Protest and Performance

A Way of Life

Protest and Performance: A Way of Life

Long used by artists in their work as a vehicle with which to comment and effect change, protest as a medium is dynamic, with strategies continuously reinvented anew, as ongoing social structures and systems incessantly perform generational repression. For the Performa 2023 Biennial, Defne Ayas and Kathy Noble have programmed a series of eight experimental events—performances, talks, and discussions—that address the relationship between protest and performance in art and visual culture, to consider what protest means today, and ask how protest can be more effective?

The program begins with an experimental keynote titled History is Listening: Sound, Space, Race and Memory by writer and scholar Louis Chude-Sokei that interweaves his engagement with the politics of listening with ongoing exploration of the role of sonic ecologies in shaping contemporary culture. In the first live performance of his recent film Our Hirāk: The Tishreen Revolution Rabih Mroué explores the events in Beirut in 2019 as feminist and queer led uprisings that were catalyzed by a video of a woman kicking Education Minister Akram Chehayeb’s body-guard in the groin going viral; Pages, a bilingual Farsi and English artist magazine founded by artists Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi in 2004, presents a reading of a play by Iranian theater director Nasim Ahmadpour from their latest issue Stage So Near So Far, considering the question of the stage as a contested space for performance that is inevitably linked to the performer's body, as well as the historical and sociopolitical conditions in which writers live and work; Rana Hamadeh, an artist who thinks through the infrastructures and technologies of justice, testing out models for collective thinking, presents her timeless, cacophonous sonic work that takes the Shiite ceremony of Ashura and its current political, military, and legal expressions within the Lebanese/Syrian context, as a form of militarized theater; and Performa’s Board Member artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat gives a mid-point reflection on her own experiences as a diasporic artist and filmmaker, together with Performa’s Founder and Chief Curator RoseLee Goldberg.

Hailing from Ankara, queer artist Göksu Kunak takes the series into the personal realm and considers tactics of camouflage as a tool for protest and subterfuge, using the body as a site of transformation and liberation in the performance Ajaib Mahluqat (Acayip Mahlukat). Gregg Bordowitz and Pamela Sneed present the first episode of a year-long project exploring the intersection of art and health activism in an event that combines the format of a Town Hall meeting and a talent show, addressing issues that affect demographics who are repeatedly overlooked, disregarded, and even controlled by the US health system. Artist and musician Lonnie Holley performs his acclaimed music, accompanied by instrumental duo Nelson Patton, followed by a discussion with his collaborator Lee Bains that considers the relationship between protest and music, specifically in the context of the abolitionist movement in the US. To conclude, Hito Steyerl presents a new lecture, Medium Hot: Protest as White Noise, that considers how in the last decade documentary cell phone imagery spawned protest and mass movements–to ask what happens when these images become raw material for derivative extraction by so-called AI models?

This is the first chapter of an ongoing series that explores the relationship between performance and protest, to consider the rapid changes that have occurred over the last decade, alongside alternative forms of dissent and action, to ask: How does performance move in the space between critique and protest? What is the role of performance in the undoing of the societal codes that have been imposed over bodies and minds for centuries?