Performa 11

by Candy Koh

33 Fragments of Russian Performance, on view for all three weeks, was possibly the only work that tried to refer directly to Performa’s theme this year. The survey spanned from 1920s to the present, highlighting major works through photographs, video footage, and artifacts behind plexiglas. Its pedagogical motive made me wonder again about the works that had been excluded because documentation no longer remained. The question pressed for attention with increased urgency when I passed through the more contemporary eras, where more media were readily available to the public: several different footages of the same few artists looped on the monitors, then the installation jumped to the next two artists of a later time frame. Surely the curators had to economize, given their limited space, but is it possible that a work was deemed less important to this narrative because one did not or could not record it? Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida (1980) that “every photograph is a certificate of presence,” an indisputable testament that something had existed in a particular time and space. But what if there is no certificate? Have they no choice but to dissolve into fiction and myth or worse, nothing?

In our current age of camera phones and omnipresent CCTV’s—where now there exists instead a surplus of images—the issue turns into that of selection. Goldberg and company chose a massive number of works for Performa 11, but because there were so many, some received more spotlight than others. A piece that I enjoyed the most happened to be one that was not so lucky. Swiss-Chilean artist, Laurence Isabel Wagner’s To Do What? took place on Saturday evening during the Fluxus weekend at 8pm in lower Manhattan. I found out about it through a printed pamphlet that was handed to me during one visit to the Performa Hub, but might not have known about it otherwise if I hadn’t picked it up myself; Performa’s website usually featured all of its works in separate links, but for a while (the site seems to have changed this only after the weekend’s events) Wagner’s piece was thrown under a massive group simply titled “Fluxus Weekend Various,” along with 20 other works. Though I had some difficulty navigating the website to find details about the piece, I at least had information about the location on my pamphlet.

Wagner’s piece took place around the block of Canal, Wooster, Grand, and Greene Streets; according to Performa’s brief description, she was to be walking around this chosen trajectory, “carrying a suitcase,” “until she reaches the point of exhaustion.” Though fortunately the block was not very large, I realized that I had to actively locate the constantly moving artist by going around and around the block myself. The streets were relatively abandoned at that hour—I went by at around 9:30pm; I passed by very few people and all the shops were shuttered. Some minutes passed when I started to check the address repeatedly, wondering if I had made a mistake; I obsessively looked toward the hands of every passerby hoping to see luggage. At one point, I saw two young women come from the opposite direction. One was dragging behind her a large suitcase with baggage claim tags, speaking animatedly in a language I did not understand. I passed them, assuming that one had just arrived from the airport and the two were on their way to their lodging.

Stupid mistake, mostly because I confused “briefcase” with “suitcase” and the verb “carrying” misled me even further as I imagined a bag suspended from the ground. Only when I encountered the same women again did it occur to me to ask if one was the artist: the answer, yes. To justify myself—anyone passing by who did not know this was a performance would surely have assumed she was another foreign visitor, just off the plane on her way to a friend’s home. Her steps were convincingly purposeful, like she really had a destination in mind.

The artist was born and raised in Switzerland, French her primary language, and currently worked near that night’s performance. She chose that block because she walks that route almost everyday to go to work. When I asked what was in the suitcase, she laughed and said it was a mystery. It was an unseasonably warm day, a perfect day for a night walk. Though we circled around and around the same block, I felt like we all shared the same task of accompanying her to this unknown destination, even protecting her journey through the isolating metropolis.

When I tried to find more information on the artist at home, I had very little luck. She didn’t seem to have a website, no one seemed to have written anything on her, Facebook listed a million Laurence Wagners, and Performa’s site only contained three unhelpful sentences. All I had was a short video clip I took on my phone. It is likely that other visitors had taken photos or videos that night, but I imagined all of them gathering dust in people’s camera phones then eventually being deleted, or maybe float around anonymously and aimlessly through the overload of internet data then forgotten and lost forever. The piece was selected to be a part of Performa, but its inclusion lost meaning in the midst of the massive number of other selections. If Wagner had been expecting to draw more attention through her inclusion in the biennial, she might as well have ditched the whole process and just posted flyers in The Kitchen.

There was a lot to see during Performa 11, but the curatorial efforts seemed haphazard in most cases. At least New Yorkers had the choice to see a variety of performances that they otherwise may not have; the support that the biennial receives enables its organizers to draw more attention to works than one may be able to on a smaller scale or individual basis. We can only hope that art-seekers will not take Goldberg’s selections as the standard, but make their own decisions on which are worthwhile. Since Goldberg most likely won’t be redirecting her agendas anytime soon, I’ll just keep writing my own performance history until someone starts listening to me.