Samuel Draxler is an artist, curator, and co-founder of the "New York Performing Artists Collective (NYPAC)" whose practice has most recently challenged conceptions of failure, performativity, and context.
By Mira Dayal
Fairweather Magazine: How has your work as a curator affected the ways in which you think about your own art practice?
Samuel Draxler: I started curating and making art around the same time. For me, producing an artwork is a curatorial act at heart, at least in terms of the underlying logic. Buyout / Tragedy, for instance, is organized around a proposal for “a new work – a tragedy in which the characters, dialogue, and plot have all been removed, leaving only the landscape.” The work is to be exhibited “with or without accompanying text and illustrations,” which allows it to be reformulated in different contexts using different materials. At the ACC Galerie Weimar, for instance, the installation was structured in relation to the life of Christian Gottlieb Priber, an 18th century German utopianist. The piece was first conceived of as a literary work, inspired by the scene descriptions from extant Greek tragedies. The combination of texts and images, both original and appropriated, lets the references shift with each iteration. It’s become a more open investigation into the depictions and functions of tragedy.
FM: In founding NYPAC, you identified gaps in the accessibility of performance art. Do you feel that you have been able to address those gaps?
SD: For artists working in the medium, one of the biggest issues is the lack of year-round organizations dedicated to performance art. It’s not only an issue of having opportunities to present work, but also of receiving financial support and professional services. Our goal was to work with these artists to help realize projects that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, all while representing these pieces in the clearest language, and with high-quality documentation. We didn’t only want to present well-developed work; we also wanted it to connect with an engaged and excited audience. While we’ve received a great response from our artists and audiences, we’re still a small organization. The art world is evermore vast, and the need for these types of services isn’t going away.
FM: COLLAPSE (or, falling flat), one of the most recent NYPAC events at the Knockdown Center, addressed "the legacy of failure in contemporary art," in this case partially through humor. What sources of failure persist? How can failure be productive?
SD: To oversimplify, there are two common ways failure appears in performance: as a planned motif that references postmodern dance, or as an unintentional outcome and source of abject terror. Implied in the title, COLLAPSE (or, falling flat) was both. Things fail for many reasons, but when you're looking for failure, everything's a victory. "What if it doesn't work?" "It wasn't supposed to!" [laughter]. That night, I was curator, stage hand, photographer, and sound guy. I had no functional experience with mixing, and when I caused a spike between performances – that terribly loud popping sound – Sara Grace Powell applauded. Broadly, though, I think failure is interesting because it’s hard to operationally define, and even harder to identify the stakes. It’s cathartic, too, to rehearse for the worst, but I’ve been told that I tend to catastrophize.
FM: How is performance art more suited than other media to address contemporary concerns, in art or otherwise?
SD: There's certainly a history of political concerns within performance, in regards to gender, sexuality, and the body. With a body at the center of the work, and with a performer investing their time and labor one-to-one with their audience, it's, in a way, naturally predisposed to examine and critique political and structural governing forces. At the same time, that doesn't absolve other media from being actively engaged with these types of concerns. Just because performance as a medium tends towards this focus doesn't mean that other media can't or shouldn't as well.
FM: Your own art does not always involve explicit performance (as movement through space in time) but frequently involves multiples, collections, and juxtapositions of discrete elements. Several of your pieces (Watershed | The End, 2011 and Strike, 2012) attempt to literally freeze fleeting moments — the daily news. As the frozen pieces melt, there is a sort of performance involved, but it does not involve your body. Similarly, in one of your photographs, plants grow in a bathtub, and this itself is a sort of performance. How do you define performance?
SD: I myself am not a performance artist, though performance, as an academic and curatorial interest, does seep into my work. Watershed | The End isn't not a body, though. The headline of the original paper in the work is "Qaddafi, Seized by Foes, Meets a Violent End." The form of the work enacts a bodily and state instability. As such, the works as you describe them are all performative, but in no sense performance art. As far as defining performance: there are video works, and installations, that are experiential to the point that performance can be a useful lens to understand them, even if the artist’s body isn’t present. I think fixing a definition is only significant so long as there's something at stake.
FM: What performances, events, or traditions are you looking forward to this winter during the holidays?
SD: ’Tis the season for end-of-year fundraising, when all of the nonprofits in your life ask you for money. We're no different, and you can donate to us at nypac.org/support. More seriously (or perhaps less seriously), the most “holiday” event I’m attending is Justin Vivian Bond's “Angels We Have Heard When High” at Joe's Pub. V is incredible, and I can’t wait. As far as traditions, I host dinner parties frequently throughout the season. Friends, brothy soups, and “Lil BUB's Magical Yule LOG Video” on repeat – what more do you need?
Photos courtesy of Sam Draxler.