Performa Captures the Magic of the Moment

With one-off performances and in-the-moment ideas staged across New York City, the biennial founded by RoseLee Goldberg is a clarion call to turn off your smartphone and experience what’s in front of you.

“The Malady of Death—Monodrama with Hon Lai-Chu” (2015), commissioned by M+ for the exhibition Mobile M+: Live Art. Photography by CPAK Studio

Modern life revolves around the smartphone. Meaningful face-to-face interaction is becoming increasingly rare in an era of hyper-convenience, where handheld devices forge the feeling of being instantaneously transported anywhere at the click of a button. But not for RoseLee Goldberg, the art historian and founding director of Performa, the New York nonprofit dedicated to the performing arts. The biennial’s tenth edition, which runs until November 19, is a welcome reminder of the virtues of simply showing up.

This year’s edition showcases nearly 50 artists and collectives from around the world, who coalesce at far-flung venues across New York City to stage one-off performances that capture the magic of the moment—and perhaps our shortage of sustained attention. The schedule ranges from minimalist dance and enticing monodramas to atmospheric light shows. Highlights include a spellbinding score by Anna Maria Häkkinen, who filled the Arts Center at Governors Island with local dance artists performing to a harp-forward number by composer Keliel. French-Caribbean artist Julien Creuzet will explore the collective memory of movements across the Black Atlantic diaspora, inspired by his archive of gestures and dances. Other idiosyncratic talents—Karon Davis, Lonnie Holley, Marcel Dzama, Hito Steyerl—deliver high-concept affairs. 

Gaetano Pesce Studio working with colored resin to create a large-scale lamp at the Performa Biennial Gala. Photography by Deonté Lee/BFA

“Art brings us into close proximity to culture and politics in a way that nothing else does,” Goldberg told Vogue. “Everything we make is made in such a way that, frankly, I get blown away. I want people to be as moved as I am. I should be so used to this by now, but I get astonished by what artists produce. My guarantee is that you’ll be astonished.”

Goldberg, who mostly shuns social media, discovers artists the old-school way, by traveling around the world and visiting galleries and museums. She and her team of curators select bold-faced names who are influential in their fields but perhaps have little experience in live performance. She staged the first edition in 2005, the idea sparking after she encouraged artist Shirin Neshat to stage one of her video works live four years prior. The events have increased in ambition and scale—a crowd instructed to laugh for hours, Barbara Kruger’s critical phrases emblazoned on 50,000 subway cards—and continue to expand our understanding of performance today. Performa’s archive is available online, but there’s a reason why critic Holland Cotter once called the biennial a “paean to you-had-to-be-there.”

Performance still of “Algorithm Ocean True Blood Moves” (2023) by Julien Creuzet. Photography by Walter Wlodarczyk, courtesy of the artist and Performa
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