Recapping Performa 2021: But was it Performance Art?

by Jeanette Joy Harris, Melissa Noble, and Julia Wallace December 8, 2021

Ed. Note: This is part one of a series in which Jeanette Joy Harris, Melissa Noble, and Julia Wallace recap their visit to the 2021 edition of Performa, a performance art biennial in New York City. 

Julia Wallace (JW): All of my performance art life I have heard tales about a performance art festival called Performa in a grand and faraway place called New York City — it has always been my dream to go and finally, this year, along with two smart and accomplished Houston art ladies, I got the chance!

Melissa Noble (MN): Yes, I was excited to attend with you two as well. Performa is a festival of performance art started in 2005 by RoseLee Goldberg, art historian, and curator of contemporary performance. This Biennial is a series of performance events across a variety of NYC venues. Performa commissions new works by artists, and also restages seminal works from performance history. Goldberg’s texts on performance art history have positioned her as one of the prominent experts in this area. She “wrote the book” about performance, as they say, and it is used in most art history classes.

Jeanette Joy Harris (JH): It has been a dream of mine to go to Performa, as well. From what I know it is usually a pretty robust festival, but COVID protocols seemed to have forced the organizers to rethink the program and venues. All events took place outside and there was a total of eight artists in the lineup. We were able to attend three of those commissions: Andres Jaque and the Office of Political Innovation, Madeline Hollander, and Ericka Beckman. It would have been nice to have seen more of the works, but even with those three performances, we were able to see the kind of program that PERFORMA and its influential board members like Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic could pull off during a pandemic.

MN: Overall, I wasn’t sure if this Performa was different because the constraints of COVID required the curators to focus on site-specific work, or if it was just a matter of my expectations. I thought the performances were going to be a bit more experimental. It would be good to compare a more “normal” year of Performa in order to evaluate if my expectations of the festival were accurate.

Ericka Beckman, STALK (2021). Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial

Ericka Beckman, STALK (2021). Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. Image courtesy of the artist.

JW: On Saturday night we saw Stalk by the filmmaker Ericka Beckman. Stalk was performed in Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn Heights, with the NYC skyline shining behind its stage which featured, as its backdrop, a screen mirroring the shape of the buildings.

JH: Those are some of the best views of NYC!

JW: Yes! To me, Stalk seemed like a piece of children’s musical theater and initially left me a little bit confused. It was a kind of sing-songy, anti-capitalist rendition of Jack and the Beanstalk, complete with dancers, singers, and an aerialist painted green.

JH: I didn’t realize that Beckman was a performance artist.

JW: She is primarily a filmmaker. I checked out her film works after seeing the performance and they gave me much more insight and understanding about what was going on in Stalk. Her aesthetic is delightfully quirky on-screen, lots of ridiculously bright neon colors and layered, cheesy effects that feel like a video game featuring human beings.

MN: I also watched a few of her films. Stalk or “Stock” (I did like the play on words in reference to the stock market and capitalism), when viewed from the perspective of a video might have been interesting. But the attempt at performers interacting with the images on the screens was less successful than in Beckman’s films. The music was slow in tempo which was jarring in relation to the “rap” style of lyrics and heavy downbeat. Though it might have been experimental for Beckman, unfortunately the production came across as amateur theatre for young audiences, not like the whimsy Beckman achieves in her films. I wondered if this was an example of us seeing the process of an artist exploring a new medium. The learning curve is high for the artist but the outcome is not as interesting for the audience.

JW: The use of Jack and the Beanstalk as an allegory of anti-capitalism felt like lots of work about “capitalism” that we see these days — it made the subject into a very moralistic-feeling tale of villains and caricature, good guys and bad guys, victim and oppressed.

JH: Yeah, I also thought there were some real issues with caricatures. In the narrative, Jack is posed as a con-man who goes to a farming community to steal their resources and turn them into ephemeral forms of capital. The farmers were shown as easily fooled yokels. It seemed pretty condescending. And I wasn’t a fan of the beanstalk come-to-life via an aerial performer.

JW: I did really appreciate the way Ericka made some thoughtful connections between gaming, gambling, and the story of Jack, especially after more research into her films and her history of using these kinds of metaphors — but it was hard for me to receive those layered subtleties in a seat far away from the stage and with the whole city surrounding us. It made much more sense to me when I consumed her work through the media of film.

MN: This brings us to the topic of what is the difference between performance art and performing arts? Goldberg has said that “her objective in creating Performa was to produce work she’d never seen before and have the miracle of working with artists who would make things of wonder.” The festival presents new works by artists working in performance, but also first performance work by artists working in other mediums. I believe this is what we experienced with the Stalk production. As we’ve said, this piece is categorized closer to theatre than performance art.

JW: Before coming to Performa, I had the impression that this festival was about performance art, but it seems to me that it is actually more of an opportunity for RoseLee and the Performa-Powers-That- Be to find artists that are successful in other mediums and get them to experiment with performance. Ericka Beckman was a clear example of this: traditionally a filmmaker, she was pushed to create a performance piece. It definitely felt like an experiment. This all being said, it left me somewhat disappointed that I didn’t get to see any official “performance artists” doing actual “performance art” at one of the most world-famous festivals so enmeshed with the medium!

MN: Yes, Beckman’s piece came off as a piece of theatre, though I’m not sure that was the intention. Unfortunately, the problems we all saw with the execution of this performance were due to a lack of experience in the medium. Despite Beckman’s obvious expertise in some aspects of the show such as the projections, the production fell victim to the many pitfalls made by inexperienced performers. From the perspective of theatre, these issues are common and also seen in performance art by artists not experienced in performance. But ultimately, there is only one way to learn another medium and that is to do it. Usually, this kind of experimenting is done on a smaller scale, whereas Beckman got a much larger platform than most get for this kind of investigation.

JH: Defining “performance art” as a discipline is frustrating and RoseLee certainly doesn’t have any responsibility to be the ultimate arbiter of performance. And — honestly — I don’t want her to. A lot has happened since 1998 when the go-to Performance: Live Art Since 1960 was published. In fact, so much has happened that three years ago RoseLee published Performance Now: Live Art for the Twenty-First Century, which felt like a supplement to the earlier survey. But there are a lot of other people tackling performance theory both academically from an artistic practice methodology. Vest+Page comes to mind. There are a lot of interesting voices in the conversation. Of course, RoseLee’s is certainly important.

JW: One of the best parts of seeing Performa is that I received a much better feel for how Houston performance compares to what is happening in New York City. I look forward to expanding more on that in the next two articles!

* * * * * *

Jeanette Joy Harris is a Houston-based artist and artistic researcher focused on performance and politics. She works in a variety of media including performance, video, photography, installation, and public engagement. She has shown work in London, the Netherlands, Venice (IT), Brindisi (IT), Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Francisco, Portland, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston, including a solo show at Lawndale Art Center (2016) and a residency with International Performance Association in conjunction with International Performance Art Week in Venice (IT) facilitated by Vest+Page. Joy regularly speaks about performance at universities and community organizations including Texas Woman’s University, University of Houston, American Society for Aesthetics, New Mexico Texas Philosophical Society, and the Jung Center Houston. Joy is on the management committee of Experimental Action and was elected to the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy (2021-2023). She completed her MscR in history of art at University of Edinburgh College of Art and is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought from European Graduate School. Joy was scholar in residence at the Hannah Arendt Center at. Bard College.

Melissa Noble is Managing Director of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston, Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Initiatives and Lecturer at University of Houston’s Catherine G. McGovern College of the Arts and facilitator of the Blaffer Art Museum’s Convergence Research program. She has previously taught at the University of Washington, Juniata College, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and the Houston Grand Opera Studio. Her professional career as a movement consultant and choreographer of 25 years in the areas of theatre, dance, and opera spans across the United States. Her work has been seen with the Pacific Performance Project, Stages Repertory Theatre, Robert Davidson Dance Company, Aero/Betty Aerial Dance Theatre, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Meany Hall of the Performing Arts in Seattle, On the Boards in Seattle, and the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center in New York. Melissa has a BA in Art/Art History from University of Northern Iowa and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Practice and Emerging Forms from University of Houston.

Julia Claire Wallace is a Houston-based artist, curator, community facilitator, and director of Experimental Action, Houston’s performance art biennial. She works in a variety of media including performance, video, social practice, spoken word, painting, and writing. She has performed in Houston, Austin, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York City, New Orleans, and Leipzig (GR). Julia served as a facilitator to Performance Art Lab and was one of the founding members of their guerilla flash dance project sexyATTACK. She is the creator and curator of Houston’s Performance Art Night and a founder and former facilitator of the social sculpture Continuum. She was a co-director of Lone Star Explosion 2014 and Experimental Action 2017. She was the director of Experimental Action 2019. She received her BFA in painting from the University of Houston in 2009 and her MA in Arts Leadership at the University of Houston in 2018.


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Gene Fowler December 8, 2021 - 16:41

I offer this info not as a smartypants gesture but simply in the spirit of sharing data. I don’t know for certain that it was her first major work on performance, but the initial Goldberg volume that I read was Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present when it first appeared in 1979. So she has actually been an important voice on the wiggly medium for a much longer period of time. But you’re right, it can be an imprecise and, at times, even maddening exercise to attempt to decree what is and isn’t performance art. In many ways, however, that’s what is so captivating about it. If we could truly figure it out, it might be boring. Sometimes boring-good, sometimes not so much.

Jeanette Joy Harris December 9, 2021 - 01:44

Thanks for that data point, Gene!


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