JS Foundation is the preeminent private collection of moving image art in Europe. In addition to their world class holdings that span technologies and media across the decades, the Foundation also organizes challenging exhibitions at its two locations in Berlin and in Dusseldorf. Among their most recent efforts is Unbound: Performance as Rupture, on view at the Berlin outpost through July 2024. This group exhibition examines how different generations of artists have called upon the body in relation to the camera to refuse oppressive ideologies, disrupt historical narratives and unsettle concepts of identity. Included in the show are legendary names such as VALIE EXPORT, Sanja Iveković, Ulysses Jenkins, Joan Jonas, Senga Nengudi, Pope.L and many other outstanding artists.

The exhibition was curated by Lisa Long, the artistic director at JS Foundation, along with Line Ajan, the assistant curator at JS Foundation. We spoke with them about the interrelation between performance art and video art, the unique qualities of the collection they drew from and their ways of assembling this wide-ranging show. 

Performance art is notoriously ephemeral, and moving image art is challenging to install in a gallery setting. What kind of discussions did you have when first conceptualizing this show? 

Lisa Long: Curating time-based art, in my opinion, is about finding the right balance between spatial experience and subject matter. I think of curation as a dramaturgy and I try to imagine how a visitor will feel moving through the space, going beyond thematic links between works to consider their spatial effect and resonance. If we have a work that offers an explosion of image and sound, what comes afterward? Does the visitor need a break or do we heighten the tension by adding another confrontational piece? Line and I work well together because she also understands how important the flow and feeling of an exhibition is – especially when it is as complex as Unbound.  

Line Ajan: You’ll notice that, even though the exhibition is primarily comprised of moving image works that enable certain performative gestures, there are also video works that have no bodily presence depicted in them whatsoever. In that, they enable a sort of pause for the visitor – such as in Matt Calderwood’s Lightning or the bursting of a soap bubble in Cao Guimarāes’ Nanofonia, which makes up a poetic rupture as the last work in the show. Similarly, there are several works that are sculptural and that have no visible link to the moving image, but that have a deeply performative aspect, either because of the process of creation that the artists employed – I am thinking specifically of Lydia Ourahmane’s In The Absence of Our Mothers – or simply because they invite the visitor to inhabit or wander the exhibition space in an almost performative way, as in Tarek Lakhrissi’s Perfume of Traitors III.  

We also really wanted to convey the multiplicity of what (recorded) performance could be – from performative gestures to more classical performance-for-the camera works, eventually leading us to the documentation of artistic actions that almost resemble “stunts”, like with the works of Salim Bayri, Pope.L and Nao Bustamante. 

The show opened at the Berlin location of Julia Stoschek Foundation. What are the unique opportunities of organizing a show at this space? 

Long: JSF Berlin is currently in a brutalist GDR building that hasn’t been renovated since it opened in 1967. From its inception, the space was intended for cultural use, housing the Cultural Center of Czechoslovakia. It was built as part of an architectural masterplan, representing the most prestigious project in East Berlin at the time. There is so much history and character in the building that you have to embrace all the flaws and absurdities. At first, the succession of different-sized rooms feels like a labyrinth, which actually enables the dramaturgy I was speaking about earlier.

VALIE EXPORT, Körperkonfiguration, 1982, photograph; silver gelatin print, 119.5 × 180 cm. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Charim Galerie, Wien. 

Does the JSF Collection have any particular strengths in performance pieces or video articulations of performance?  

Long: Oh yes, many! The relationship of the body to the camera constitutes a large section of the collection and Unbound only features a fraction of those practices. Our selection reflects the fact that many of the works still represent a very canonical and Eurocentric view of performance, which we wanted to question. In Unbound we’re attempting to expand who is included in that history, especially who was considered part of the avantgarde.

Ajan: One of the recent acquisitions that enabled us to expand this Eurocentric perspective is Ulysses Jenkins’ Mass of Images. We had shown this work recently in the Jenkins solo exhibition, but here it is displayed next to Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21, and in that way these two works highlight a more sharply political take on performance that criticizes racism in a more explicit way than some of the works in the collection.  

mandla & Graham Clayton-Chance, as british as a watermelon, 2021, HD video, 28′30′′, color, sound. Installation view, UNBOUND, JSF Berlin. Photo: Alwin Lay.

What are some of your personal highlights in the show, or what would you like to draw specific attention to?  

Ajan: One throughline of the show (and perhaps my favorite!) came out of later discussions with Lisa. It encompasses investigations into image economies that show how bodies move through or evade capture in physical and digital space. As we developed the checklist, we were continually drawn to certain moving image works that did not really document or intersect with performance in the artistic sense of the term, but that we still felt were relevant to the notion of rupture in relation to a larger status quo. In that line, my personal highlights would be the works of Shuruq Harb, Julien Creuzet and Stanya Kahn.

Another feature that is common to several works in the exhibition is the use of humor and playfulness as a political and aesthetic strategy in performative works. Salim Bayri’s You Can Keep it Eat it is emblematic of the ingenuity and simplicity of these types of critical works. The beautiful grainy video shows the artist carrying a big mallet that he built himself. Salim walks around the building of the Archives nationales d’outre-mer (National Archives of Overseas France) in Aix-en-Provence, which holds key archives around the history of the Sahara. Salim eventually starts hitting it with the object, and in that way reveals it is a kind of echo chamber. This performative gesture is a humorous way for the artist to materialize his frustration: the archives are only open to PhD students and academics, but not for the descendants of those most concerned by the history of the Sahara!  

Long: It has been a pleasure for me to see people react with great admiration and sympathy to the works by mandla and Vaginal Davis – obviously in different ways. mandla’s performance-turned-video, titled as british as a watermelon, speaks very explicitly about mandla’s personal experiences of immigration, social stigmatization and a diasporic relationship to Zimbabwean language and culture, where the artist was born. The video is accompanied by a vitrine with a watermelon, which we see decay before our eyes. In September, when we opened the show and it was much warmer, the watermelon burst about three days after being sealed off, creating this moment we know from cinema when someone is shot in the head – a small hole on one side and splatter against the wall on the other. After that the watermelon oozed for about two days in a rhythm that looked like it was breathing before it collapsed, and juice spread everywhere. I was caught off guard by how intense it was.

Vaginal Davis’ work talks about racism from a more satirical perspective. The White to be Angry tells a story about two male skinheads who discover their homoerotic feelings for one another in racist and homophobic America. The video is funny, and naughty, and camp, and would drive skinheads crazy. Davis’ work is a reminder that humor is a powerful tool for critique, and we can laugh – what a relief!  

Vaginal Davis, The White to be Angry, 1999, digitized video, 19′22″, b/w, sound. Video still. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

This exhibition represents a fascinating contemplation of the interrelation between performance and video. What is the rupture that you reference in the title of the show? 

Long: There are two spheres of rupture that intersect in Unbound and shaped our thinking around the title of the exhibition. On the one hand, the increasing prevalence of performance in the mid-twentieth century represented a rupture in the Western understanding of art, due to the way it obscured the boundaries between artist, art object, and action. Around the same time, the emergence of video art similarly changed the way artists represented themselves and were able to cut across disparate spaces and temporalities. Those are two big shifts. 

By looking at this intersection we concluded that counter to Peggy Phelan’s definition of performance as a live art characterized by its immediate disappearance, that there are works in which the performance itself is only possible because of the camera or the use of certain image technologies. Unbound follows that thread. For example, we open the show with peter campus’ Three Transitions from 1973, in which the artist performs three physically impossible actions made possible by chroma key technology. This work is then followed by Sondra Perry’s Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II, which, exactly forty years later, combines performance and digital editing to shape, or in this case obscure, the body.  

Ajan: The polysemy of the term rupture, which is in the exhibition’s subtitle, eventually led us to think about the notion of rupture as a break, which echoes what Lisa mentioned about the exhibition’s dramaturgy. 

Then, we were also thinking about the way the artists employ their bodies or work with performers to disrupt the dominant culture or status quo, sometimes through actions in public space, or through humorous, almost stunt-like performances filmed on cameras. These are smaller, perhaps more gestural ruptures that make up an individual artist’s agency and story, but also signify a form of dissidence to systemic forms of subjugation or categorization – I'm thinking specifically of VALIE EXPORT’s works from the late 1960s that speak to that period’s approach to feminism in Europe, or the work of the late Pope.L that spoke to a law that banned panhandlers from standing within ten feet of an ATM in the city of New York at the end of the 1990s.

Rest in power to Pope.L, and long live VALIE EXPORT! Congratulations on your work, and thank you for your time. 

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