We met with Defne Ayas, the curator-at-large of Performa, the performance art biennial that defines the new trends in performance. Since its first installment in 2005, Performa has been offering a determined program that not only presents what’s new in this field, but also offers new ideas and discussions for the future of performance art. Ayas has been one of the key figures within the team of Performa since its inception and has been Founder RoseLee Goldberg’s partner in crime since the early days of the biennial program.
Osman Yerebakan: Since its first installment in 2005, Performa has been one of the determiners of ‘what’s new in performance art’ or ‘which direction the performance is going’. How do you see this year’s organization in terms of defining the future of performance art?
Defne Ayas: A lot changed since 2005 actually. Performa since then ignited a flame, especially in museum and exhibition planning. What followed suit was a surge of interest in performances, both current and historical. Symposia, exhibitions and various platforms have embraced the medium exponentially, and the accumulated impact led many major institutions including the Guggenheim and MoMa to redefine their positions and tasks at hand. These museums are now presenting massive performance art-related exhibitions and productions, and developing related departments. Performance as a medium is more relevant than ever before, acknowledged by the public at large and the media alike. Performa in that sense set up a very much needed context both for the history and its future with its each edition. Now almost every museum has a performance and media department. For us, we are still presenting ambitious productions like Alexander Singh’s as well as works by younger newcomer artists who will be much heard of in a couple of years. That’s both the strength and risk-taking nature of Performa.
OY: What is your opinion about this growing interest for the art of performance? Museums like MoMA and The Whitney are putting major exhibitions that are directly or partly related to this field? How does this link to Performa?
DA: Live work is so critical and essential. You cannot zip live experience. You have to engage with it and with the ideas put forth by its creators. You cannot escape it like you would a video piece or a painting. Live works are capable of gluing you in, despite ADD induced by Windows system, search engines and social media. But then I am now getting even more interested in “creation” itself, pre-performance, pre- production, pre-live momentum, and how ideas are being conjured up and distilled.
OY: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg’s Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present is now almost considered to be the Bible for the history and the criticism of performance art. Where and how would you place Performa as a milestone in the history of performance art in this book?
DA: Mrs Goldberg initiated Performa with an editorial vision. She was not content with only reviewing what others had programmed out there and looked at the first edition as if she was planning her next book. So you can consider every edition as part of Performa’s legacy and record needs of what is out there and what should be out there.
The great part of Performa is that it includes many visions –art historical, architectural, activist, anthropological, even culinary, all united through the filter of performance. Performa did not come from a rigid or random template imposed by institutional models but from a long exercise of observation of key events in art history since the outset of 20th century, sometimes exciting, sometimes fragile. As a result, there was a driven sense of change; and a sense of activism to shape up New York art world again. It would be right to stress that these ideas had only the most aspiring, ambitious associations in order to create a community of artists and curators as well. I am so amazed now to witness how Performa has become such a potent collaborative site in which not only art world’s basic cornerstones are reflected upon but urgent issues in art criticism, conceptual architecture, noise music, alternative publishing and artful gastronomy as well critical issues such as that of citizenship or politics of archives can be addressed. That said, not enough writers are out there to make sense of this history and place Performa to the place it deserves within performance history- yet.
OY: In pieces like Julie Tolentino’s or Clifford Owen’s the personal histories of the artists are blended into their acts. How do you see the relation of the body, the identity of the self and the act of performing? Does Performa serve as a hub for self improvement or a sanctuary for the artists as well?
DA: In 2011, Michael Portnoy led participants in a bit of “conceptual horticulture”, developing new breeds of practice from the seeds of works presented in Performa 11 as to improve performance and Performa. Through his class, he wanted to identify the seeds and trends that would make it to the next generation of a ‘performance.’ thus the focus was on improvement, which has been key for us. Since 2005, there are some select artists who keep coming back every edition, who produce new work, not only improving their own work but also improving us. Not everyone is using their own body for this of course; some choose to work with actors, containers, vessels, props and other materials. Yes, Performa acts a sanctuary in many ways in this way- we do not work with the artist once and say “see you never again.” Never. We keep the conversation going. y the way, have you seen also Eddie Peake’s work?
OY: You are currently the director at Witte de With in Rotterdam. The Humans, a theatrical play that is commissioned by the museum is a part of Performa as well. How do you find a way to link your position there to what’s here?
DA: I am all for a perpetuation of different collisions, encounters, introductions. The question is eternally about how we can align with the life force of artists and art-making. That’s why I have mostly focused on live work while at Performa. And at Witte de With, the exhibition will still remain as a center, holding many centers and gravity points simultaneously, with explicitly imbedded collaborations such as the incredibly well-received, well-curated, atmospheric show by AA Bronson, titled The Temptation of AA Bronson. Now that I have been responsible for this major institution and its building in the past two years, I have been embracing it as a place that is half something and half something else, for instance half church for connections and transactions, and half think-tank for thought-provoking knots, oscillations and activations across humanities. Art in fact can be a facilitating force through the crisis of humanities. During the past 20 months, also together with artist and writer Alexandre Singh, I have taken a more active role in instigating the pace and tempo of various creation experiences at Witte de With and enabled certain structures to slow down. For The Humans – the 3,5 hour long play by Alexandre Singh on universe’s creation, I thought it was important that two institutions join forces together in order to present his ambitious undertaking here to New York and give him the attention and context he deserves, along with his stellar cast and crew.
OY: What are your selections from this year’s program?
DA: We have to love our children equally. But since we are doing the interview in the last week of Performa13, for sure, go and be stunned by Gabriel Lester’s phantom play and witness Raqs Media Collective’s Last International. Do not miss Conrad Ventur‘s Tribute to Mario Montez at Participant, the legendary underground actor Mario Montez, who was a favorite subject of artists Jack Smith and Andy Warhol, and who died in September this year.
I would also recommend a visit to here Performa Hub (designed by Markus Miessen) at 13 Crosby. The Performa Institute- I used to be more involved with its programming- is now under the capable hands of Adrienne Edwards, and forms the heart of Performa’s investigative nature. Just today, we hosted the last leg of Queering the Archive series with NYU’s Fales Library for instance-an underexposed archive that I very much would like to see further explored.
Photography by Azmi Mert Erdem