Recently, it seems, Washington has seen a groundswell of live performance-based art and events. From the ongoing Soapbox performance art series at Hillyer Art Space and the weekly cabaret style La-Ti-Do vocal and spoken word revue, to the variety of pop-up art and performance events like The Heels on Wheels Roadshow and the events of the 2012 Lumen8 festival, live performance and performance art are going strong. 

Even institutions have welcomed experimental performance work: students from the Corcoran College of Art performed at this year’s Corcoran Ball in costumes made during the theatre and couture inspired “Wear. Strut. Occupy” class that took place in the Spring of 2012. In May, the Hirshhorn organized a “happening” for the closing of Doug Aitken’s SONG 1 film projection installation featuring a live performance soundtrack accompaniment to the film. These performances and events are united in spirit: they embrace performance outside of the theatre or traditional venue and challenge our perceptions of what live performance can be.

Esa Nickle is the General Manager and Producer of Performa, the organization responsible for the acclaimed biennial of live performance founded by RoseLee Goldberg in 2004. The three-week long event showcases performance in a variety of disciplines by artists with a variety of backgrounds. At the invitation of WPA, Nickle will be presenting a talk and meeting with WPA members in conjunction with the performance and installation series Take It to the Bridge, her presence here a clear and welcome indication of the burgeoning regional interest in the medium. She spoke with us recently about her work with Performa and her perspective on live visual performance.

WPA: What drew you to Performa? You have a history in public art and art education – how does your work with Performa fit into those personal interests?

NICKLE: I was drawn to Performa by the challenge of starting a cultural enterprise from scratch with no rules and many interesting challenges. Having many years of experience producing large-scale events, I was attracted to the excitement of the biennial and to the task of realizing [Performa Founding Director and Curator] RoseLee Goldberg’s vision of a truly unique project that would not only reframe performance and its history, but invigorate the cultural landscape.  My work history has been especially focused on being involved in projects that are built from the ground up based on an innovative idea. I cut my teeth working for Lois Weisberg in Chicago with the Department of Cultural Affairs running a huge public art and youth employment program in the arts and went on from there to replicate the project in London as part of a performing arts festival. Here in New York, I have had the pleasure of working in public art and with small non-profits before coming to Performa and have deep appreciation for the beautiful ecosystem of the non-commercial art world. From a programming angle, RoseLee welcomed my own interests in music and food and has encouraged me to curate related projects for the biennial.

WPA: What do you hope Performa will contribute to live performance? What role do you see Performa developing in relation to the medium?

NICKLE: Performa has succeeded in changing the perceptions of what live performance in the contemporary art landscape is and has inspired a renewed interest in live performance at every level from tiny non-profits to museums and from the commercial art world all the way into dance, film, music, food, architecture, etc.  Performance is no longer an isolated medium with a separate audience or as a sideshow to a regular exhibition program – we see it crossing over everywhere. Performa seeks to be at the center of the conversation, to contextualize it, to train critics to write about it, to present it in all its forms, and to document and disseminate the work.

WPA: You have seen a lot of performance in your work with Performa. What are some of the trends or uniting characteristics you’ve seen in the work in you’ve been exposed to?

NICKLE: I would say that the unifying characteristic in producing live work is the need to very closely consider the audience experience and how every single element of a live performance will impact their reception of the work. Over the years, we have seen artists become more and more ambitious and be more open to creating live work outside of the traditional settings.

WPA: You are presenting a talk in conjunction with WPA’s series Take it to the Bridge. How do you see this specific performance space impacting the live performance work that will be presented?

NICKLE: Purpose built performance spaces have both benefits and drawbacks. The benefits being that the space is a known entity that gives an artist something to work against, work with, or frame a performance [around]. The primary drawback could be that site specific performance work can be limited to the site and not be performed elsewhere. When RoseLee conceived of Performa, she was very aware that museums would be addressing periods of art history that were heavy with performance history and that would need to be able to address this in their curatorial programs.  In the best case scenario, live performance is integrated into the museums exhibition program rather than being presented as a disconnected program. In terms of physical space, utilizing existing space is always tricky as live performance often requires a physical context that provides suitable sound, light, floor space and audience comfort.  The next stage of the resurgence of live performance will surely be purpose built museum spaces for live performance.

WPA: What is performance art? How, if at all, does it differ from theater or spoken word?

NICKLE: RoseLee Goldberg started Performa to re-invigorate the important role of performance in art history and contemporary art. She hoped to broaden the language and context further than the limitation of the term “performance art.”  Her point being that many artists throughout history have used performance as a medium rather than as a specific practice.  Although we work with artists who identify themselves as “performance artists,” we generally are approaching an artist because of the content in their work and not specifically because they work with live performance.  So I hesitate to try and define performance art as we have sought to broaden the term rather than define it specifically as a particular art form, especially as artists today, more and more, are crossing disciplines in their work and defying these types of very specific categories.

WPA: What do you think are some common misconceptions about performance art, and how do you address them?

NICKLE: We seek to draw in all types of performance into the conversation and to counter the perception that live performance or “performance art” is what the culture wars of the 1980’s left in people’s minds. The unfortunate misconceptions that performance is dark, dangerous, confrontational, political or “wacky” are the ones that come to mind. RoseLee has asked us all to appreciate live performance for the immediacy and intimacy that the medium offers and for the sheer variety and versatility that is possible when considering live performance across all disciplines.

Esa Nickle will be giving a public talk in conjunction with Take It to the Bridge at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on August 9 at 7:00pm. Click here for more information or contact WPA Program Director at 202.234.7103 x 1 

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July 26, 2012