BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — When did you first come to New York, and what brought you here?
JENNY SCHLENZKA — This is actually my 20th year in New York. I came in 2002. I had a scholarship at NYU, and I was in an interdisciplinary program where you could take classes in the humanities. I also took a documentary film class at Tisch [School of the Arts] and even a class with Derrida, who was a guest professor. New York, I remember, was overwhelming at first.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — And before coming to New York, what were some of your first experiences of performance art?
JENNY SCHLENZKA — Well, I’m from Berlin, where there’s a strong theater culture. Everybody goes to the theater, and it’s subsidized. So, I grew up with theater. In New York, one of the many classes I took was performance studies with Richard Schechner. He’s, like, the grandfather of performance studies. Everybody had to give presentations in the class on something that they saw, and one girl talked about Marina Abramovi ́c doing a performance in Chelsea. I had never heard of her and went, and she basically lived in the gallery for 12 days. I was definitely impressed by it. I remember staying for a long time. She put a telescope in the room, for the audience — you could almost see her pores. And I thought that was pretty aggressive toward herself. At the time, I was actually more interested in film and video.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — What happened next?
JENNY SCHLENZKA — I wrote about TV for my master’s thesis. I always thought I would end up in film. Then I met Klaus Biesenbach. He was in the Film and Media Department at MoMA, and he needed an assistant who spoke German. He eventually rose through the ranks and convinced the museum to start the first Media and Performance Department. They needed a curator for performance, and Klaus looked at me and said, “That’s going to be you.” I was super excited because I loved working in the museum, meeting all the artists, walking around at night, when there’s no one in the galleries.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — How did you get to learn so much about performance art, which is an integral part of New York’s art history?
JENNY SCHLENZKA — Simply by having a MoMA e-mail address: I e-mailed all the artists I could find in the performance-art books, and pretty much all of them met with me. I said, “Tell me everything you think I should know about performance.”
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — What an education!
JENNY SCHLENZKA — In hindsight, I always laugh about it because it’s such pressure being the first curator for performance at MoMA. I was luckily pretty ignorant about the responsibility, especially because it was a new medium for the museum. It was almost good not knowing what the rules were. So, I was more open. In the beginning, people would ask me: “So, what is performance?”
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — And what did you reply?
JENNY SCHLENZKA — I remember feeling like, “Oh, okay, I’m with the medium that no one pays attention to.” And now, I think it’s one of the most interesting mediums you could work in, in contemporary art. I got really lucky.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — It’s definitely the medium I’m most drawn to. And it was so exciting meeting you, seeing what you did with the MoMA PS1 performance Dome.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — Why do you think you’re so drawn to performance?
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — It feels alive in a direct way, but there’s always so much more underneath. Also, the economy of presence has really shifted through technological developments and the pandemic. Work within a medium that directly deals with presence and bodies in space — it’s impactful on a somatic level.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — Just being in the space together. After lockdown, that became so clear — just walking into a space where people gather to see something together. Even before the performance started, I felt so moved by the sheer fact of gathering together in one space and taking in whatever the artist had prepared for us.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — I’m curious about why performance art feels important in New York.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — The special thing about New York is that you have at least three, if not four, generations of artists. There I was, so naively writing to Joan Jonas, Dan Graham, Lorraine O’Grady… That’s what’s really special about New York — the history, and the artists are all still here, and they come and see the shows of young performers, and vice versa. I don’t want to live in a city where there’s no inter generational dialogue. And everybody performs in New York. When I moved here from Europe, it was astonishing: everybody was an artist — the cab driver, the waiter. I think it’s just living compressed on an island. We’re not spending a lot of time in each other’s private places, so everything happens in public.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — I feel that density of bodies. It facilitates a cross-pollination that’s really energizing.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — If you think about all the performances that have happened in the four-block radius of Performance Space, the history is mind-blowing. Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” with The Velvet Underground, LaMama. Also, all the club performances in the ’80s, Club 57, Pyramid Club… Tompkins Square Park in itself is a stage.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — How did you come to PS122 [now Performance Space New York], and what did that shift mean for you?
JENNY SCHLENZKA — From MoMA, I went to MoMA PS1 to do the Sunday Sessions in the Dome, where we met. It was just time to move on and do something different. Suzanne Geiss, who was the president of the board at the time, reached out and said they were looking for a new director for PS122. Of course, I knew of the organization, but I didn’t know if I wanted to be a director. But if someone asks you to interview, you do the interview. I got into the final round, and before I had to present my ideas, they took me to the construction site for the newly renovated spaces. And I remember walking in and thinking, “Oh my God, I know exactly what to do here.” It was almost visceral.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — Like seeing into the future.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — Being the director, you’re also responsible for fundraising, managing staff, managing the board. But it gives you so much freedom. I’ve never worked anywhere where I could just say: “Now we do this. Now we let artists run the institution for a year.” I felt it was important to change the space but stay linked to the history at the same time.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — I’ve really felt that in your work in the space, things feel connected to the lineage and the history. There is also a feeling of pushing and expansion. I’d love to hear you talk about the decision to hand the keys over to the artists in 2020, before we knew what 2020 was going to become. That was radical for an institution.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — The idea was Sarah Michelson’s — she has a long history with the organization. The year 2020 was our 40th anniversary, and I wanted to mark it. But I always felt that these anniversary shows — best of, looking back — quickly become nostalgic. And that was a lot about pushing against nostalgia. What’s important now? What’s urgent now? Then I shared my thoughts with Sarah, and she said, “Well, if you want to do something about the future, why don’t you invite a group of artists, give them the keys, and pay them, and see what they would actually do?”
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — Like, wouldn’t that be so wild?
JENNY SCHLENZKA — One truly important thing starting here was to diversify the program but also the staff, the board. I often felt a big mistrust from artists toward the organization. People wouldn’t say it explicitly, but there was this sentiment. I understood it, and I didn’t because I felt that everyone who works here just wants the artists to be successful and feel supported. I thought: “Maybe me as a white, cis, European woman, I just have too many blind spots. So, let’s invite people in, and we can learn.” It was very important that an artist would structure that experiment. We started in January 2020; it was a group of 10 artists from New York with different backgrounds. They first got to know each other, testing things out. Then, we had to lock down. Later, during the social unrest, the Black Lives Matter uprisings, a group of artists came back and opened up the theater and our spaces to support the protests and people in need.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — It felt like it became a real mutual aid hub, in a way.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — Which was great, but also something we were not set up to do. We almost got kicked out of this building. It’s a city-owned building.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — That’s how you know you did something right.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — But we made really important connections, and some of the artists stayed on; two of them have joined our board. And some of the ideas that they brought, like Open Movement and Open Room, were straight from this project. It was prescient. Somehow, the stars aligned, and 2020 became the year that the artists had the keys.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — It felt like the institution was magically positioned with a kind of unprecedented openness to responding to an intense moment culturally in the city. And it was really exciting that it was facilitated by artists.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — Because they’re the people who anticipate cultural shifts.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — They’re translators of culture. I think about this concept of community and how that was something that felt integral to that programming, and I’m curious about your understanding of how the community has evolved.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — We rewrote our mission statement after many discussions about what we are about at our core — it was clear to everyone that we are artist-centric and that we help make radical work. There was a seven-year hiatus when the building was renovated. And I underestimated that we were not connected to our community as before. So, [the experimental project] 02020 was a big exercise, ultimately, in deepening ties to the community. And we made this part of our institutional mission. For us, everybody who’s interested in what we are doing and cares about performance art, and whoever wants to participate, feels like they can.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — What are you hoping for in the future of this space?
JENNY SCHLENZKA — I’m interested in artists and works that push boundaries. I’m drawn to artists who experiment with the in-between in media and the disciplines. There’s always some kind of chaos or struggle that needs to be worked through. For me, it’s where the gold is, the honey.
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ — The forging of diamonds under immense pressure.
JENNY SCHLENZKA — Yes. I think that’s also in the DNA of this place. This is a space of community but also of total experimentation and artists taking risks. Right now, it’s about allowing this space to be as diverse as the city of New York itself. That’s my hope for the organization — that it keeps pushing, doesn’t become comfortable, keeps asking: “How do we keep the flame alive?”
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