Shortly after we published our review of Marina Abramović’s MAI prototype and lecture at the 2013 Luminato Festival in Toronto, we were contacted by the head of social media at the Marina Abramović Institute. She had read our piece and—much to our surprise—was not so much incensed by our interpretation as she was interested in engaging in further discussion. A dialogue was initiated between Passenger Art and the MAI Team and, with the permission of everyone involved, we are now publishing that correspondence here. Our communication with MAI—at times congenial and at others much less so—lacks the conversational tone that we had anticipated as we found ourselves fielding a series of essay-length criticisms and considerations that we could only selectively address. Regardless of any apparent acrimony in our interaction, we remain impressed with, and appreciative of, the willingness of the MAI staff to so openly engage with us despite the critical stance that we have taken in regards to their organization.
Summer is generally a slow-moving time of year for art exhibitions and, well, us. But Abramović’s pace has not flagged in the past few weeks. Rather, as the barrage of media coverage will attest, she seems to have shifted into high gear. On July 10th, at Pace Gallery in New York, Abramović made a guest appearance as a sparring partner of sorts for Jay-Z while he undertook his own long-durational performance: six hours spent repeatedly rapping his song “Picasso Baby” for a savvily curated collection of New York’s celebrities, socialites and art world elites. The footage was subsequently whittled down to a 10 minute “performance art film,” whatever that means.
In another mutually advantageous alliance between popular music and the art world, Abramović’s friendship with Lady Gaga has become a paparazzi favourite. The provocateur pair has been photographed at high-profile parties, celebrity events and—as one hilarious image caption reads—were even “spotted snuggling on a haystack in the Hamptons”. As many readers will be already aware, Gaga is now the face of MAI’s Kickstarter campaign and appeared in a video demonstration of the Abramović Method released online to generate greater donations. Wearing only blindfold and boots, she walks in slow-motion and strikes a series of majestic poses; she lays naked in the fetal position, cradling a giant crystal in her arms; and stands ankle-deep in a river, dressed in coveralls and a more-elaborate blindfold with spiked horns protruding from her eyes.
While we have been challenged by some at MAI for our suggestion that Abramović has engineered a cult following in which she is centered as an impossibly enlightened and yet oddly accessible icon, we feel nothing but vindicated in our opinion by the artist’s recent activities. Even the details of the Kickstarter campaign imply idol worship of this kind: everyone who donates $1.00 is promised a hug from Abramović herself. That is a fairly inexpensive price tag for what will no doubt be a priceless experience and, with such marketing moves, the economy of Abramovic’s cult popularity will likewise be booming.
What follows is lengthy and may not be of interest to all readers, but our decision to publish this correspondence in full is due to the incredible amount of feedback we received for the original article, as well as the incredible amount of material Abramović continues to provide. We may update this post in the future if our long-durational communication with MAI continues and, in any event, we will be back in the coming weeks with new articles and exhibition reviews. In the meantime, we invite you to peruse the exchanges and if you are so inclined, to write us a comment and enter the discussion yourself.
Natalie Zayne Bussey and Reilley Bishop-Stall
Dear Passenger Art,
My name is Siena, and I’m the head of MAI’s social media you mentioned in the article that just showed up on my Google Alert.
I just read it. It’s great. And exactly the kind of feedback we’re looking for at this point. We’ve done a lot of talking about how to avoid this sense of cult-ishness, and ultimately remove Marina’s presence from the institute and have it be run entirely by a younger generation of artists, scientists, and thinkers.
I’d love to engage in a dialogue with you about your experiences / perception of the lecture, if you’re interested, and specifically about your sense that there was an elitism involved with respect to the long durational exercises. I’ve done a lot of thinking personally about how to make the institute as inclusive as possible, as I have a number of friends with varying levels of physical ability (as well as emotional fortitude, ha), one of my closest friends being a paralympic athlete with stiff person’s disease, and these concerns are constantly on my mind.
Regardless about whether or not you’d like to discuss / engage, I just want to let you know that you misheard Marina’s figure. The cost of the institute is actually 15 million to 20 million dollars, not 50. Still a huge sum, but definitely less than half of the figure you identified. This a problem we’re having with her thick accent — other journalists have made this mistake too.
Anyway, thanks for writing about your experience — it’s my job (and passion) to read and reflect on all of the feedback from these various events and see how to address concerns critically, ethically, and thoughtfully.
All my best,
First we want to thank you for initiating this dialogue. We are pleased to hear that you and your team are conscious of and concerned with the potential elitism and cultishness that we brought up in our article and very much appreciate your openness to discussing these topics.
You mention the intention to distance Abramović from the Institute by having it be run by a younger generation of artists and intellectuals. To be fair, the artist herself said the same thing in her talk. However, we have to question how such distance could even be possible when she is so clearly at the heart of the project. The Marina Abramović Institute, Method, and Mission all bear her name and signify the consummation of the Marina Abramović brand. In short, you can’t spell MAI without MA. If she is not to be the head of the company, there seems to be some confusion over what her role actually is. The cultural capital that she wields is ultimately what makes the implementation of the Institute and its ideology possible. Initially a performance artist held in the highest regard, she has, in these circumstances, begun to assume a number of other identities: she is a teacher, mentor, motivational speaker, archetypal artist, interactive individual, idol and inspiration. In an apparent attempt to immortalize her artistic identity, her lecture included repeated expressions of her desire to leave a legacy. Regardless of her intent to take a backseat to its administration, the Institute undeniably represents—is arguably the manifestation of—that legacy.
Of course we recognize the dilemma: in order to establish the Institute as something other than an expression of her cultural capital, her presence needs to be diminished or downplayed, but she is ultimately the biggest draw. For distance to be established, she would have to step back from the spotlight, but without her presence, it would be unlikely that you would be filling theatres and drawing larger donations. Even us, armed as we were with our skepticism, really only went to the talk in Toronto to see and hear her speak. If she is to continue to be an ambassador for the Institute, some things would need to be changed regarding how she presents herself and the mission to avoid the cultish atmosphere that we were so struck by. Her mandate seemed overrun by contradictions. In our interpretation, she both wants to advance performance art as a legitimate artistic genre and somehow eliminate it altogether by effecting the ultimate conflation of art and life. She also draws heavily on her own history, while simultaneously implying an elision of personal past for the attainment of a more-evolved collective consciousness. Indeed, if we learned anything from her earlier work it was that each and every body could be employed as a political entity and/or platform through which to deal with large-scale, even global, issues, but her lecture about the intended Institute seemed to suggest the necessity of checking one’s individuality at the door in the service of collective consciousness, the transcendence of history, and pseudo-spiritual awakening. This was disappointing to us, as we still believe there is a political imperative to much of the work she has created that needs to be highlighted and harnessed, rather than overridden by this new endeavour towards enlightenment.
Of course, we do not think that this is the ideology behind the Institute and all of the people working to bring it to fruition, but these were the impressions we were left with after Abramović’s lecture. Therefore, any suggestions we might have would concern the promotion of the Institute. The cultishness we detected is a direct result of the cult of celebrity that surrounds Abramović herself and while she remains the figurehead of the Institute, that stigma seems ultimately unavoidable. So, we are left with the question as to how—outside of eliminating her from official operations—you intend to distance Abramović from the project that she is so central in promoting.
In regards to the question of elitism or exclusionism, we are concerned with the implication that one would have to have a certain level of physical fitness and psychological stamina to partake in the Institute’s long-durational exercises. This is obviously a complex issue and you have made it clear that the MAI team is working to accommodate anybody who might choose to participate. We are certainly happy to hear this and wonder if you might elaborate upon the steps being taken to make the experience accessible to anyone and everyone.
Again, the problem here might have less to do with the actual program as with its promotion. It was the suggestion—inferred from Abramović’s lecture—that a sort of spiritual transformation could result from the enduring of long-durational activities that concerned us. The (perhaps inadvertent) implication was that those incapable of such endurance would be unable to attain this apparently improved state and would thus appear inadequate. As adoption of the Marina Abramović method was—in the artist’s lecture—espoused as the first step toward global advancement or social evolution, such potential inaccessibility was disconcerting. We wonder if you could speak to this issue a little. We would like to hear from you or someone on your team what MAI’s goals actually are. Is it purely to be an artist’s centre devoted to the experience of and experimentation with performance art? Or, as Abramović insinuated—however hyperbolically—is it to be the first of many Institutes designed to educate and elevate the global community in a new way of engaging and interacting with the world?
Thank you again for participating in this discussion. We very much look forward to hearing from you.
All the best,
Reilley and Natalie
Dear Reilly and Natalie,
I’ve included some responses to your correspondence from MAI staff and volunteers below. Thank you for being willing to engage here, and for your patience, as we move into a very busy time for MAI. I may add more thoughts here (including my own), and you may see an occasional update if others feel the desire to write further responses. Feel free to publish these materials, as we are likely to do so as well.
All my best from New York,
Performance Art has always relied heavily on the subjectivity of its audiences, both in their individual subjective responses to works, as well as to the group or wider community responses to the genre in general.
Some of its earliest aims involved creating situations that would test or reveal individual and group subjectivities. The organic and highly individualized nature of these responses has always been important to critiquing or understanding performance art, and countless debates have occurred on this subject, analyzing the “realness” and “relevance” of audience response, possible “manipulation” of the performer, or the way a posteriori assignment of meaning to a work by institutions or the artists themselves color the perpetual discourse of said work, as well as the more immediate concern of subjective responses from those actually witnessing or performing it. It is precisely because of its ability to raise these kinds of questions, and elicit various subjective answers — often through direct audience participation — that performance art has gained much of its art historical influence and relevance. Analysis, and not just that of the artist and critic, become part of the work itself.
When Marina speaks of “creating” new consciousness or “changing” consciousness, I believe she means it in an individualized and more literal way than it may seem and with no real prescribed ideology. Creating a new consciousness can be equated literally, rather than supernaturally, with “increased self-understanding” or even “an increased-ability-to-pay-attention to how one reacts consciously or subconsciously” to a given situation and to use that new understanding in an open-ended way to confront art, interpersonal relationships, or life in general — to become more studiously informed of one’s own internal subjectivity and more conscious participant in interpersonal dialogue or debate.
Cults and, often, New Age movements trade heavily on ideology and prescription. Cults wish to indoctrinate members into a specific ideological way of thinking, a specific value-system, with clear rewards and punishment, often in congress with figure-worship.
Marina Abramović Institute and the Marina Abramović Method, as they appear to me, do not truly involve any of the above. She has spoken of the institute as a journey or an adventure, one whose eventual outcome she can’t predict. The spirit of the Abramović method is nicely encapsulated in an interview with Bonsai TV (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyq-0uPBTMI) when she says “every single human being has its own quality, and most important is to find your own center in your life and understand who you are and not spend time doubting…” and later “…but, to tell people what they can do with their body, I am not a kind of Doctor Abramović to tell them you have do this or that, but what is most important is to look deep in themselves and find their center… and what you have to do is listen to your intuition, but you have to really listen to your intuition.”
Now, there is some language in these statements that I would find personally questionable, ideas about “center,” finding a singular identity in one’s self, and the elimination of doubt. It’s easily arguable that some people do not spend enough time doubting themselves. But then again, it could be argued that many of these same people do so because they do not spend enough time calmly analyzing and exploring themselves. Marina says you have to really listen to your intuition. And “really listening” intrinsically involves forms of self-analysis because it assumes the existence of degrees of listening, and therefore the ability to differentiate between the different types of talking your mind is engaged in.
In other words, I believe her “changing of consciousness” relates to a deeper exploration and awareness of one’s personal subjectivities, their relation to personal experience, thoughts, feelings, inspiration, physicality and emotional response. These qualities, intended to be explored while participating in the Abramović Method, overlap and are congruous with those needed to analyze and critique challenging art — especially long durational works of performance — openness to new experience, intellectual curiosity, long attention span, willingness towards both passive and active participation, critical thinking, and importantly, an ability to analyze one’s own response.
The Abramović Method is a way to experience the act of performing performance art while simultaneously focusing on one’s own individualized internal relationships. It is meant to foster internal understanding as well as a finer, more focused, more patient, analytic eye, mind, and emotional catalog. Each exercise may individually bar certain types of activity — i.e. headphones to eliminate sound — but this is in the scientific spirit of isolating variables to focus on a deeper analysis of individual aspects of personal experience.
Rather than checking their individuality at the door, visitors to the institute are encouraged to explore their own personal subjectivities in a new context, under unfamiliar conditions, and discover more about themselves, art, and others. The checking of personal belongings and the exploration of different restrictions, such as slowed movement or elimination of sound are intended as means of shifting context and isolating different variables with the goal of making individual discovery amplified rather than diminished. We remain individuals even without our cell phones, even if we are wearing lab coats. Interestingly, many of these conditions lead participants into states ever so slightly closer to those of the elderly or disabled, who have had to grapple with the involuntary imposition of certain restrictions. People with physical “disabilities” possess unique strengths, and one possible result of this convergence could be increased empathy. Additionally, the institute aims to make sure that its activities are open to a diverse range of participants, by making the building itself as accessible as possible and emphasizing that it is up to each individual to determine his or her own personal limits.
An interesting aspect of performance art indeed involves its ability to elicit degrees of empathy, or even a lack thereof. For instance, there is a difference between observing someone walking in slow motion and walking in slow motion oneself. Or is there? By inviting the public to participate in an activity that has been labeled as art by an artist or wider artistic circle, the Abramović Method, puts people on both sides of the performance. Afterwards they can and will walk away (at any speed they wish) with a greater personal understanding of the act, and with a sense of their own internal subjectivity deepened, as well as having engaged simultaneously with others in a shared experience. But regardless of the nature of their personal reaction, they will have focused on it, and if they go on to watch a piece of performance art or even plain walk down the street, they may experience that act differently (who knows in what individualized way).
Many of these exercises include the exploration of interpersonal interactions, interpersonal subjectivities. The mutual gaze exercise, influenced by Night Sea Crossing and The Artist Is Present, takes the exploration of personal subjectivities and focuses it on what happens when one looks for extended period of times at a complete stranger. Marina has never dictated, or even really speculated on what any given participant in The Artist Is Present experienced, apart from witnessing a strong willingness from the public to participate based on the phenomena it created. She has openly called for people to write about the experience, to express themselves in an uncensored manner, to explain exactly what it did or did not mean to them.
The same goes for the Abramović Method mutual gaze exercise, only rather than engendering potential accusations of ego or figure-worship, it explicitly mitigates such accusations. Visitors are invited to stare and interact with complete strangers, rather than Marina herself, and are then confronted with how that experience does or does not affect them. This is an example of one of the many ways Marina is distancing herself and her body of work from MAI. Others include ensuring that a diverse and multi-faceted suite of performance programming (addressing a wide range of styles and content) become a staple of MAI. Another is by fostering an open and truly interdisciplinary laboratory of experimental collaboration. The method and the institute share her name and act as her legacy because she conceived them over her many years of engagement with the medium, but in execution they are about the participants. Do the two participants in mutual gaze feel like they are connecting empathically, or don’t they? How does mutual gaze affect the way one person judges another? What does staring at another for prolonged periods of time tell one about themself? How will potential dialogues after the experiment effect the participants’ understanding of each other’s point of view? Performance art poses questions, and these are some that the Abramović method poses to its participants and audience. Whatever the individual answers are, it is a fact that the two participants are really looking, and for quite a while at that.
It is this willingness to slow down and experiment, to seek a more complete understanding of subjective response, particularly in regards to simple actions such as walking, drinking, or looking, that many take for granted, that may lead to potentially new relationships to “consciousness.”
Marina speaks enthusiastically about how helpful these exercises have been in improving her own life, but to me she doesn’t seem intent on (or actually capable of) projecting the exact same experience onto others. Clearly, Marina hopes this participation will have wider positive consequences for people, maybe even the world, but positive, I believe, in the sense that its participants will become more deliberately conscious of their own subjective reactions (and the subjective reactions of others) to art and to lived experience, whatever they may be. This can be related to the increased awareness or the being-in-the-moment that she speaks so often about.
Early in this essay, I briefly alluded to a fundamental concern or flaw in performance art critique when I mentioned that performance art criticism has had to grapple with the imposition of meaning onto a form whose modus operandi has often been that “the work” is intended to really be about individual subjective responses to a single act of performance. This idea is explored well in No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience by Frazier Ward, a book that delineates from many angles the relationship between performance art and its audience, and is the inspiration for this paragraph. Interestingly, it is a book that explores performance and its relation to the limits of community, and includes possible interpretations of Marina’s work that might be of interest to you, with a critical focus on the limits of performance art and the social, political, and artistic implications of the types of communities it involves. One thing this book reminded me of is that we are told by art history that Vito Acconci’s seminal work Seedbed relates powerfully to the breaking of social taboos, of confronting the audience with private experience made public, placing them simultaneously in the role of “object of voyeurism” while simultaneously being a voyeur witnessing a private sexual act made public in which they themselves are the object of desire.
But has anyone ever cataloged the individual subjective responses of every single visitor to that exhibition? How many didn’t understand what was happening at all when they viewed said performance? How many people laughed it off? How many people even really saw it? How many people didn’t believe it was art at all? Are these visitors’ subjective responses, in conflict with the traditional discourse on this work any less a part of the meaning of that performance? My MAI doesn’t think so. As a matter of fact, it aims to bring as many subjective responses as possible into the conversation. It encourages a large group of people to evaluate what they experience and formulate what it means to them.
So, even if someone walks away from MAI thinking it was all pointless, they too will be more informed and their consciousness “changed,” in that they will have learned something about themselves through participation in the conditions of enacting performance art, a medium that has always been — and will continue to be used at MAI — to powerfully explore the human condition — individual or communal — in all its social, political, public and private complexity. Pointless or not.
Much of what I wrote about here is of course long-winded and technical sounding, but I believe it can all be unpacked from what Marina herself has said. Like what occurs in performance art itself, it is in many ways a description of my subjective response to the questions asked by the institute. At the same time, in a way, I view at as what will most likely technically happen during participation at the institute, regardless of whatever ideas may get overlaid on top of it.
Marina speaks often in shorthand, packing complex ideas tightly into grand language. Therefore, she does not always appear completely consistent. Her tendency to jump energetically from concept to concept, her strong sense of self, and her distinctive use of English all contribute to this. She uses her energy to aim wide and aim big. Because Marina Abramović Institute aims for plurality, diversity, and to present a multitude of experiences open to individualistic interpretation, some of what it might accomplish can be hard to encapsulate and convey clearly in concise and easily digestible language. Maybe with these types of goals, it shouldn’t always be. Still, it is something MAI remains committed to working on. Thank you for an opportunity to do the opposite as another step towards getting it as winnowed and accessible as possible.
Over Marina Abramović’s forty years of work, she has developed a curriculum of exercises that she practices herself and teaches to other artists in workshops called Cleaning the House. The goal is to become mentally and physically present. Her adaptation of these exercises for the public is called the Abramović Method.
I bring this up because it was undoubtedly due to these decades of artistic practice that Abramović was able to perform The Artist Is Present (2010), her longest and perhaps most ambitious work.
As you mention, Abramović’s early work was more explicitly social and political. And the early development of the institute has not focused on this more provocative, sometimes violent, early work. That is because the vision for the institute is largely a result of Abramović’s experience specifically during her performance of The Artist Is Present.
Abramović started as the subject of the work: she, the artist, was present. Her commitment to this long durational performance (736 hours over the course of three months) meant that the public was able to rely on her presence as a means to be present as well. For the visibly stirred participating audience, not only was she present, but she became a proxy for presence itself. Her work was the catalyst for something beyond her: 1,500 other people also being present, in as many ways as there were visitors.
In much the same way, Abramović’s presence in the institute is merely the starting point for something beyond her. Through the institute, she wishes to impart to the public a means to fulfill a human need for mental and physical presence that both she and others felt during The Artist Is Present, as well as the skills that allowed her to perform such a feat. It is her conviction that these exercises that help artists to perform, or an audience to view, a long durational performance, are applicable to everyday life. These ideas are the foundation of the institute.
The institute does not require visitors to check their individuality at the door, but quite the opposite. The institute asks visitors to devote six hours of their time and to temporarily part with their cellphones, cameras, and other devices, so as to eliminate distraction while having a unique, hopefully fulfilling and illuminating experience. In fact, we hope visitors feel an even greater sense of individuality when they leave the institute.
When we use the word “legacy,” it is not to say that the institute is wielding Abramović’s cultural capital to promote her personality or brand. Rather, this “legacy” is a place to practice her methods for preparing to view or to perform a long durational artwork in a venue specially made for such performances.
These functions will hopefully further de-stigmatize performance art and advance it as an artistic genre. The institute does not mean to eliminate performance art by conflating it with life, but instead to enrich the lives that we lead after experiencing it, as great art does.
“Once you enter into the performance state you can push your body to do things you absolutely could never normally do”, Marina said to Hans Ulrich Obrist in The Conversation Series he published in 2010.
Marina’s own practice is about risk, challenge, danger, limits, pushing boundaries, and the use of her own body to explore all of the above. Marina’s career is paved with authenticity, courage, and with a clear sense of what she expects from herself.
Marina would never ask anyone to be surrender their individuality, and I hardly believe that this is caused by the “stripping” of the participants’ belongings. It has nothing to do with the loss of individuality, but instead with the opportunity to fully engage in the present moment, liberating ourselves from potential distractions. “Our experience of time and space has radically shifted as technology has collapsed, compressed, chopped, flipped and scrambled it, teppanyaki-style”, Carina Chocano wrote in her piece titled The All-Important Present Momentpublished on June 28th, 2013 for The New York Times Magazine. The present is key to the Abramović Method.
I have never discussed with Marina her affinity to Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and aesthetic, but what they do have in common is their passion and interest in sculpting time.
She seeks to invite people to enter the performance state and to give ourselves the chance to explore the limits, tolerance, and pace of our own bodies. Participants are present by their own will and have the free choice to do so. The freedom to experience the Abramović Method is everyone’s right.
Marina Abramović has named an institute after herself, but I do not see how this is any different to a lawyer who establishes his firm under his name as well. It is not about a glorification of oneself. She has created a name for herself in the artworld and there are four decades of work that prove it. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
As someone who collaborates with MAI, I do not feel like I have joined a cult. I feel a deep admiration for Marina and it is definitely one of the reason why I’m interested in seeing this project grow and expand to its full potential. Nonetheless, it is not limited to my appreciation of her own work. I’m driven by my personal interest in performance art and all the disciplines that can be contained within. Marina has proven to be versed in many art forms and to be able to appreciate them from a distance as well. She performs and teaches, but she is also a student of others and a member of the audience. Marina respects and values performers and members of the audience equally, knowing that one does not exist without the other. The balance and the relationship that they bring to one another feeds the desire to build a space for this liaison to exist.
MAI will be a space where I do believe the opportunity to establish new conversations will occur, and that is Marina’s main goal. Her teachings are fundamental, but she is also interested in having both emerging and established artists develop new pieces, and mostly, to have the public connect with an artform that exists temporarily.
I find highly problematic the terminology and made-up words spreaded throughout the article, such as: Abramovironment, Abramaganza, Abramomania. MAI has not only steered away from this sort of nomenclature; the philosophical core and mission of the institute couldn’t be further away from this kind of unbecoming and reductionist marketing strategy terminology.
- Yes, the Abramović Method is somewhat peculiar and/or intense, but long durational performance art is relatively new and demands of audience/participants a slightly different way of interacting with art than we might be accustomed to in extant establishments like museums and other cultural institutions — the Abramović Method is one optional way of helping to introduce and immerse visitors in both the spirit of long durational performance works’ creation and the nature of their appreciation. The idea here is not indoctrination — the extremity of the method is directly proportional to the task of efficiently familiarizing people with a relatively new discipline.
- The notion that MAI represents “the death of performance art” is understandable, but also gives unfair weight to superficial elements of performance art — yes, performance art, including the long durational variety which is the focus at MAI, has often been radical, marginalized, outside of the establishment, and yes a large degree of that is naturally diminished through institutionalizing the art form and giving it a home — but it would also be ill-conceived to say that radicalism, marginalization and an anti-establishment temperament are the defining features of long durational performance work. MAI is founded with the belief that the themes and interrogations of long durational performance are larger and more diverse than the circumstances of the discipline’s roots. All art forms tangle with integrity and legitimacy when they enter the zeitgeist, but we believe that long durational performance is more than its past, more than its position relative to the mainstream, and in fact is a legitimate form of expression independent of that position, like painting or sculpture, with the ability to engage in numerous cultural dialogues. Giving long durational performance an enduring home to proliferate and evolve does mean a certain shaking off of its origins, of its marginalized position, but getting a home is far from stagnation — rather, we believe that this is an opportune way to see long durational work take on new ideas.
For a piece that begins with an impassioned caveat—we are feminists, we do, like good feminists and art historians, appreciate Abramović’s “early work”—the reader ends up mired in a familiar (and distinctly un-feminist) disdain for an individual woman artist’s supposedly inflated self-regard, the quality known among male artists as ‘success.’ One can scarcely imagine a male artist sustaining the kind of critical skepticism that characterizes this piece. The ambition, wealth and self-possession required to conceive of ideas (let alone methods or institutes) and put one’s own name on them are marked as masculine. And typically welcomed. This is traditionally not the province of female performance artists, who we tend to be most comfortable with when they dutifully play the role of edgy (read: naked) provocateurs, grateful for attention.
Abramović has always been a controversial figure. Her life and art are full of extremes and contradictions, which compel people to have strong opinions about her. One loves Marina or dismisses her as a fraud or, more often, continually grapples with a multitude of strong feelings, as it seems the authors do. They are glad they experienced the MAI prototype, and would even recommend it to readers. At the same time, they feel implicated, dubious enough to evoke fascism and dystopia in discussing Abramović’s intention. They struggle to see a connection between Abramović’s early “unflinching interrogations of…the western world” and her desire to share her knowledge accumulated over forty years of performing and teaching.
A lack of violence, nudity, blood, controversy, sensationalism, or “edginess” does not necessarily make performance art less authentic. These attributes are what viewers and art critics focus on, and in turn have come to expect in contemporary performance art. Artists’ processes and methods evolve throughout their career, and as someone who uses her body as a medium, it’s only natural for the 67-year old Abramović to seek other ways to keep long duration performance, not to mention a discourse about the field, alive. She has chosen to use the fame and power she has garnered to offer the world, and perhaps more importantly in relation to the article the art world, a nonprofit art institution dedicated to the work of those whose creative product is ephemeral.
As a student of performance art, I have always wondered about how immaterial art can best be preserved, knowing that photographic and video documentation never truly “captures” a moment. Documentation is just that, not a substitute for authentic experience. The MAI mission is thoroughly forward-thinking and unprecedented. Perhaps it is idealistic, if not utopian, to imagine a world where performance art is given the same cultural and critical gravitas as fine arts, and where respect for a pioneer in yet another “man’s world” is maintained. To ascribe the role of cult leader to Abramović as MAI’s first founder is more off-base than calling her a stunt woman instead of an artist.
Performance artists struggle to be taken seriously. Examples of immaterial art that are legitimized by the art critical canon are few and far between. When the artist in question is female, it becomes near-impossible to escape being put in a kind of ghetto, to paraphrase Abramović. The act of performing female begs its own forum for discussion, but to apply it here, the writers see Abramović manipulating the docile masses by relying on herself as a brand, sexed up and clothed in Givenchy, basking in idolatry, “exud[ing] an air of both knowledge and naivete that is seductive even if it is constructed.” I argue that this is a gendered view of the artist, reductive, and an easy out when faced with the difficult questions that this art and the MAI concept raises.
The sterile, futuristic aesthetic of the MAI prototype is understandably, and deliberately, disorienting. True, the uniform lab coats, shoes, headphones, and instructions issued to visitors can easily be mistaken for cult trappings. Indeed, without experiencing the MAI prototype or Abramović Method firsthand, and I personally have not, the description is unsettling. All of these elements which serve to block out our 21st century creature comforts are grounded in Abramovićs intention to investigate time, interaction, and mindfulness. This is about drawing attention to the individual’s performance as a MAI prototype visitor, and the very personal way that this resonates within after the lab coat is off and cell phones are back in hand ready to text, tweet, blog.
The authors fear something they derisively call, alternately, a cult, Abramomania, Abramo____, set in an Abramovironment and harken back to the good old days when the artist knew to stick to the things women performance artists should be commenting on: her own body, and more broadly embodiment, commodification, and sexual politics in general. For one thing, performance artists have never been at the center of any mania, and remain an often mocked and largely misunderstood group within most dominant cultural discourses. They themselves acknowledge toward the end of their piece to have crafted a slightly paranoid reading of the MAI, but the point remains worth noting.
Abramović embraces the contradictions between commodification and artistic authenticity, feminine power and patriarchy. Addressing similar topics at a Q&A at MoMA PS1 recently, Abramović used the example of her recent performance with Jay-Z, which was criticized by some art world purists as “the day performance art died.” She pointed out that a direct result of the event was that a generation of hip hop fans who have never even heard of her would be googling “performance art.” Keep in mind that for every person who feels oversaturated by Abramović’s brand, there are thousands who have no idea who this artist is.
Further Thoughts, From Our FAQs:
What’s up with the labcoats?
Labcoats instantly invoke a spirit of experimentation, serve to mute environmental distractions, and encourage participants to focus on their own unique internal experience (as opposed to external representations of self). At MAI, labcoats are not intended to repress participants’ individuality, but rather to create a shared experience, bolstering empathic connection between participants. By acting as both a blank slate and common experience, MAI labcoats support an audience’s ability to absorb long durational works. Also, they’re kind of fun.
What’s up with the crystals?
Crystals are routinely used across art, science, technology and spirituality — the very fields MAI hopes to bring into conversation. Not only are they objects of metaphysical fascination, crystals are also pivotal in everyday technologies like watches, printers and computers. A crystal’s unique lattice-work structure reflects numerous touchstones of art and aesthetics, not least among them being long durationality. Along with crystals, a diverse array of items and ideas with technological, artistic, spiritual, and scientific overlaps will be present in programs at the institute, all in the spirit of fostering interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration.
Dear MAI team,
We want to thank you all for engaging so thoroughly with us on these topics and apologies for the delay in our response. While we cannot address everything brought up by each member of the MAI team, we have attended to what we consider to be some of the key points made by each of you.
We really appreciate how directly you addressed the questions and concerns that we raised. You, more than anyone, did attempt to explain both the ways in which MAI is attempting to distance Abramović from the institute and the methods being explored to increase accessibility and accommodate diversity. As you make clear, the most productive elements of engaging with what MAI has to offer is an acknowledgment of the different subjective responses of each and every individual participant and the discussion/debate that this can lead to. It is in the nature of such exploration and engagement that this dialogue has been formed. We are pleased that you recognize this imperative and that we have been given the opportunity to further advance that project here. Some of our thoughts on the issues you brought up or responded to are addressed in the comments below.
There is certainly truth to your argument that while Abramović may have been initially positioned as the center of The Artist is Present, the work ultimately became as much about the other participants and their experiences and that the work evolved based as much on them as on the artist herself. The suggestion that MAI functions in a similar manner is also an interesting take, however, we do have to question your statements regarding the use of the word “legacy.” You write:
“When we use the word “legacy,” it is not to say that the institute is wielding Abramović’s cultural capital to promote her personality or brand. Rather, this “legacy” is a place to practice her methods for preparing to view or to perform a long durational artwork in a venue specially made for such performances.”
It is unconvincing that she is not interested in building and using her cultural capital to increase her fame and influence in the context of her many other activities wherein she appears to be courting celebrity. We are thinking here of her recent participation in Jay-Z’s performance, the video release of Lady Gaga going through many of the MAI exercises as publicity for the Institute’s Kickstarter account, and even her involvement in the making of the documentary The Artist is Present. In fact, the Kickstarter account alone reaffirms her cultural cache and what we have referred to as a sort of cult or personality or celebrity idol worship since the minimum donation awards the donor the opportunity to be embraced by the artist. It simply cannot be argued that Abramović and her personality are not being centralized and utilized for the promotion and production of the Institute, when the promise of physical contact with the idol acts as incentive for financial support. These are the types of things we are referring to when we draw comparisons between her and the charismatic leaders of cults.
You bring up the idea that MAI may result positively in de-stigmatizing performance art and advancing it as an artistic genre. Tom, in his comments, actually dealt with the position of performance art quite extensively and elucidated its incredible influence and recent public recognition as a generative art historical force. The Artist is Present, for example, demonstrates how performance art has moved more into the centre of the (art) public’s consciousness, but its continual representation as a blockbuster spectacle has actually risked doing the genre a disservice of types by appearing as mere theatre. In her talk in Toronto, Abramović herself made very clear that performance art and theatre need to remain entirely distinct from one another, but more and more, her activities seem to encompass a blending of the two genres.
“Marina Abramović has named an institute after herself, but I do not see how this is any different to a lawyer who establishes his firm under his name as well. It is not about a glorification of oneself. She has created a name for herself in the artworld and there are four decades of work that prove it. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
This statement is not convincing. It is not even remotely similar to a lawyer whose law firm bears her name. This rose would not exist—would not dream of its existence—were it not for Abramović’s name and fame. If indeed a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, why not change the name of MAI to something else – “Hudson Centre for the Study of Performance Art and the Advancement of Collective Consciousness,” for example?
We in no way consider performance art or long-durational performance art a lesser genre than any other. We don’t take issue with long-durational performance art and we certainly never implied anything of the sort in our article. Credit must be given to Abramović for the fact that after The Artist is Present, the argument that performance art remains marginalized from the mainstream and institutionally ignored is ultimately untenable. That exhibition was one of the biggest and most important of the last decade.
Being accused of being anti-feminist because we take issue with a female artist’s artistic/public comportment is as facile as it is tautological. If we try here to convince you that we are not the misogynists you have evidently decided we are, we will be re-entrenching ourselves in this simplistic binary. It is this kind of argument that has stagnated feminist/political discourse for decades.
We never once indicated that we have a problem with Abramović’s success. Perhaps, however, her relative solitude out there in the public eye as a veteran female performance artist has exaggerated her seeming responsibility to do it right for us. We can accept that this might be true. There aren’t a good handful of other female artists with blockbuster retrospectives to take the heat sometimes, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be held up to the kind of standard that her audience – fans and critics, alike – may be hoping for. The level of success that she has achieved only leaves her open to greater scrutiny, analysis or critique.
You argue, “One can scarcely imagine a male artist sustaining the level of critical skepticism that characterizes this piece,” which is, in our opinion, absurd. Most artists of that standing have borne their share of criticism, regardless of their gender—Warhol was mocked and derided from the start, and how often has Takashi Murakami been called an anal-retentive slavedriver, Jeff Koons a fraud, Ai Weiwei a misogynist? And, lest we forget Damien Hirst! Well, we’ve all done our fair share of eye-rolling and more over his excessive financial success and manipulation of the market.
We never suggested that we would only accept our female artists when “edgy (read: naked) provocateurs, grateful for attention,” as you allege, nor did we imply that “A lack of violence, nudity, blood, controversy, sensationalism, or “edginess”’ makes performance art any less authentic. Success is not the issue here. Our greater problem is with her lack of consistency and the various tactics that, we believe, call her credibility into question.
On another point, you bring up the important issue of how and if performance art can be preserved, when photographic or video documentary effectively undermines its liveness and ephemerality. It is a crucial question that we also ask ourselves often. In fact, we both agree that in the context of being asked to mount a retrospective exhibition for a performance artist, as was the case with The Artist is Present at MOMA, Abramović’s choice to have other artists re-perform her earlier work while she devoted herself to the enacting of a single original work was both a brilliant move and the only possible answer to the complicated questions raised by the exhibition process itself. Despite the issues we may take with that exhibition, we don’t deny this.
That said, the suggestion that the artist’s recent performance with Jay-Z is somehow making strides to “legitimize” performance art is weak and again suggests a lack of consistency in Abramović’s philosophy. Certainly we have to consider how the intersections of genre might be potentially and positively generative, and also acknowledge the effects of the multitudinous avenues for art’s dissemination and reception on the Web. However, we also have to question the benefits of “a generation of hip hop fans who have never even heard of her… googling ‘Performance Art’” and reading a Wikipedia paragraph in which the entire history of an important, political and game-changing movement is compressed, or watching yet another video document or other form of stale preservation. If, in fact, this contrived collaboration between the “grandmother of performance art” and the “King of Hip Hop” becomes the exemplar of performance art for a new generation, how can we possibly contend that the genre has been served or properly represented? The lyrics of Picasso Baby alone are embarrassingly capitalistic, obsessed with the acquisition of physical works of art and the celebrity status of their famous (male) producers, and are less than feminist—even, at times, misogynistic. With all of this in mind, would you not agree that this collaboration is somewhat problematic?
Despite all of our criticisms and concerns, we also acknowledge and respect that you at MAI are working to establish a unique environment that facilitates an active engagement with performance art and its relevance to contemporary culture. This is not something we want to discredit and we appreciate the opportunity for discussion that it generates. Again, we thank you for your openness to entering into a dialogue with us and we hope that such communication is maintained as MAI moves forward.
All the best,
Natalie and Reilley