Roselee Goldberg

by Emily Wells

Opinions Are Like Dance Moves, We All Have One We’re Saving until Everyone Is Drunk
RoseLee Goldberg—the Founding Director of Performa, the performance arts Biennial ‘happening’ now celebrating its tenth anniversary—believes that live performance is the perfect antidote to the “motion sickness” of the online/personal disconnect. “Especially in the way that we present it at Performa, which is mostly in a specific space, within a specific timeframe,” she says, “we’re very conscious of slowing down time, of providing a full visual and visceral experience for viewers.” The disconnect, (or, she adds, the connection) between IRL and online avatars are often incorporated into performance.

Two years ago, at Performa 13, the artist Rashid Johnson staged a rendition of Dutchman—the sizzling play from 1964 dealing with racial mythology and sexual desire written by Amiri Baraka—staged in a modern day bathhouse, instead of a sweltering New York subway car, as in the original. Cast and audience members alike donned identical black robes and sweat it out for the duration of the performance; a distinction that implicates audience members as participants, and disallows them to be merely spectators to the complicated discussions we have about race and sexuality.

Goldberg’s career has been one of breaking down distinctions between contemporary and performance art, and ensuring that the future of art history is more inclusive. She explains that her book, Performance Art: from Futurism to the Present, first published in 1979 via Thames & Hudson, “was in a way a rewriting of the history of 20th century art, re-inserting all those periods when performance was central to exploring the meaning of art and actions of artists from the 1900s onwards, from Futurism, to Dada and Surrealism, Russian Constructivism, Happening, Fluxus, and downtown New York of the 1970s, that had been left out of art history.”

A dancer from an early age, Goldberg studied Fine Arts and Political Science in college, developing an early interest in overlapping disciplines, “I never considered choosing one discipline over another,” she explains. “Rather, I was fascinated by those edges where disciplines overlap and rub up against one another: dance and visual art, architecture and visual art, music and visual art.”

It is fitting, then, that Goldberg is eager to move the art world forward by eliminating any perceived divide between contemporary art and performance art. “The performance art world is the art world,” she says. “So much art of the past several decades involves performance or is performance-related, but it goes by other names, ‘Relational Aesthetics,’ for example. Mike Kelley, David Hammons, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Paul McCarthy, Joan Jonas, Matthew Barney, Pipilotti Rist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe, and too many more to mention, create work that has a strong performance component.”

She does, however, believe that performance art has something special to offer in an art world obsessed with marketability. The art market was soaring during Performa’s founding, and Goldberg knew performance was the right avenue to bring the conversation away from just auction prices. She says performance allowed the group to get back to “the politics of making art and why it matters, to discussions about media and technology, and multiple ways of reflecting the complex society in which we live.”  The accessibility of performance art in no way means that it asks less of the viewer. Goldberg is quick to stress the weight of the material performance viewers engage with, and the serious contemplation that is necessary: “Collecting performance, whether notation, scripts, even ‘owning’ the action itself, requires a highly conceptual sensibility. It is also an act of generosity towards the artist, since it usually means personal involvement with the artist as well. It is the start of an important polemic, the handing over of ideas, from one person to the next. The collector buys into a history of questions, and into the power of ideas.”

Perhaps then, performance is the ideal art medium for a generation growing up in a digital world. The range of mediums used reflects the multi-tasking nature of contemporary life, and the fact that it is experienced in a live venue brings viewers into a communal attentiveness. Goldberg adds, “It is easily accessible because it involves people watching people. Everyone can have a response and an opinion (and they do).”

Photographer: Nick Kapros at

Makeup: Amanda Wilson at