Live art enthusiasts, clear your calendars: Performa returns to New York this November, with 22 days of programming spanning the city. The visual art performance biennial, launched in 2005, kicks off its sixth edition this Sunday. Speaking with A.i.A. by phone earlier this week, Performa's founding director and curator Rose Lee Goldberg reflected on a decade of helming the organization. "I look back in wonder because 10 years later, all the projects are still as fresh and riveting as they were then," she said. "I discuss these performances very often when I talk about art history, and it generates excitement about what we've done and what's possible."
Performa has become known for its "historical anchors"—thematic touchstones from the artistic canon that help shape the biennial—such as Futurism (for the 2009 edition) and Surrealism (in 2013). This year focuses on the Renaissance, with its pageantry, courtliness, sumptuous visual culture and origins of globalism. "We don't ask all the artists to respond to the history anchor, but of course some do," Goldberg explained. "When we told Francesco Vezzoli," whose performance with dancer David Hallberg examining the origins of ballet and Renaissance art opens the biennial on Sunday at St. Bart's Church, "he said, immediately, That's my world! It's been fascinating for him to look at history directly."
Renaissance themes are suggested in a number of other Performa events. Wyatt Kahn engages the popular Renaissance art of puppetry, and will stage a daytime talk-show-like dialogue between his paintings-turned-puppets at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre. A number of artists, like Brazil's Eleanora Fabião, will take their acts to the streets, evoking the processions and pageants of the era. Pauline Curnier Jardin, a French artist, conjures a group of "Renaissance misfits" in a series of tableaux vivants staged at Pioneer Works.
Another hallmark of Performa has been its commitment to developing artist projects over time. "A very important part of what we do is continuing to nurture artists that we've worked with in the past," Goldberg said. That includes inviting artists back to multiple biennials. Danish artist Jesper Just, whose 2005 operatic commission True Love Is Yet to Come marked his live debut and set the bar for Performa's ambitious productions, returns with a new work about spectatorship in theatre and media. French choreographer Jérôme Bel has been tapped for a third Performa commission. Goldberg mentioned an interview she conducted with the artist in 2007, in which Bel meditated on his work's relationship to both the gallery and black-box space. "With each iteration [of his participation in Performa] he has taken that conversation further and further. Like an essay or novel, he keeps adding new chapters." Bel's performance follows Disabled Theater in 2013, when he staged a production with actors with learning disabilities. This year the choreographer's work responds to the city of New York, which he got to know after spending several weeks here attending performances at the previous biennial. "He said what's amazing about New York is that you can actually walk through the history of dance in the '60s," Goldberg said. His new work comprises dances by nonprofessional performers in three settings over three weeks—a downtown dance studio, a midtown gallery and an uptown theater—expanding his ongoing discussion about dance's reception in different contexts.
Despite a full calendar of events, including nearly 15 commissions, a handful of premieres and projects, and dozens of parallel events and talks, this year's schedule is slightly less hectic than in years past. "We wished to give more critical attention to each piece, to have time for each curator to engage fully in the long process of development that each commission takes," Goldberg explained. The attitude is in keeping with initiatives Goldberg has launched in the last few years to cultivate trained curators-cum-producers, such as the Mellon curatorial postdoctoral fellowships slated for the biennial. Goldberg takes pride in the fact that several of her curators—Charles Aubin, Mark Beasley and Adrienne Edwards—are pursuing or have completed their PhDs. There's a heady bent in this year's commissions, which tackle such thorny topics as identity and colonialism.
Additional anticipated performances throughout the month include commissions by Los Angeles-based artist Edgar Arceneaux; downtown nightlife fixture, artist and writer Juliana Huxtable; Hong Kong-based duo Zheng Mahler; cerebral Londoner Ryan Gander; and South African artist Robin Rhode.