Walker Art Center
Content, Context, and Cultural Commitment: Curating the Performing Arts

PB: That approach to traveling is also connected to the emotional experience of performance, of seeing live artists performing in the same space in real time. We often talk about the essential need for contextualization, but there is something about being in the moment of a live performance, an appreciation for the work that transcends all the historical background, all the critical performance theory that you might gather. In fact, you appreciate it on a completely different level. That may be something that differentiates our work, perhaps, from the visual arts. There is that fine line between contextualizing and overpreparing an audience.

BS: It's completely experiential. Sometimes I love just experiencing the work and not having the burden of trying to tell someone what it means.

PB: Or why they should like it.

BS: What does it mean? Where does it come from? What is its history?

PB: There are times when too much information undercuts the power of the live theatrical experience. There's a balance that curators need to strike in terms of when the information is best delivered and in what format.

BS: And when that contextual information weighs the performance down.

PB: Sometimes we choose not to have anything happen in the performance space itself right after the event. There's a magic, a sacredness to that space, which the didacticism of a quick informational exchange or a question-and-answer session immediately following a performance can sometimes destroy.

BS: We often talk about the afterlife of a performance. How can it live on and not become ephemeral? In my opinion, that is more of a concern from the visual arts perspective; I don't have a problem with the performing arts being ephemeral art forms.

PB: It lives in the spirit and in memory.

BS: In the here and now. There is an appropriate time for archiving and documentation, or seeing that the work tours and has an ongoing life. But nothing compares to being in the moment; it's like meditation.

PB: It's perhaps part of what drove avant-garde visual artists to start performative practice in the first place. There was such a focus on the object and, often, the commercial value of the object. The Dada and Fluxus movements, Joseph Beuys and the tradition that he spawned, Happenings, and many other early performance art practices were attempting, in part, to create the spontaneous moment, were realizing that art didn't need to have permanence. It could be of the moment and about our lives and our everyday ephemeral existence. But it's still challenging for institutions that have been, for much of their histories, built around the collection of objects and the permanence of those objects. There certainly are some interesting ways to combine the practices--creating art exhibitions out of the sets, scores, videos, costumes, writings, and sound of time-based performances.[3] Also, digital documentation and performing arts projects translated onto the Web offer new bridges between worlds.

The Walker's framework for presenting work is quite specific. It's about contemporary and experimental work, work that in some way is challenging the norm. How you define those terms becomes very complex when you are operating in a global context. What is the avant-garde? Is there an avant-garde? What are the distinctly different forms of modernism? As we have discussed many times during this initiative, there is not just one story of modernism.

BS: And sometimes, modernism is not even the story at all.

3 For example, the Walker presented in 1998 the exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, and Meredith Monk, co-curated by Philippe Vergne, Siri Engberg, and Kellie Jones.