Congratulations with yesterday's performance of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. It was wonderful.
It’s kind of an intense piece to try to put everything together. But it’s really Bob Wilson’s vision. He spends so much time with light. We have so much lighting behind the stage, that we could light a small city.
It’s also a very unusual Bob Wilson piece, because here he goes back to his roots, which is much more fresher than his new pieces. Not everyone is happy with the result, because he combines such different characters like Antony Hegarty, and me, and Willem Dafoe. It’s this insane combination of very different people.
Also remarkable is how he creates the rhythm. First he creates something that is almost slapstick, and then into something really dramatic, and then back to the sadness. And all of this material are really truths, that’s the most heavy part!
How does it feel to be an actress?
Liberating, because I’m not in control of anything. I’m just the tool in his hands, basically. Whatever he tells me to do, I do. And then he rearranges and re-edits everything the way he wants.
He was not interested in my work, he was interested in my life. I gave him both my work and my life. This is the sixth biography already that is made of my life. The first one was by Charles Atlas (Biography, 1992-93), and the last one was made by Michael Laub, the Belgian director, and it was called The Biography Remix (2004-05). He had put so much of my work into this piece. And he also had the role of Ulay played by Ulay himself! It was very different. It was interesting when Laub came to see this piece, he really enjoyed the difference. It’s a totally different approach now. In the earlier biographies, I was still performing in the ‘performative style’. If there was blood, it would be real blood, and so on. While in the performance here, all such elements are removed and turned into the artificality of the theatre.
What is very interesting to me in this performance, is how Bob Wilson creates these scenes with Willem Dafoe on the platform in the front. Sometimes he becomes independent, and then again he steps onto the stage.
We also have this extensive, complicated makeup. It was designed by a Taiwanese artist, who came here to teach everyone how to do it. It turns the face into a canvas, so you can project light on it in any color you want. It takes two hours to put it on, and another hour to take it off again! And then above the makeup you also have the mask.
For many performances of the 1970s, there is little or no documentation left, which has created a strong tendency to mythologize those events. There were not enough traces left to check that information.
My first experience with video documentation was terrible. The first time a cameraman filmed a performance, I was shocked afterwards when I saw the material, and I asked him to delete it immediately. He had been filming my feet while I was doing something with my hair, he was zooming in and out, he was constantly moving the camera … It had nothing to do with my work, so I did not want it to exist any longer. So I had a different proposition for him. I said that I would do the performance again, for a duration of one hour, and that he would leave the camera on, and meanwhile go out and smoke a cigarette and return when it was finished.
This is how documentation of my performance work was born, and from that time I know exactly what kind instructions I have to give so this does not happen anymore. So I would never give the camera to my relatives or friends, because I do not trust them. It might be interesting documentation, but too personal, not artistic. It would not work for my work.
How do you feel about transmitting information about performance art to students? I have understood that your institute in New York is also to function as a school.
Yes, and also as a school for the public. Because I believe the public needs to be educated about performance art. I just created something which I called the ‘Abramović Method’, which 8000 people experienced in the PAC [Padiglione d’Arte Contemporaneo] in Milan. The intention was to create a perpetuum mobile in which the public participating in the performance was itself being watched by an audience.
I do not think that the public knows what to do in the case of long-duration work. They have to train for it, and the only way to train is to experience the performance themselves. With this new space, I want to realize this. The spectators have to sign a contract beforehand, saying that they will stay in the space for at least two hours. If they give me the time, I give them the work.
What do you think about performance documentation being available online, through Youtube or sites such as Ubuweb?
I think it is good, but it is also incredibly confusing. There are so many bad videos on Youtube, for example. It does not touch on the right explanation. It’s a mess and somebody ought to put some order into it. I really want to create an institute where proper documentation is available, in order to show how it can be done. Many performance works of the 1970s are documented in one way or another, but still kind of lost to us, because of missing or incomplete documentation.
If you just take the work of James Lee Byars, for example, who is such an important artist, there is hardly any documentation. That is because his work is all about energy and transmission. There is this wonderful piece where he stands on a white marble sphere in front of the Kunstmuseum Bern, completely dressed in gold, breathing inspiration to the museum. [The performance was entitled ‘Come Stand on This Stone and Blow Your Soul’, and opened Byars’ 1987 exhibition ‘Die Gleichzeitigkeit des Anderen’.] And there are so many other important works that have been lost.
We have to go back to the witnesses who are still alive, and get their testimonies. That’s one way of preservation that is needed, and which is much more important than having just low-quality videos on the internet with no context whatsoever.
Belgian performance artist Danny Devos told me that the work being badly documented made it more powerful in a way, because the fact that there are only rumors causes people to talk about the performance and helps to keep it alive.
That is more like Marcel Duchamp’s statement that ‘the public completes the work’. Yes, only fantasy can fill the black holes. But still, I always like to know what really happened during a performance. Then I can make my own fantasy. I want the facts. This is what made it so interesting to do research for Seven Easy Pieces, where I created five re-enactments of works by other artists, one re-enactment of a performance by myself, and one new piece. [Guggenheim Museum, New York City, 2005]
For instance, in the case of Action Pants: Genital Panic by Valie Export, it was interesting to see how confusing this piece is. There are five or six different photographs, and one of them was made in a studio, another one was the poster, on one picture she is wearing sandals, on another one she is wearing boots, and so on. I always believed she did the performance only once, but actually she re-created it many times. For researching performance art, you really have to be like an archeologist.
Do you believe the interest for that kind of archeological activities is growing in museums and archives right now?
No. It’s all very partial. Some students are doing research for a thesis, but there is no real scientific research going on. The reason is that performance has always been an alternative form of art. Only recently has it really had its breakthrough. I mean, I invested forty years of my life to become less alternative! Now the interest is growing, but before it has always been a mess-up. If you just think of Leigh Bowery and how important his impact was on the night club culture, and how that influenced the mainstream structures…
I am currently collecting eyewitness accounts of performance events in Belgium, for the research project ‘Belgium is Happening’. Many events took place in public space, not in gallery spaces. For that kind of events, which are more like happenings rather than individual performances, it is hard to see what the context was, and this makes testimonies so important.
You have to dismiss an enormous amount of bad performances. One of the problems with performance art today is that there was a lot of enthusiasm in the beginning, and then there was a lot of shit. As a result, people are getting tired to watch performances. You have to watch fifty bad works to discover one good work.
Additionally, there was this attitude that everything was called ‘performance’. An overdose of that word was already wrong.
Finally, there was a great group of artists working in performance during the 1970s, but they all stopped, because it was too demanding, or too vulnerable, or there was no market, or whatever.
If you look at the paintings that came out of the 1970s, such as those by Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel or David Salle, they all look like painted performances. Look at the subject. They are almost like staged pieces of performance art.
What happened in Milan was that I organized an event which could hold four groups of 21 people in every session. In total, 8000 people passed through the museum and participated in the event. The participants had to apply in advance, so they could be considered as part of the normal museum audience, but we also had a group of 21 journalists and 21 politicians.
We created certain spaces in the museum. The first one was called the ‘school’. When you arrive, you get a labcoat. You also sign a contract that you will stay at least two and a half hours in the museum. You give your word of honor that you will not leave. The labcoat means that you are turned from an observer into an experimenter, and you can identify with everybody else who is in the experiment. It unifies people. Further, you have a safety box, in which you put your briefcase, your watch, your telephone, your computer… Everything which can remind you of external time. You lock it, and you keep the key. Next, you can choose between a sitting, standing or lying position. This changes during the event, so that each of the 21 persons experiences all three positions. After the event, you write a diary, and the diary stays with me. Finally you receive the certificate of completion, which I sign.
All the objects in the 29 crates which I shipped from Brasil were made from magnets, crystals, wood and copper - all of which are materials for transmission. The first seven chairs are the chairs for man and his spirit. You have a chair that is very high, on which you can sit with the crystals, and for the spirit you have a tiny chair. If you don’t have a spirit, that is your problem, but the chair is there anyway. If you build a chair for something invisible, the invisible becomes visible.
You also receive headphones that completely block all sounds. So you have seven people sitting on these chairs, wearing the headphones and with their eyes closed. You are observed, photographed and filmed. Then you have the people with the standing objects, made from magnets and copper, and then you have the lying objects, with the crystals.
On the balcony, furthermore, there is the regular museum audience who can look at the participants. You never see objects without people - there are always people present, so they become like sculptures. The visitors can look at the situation as it is, but they can also use the huge binoculars on the balcony, the same as are used for bird-watching, to zoom in on the color of your hair, or your eyes, or small details of your skin. You have nowhere to go. You are completely vulnerable. You spend two and a half hours in this situation. Afterwards, you write the diary, you get the certificate, and the next group comes in. This is how eight thousand people came by. We finished 10 June, and now I am going to do Abramović Method anywhere in the world, because you don’t need me anymore. That will the task of the school. The last episode I will do in 2014 at the Serpentine Gallery, and after that we are going to open the Institute.
For the design of the Institute, Rem Koolhaas and I worked together. I told him that I wanted to have a Crystal Chamber, and a Magnetic Chamber, and a Levitation Chamber, and a Blood Bank, and the balcony with the binoculars.
The Blood Bank is very important. You know how shamanism works: you give a drop of your blood to the shaman, and let it dry immediately. Afterwards, if he is in Brazil, and you are in Belgium, he can cure you through this drop of blood, because there is a life energy between you and him. Once you die, the shared energy does not exist anymore. So, I am thinking of taking a blood drop of the one hundred most wonderful artists in the world, and we create a special room of glass with a safe, completely protected. Once a year, a shaman comes by to re-energize all of the artists from a distance.
I also make a Digital Temple, because it is interesting to know that any solar blast can completely disable all of our computer systems. But if you take a marble wall, and you insert the digital code in the marble, you create something for ever. It will never be destroyed.
For instance, take Antony’s song from the performance you saw yesterday. I asked the engineer how much marble it would take to engrave Antony’s song as a digital string. He answered 25,000 tons, which is not so much. It is a room of three by four meters. So, you enter into a song, which is a ‘digital temple’, but at the same time a sculpture. If a future civilization finds it and decodes it, they will have Antony’s song. So I want to make seven digital temples: for a song, a dance, a film, a performance, etc.
This is a completely new kind of future. You take something that is age-old, like marble, but you put something new on it. It’s the perfect combination. This is my type of preservation, namely digital preservation in marble.
What do you mean by the expression ‘cleaning the house’, which you use to describe your training method with students?
Cleaning the house is something I already practise for more than thirty years. Our body is the most important house to clean. I take them to places which have the worst possible conditions: either it’s far too hot, or too cold. Then they go without food for five days, only water. And no talking.
Don’t they get sick?
Definitely. More clean than ever! Actually, I have had great results with this method. Of course, you cannot be on drugs or have any medical or psychological problems. It have to be normal, healthy human beings. You have to sign a contract that you are healthy.
Under these circumstances, you do a number of exercises. The exercises are designed to strengthen your perception, self-control and endurance. At the end of that period, you have to make a work of art using nothing but your own energy. These are very successful and inspiring workshops.
For one of the exercises, you take one kilogram of rice and one kilogram of sesame seeds, and mix them together. Then you have to separate and count them. It’s so wonderful. You completely calm your nerves.
Or you walk into the woods blindfolded for ten kilometers, and then you have to find your way back. Because artists have to see with their body, not just their eyes. Or taking a swim in the ocean on a January morning, in Sweden. That’s another good one.
It reminds me of a beautiful happening script by Allan Kaprow. A group of people goes to a beach and everyone collects one hundred grains of sand. Then they go the next beach by car. They put the sand on the beach, and everyone takes one hundred drops of water from the ocean. Finally they go to a third beach and put the drops back in the ocean.
That’s an nice one, too. But almost no one will do it. My students, on the contrary, have to do the assignment because I control them. That’s the difference. It’s not just sitting there and thinking about the poetry of it! No, you have to do it, like a soldier.
We have waiting lists for these events. There’s an enormous need. People are completely disconnected, and there is an enormous lack of concentration. It’s frightening. Especially the young generation. Nobody is watching a full television program without changing channels. Changing channels is a new way of code for our minds. You can’t go deep into anything. In my opinion, as life is short, art has to be longer.
Yes. Now I’ve lost my next question.
You see? You’re not concentrated. You need to count sesame.
Did you do it yourself?
Every single exercise I did myself. And I only chose the exercises that work.
By the way, I was so shocked by the toilets in the Muhka museum. I had this idea too, and they did it first. You know Robert Filliou? He had the idea of separate toilets for men, women and artists. And Muhka did it.
I lost my question again. I’m really not concentrated.
Yes. This is a sesame seed emergency. As we speak, you are going to buy one kilogram of rice and sesame seeds.
Now I know what I wanted to ask. I really appreciated what you said about doing research into historical performances, as you did with the works by Valie Export or Joseph Beuys. But for some works it is getting difficult to do re-enactments, because of copyrights. What do you think of the idea of a performance being copyrighted?
Still, people are constantly breaking these rules, because they still don’t give a shit about performance art. Normally, I always give permission to re-enact performances, except the ones involving injury. An Antwerp artist, Mikes Poppe, asked me for permission to do my piece Lips of Thomas, from 1975. The question troubled me. Two weeks later, I wrote an email telling him that I don’t give permission, and it appeared that he had already done it. So what you do? Sue him? That’s crazy. They will do it anyway. That’s something which is not right, because I am the one who really authored all these works. You can spend your life in lawsuits. I believe that the coming generation of artists has to learn that these are really works of art, and they have to respect that.
Even worse are the critics. They will select artists who re-do performances of someone else, and write about it as if it were the most original idea ever. See Lady Gaga’s meat dress. You how many artists in the seventies wore a meat dress? Do you think any one of them is ever mentioned? But if it were a piece of music, she could not do that. You should see the images in fashion and advertising. They’re stealing images like crazy. I have a huge archive about this topic. There is this Asian artist who took sixteen of my performance photographs, projected them on canvas, painted them exactly the same, and sold them on Sotheby’s for 400,000$. I never received that much for any of my work, and I work for forty years now. And I can’t sue him, because the title is: ‘Homage to Marina Abramović’ [more particularly, ‘Cleaning the Mirror Homage to Marina Abramović’ by Agus Suwage, 2008].
This is like vampirism. They live on someone else’s blood.
Could this phenomenon not be a legacy of what happened in the seventies? Because certain images of works from that period have become iconic. Take, for example, your works like Lips of Thomas or Rhythm 0, or works by Chris Burden such as Transfixed, or Meat Joy by Caroline Schneemann. In that process of canonization, the images have become more important than the performances themselves.
So they become the property of everybody? I have no comment on this, only that historically speaking you need to have the right context, the right story, the right title of the piece. That is not respected now. If you look at the history of photography and video, it used to be the same. It was also nobody’s territory. But it has become mainstream, and now it is very clear what is made by whom. Performance art is still unclear territory. My generation of artists just left a complete chaos and moved to other genres of art. Chris Burden made sculptures, Acconci makes architecture, and so on. I am the only one who is still doing performance art. That is why creating this Institute is so important to me. I will finally put things in order. Everybody can come there and study what really happened. Other artists are getting their own foundation, but that’s just for preserving their own work. They are not thinking about the movement. I have always been thinking of the movement, of which I am just a small part. Why does performance art exist, against all the odds? It is an immaterial form of art. A good performance can be an extremely transformative experience.
For someone like Vito Acconci, performance art was just a historical phase of a process that logically led him first to video and then to architecture.
Still, Acconci will be remembered for his performance works, not for his architecture. Now he has to work like hell to pay the twenty-five people who work in his studio. Even if he wanted to do something else, he can’t, because he’s trapped. I am totally against factories.
Is it not a danger for the Institute in New York that it becomes a factory?
I don’t think so. Actually, I want it to be like a factory, but a creative factory, where works are made, where we show the work in process, and also a space where we can experiment and fail. Failure is acceptable. It’s not all about success, because success leads to repetition. Ideas are born, some are successful and others fail. And on the funerals of those old ideas, new ideas are born. I want to have a factory like Andy Warhol’s without the drugs. Performance is about processes, not about the final product. We have to go back to the original meaning of what performance means. It’s an immaterial form of art. It’s about process and about energy dialogue with a public. About the incredible freedom for an artist to give and for a public to receive. Everything has become so structured, and art has become a commodity. I can’t see another group show, I am so tired of it. Go to the art fairs, you can’t take it anymore. It’s like selling potatoes.
I would even like to commission artists I like who have never made long-durational work to do such a work for the Institute. Let’s try it. Look at the Futurists, they were no ‘performance artists’ but they made brilliant performance art and theatre. This Institute will be exactly for that kind of work which you can’t realize elsewhere because the structures do not allow you to.
As a model for this kind of Institute, I am thinking of Monte Verità, which was founded by Rudolf von Laban. A meeting place for artists, scientists and spiritual leaders. For example, like the symposiums that Louwrien Wijers organized under the title Art meets Science and Spirituality in a new Economy, in Amsterdam (1990) and Copenhagen (1996). She introduced me to people who were very important in my life. I mean, she introduced Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol to the Dalai Lama! The Dutch government never really accepted and supported her, which was very sad. This kind of ideas has afterwards become very popular in Japan, and everywhere else. Just bringing together Robert Rauschenberg with the Dalai Lama and Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine, or mathematician David Bohm, who had studied with Einstein, was amazing. That was really mind-blowing.
Did you ever do performances in public space?
Yes, in many different places. One was at the underground garage of a supermarket in Kassel. But I hate it. I need to have proper conditions. I want either a chosen space, or a given space.
It is so strange to see you appear as a character in a theatre show about your own life.
I am so interested in transgressing all the boundaries, to do everything. I am now even going to choreograph a dance piece in the Paris opera, together with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. We’re doing Ravel’s Boléro next year, together with Damien Jalet. It’s wonderful to do different things, because it is so easy to find a form that everybody loves and then repeat yourself to death. But then I get bored. Rauschenberg said: you always have to invent things to surprise yourself. It’s easy to be up there in the art scene for five or six years, but to be there forty years, that’s not easy. You see so many people disappear, and never hear from them anymore. Also for Belgian art. It takes complete dedication, nothing else.
Interview: Thomas Crombez
Transcriptie: Thomas Crombez
Eindredactie: Thomas Crombez