Happy Anniversary MoMA Performa Celebrate the Futurist Manifesto


Independent curator and critic Bartholomew Ryan celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto with visits to MoMA’s Modern Poets series and Performa’s Futurist Banquet on February 20th, 2009.

On February 20th 1909, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” was published as “Le Futurisme” on the front page of the French broadsheet Le Figaro. Authored by the Futurist leader F.T. Marinetti, it created a storm in the international art community that within weeks spread across Europe to Latin America and other places. The manifesto provoked a swath of similar tracts from other avant-garde groups affirming its anti-art or art-into-life objectives, but also determined to create counter movements to protect their patch from the rampant Futurists. Celebrating hygiene, masculinity, youth, and the speed and power implicit in modernity and technology, the manifesto was a bold rejection of 19th century doctrines. 

Friday, February 20th, marked the 100 year anniversary of the manifesto’s publication; I spent the day at two commemorative events: the afternoon’s Futurism and the New Manifesto held in the daylight-drenched Garden Lobby of MoMa, and the evening at Performa’s remarkable Futurist Banquet held for 100 invited guests at Inside Park, the newly-renovated restaurant at St. Bartholomew’s Church.

The MoMa event was a collaboration between the newly established Modern Poets series (an attempt to revitalize Frank O’Hara’s legacy within the institution) and Poetry journal. The journal had commissioned eight new manifestoes on poetry, four authors of which, with different ideologies and stylistic approaches, were invited to the event.  Joshua Mehigen, A.E. Stallings, Charles Bernstein and Thomas Sayers Ellis each read Futurist manifestoes and finished the day performing their own works. It kicked off with Bernstein, a legendary LANGUAGE poet, declaiming in full, high-pitched throttle Marinetti’s original manifesto. Nonplussed, but curious, the passing crowds stared at him.

Lines such as: “Museums: cemeteries! … Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to each other” provided an added frisson given their context. Taking a cue from the text, Bernstein withdrew a hammer, smashed his lectern to the ground, and struck at a large Joan Miro work stopping the hammer inches before the canvas, and holding it there as if deciding. I was near him and thought he might actually do it — I thought, for a second, that he himself was thinking that he might actually do it. Determined to stay within the realm of representation, he lowered the hammer and settled instead for casting a stack of free-Poetry magazines across the floor.

The celebrated chef Matthew Weingarten lent a playful air to Performa’s Futurist Banquet, held later in the evening. At the invitation of Performa founder and Director RoseLee Goldberg, he took the Futurist Cookbook published by Marinetti in 1932, and interpreted it anew. The avant-gardes wanted to break down the institution of art for arts sake and have art inform life. The food at the event, such as Milk in Green Light (formula by Signora Germano Colombo), did just that. For this dish Weingarten kept the horseradishes and black grapes from the original recipe, though he glammed up the cold milk into a more manageable chilled cream sauce with nutmeg (or was it turmeric?). The original recipe instructed, “Eat with a green disluce illuminating the bowl.” And so the house lights were turned off and the guests ate illuminated by the glow of green lights. I am not a food critic, but the guest on my left, Rachel Granville from Edible Manhattan, helped me out. Not being an artworlder, she was impressed by the whole production, “it’s not generally like this” I informed her, worried that she might consider a new career. “It is normally much less interesting.”

Apparently, this was an event in the food world, too. In attendance were two heavy hitters in things gastronomical, Jeffrey Steingarten and Florence Fabricant (complimenting the presence of Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz). In addition to the two courses (Futurist Pheasant with risotto for the main) Weingarten had prepared up to 20 appetizers and a range of Futurist cocktails. Only a fascist could have come up with Alcoholic Joust (by the Futurist Aeropainter Prampolini) made up of Barbera wine, citronade and Campari bitters.

The evening featured some striking performances, most notably Luciano Chessa’s reading in Italian of Piedigrotta, the legendary 1916 Futurist Poem by Francesco Cangiullo. I couldn’t understand a word, but he delivered it with great intensity and performative machismo. A number of people who had no Italian used the word ‘onomatopoeia’ appreciatively, and they were not wrong. Towards the end, Goldberg unveiled a prototype of an intonarumori, an instrument invented by Futurist Sound artist Luigi Russolo, of which no originals remain. Built with the scholarly assistance of Chessa, who is a Russolo scholar, the prototype is the first of a number of machines that will be built for Performa 09, the next performance art biennial which will take the Futurist Anniversary as its starting point. There was a hushed silence as Chessa cranked the machine.  A deep mechanized bellow emanated, filling the room with a somewhat eerie sense of possibility. 

The final dish was the Marinettian Bombe (by the Futurist cook Alicata), prepared by British artists Bompas and Parr Ltd. A bombe mould, encased, I think, with orange gelatin, though I thought I tasted vodka. After perhaps one too many Alcoholic Jousts, one laughing guest decided to use a tray of the quivering sensations as her own personal armory, and lobbed bombe ‘bombs’ across the room . It was a moment where things changed: it was not the hammer hovering over canvas, it was the hammer hitting canvas, or, more literally, it was jelly spattering on tables and the odd cheek. Would this catch on? Would this night be commemorated in 100 years as the evening when the art world cognoscenti cast off propriety and engaged in a gelatinous duel to the death? No. She sat down, satisfied, and people returned to their business.

From top: The crowd, aglow in green. Bompas and Parr Ltd’s Marinettian Bombe. All images courtesy Art in America. Photographer: Joey Shemuel