Theater

The Biennial Bonanza ‘Performa 15’ Brings Us Live Performances Created by Visual Artists

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Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that live video feeds weren’t always included in theater, or that exhibitions didn’t normally involve choreography and poetry. Contemporary art has become reflexively multidisciplinary today, and it makes plenty of room for live bodies. Since its founding ten years ago, the biennial Performa has nurtured this profound shift, spurred by curator RoseLee Goldberg’s advocacy for “visual arts performance” as a separate tradition — not theater, not visual arts, but live performances created by visual artists.

Back in 2005 the month-long event threw the spotlight on an overlooked area of twentieth-century history and made a case for the vibrant range of contemporary live practices. These days projects take place at venues all across the city, with scores of performances, public programs, installations, live actions, and some truly category-defying events. (Like when I wandered into the bookstore Printed Matter to find New Zealand artist Brian Fuata improvising with a sheet over his head. His telegraphic utterances channeled ephemera on display from the archives of the “mail art” pioneer Ray Johnson, creating A Preparatory/Predictive Performance for a Circuit of Email and the Living.)

If you’re accustomed to theater, looking at “time-based art” requires a different headspace. Many projects are unrepeatable one-time events. That introduces an element of spontaneity and unpredictability that can be liberating — or frustrating.

I checked out a handful of projects over the weekend of November 13, starting with Erika Vogt’s Artist Theater Program (at the Brooklyn space Roulette) — certainly a demonstration of “visual arts performance.” Wheeling pictures and objects on- and offstage, her deadpan performers mixed aspects of an art exhibition with elements from traditional theater: scenic flats, soliloquy, and a strangely lengthy intermission.

Through small panels in otherwise blacked-out windows, spectators could peer down at Lower Manhattan’s ports and towers.

Ballet (New York), which French choreographer Jérôme Bel created for spaces around town, is a winsome work — a typical Bel piece of dancing democracy. Brought to life by a group of New Yorkers from all walks of life — elders and little kids; black, white, and Latino folks of all sizes and shapes moving en pointe and in a wheelchair — Ballet (New York) gives each a turn crossing the stage while making ballet and waltz moves. Trained dancers and amateurs alternate; each participant embodies grace in his or her own individual ideal.

Any doubts I might have harbored about the emotional power of performance were swept away by the breathtaking work created for this year’s biennial by Danish-born artists Jesper Just and FOS. Titled in the shadow/of a spectacle/is the view of the crowd, this living installation offered (among other things) a haunting memorial to those killed on 9-11 and in the subsequent wars. Mounted on upper floors of the 225 Liberty building overlooking One World Trade Center, the piece built layer after layer on this supercharged location. Through small panels in otherwise blacked-out windows, spectators could peer down at Lower Manhattan’s ports and towers precisely as the sun set and dusk turned into eerie night. Infrared lights and a whirring drone whose wind powered an organ brought to mind imminent danger. A stunning silent video showed crowds wandering a field, searching for the lost. As we view this population from an aerial perspective, we realize that the footage is shot from a drone hovering above them.

A vocalist improvised a dirge with a bass guitarist. Her face is filmed and projected onto an image of the new Freedom Tower; her accompanist can only be seen through chilling surveillance footage. We spectators moved from room to room in the dark, unsure of where to go next or what to do with our mounting sorrow and dread. In the shadow makes us see like predators and feel like prey. In the days just after the Paris massacres, this brilliant and moving performance underscored the vitality — and necessity — of a fluid, expressive form.

Performa 15

212-680-0569, 15.performa-arts.org

Through November 22

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