What REMAINS After the Performance? An Interview with Tif Robinette

Liping Ting, Airplay for Utopia – Poetry of Action, (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Photo: Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

By Daniella LaGaccia

Editors Note: This interview occurred in early June 2017, before the July 6th opening of REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey.

The show REMAINS opened July 6th at the Chelsea gallery Fergus McCaffrey, and featuring the live performances of Liping Ting, Hee Ran Lee, and Máiréad Delaney. A preview of the show, which was on June 3rd, featured a welcoming reception and a casual performance by Clifford Owens. Artists who will also be featured in the show include Daniel Neumann and Nigel Rolfe.

There’s a certain amount of surprise and satisfaction in being able to write that because there is a rarity in seeing this type of event programed, especially in commercial art spaces where live performance is typically kept at arms-length. With all of their experience combined, these artists have performed countlessly in the United States and abroad in various venues, spaces and festivals, large and small, that dedicate themselves to showcasing performance, but for some, if not all, this show will be the first time their work is put on display and for sale in a major Chelsea gallery.

The programing, which will run until August 11th, features a diverse group of artists, diverse in nationality, ethnicity, sex, age, practices, and even stages in their career. The show will feature multiple live performances from each of these artists throughout the month, and the gallery will continue to evolve, showcasing, as the name implies, the remains of the performances.

In an interview with Tif Robinette, exhibitions coordinator at Fergus McCaffrey and curator of REMAINS, we talk about the decisions that went into curating this significant show, programing a show in a Chelsea gallery space that is featuring live performance for the first time, as well as the relationship between the commercial art world and performance.

Begin talking about your experience curating performance. Have you ever curated a performance show at a major commercial art gallery or institution before?

I’ve always worked in the underground; I’ve always worked in small galleries and small intuitions, but never at a commercial gallery at this scale. Although, I am drawing from my experience from working with Máiréad [Delaney], Liping [Ting], Hee Ran [Lee], those three artists I have worked with before in past curatorial projects. So, I definitely am drawing from my experience from the past, and also my current curatorial projects that are also going on at the same time as this.

So, I’m drawing on that community, and I’m bringing some new people in that give more of a breadth, and a little of more well-known institutional names into the programing as well. Because I’m able to do this at a venue with a bit of a budget, I can bring people that I’ve never had access to before. Also, I’m able to support more financially the projects of artists that I have really enjoyed working with in the past.

Nigel Rolfe, Dust in Face (2008). Performance view from Dust in Face in Dublin, Ireland, (1980) Giclée print on archival paper, 19 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches (50 x 50 cm)
© The Artist, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

How long have you been involved in performance? How long have you been curating performance in smaller venues?

Ten years. Maybe a bit more, but I would say seriously since my late teens I’ve been putting on straight shows, and then in college I put on and helped produce a lot of events that included dance, performance, instillation, visual art, as well as literary readings, that kind of thing. I would say in the last couple of years in New York, I’ve really taken off with being serious about curational projects that focus of community, because I think performance art lends itself to that of its breakdown between the spectator and the spectacle.

With that in mind, this venue is a really interesting place to produce that kind of work, very experimental in a way because Chelsea galleries tend to not show straight up performance art shows.

Why is this gallery specifically interesting? What features does it offer for showcasing performance?

Well, I think the space architecturally is very interesting. The artists have all responded well to both the challenges of the space being that it’s a more commercial space, and also, exciting opportunities that architectural features can give to their work. So, the work is very site specific for all of the artists. They’re specifically working and interested in certain spaces within the space and responding to those spaces with their conceptual work. That’s really exciting for the artists because once you’ve performed in a certain space or a certain venue a number of times, it gets a little dull and what you find appealing about the space or the architectural aspect you want to work with. Basically, walls, floors, ceilings, staircase, windows, pillars, all of those sites will be activated.

You’ve been planning this show for a while now. Were there any concerns from the gallery about presenting performance in this space?

I’ve kind of been given carte blanche, but because I’ve been working with performance artists for a long time and also, I am myself a performance artist, I know what kind of problems in terms of materials in a space can bring. Also, because all of these artists have been working for quite a while in performance, they are very serious, there’s an element of trust that goes back and forth between us that if there is something specific that they want to do, I’m going to do my best as the exhibitions coordinator. This is what I do regularly at the gallery, I’m in charge of all of the physical aspects of putting on a show: sourcing materials for artists and that kind of thing, as well as installation problems or production problems, or ways of hanging, ways of displaying work. I know the space quite well, from how much weight can go here and there, what the walls can support and other issues. So, I have been working with each artist trying to figure out the best way to display their work.

Are there any specific restrictions in the use of materials in the performances? I know— for example—that fire and liquids are frequently discouraged from being used in venues and spaces.

No, not really by the gallery, but since I know the space very well there are things where I’m like, ‘Okay, were not going to get paint on the floor, because then I will have to clean it up.’ *laughs*

But, there are going to be liquids there are going to be sparks. There’s always a certain risk when you have a live body in the space and an audience in the space; there’s an unpredictability about that. I think that’s been part of the reason why institutions and galleries that if they do represent any type of performance art, it’s very safe in the form of documentation or ephemera, or institutions tend to lean towards showing choreographed work. One thing about all of the work being made in this is that there is an element of a negation of rehearsal. Even if the artists have worked with specific materials in very similar veins of work, there’s always the possibility for innovation in the moment.  That can be very scary, because as curator, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with each piece, but there’s a contract of trust in between you and the audience.

Hee Ran Lee, 50 Bulbs (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

Has Fergus McCaffrey ever programed live performance before?

It seems from the outside a new direction from the gallery, although the gallery has represented Gutai and Hi-Red Center artists from Japan for a very long time. But no, there have never been specific performances within the gallery.

What do feel are some of the goals of this exhibition? It’s quite unusual to have performance art programed in a Chelsea gallery, a commercial art space. What does that mean for performance where there’s perceived to be little monetary value in ephemeral art?

Yes and no. For instance, the Gutai artists we represent, for instance, [Kazuo] Shiraga, made performative work, the objects that were made in the process of his performances, the ephemera, are selling for millions of dollars now. And other performance artists in the past like Joseph Beuys whose performance based ephemera and editions and photographs, prints, and everything related to that, do have monetary value after the fact. There are performance artists who have done okay with related to their performance work being a sellable commodifiable thing.  And there’s other artists who have been selling plans to their work to institutions, so they can be re-performed at some point.

There are these tricky ways that performance artists, or galleries and institutions are trying to enter into the conversation of commodity in regarding a very anti-commodity discipline. It brings up some very interesting questions, but there are some very strong opinions in the performance art community that the type of work that we’re making should not be commodifable, that we’re making it directly against and in contrast to the problems of the art world, and the problems of commodity, and the problems of Capitalism. This is a view that some artists take who would not want to be in this environment making work.

Or whose work does not fit…

Yeah, does not fit, so one of those curatorial problems I think were part of my choice of which artists to put into the show. First of all, there were a bunch of artists who were on my master list who simply don’t make work that is completely ephemeral, there’s artists who are very anti-commodifaction of their practice in any way, and there is a short list of artists who I really respect their work who also make things within their practice that could be commodifiable in some way, whether it be prints, or works on paper, or artifacts, or other ephemera, more sculptural elements. I was interested in bringing those artists together and putting on a show where there could be works for sale within the show that being a part of the entire exhibition.

Clifford Owens, Photographs With an Audience (Miami) Topsy/Turvy (2011) Digital C-Print, Edition of 5, 30 x 40 inches (76.2 x 101.6 cm)
© The Artist, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

You just touched on this, but you told me privately a little bit ago that you wanted to curate artists who contrasted with each other’s’ work. Máiréad Delany and Hee Ran Lee for example make very different work. Explain from a curatorial position, why you felt contrast was the decision to go for this show.

Well, there’s contrast in all of the artists’ conceptual underpinnings in their work, but all of the artists have things in common in relation to aesthetics. There’s threads of aesthetics that tie each persons’ work together in interesting ways, whether it be human and machine, from human and natural elements, human and unnatural elements, so from the outside it looks like a diverse group of people, but there are connections…

It literally is a diverse group of people!

It literally is a diverse group of people both in age, nationality, ethnicity… I didn’t want to make a show that looks samey. Like, oh, of course all of these people will be showed together because all of their aesthetics are exactly the same. I wanted to create a vibrancy of conversation that work in a very similar vein, but have conceptual underpinnings that tie them together, which I think the title REMAINS leads into, both what remains after a performance action is finished, what remains in the memory, and the physical remains of the body. Since all of them are very body based, all of them are bringing in their specific identities in to the show.

So, you didn’t dictate a specific theme for the show.

No, I gave the artists the parameters of the space; we’ve been talking about materiality and the body quite a bit. While these artists may look different from the outside, to me they hold together as a firm group. There’s no wild outsiders, aesthetically, like, oh someone is painting rainbows on the wall.

This brings up a good point; these are people who you know will produce good work.

Right, solid work, and people who will respond well to other work that is going on in the space: People with a lot of aesthetic intelligence and conceptual intelligence, enough to be able to pick up on little threads running through it. But, since none of this work has been made yet, I can talk all I want on how it’s going to be, but that’s part of the exciting thing, that I don’t know exactly what’s it’s going to be.

Máiréad Delaney, Breach (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

What I find most interesting is that you curated very different people in terms of where they are in their career. An artist like Máiréad is still very much young in her career, while you also have Clifford Owens and Nigel Rolf, both of whom have a tremendous amount of experience and have very much established themselves as artists.

That’s something I thought about to in the curation, in having a range of ages, gender, nationality, ethnicities, so that my hope is that the younger artists like Hee Ran and Máiréad who make very strong work, show their work beside people who are career performance artists who have been doing this forever. And have been supported institutionally and books, things like that; I hope to have it sort of two ways: the younger artists being shown on par with older artists will give their work a…. respect for what they are doing…

They’re being talked about in the same conversation.

That’s a good way of putting it. And the older artists, artists like Nigel who have been working for a very long time, and who doesn’t often get shown in New York, really highlighting his career and practice as being extremely relevant, very fresh, very experimental, constantly pushing, and even though there are younger artists and older artists, all of them have this strive to keep pushing through their practice.

You were talking about this as we were walking through the gallery, but the show is called REMAINS, will there be remains from the performances that will stay within the gallery? And do you expect the artists to incorporate those remains within their performances as the show evolves?

So far that hasn’t been something that people have been necessarily interested in because of the diversity of materials and practices that people are really into. There really doesn’t seem to be a lot of collaboration or crossover, but I can’t say that it won’t happen because I don’t know that. But there hasn’t been a curatorial moving into that; I haven’t pushed that in any way.

Daniel Neumann, One Cycle Ahead (2015) Fridman Gallery, New York.
© The Artist; Photo: Juan Betancurth, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

When people think of performance art, names like Marina Abramović, or institutions like Performa usually come to mind to the average person. How do you think this show will help broaden how people see or talk about contemporary performance art?

For me, this is also a way of taking the performance artists who have been working primarily out of independent project spaces, sometimes institutionally, but institutions don’t really like us because we can’t give them video of exactly what we’re going to do…

There’s an interesting moment right now with the possibility of institutions and galleries presenting more dangerous work, work that’s harder to pin down as far as the many genres in performance art, and also I’ve been frustrated personally with the lack of what I view as important performance practice within Manhattan, period. When I go to events that are labeled performance art, most of the time with rare exceptions in the city, I end up going to avant-garde theater productions or contemporary performance dance which are very different disciplines than performance art that comes out of Fluxus, for instance. There are artists whose work comes out of the avant-garde, especially more Western Europe influences, and of-course, Japanese avant-garde influences, still making work practicing. We run all over the world going to performance art festivals, which is one of the few spaces where we can make work together that aligns with our practices. But, within Manhattan, not so much. I don’t see that experimentation happening here. I don’t see that dangerous element of innovation happening in the moment…

From a commercial standpoint… or institution…

Majorly from institutions as well. Performa sort of is a case in point for that. I really enjoy Performa events, but it doesn’t have the innovative dangerous underground flavor that I see in Brooklyn and beyond all over the world. I’m trying to bring a little bit of that excitement. People sometimes think that performance art is boring and dull, and stupid, and emperor’s new clothesy, but that’s how the way safe work is.