Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

March 12, 2018

Architecture Embraces Performance Art (Again)

From the rise of economic inequity and populism to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, performance art gives the profession a chance to confront controversial issues.


Alex Schweder, Architecture, Art, Bryony Roberts, Jimmy Robert, Mabel O. Wilson, Philip Johnson, Storefront for Art and Architecture, Ward Shelley

On a Sunday afternoon this past fall, a small group gathered in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, one of the oldest parks in Manhattan. Architects and artists, curators and academics, neighborhood residents and stage moms—all had come for a performance of Marching On, a collaboration between architectural designers and scholars Bryony Roberts and Mabel O. Wilson, and the Marching Cobras of New York, a Harlem-based after-school drum line and dance team.

With a start, the sound of drumbeats cut through the autumn air. Dancers dressed in white and musicians in military-type fatigues filed into the square, their camouflage capes flapping with each high-energy move. For the next few minutes, the audience was united by the beat and transfixed by the performers’ shifting formations. Just as quickly, it was over. After a couple rounds of cheers, the team marched off and the audience dispersed.

Commissioned by the Storefront for Art and Architecture for Performa 17, a biennial dedicated to performance art, Marching On celebrates the political legacy of African-American marching bands and how they used cultural expression to assert their right to public space. The performance and costumes referenced two historical events: the 1917 Silent Parade, in which 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue to protest racial violence, and the celebration five years later when the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, triumphantly returned from World War I.

Marching On represents a growing trend: projects that engage performance art as an architectural medium. Long a mainstay of contemporary art, performance offers two main advantages in a field where it usually takes years for a project to be realized: immediacy and the chance to experience urban spaces in new ways. “Oftentimes in architecture we deal only in abstract forms, and that can be problematic,” says Roberts, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), whose collaborations with dancers and choreographers have been showcased at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial and in Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio. “What interests me about performance is that it’s a chance to work through politics very directly in terms of working with people and not through representation. I hear directly from them how they want to move through space.”

To understand the extent to which architecture has embraced performance, consider some of the other performers from the line up for Performa 17. There was Bucharest, Romania–based French visual artist Jimmy Robert, who staged Imitation of Lives, a choreographic work performed at Philip Johnson’s Glass House that merges ideas of visibility and spectatorship with a host of historical references, including the romantic affair between the architect and Harlem Renaissance cabaret singer Jimmie Daniels. And there was Montreal-based architect François Dallegret, who collaborated with Los Angeles–based architect François Perrin and choreographer Dimitri Chamblas to build a transparent dome—the Environment-Bubble—in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Dallegret had sketched out a drawing of the bubble a half-century ago—it was famously used to illustrate Reyner Banham’s 1965 critique of American residential architecture, “A Home is Not a House”—but this was the first time it took material form.

Consider also that the Graham Foundation has created a performance residency program, now in its second year. In January, Chicago-based artist Brendan Fernandes, the current resident, unveiled “The Master and Form,” an installation and performance series in which he collaborated with architecture firm Norman Kelley and dancers from the Joffrey Academy of Dance. There’s a clear connection between the architecture and the performance: The structures and hanging ropes that are a part of the installation help the dancers achieve perfect ballet poses.

Reasons Behind the Revival
The emergence of performance in architecture isn’t exactly new. It has always been a bit player in the discipline, cycling in and out of favor since the beginning of Modernism—from the theatrics of the Futurists and the Bauhaus to Bernard Tschumi, FAIA’s event-spaces and conceptual works by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, AIA. “Our practice has always defied the border police between art, architecture, and performance,” Diller says. “For us it’s simply finding the right tool for each research pursuit. Sometimes the job requires bricks and mortar, sometimes pixels and bits, sometimes performers and stage magic. We have had the freedom to move between building geo-fixed structures and transient experiments in space. The promiscuity to step between time frames and disciplines affects the work.”

RoseLee Goldberg, who founded Performa, the nonprofit that organizes the biennial, in 2004, traces her interest in performance back to the 1970s, when she was director of the Royal College of Art Gallery in London. Part of a circle of experimental practitioners that hailed from the Architectural Association, Archigram, and Superstudio, she saw how they valued magazines (like Archizoom), exhibitions, and performance as an intensely vibrant way to disseminate architectural ideas. “They still [thought] like architects, which is different from how artists think—different methods, different ideas of abstraction,” says Goldberg. For her it was proof that a building wasn’t the only possible distillation of an architectural argument.

What accounts for the recent re-emergence of performance in architecture? There are three main reasons. There’s the pragmatic: A generation of design curators have gravitated to works that push the boundaries of representation, and the proliferation of biennials and triennials has offered new forums and audiences for that work. There’s the phenomenological: The very nature of performance suggests a study of the physical across space and time, which runs counter to the accelerated and disembodied culture we encounter online. “The digital has made understanding scale in relationship to the body more difficult, since it is a virtual space without scale,” says Wilson, a professor at GSAPP. And finally, there’s the political: Because performance focuses on the human body, it lends itself to urgent issues of race and sexuality, of belonging and migration.

Indeed, architectural performance has the ability to confront subjects often missing from the profession, the academy, and the so-called avant-garde. “There are some urgent issues that we want to deal with. We have the desire, but the tools we have—the built and the formal—don’t work,” says Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco, whose presentation on the relatively unknown 1960s-era performance-based work of Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill was featured at Performa 17.

It’s tempting to say that architectural performance is having a “moment,” but its resurgence actually reflects a series of moments: the global economic crash a decade ago, the rise of economic inequity and populism, the emergence of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. In 2011, in response to the austerity protests across Europe, architect and curator Pedro Gadanho, now the director of the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon, took to the opinion pages of Domus and called architects to embrace guerrilla practice that goes beyond traditional confines of the profession. In “Back to the Streets: The Rise of Performance Architecture,” he wrote: “Architects must not only turn into multifaceted cultural producers and everyday programmers of the city. They must also become truly streetwise.”

Soon after, as the then-curator for contemporary architecture at MoMA, Gadanho commissioned Spanish architect Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation to stage IKEA Disobedients, a theatrical performance that marked the opening of the exhibition “9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design.” Jaque designed a set out of hacked IKEA furniture in which select New York City residents were asked to publicly perform scenes from their everyday lives—rituals that explored the political side of domesticity.

The Politics of Performance
Around the same time, in 2011, Occupy Wall Street captured our attention, as citizens and designers across the country took part in the appropriation of urban space, fueled by a belief, as Wilson puts it, that “Neoliberal capital has taken over and other means must be enacted.”

Last year, a couple blocks from Zuccotti Park, the original site of the Occupy encampments, under the shadow of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s 28 Liberty St. skyscraper (formerly One Chase Manhattan Plaza), architects and artists Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley staged The Newcomers as part of Performa 17. Along with collaborators Lena Kouvela and Sarah Burns, they lived in a bridge-like shelter that they built (and rebuilt) in new configurations over the course of 10 days. The idea was deceptively simple: to challenge architecture’s relationship with permanence. But the project also managed to confront pressing social issues, such as the refugee crisis and housing precarity.

There’s an inherent tension in The Newcomers between the act of performance and the physical and political issues it provokes. Abstract concepts like time, body, or comfort take on real meaning when you have to live in your work of art. The days and nights Schweder and Shelley spent there were long and, given the cold snap that hit New York that week in the fall, often uncomfortable. “We were living rough, wearing three layers of clothes, we didn’t wash, we were pretty grungy and stinky compared to anyone else,” says Schweder. “But no one would mistake us for homeless.” Instead, the artists served as stand-ins for the less fortunate.

Schweder’s work often requires him to practice empathy, to embody a perspective. Take his “Performative Renovations” pieces, which begin with therapy-like consultations that ask a participant/client to reveal the intimate details of why they want to renovate their apartment or house. But this isn’t a traditional renovation; no drywall gets demolished. Rather, it is a thorough rethinking of how you live in your space. In the end, Schweder often poses as the client in a photographic representation of the “renovation.”

I participated in this process with Schweder last year, which culminated with a multiple-exposure photograph of the artist, posed and dressed as me on my couch and at my desk. What began as a desire for a spare room in my Los Angeles flat ended with an image that conveyed my emotional need for more space in my personal life. I can attest to the vulnerability the process required of us both, and the uncanny nature of seeing your private desires visualized. “It is a search for connection with another person,” Schweder told me. “The world becomes more interesting when you let more people into it.”

The co-authoring and collaboration also serves another purpose: It undermines the old hoary conception of the architect as singular genius and affirms the importance of a chorus of new voices in the profession. “We are letting go of the master, the star—that seems to be eroding culturally, at least,” says Schweder. “In letting go of the one who speaks and makes meaning, and is the only one who is legitimate in doing so, we have come around to discourse as the authority. It’s through different angles and situated positions that meaning gets made.”

At a time when our culture is undergoing seismic shifts in who gets to speak out, who wields power, and who gets included, performance art offers architecture a meaningful way to weigh in. Largely forgotten for decades, it has made a dramatic return. As Goldberg puts it: “Performance has been waiting in the wings to be a catalyst.”