Performance from A to Z: a Conversation with Performa’s Executive Producer Esa Nickle

Since its creation in 2005, the New York performance biennial Performa has played a leading role in the development and diffusion of performance art. We recently met with Performa’s Managing Director and Executive Producer, Esa Nickle. We discussed the organization’s engagement with supporting performance artists at every point in the creative process and through the performance’s afterlives – and its commitment to making Performa’s rich archive accessible.

Our research group has focused on the many afterlives of performance, its archive, traces, reenactments, memories or legacies. We have also debated the importance of the live moment of the performance (amongst others, with performance artist Marilyn Arsem), but until now, we have not devoted so much thoughts to the practical, logistical implications of producing a work of performance. Our interview with Esa Nickle, Performa’s Managing Director and Executive Producer since 2005, gave us a rich insight into the genesis of a performance. In particular, it revealed how decisions made in the preparatory phase of a performance – especially about how the work is going to be documented – also already shape the possible afterlives of the work.

Esa Nickle describing us her work as Managing Director and Executive Produce at Performa.

Performa, a non-profit organization founded by RoseLee Goldberg in 2004, commissions and encourages new performance practices, notably by inviting artists to create performance works for the Performa biennial, a world renowned event taking place across New York City and the first solely dedicated to performance art. As the main producer of all commissioned performances, Nickle described the intensive involvement of Performa through the whole process. In particular, she detailed how, in her perspective, documentation has to be planned and conducted with particular aims in view, different types of documentation allowing for different types of use in the future, including commercial ones.

Very pragmatically, Performa constantly needs to find ways to make money in order to support future performances and develop new activities. Working closely with photographer Paula Court (Performa’s dedicated photographer since the beginning), Performa has developed an extensive image archive with unique perspective and aesthetics. Engaging with its rich archival material in different ways – as catalogs and books, as videos, installations or instructions to be sold to museums, and even as an exhibition – is a solution that not only helps Performa (and artists) to generate some income, but also perpetuates past performances in new and multiple forms.

Following each biennial edition, Performa publishes a catalog. Here, the cover of Performa 15: The Renaissance, Poetry, Pavilion without Walls, written by RoseLee Goldberg, edited by Lydia Brawner, cover photo by Paula Court.

Next to its commissioning activities, Performa is also dedicated to support art historical research and education about performance, and is currently working to provide access to the richness of organization’s material for free through an online platform. Nickle engagingly presented this project during this talk recorded as part of Istanbul-based cultural organization Salt’s online conference Stage, Record, Archive: Performance in February 2022. Performa’s online archive will launch very soon next month, and will be accessible on a new website. This event will be celebrated by an exhibition and live performance series drawn entirely from the archive and entitled LIVE: The Performa Archive, taking place from November 10-13 in New York.

Mike Kelley, ExtracurricularActivity Projective Reconstruction #32, Plus, 2009. A Performa Commission. Photo by Paula Court.

Importantly, Nickle underlines that one needs to invest time and money in “preparing the work to sell it,” if one wants to make a “salable” or collectible performance. This is why Performa, in agreement with the artists, will for instance produce different types of video documentation if the aim is for the video to be used to disseminate knowledge about the work, or to be sold to a museum as a video installation that will represent the work in the future.  

We also asked Nickle more specifically about the practice of reactivation: does Performa sometimes reactivate a past production? In her view, reactivation is not something that one can so easily achieve solely on the basis of documentation, without a deep understanding of the complexities of the production process – and also not a practice that Performa generally engages with, their focus being on the production of new artworks. She mentioned that in some cases, artists who were approached by museums wanting to purchase their work realized that they were unable to reperform their work without the assistance and expertise of Performa. Therefore museums that are now starting to collect performance art also need to gain experience in producing and commissioning performance works, and to develop acquisition and exhibition policies that take into account these particular types of tasks.

As we see, Performa usually creates multiple layers of documentation with multiple intentions. This intentionality of documentation is also relevant for thinking about the relationship between documentation and conservation (a topic that can never be exhausted…). For Nickle, conservation, documentation and performance are all taking place together. In her opinion, just like one cannot sell a work afterwards, one cannot conserve it without involving this thinking in the production phase already. This understanding of conservation as part of a larger process that starts during the creation phase is in line with what we hear from many contemporary art conservators: one has to be part of the process to be able to think about conservation in all aspects. And Performa, whose involvement with artists during the production of their work is described by Nickle as becoming “like family,” definitely has a major part to play in the preservation and future afterlives of the works it continues to support.

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