Since the first Performa Biennale in 2005, New York City has always been the star of the show. We have devoted all of our efforts to commissioning and supporting artists to create striking new works for the new century, and to collaborate with curators in cultural venues across Manhattan, and in neighborhoods beyond, with the firm intention to highlight the city as the performance capital of the world. We provided the audience with specially designed folding maps, each point representing an event in the program, so that each person knows precisely where they are in relation to the city as a whole, and also, as was visually evident, which part of the map they would cover by the end of the biennial. The public was taken to places they may never have entered before; a strip club on the Lower East Side, a comedy club in Midtown, an early 20th-century boardroom, and a rock-n-roll hangout, chosen by each artist as the ideal setting for their work and his ideas. With each landing, a new experience, a changed perspective; from the street, a building, a skyline. This is how memories are made.
And that’s what the Performa Commissions have the capacity to do, add new rooms to the memory palaces of our minds. Who can forget Rashid Johnson’s version of Amiri Baraka’s Dutch, in the infamous Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street, where we sat in bathrobes on wooden benches alongside two young actors whose dramatic and violent crescendo matched the rising heat of the sauna in the room? Or, the sight and sound of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera, Erwartung, exiting the subway in Times Square, to witness Robin Rhode’s ingenious adaptation of a 1909 Austrian tale translated into a parable for the women of South Africa under apartheid, which stopped passers-by in their tracks . Or Barbara Kruger’s intervention in the skatepark under the Manhattan Bridge, where the walls and ramps were covered with her signature white font on a red background, her messages What hopes? Whose fears? Whose values? Whose justice? basically, as the skaters sailed back and forth like endless waves by the sea.
Each of these commissions, and many more over a sixteen-year period, have added layers of new content, sensations and imagery to the urban fabric, radically transforming our understanding of its possibilities. At each biennial, we ask ourselves how to see the city again, to respond to the communities it encompasses, to the marches, in protest or celebration, which mark its avenues, and how to make accessible the profound work of artists whose matter offers an inclusive humanism that we must all absorb? With 2021, circumstances have categorically brought us back to those roots, our home once again: New York City. Although the commissions for Performa 2021 were in conversation long before the pandemic hit in March 2020, the circumstances required quick decisions and a new plan: we would postpone all the international commissions, we would produce everything outside, the performances would be live for the limited number allowed to attend, and broadcast for those who are far away. Seven artists and one architect – Kevin Beasley, Ericka Beckman, Sara Cwynar, Danielle Dean, Madeline Hollander, Andrés Jaque, Tschabalala Self, Shikeith – were extraordinary in their inventiveness and generosity, completely reinventing their work within these parameters. In doing so, each went beyond anything they had done before, in scale or complexity, by orchestrating productions that each speak very differently to what we have all experienced together. They have also boldly stepped into the unknown, not only to create live performances, some for the first time, but with a keen understanding that the success of their work depends, whether well prepared or rehearsed, that there are many unpredictable elements. : the public, the weather, the buzz of traffic or obstructions in street furniture. Despite everything, their energies are overworked by anticipation, dragging us into their wake, into their orbits.
My deep thanks to these remarkable artists, for their deeply imagined, complex and always engaging material. Working closely with our team of curators and producers to realize the fullness of their vision, each has created a distinct world of their own: deep, expressive, visually gripping and inspiring. Thanks to them, we see the city again.