Elisabeth Sussman is Curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
The term experience economy is new to me. It sounds like a term from economics or marketing or behavioral studies. In the past, I would have described audience experience with terms like aesthetic appreciation or education, but now that account seems too passive. Experience economy broadens the discussion of how and why visitors act as they do in museums. It also recognizes a competitive field where we as cultural producers have to compete for our public, which is always being lured by other kinds of activities.
But introducing the notion of the experience economy into the context of a museum creates a contested situation. It is contested because live events demand a different investment of time. To sit or stand and watch something that is durational, probably activated, maybe with sound, is different, as an activity, from the contemplative exchange with an art object that is traditional in a museum. Performance-based activity can be seen as a distraction from that contemplation. Traditional art museums thus resist the blending of a performance program with an exhibition program, instead delegating the performance program to the education or special-events departments, or a separate department devoted to performance that is not held to the curatorial goals and intellectual ambitions of the museum. Interpretive programs such as catalogues, panel discussions, and wall labels are often not granted to performance offerings, which further gives them second-class status in the museum.
I’m particularly interested in this question of the integration or non-integration of event-based works into the experience of the museum. Here are three noteworthy examples:
I was the cocurator of this biennial and asked Michael to perform. He was, I thought, exemplary: someone who as a trained dancer, had, nonetheless, picked up on and participated in key movements in the art world. He has been cross-media in his approach—really involved with costumes, sets, sound, technology, video—and he has interacted in the broad cultural field without being defined as a “performance” artist. Michael was a key person for me; I had experienced his work within the punk, no wave movement of the 1980s, a cultural zeitgeist that heavily impacted art. I regarded the biennial as a place to make my own commitment to cross-cultural activity prominent. However, integrating dance into a biennial in a major space was not easy. Michael created memorable, highly significant performances, collaborating with Charles Atlas, Jarvis Cocker, and others, with new choreography designed for the space of the Whitney. But we needed to provide ongoing activity so that visitors to the museum would always see something in the large space given over to performing artists, even though they might have missed a performance in the traditional sense. With Michael we extended a notion that he had worked with before, of inviting visitors into the dance. Anyone who wanted to take part was taught steps by members of Michael’s company, and at designated moments, this amateur company performed with members of Michael’s troupe. This aspect of the performance was fantastically moving and successful.
This was a breakthrough event. The atmosphere was expansive and fluid as few museum exhibitions are. Marclay programmed an ongoing festival of performers playing his scores within an installation of his objects. There were regular changes of performers, so that at any time, a visitor could not be sure of who would be performing. If you liked something, or were curious, you would just drop in and listen. There was also a program of videos playing where you could sit down and watch something for a while. A visitor could become completely immersed in Marclay’s work. The festival was planned collaboratively by the artist, the Whitney’s curator, and the adjunct performance curator. It had a lot of production requirements, for which we had professionals (in lighting, sound, etc.) and very young curatorial assistants who stayed in the exhibition at all times to facilitate the different requirements and experiences.
This was a conventionally staged performance piece, in a separate space, presented at designated times. I include it not because it broke any boundaries, but because the quality was so high. It was memorably complex and mysterious. The subject was Aby Warburg’s trip to the American Southwest. The setting was perfect for the work. Dia:Beacon has continued to feature performance as part of its program and pretty much sticks to the practitioners of the 1960s and ’70s, which is in line with the holdings of the museum. I think their decision to amplify the history of the collection with the significant performers from that time has been brilliant. I also saw early Yvonne Rainer works performed in this context and it was amazing. Overall, I believe that museums that are trying to tell the history of contemporary art from the ’60s and ’70s, a time when performance art, dance, and theater were highly important, should follow Dia’s lead and include performance as part of their exhibitions whenever that seems possible. In this way, the public will come to understand the richness of “performance” history in relation to the other arts. At the same time, one of the challenges on our plates, curatorially, is to go beyond the ’60s and ’70s canon—to include other cultural groups and to broaden our retellings of the standard history as well, thus including no wave, punk, etc.