Monday, May 20th, 2019

Performance Art: RoseLee Goldberg’s Call to Arms

Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century by RoseLee Goldberg

Pussy Riot, “Punk Prayer” (2012). Red Square, Moscow. Courtesy Debus Sinyakov.
Pussy Riot, “Punk Prayer” (2012). Red Square, Moscow. Courtesy Debus Sinyakov.

When RoseLee Goldberg first published Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, in 1979, she opened the doors for the scholarly study of this medium. Thirty-two years later, Performance Art was in its third edition, with a new chapter dealing with “The First Decade of the New Century 2001-2010.” Importantly, this decade included the advent of Goldberg’s groundbreaking performance biennial – Performa – which began in 2004, and which will see its eighth edition this year. Her latest publication, Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century (August 2018) is devoted exclusively to performance since 2000. Departing from her previous monograph, which ruminates on the processes and history of performance art, Performance Now dives into the political and social implications of its contemporary manifestations.

Performance Now is divided into six chapters: “Performance as Visual Art,” “Word Citizenship: Performance as a Global Language,” “Radical Action: On Performance and Politics,” “Dance After Choreography,” “Off stage: New Theatre,” and “Performing Architecture.” The table of contents which outlines these chapters features an image of Pussy Riot in Moscow in 2012 – a powerful, colorful image that sets the tone for the book. Goldberg’s mission is clear: she articulately and concisely investigates how performance “mak[es] us more alert” in a globalized, politicized, “endlessly shifting” society (11). After a brief introductory section, Goldberg follows the same structure in each chapter: an explanation of themes and trends related to its topic, followed by about 50 examples of artists illustrating those ideas, all from the past two decades. Because each section is distinctly separate from those before and after, and they are neither alphabetical nor chronological in their ordering, the sequence of the chapters seems primarily a matter of aesthetic. As almost every page of the book has at least one (usually color) illustration, it would seem to be an image-led arrangement.

Goldberg’s text reads like a call to arms to consider performance in relation to institutions as much as to individuals. Once an outsider art form, Goldberg explains how post-2000 performance art became “increasingly dense with content, and demanded close attention on the part of viewers, [making] the argument that performance was difficult to incorporate into contemporary art history or into the collection of a museum because of its ephemeral nature… irrelevant” (17). With the book’s comprehensive chapter entries, Performance Now acts a record to legitimize performance – helped along not only by Goldberg’s status as an expert, but also from the thorough documentation of performance in the almost-two-hundred pages of example artists and performances (many of which are from various iterations of Performa).

goldberg-coverChapter three (“Radical Action”) stood out as particularly timely. Dealing with themes of war, social media, identity, and capitalism, Goldberg beautifully describes the importance of performance as a way to protest, process, and connect. Earlier in the book she describes performance as “both a way out and a way in,” a claim that fully comes to life as Goldberg describes the “urgent appeals to upend history, to change situations from negative to positive… to imagine reconciliation, to create poetic spaces for personal visions, cultures and rituals” (73, 112-113). Performance, this book says, can bridge outside and in, working from outside systems to make changes, and getting inside institutions to spread a message.

Despite the scope of this undertaking to show the immediate power of live art, Goldberg never lets it get away from her. In elegant, jargon-free prose, Performance Now remains accessible to anyone with a light background in performance wanting to know more, although with the absence of the history of the medium (covered so well in her earlier monograph) it should be admitted that readers with no background on the subject may feel a little lost at times. However, the energy of Goldberg’s text certainly comes across no matter what level of previous familiarity with the material.

My biggest surprise with this book was the lack of a conclusion. The same, however, is true in the earlier study, and it would seem in both instances to be a strategic commentary on the ever-shifting nature of performance as a medium, which remains responsive to its time and place. To write a conclusion would perhaps be reductive, boxing in a form which has always crossed boundaries. Thus, by giving us performance now, Goldberg leaves us tantalized, imagining the range of possibilities of what might come next.

RoseLee Goldberg. Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018) ISBN: 9780500021255. 272 pages, 260 illustrations, $45