diaries that focused on his duel life as a dancer and a painter, examining the difference between making work in space versus in two dimensions. And writing about him resolved all of my questions.

KW: How did you come to New York? Did you learn about what was happening there, performance-wise?

RG: I was hired as the director of the gallery of the Royal College of Art in London straight out of school. In those days, there was no school where you learned how to be a curator— you just jumped in the deep end! I did that for three years. It was very exciting, but the first thing I did when I got the job was go to the Venice Biennale, Documenta and then to New York and Los Angeles. New York in 1972 was amazing, of course. On my first night there, I met Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Lucy Lippard, Warhol; everybody was there. I fell in love with the city of New York, and three years later I moved there…

KW: …and never looked back?

RG: And never looked back! Actually, I moved there thinking it would eventually slow down. But it doesn’t. All these years later, it’s as frenetic as it ever was.

KW: Did you feel a huge shift at the end of that era of the downtown scene in New York? When did things change?

RG: It changed when rent went from paying 200 dollars a month for a 2,000 sq/ft loft to 2,000 dollars for it. It was very clear, and it seemed to happen very suddenly in the late ‘70s.

KW: Did you suspect it was coming?

RG: It was the economy; the city. Historically, it’s very interesting because all of Soho was actually protected.  You used to have to prove that you were a writer or an artist in order to live in a loft. And slowly that law was eaten away. Basically, Uptown people discovered that, for this ridiculously small amount of money, you could have this vast amount space.

KW: And of course the cachet that came from you all being there.

RG: It happened really quickly. It’s been twenty years now, and I walk around and see a building that’s full of Chanel, and I still remember who lived in that building.

KW: Or you see Whole Foods on the Bowery.

RG: There is no Uptown/Downtown anymore. There really used to be Downtown. Up until the early ‘80s you just didn’t go Uptown: you went there to go to the MoMA or to go to the doctor. The whole art community did not go above 14th Street.

KW: Do you feel like that’s happened again in Brooklyn? Do you see similar sorts of communities emerging?

RG: I hear about Brooklyn, but I don’t get there as much as I’d like to. I love to hear from some of my students who are living out there that it’s a bit like living out in the country. They come into the city during the week, but on the weekend, they stay in Brooklyn and don’t come into the city.

KW: As the economic crisis has developed over the past two years, do you feel like the energy is at all reminiscent with what was happening in the ‘70s?

RG: It’s different now. I don’t think that one ever goes back nor that they should, but there is something interesting about a recession that brings them back to conversation. Brings people back to ideas, and brings people back to an extraordinary kind of inventiveness. Not to say that there weren’t wonderful works being made during the more prosperous years. But I guess having come through New York in the ‘70s when it was a badge of honor to have no money, and to be outside of that system, I personally find it quite exciting. I think it’s helpful to the next generation coming up. I think it’s very intimidating to come to New York. If you arrived in New York in 2005, you would inevitably have thought, “how am I going to be this superstar artist?” I actually have this fantasy that maybe the art will slowly move back into Soho as the stores close. But that’s just a fantasy.

KW: Do you feel, in times like this, that there is more impetus for collaboration across mediums?

RG: There is certainly a long history of that: think of the Dadaists meeting up in Zurich in the war, or Paris just after the World Wars, or Berlin after the war years. There was an incredible sense of regeneration, of coming together and starting again. The attitude of, “let’s clear the slate; let’s see what we can do.” I’m such an optimist; I always believe that you make it work, whatever little means you have.

KW: Do you feel like the work in Performa 2009 looks really different from 2007?

RG: The work is always changing. I always read what’s happening in the art world as so integrated with what’s going on in politics and economics. The thing that’s intriguing me now is that people are turning to magic…there’s a magic in the air. Different themes are popping up that seem to be coming out of nowhere.

KW: Does the work of organizing Performa feel different from past years?

RG: I started Performa specifically because I wanted us to get back to a world of ideas; I wanted there to be a place where we could talk about work and not talk about the marketplace.  And that can change whether the market is high or low, that’s the real strong mission behind it. The main thing that’s shifting is virtual access and how we are using social media. It’s about building that community, building that sense of discussion…

KW: It’s certainly such a valuable tool. I follow Performa on Facebook…it’s this constant reminder of what is happening.

RG: Nam June Paik said this wonderful thing to me once, “The Internet was invented for everyone who doesn’t live in New York.” Nam June always got a good laugh. It raises all kinds of interesting questions about the nature of performance because you have to be there. My response is that ideas can come to you in all kinds of ways and you can be changed by them, even if you weren’t there.

KW: Performa is such a risky endeavor! It’s fascinating to have no sense of what any of the work will be like before it happens…

RG: I think in the art world we really expect the unexpected. We always want to be surprised. It’s literally this drive for constant newness—it’s not just the thrill of the new, but it’s the sense that you’ve changed, to have your mind changed. I’m always looking for surprise because I have seen so much. I definitely don’t go around to different festivals and say, ”well, that’s terrific, I’m going to bring that back to New York.” That’s not what interests me; it’s more about pushing an artist and taking them to where they’ve never been before and asking the big questions.

KW: Are there any particular projects that stand out in your mind as being the riskiest?

RG: They are all unknowns. They’re working on it right under your eyes and right up to the last second. In most cases, one sees very little until the night it’s on. So, that’s a part of the excitement. Its life; I really love watching all of that.

KW: I love what you said [in the Arthouse lecture] about Cindy Sherman, that there are so many artists who have been doing performance “secretly” since the beginning. Why do you think people have such a hard time with accepting performance?

RG: It’s a blurring of media and you need to cross a lot of media to understand where a lot of it is coming from. You know, somebody could be very informed about contemporary music but know nothing about contemporary art, or somebody could be totally into new media. For example, it takes a lot of work to understand where the Futurists were in regard to [Edward] Gordon Clay, who was writing about theater at the time, and Pirandello, and what Pirandello was saying, and what the Russians were doing, and film. To me those are the connections that get very exciting because you see that there are all those threads that criss-cross between the disciplines.

KW: That’s so interesting in the context of academia and people specializing more and more in such a tiny world— that really, performance is resisting this kind of specialization.

RG: For me, it always relates back to the history of art and the nature of the medium itself. There’s an expectation of risk and abstraction in the art world. So what is different between theater and performance? Well, theater is often based in realism. I think art is grounded in years of rejecting realism, so it’s a very different aesthetic. For me what’s interesting is trying to understand where the edges of these histories connect.

KW: This makes so much sense now that I know your background in dance as well as visual arts. Do you still think about making new work?

RG: Yes, its part of one’s being. I think that it’s exciting to be at your stage in life, and you realize that everything you do, it becomes who you are. I am just as likely when I go to review a show to make a drawing as my notation, or to come home and try out a particular move I saw because I was trying to understand what was going on. So, for me, the making is ingrained in how I respond to things.

KW: So what are you excited about this year?

RG: The most exciting thing for me is…well, there’s so much to talk about. The totality of what we’ve produced is really what’s so thrilling. This is the first time we will expand across all disciplines of performance and dance and film and architecture and all kinds of areas. The level and range of ideas is incredible. The best part about it is when people are able to go from one thing to another and make connections and understand, “oh that’s why that is there and this is here…” And that’s really it; it’s bringing together all these different people, all these different things. That’s what exciting, to see this community come together.

KW: Do you find a lot of people who come to New York for Performa do the whole thing?

RG: I don’t think people should try to see everything. What I’ve enjoyed the last couple of times is the people standing in the street with the Perfoma map, trying to find their way around; the city becomes like a treasure hunt.

KW: I love what you said [in the Arthouse lecture] about how you woke up one morning and thought to yourself, “I’m going to do this biennial.” Did the book [Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present , considered the seminal text on the history of performance art] happen the same way?

RG: I had been writing quite a few of articles by then, and had been running the Royal College Gallery, and made this suggestion that one comprehensive book would be amazing. I didn’t know it would be around thirty years later; it’s very exciting to see that. Sometimes I look back and read some of it and wonder where I found the artists.

KW: It’s just so interesting the shift in history as well. The way we remember things.

RG: Once in a while I have to touch it up a bit but I wouldn’t dare go back and change anything in the first half. There are things I would like to add, but I find a way to incorporate them into the present. Thirty years later, there has been a lot more research on a lot of these performers, but I can’t possibly start that.

KW: It is an interesting record to keep of where you were at, at the time.

RG: Yes, it has been consistent in that way. And as far as waking up one day and deciding to do Performa, I think the biggest leap was to have the courage to deal with the business.  Because when I thought of doing it, I used to say, “I couldn’t possibly, wouldn’t know how where to begin, wouldn’t know how to raise money, wouldn’t know how to do any of that.” And indeed, that first keeps you in the shadow in a way, from gaining confidence in how quickly people would respond, and actually raising money was a lot easier than I would have imagined. And to really learn how to structure a business was really amazing. You know, it’s not something that’s taught in the curatorial schools either. Ok, so we need money, nice idea, but how do you do that, how do you find that? That should be part of the teaching as well.


Kate Watson is a blogger for Glasstire. She also writes for the Austin Chronicle and …might be good. She currently lives in Austin.

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