Better than Flowers
(photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images North America)
Several weeks ago, after I received an email that had been circulating among fellow MFA students in my program, I learned that Marina Abramović was seeking “dynamic adult men and women, 5’– 6’ tall, with excellent physical stamina, focus and discipline" to perform a new work at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’ annual Gala. The email also mentioned that long sustained stillness and silence would be involved. Immediately, I was excited, nervous, and flushed. I mean, here’s a woman whose name over the last year and a half (for better or worse) has become almost synonymous with "performance art" but whose career has spanned the past four decades. She is one of the artists whose work was introduced to me at the very beginning of my artistic explorations and continues to inform much of my own practice; I couldn’t not pursue this.
I sat on the email for about a week before making any final decision. Focus, discipline? Sure, I have that. Long sustained stillness and silence involved? Excellent physical stamina? Well, I’ve never run a marathon, but does being built into a replica of one’s bedroom closet for 24 hours count for anything? How about lying face down on a hardwood floor for 6 hours in a threshold? At this point, I didn’t know much else about the piece, but I knew a couple things: It was conceived of by an artist whose work I respect and had been following for years. Also, based on the trajectory of her career, I knew that whatever it was that I was signing up for, it would be physically and mentally grueling. (This is Marina Abramović we’re talking about here). Finally, the night before the deadline, I decided to send in my submission. A couple days later, I received a reply:
“EJ, I am pleased to offer you an audition slot next Tuesday November 8th at 10:45am…Wear a black turtleneck or mock turtleneck, comfortable shoes (no heels), and yoga pants, sweats, or whatever comfortable leggings you can bend and stretch in…Ms. Abramović will be working directly with all auditioning performers for a full hour to test your focus, stamina, and active stillness. The performance itself on the 12th will run three hours without breaks (really not kidding about the stamina part).”
When I arrived at MOCA that morning in my black turtleneck, I was anxious and still completely unaware as to the specifics of what I was getting myself into. After filling out and signing several forms which included a Non-Disclosure Agreement and an Image Release form, my group of about 10 was led into an elevator that descended to an underground storage level of the museum. The mystique of the museum quickly faded as we were led around corners past huge wooden crates and boxes, and through dark hallways that could have very well been a part of any storage facility in Los Angeles. I was quickly reminded that we were in a place of artistic importance when our black turtleneck procession culminated in a room full of cushioned Lazy Susans and we were greeted by a smiling Marina Abramović in a white lab coat, who was (to my surprise) warm and sweet with a youthful energy. She is also not above bathroom humor; For several minutes, she cracked jokes about providing adult diapers for us “in case [we] have to shit during the performance,” she said. It was also during this initial conversation where she finally revealed to us why we were there. Instead of flowers, even better than flowers, our heads were going to be the centerpieces at this event. We were to sit underneath the dinner tables with our heads poking out from a hole in the center and use the Lazy Susans to slowly rotate and attempt to make silent eye contact for as long as we wished, with every individual at our table. After more conversation and a few more jokes about bodily processes, we were led into yet another room with two of the tables that would be used during the performance. For about an hour, our silence and stillness were observed and the two assistants who would be working with us all week, Rebecca Davis and Lynsey Peisinger, whispered to one another while taking notes on clipboards. By the end of this hour and before releasing us, Rebecca and Lynsey addressed the group in a very serious tone. “This will be difficult,” Rebecca said. She did most of the debriefing. “It will be long and exhausting. When you leave here today, we really encourage you to think about if this is something you still want to do. It will be painful and we want you to think about that. Much of Marina’s work is about transcending pain. Think about what your relationship to pain is.” They continued on about pain and stamina and endurance and focus, and I just grew more giddy by the second. It was made clear from the very beginning that if this was something we were uncomfortable with, then we could back out at any moment. And if there were still people unsure about how intense and bizarre this experience was going to be, then surely by this point they had their answer. But It wasn’t until I left MOCA and was on my way to my studio in Culver City that the weight of it all hit me in the gut like only a piece like this could: I would be watching, not the rich but the abhorrently wealthy consume in excess, and they would be watching me, watching them. (And for anyone who has never experienced the intimacy of maintaining silent eye contact with anyone for longer than a minute, I dare you to try it).
The next morning, there was a message in my inbox from fellow performer and Assistant Director of Raid Projects, Carrie Mcilwain, who I had met during the audition the day before. It seems she was beginning to have slight reservations about participating as well. In the message was a link to a letter from dancer and choreographer, Yvonne Rainer to MOCA Director, Jeffrey Deitch, denouncing Marina Abramović, the performance, and MOCA. Later that day, I received the formal invitation to participate in Marina Abramović’s newest work. This would mark the beginning of the self-doubt and endless back-and-forth questioning of whether or not I was doing the right thing. Exactly how far was I willing to travel through this moral gray area?
Now that the event has come and gone, and I have had some time to process it, here is what I would like to say…
This is nothing new. Artists have been working for below minimum wage (or oftentimes, for free) long before this past weekend in Los Angeles. These positions come in the form of freelance work, internships or apprenticeships—underpaid labor and glorified exploitation disguised as due-paying. We have come to know and understand these positions as honorable, respectable, and integral to the budding artist’s career. Even paid studio assistants work long hours making other people’s work, while the artist whose name the work bears, becomes a type of brand that travels to major museums around the world. Additionally, it is no secret that at one time, artists were commissioned to make work for popes, kings and aristocrats. The art world’s dependence upon the wealthy was not formed last Saturday at MOCA, nor did it go to die there. If there is one thing that this performance highlighted, it is that this age-old power dynamic is very real, alive and well, and cannot continue to be ignored.
Which is exactly why I was completely blindsided by the insane amount of backlash that Abramović (and by association, the performers) received when information on the performance leaked before any of us took our places at the table. Are we as artists so uncomfortable with addressing our own positions within this power dynamic? If so, rather than attacking the individuals or groups involved, why not examine and criticize the archaic system that was formed centuries ago and is still being sustained today? What this performance did was put a crack in the foundation of those same structures that support this power dynamic. It shook it at the base and forced us to examine our situation critically. It allowed us to view our position from a different perspective—from the very center of it all, quite literally. Currently, all across the world, people are attempting to revamp this entire system. We are fed up, and we know that things need to change. We (artists, educators, public workers, and everyone else involved) are refusing to continue being at the mercy of the wealthy. There is evidence of this refusal every day on the radio, television and internet. In New York City, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in Oakland. It is occurring in major metropolitan areas and in small towns, both coastal and landlocked. What happened last weekend at the MOCA Gala is actually another iteration of this refusal, albeit difficult to determine upon first glance and especially from the outside.
For a total of about four hours last Saturday, I was the most powerful person at my table. I watched as the wealthiest people I’ve never met, reluctantly took seats around me. First, their faces showed signs of stunned disbelief as they entered the space. Second, the awkward laughs and iPhone photos came, then it was confused and forced smiles as they sat down. Finally, came the extreme discomfort from the reality of the situation—they would actually have to eat in front of us. But interestingly enough, in a very rare and beautiful moment, the power dynamics that have existed for hundreds of years between artists and the wealthy had been reversed. The performance lasted only a few hours, but during those few hours, from a seemingly degraded position, I silently dictated an entire conversation. I was able to halt people mid-sentence by slowly turning and locking in on any one of the individuals at my table. They fumbled with their forks, stuttered on words and took out their phones to read invisible text messages. They employed all sorts of techniques to distract themselves in order to ease the tension. Periodically, someone would shake their head in contempt and frustration. Some only ate while I was turned away from them while others got up and left the table entirely. (I later learned from other performers that the responses at their tables ranged from tearful exchanges to heated arguments). What these guests assumed would have been an enjoyable meal at another lavish event proved to be anything but. And the whole time, I was the one who determined the pace of the dialogue, the interactions and the general mood with a consistent and stern stare. I may have gone home to a tiny studio apartment in Koreatown instead of a 6-bedroom house in Brentwood, but for those few hours, I was in complete and total control of that table and the people sitting around me knew it as well.
This clashing of class and cultures did not (and could not) resolve anything in one night. Instead it gave the disempowered an opportunity to be the powerful ones. We were able to silence the seemingly irrefutable. And no, this was not about spite or vindictiveness, but rather, it was a chance to put a real human face to a very real and current movement. This performance brought us out of the parks and off the television and computer screens, and directly into the laps of the 1%. For four hours, we were face-to-face, quite aggressively, and with a silence just as deafening as the people’s mic. For four hours, we, the hired help, sat at the head and watched as the wealthy, many of them self-aware for the first time, performed for us.