Disembodied: A Personal Account of Marina Abramovic’s Performance for the 2011 MOCA Gala
When I first heard of Marina Abramoviç’s planned performance in Los Angeles, I naively thought it was a performance I would be able to attend. A quick search of both the Internet and friends with MOCA memberships revealed that this was not a public event, but rather the annual gala fundraiser. A friend forwarded me the open call audition through Facebook. My ultimate involvement in this whole affair is one of those sweet, occasional intersections of chance and fate. A week past the deadline, and a day after the audition began, I applied. Feeling there was nothing to lose, I enclosed this very brief letter:
To Whom it May Concern,
This audition/opportunity to perform was just brought to my attention. I realize I have already missed the deadline to submit a photo, but I am such a fan of the work of Marina Abramoviç I felt I should attempt to participate all the same. It would really be a honor and a new personal challenge to participate in her work.
I have been studying yoga for the past 3 years, it is a daily part of my life. I have past dance experience, and I also use performance as a medium in my own work as an artist.
I am 5’8″, nudity is okay
Thank you for your consideration,
My jaw dropped when I received a last minute call back for the following morning. The email made clear that I would be observed for my stamina and active stillness by Abramoviç herself and that the final performance would require three hours of this stillness without break. In hindsight, from the moment this email arrived I had surrendered to a chaotic and surreal plot, complete with heroes, scandal, and a topical dialogue in step with the current Occupy movement.
I awoke early the morning of my audition at 7am. Anxious, for I was familiar with the intensity of Abramoviç’s work, and was expecting to stare into her eyes and cry, to become vulnerable, ready to be subjected to circumstances I might not be able to handle physically or mentally. It was a challenge I was eager for and curious to know the outcome. Arriving to my audition by bicycle I was met with clipboards and documents – sign-ins, waivers and non-discloure agreements. With these documents signed I sat in a folding chair with the other auditioners, a pink number 90 adorning my chest. Trading smiles with the man to my right we strike up an easy intimacy, both being artists. His name is EJ Hill, a new genres MFA candidate at UCLA. We are both waiting in this line because of a long standing personal relationship with Abramoviç’s work. Giddy and clueless as to what we will experience this day, we agree that the opportunity is once in a lifetime. Before long we are summoned, the first 10 in line, and like sardines we pack the elevator and are delivered to the bowels of the museum.
The MOCA reading room, a space normally open to museum visitors, had been transformed for the audition into a laboratory of sorts. Marina Abramoviç sits on a couch with casting director T.D. Delamere-Mitchell, both wearing white lab coats when they greet us. We are invited to sit on the floor, to stretch and make ourselves comfortable. Marina casually addresses the endurance aspect of the performance, inviting us to use the bathroom now before the audition starts. She reiterates that there will be no bathroom breaks in the performance but not to worry, she has “all kinds of ways to deal with pissing and shitting.” She says we will talk about these strategies when the time comes. Immediately I like Abramoviç’s unpretentious dialogue, everyone chuckling in acknowledgment that she undoubtedly has methods for ignoring the wishes of her body.
As more auditioners join our group, Abramoviç explains her vision for the gala. First and foremost everyone except for the centerpieces and the table nudes will be required to wear lab coats identical to what Abramoviç dons now. The intention is to provide a very clear break from the cocktail world, to incorporate and transition guests into the performance space. She is very clear that it is her hope to democratize all participants by enforcing a dress code that will place artists, guests, waiters and even MOCA director Jeffery Deitch at the same level. Additionally it will make impossible the usual gala display of designer clothes. The banquet will be infused with symbols of death, as Abramovic feels American culture does not acknowledge death in a healthy or conscious way, with particular regard to the obsession of youth and beauty in Los Angeles. Table centerpieces will be live performers who are to initiate and maintain eye contact with the guests, with who and for how long at the discretion of the performer. Verbal communication and smiling should be avoided, the aesthetic goal is present stillness and connection. The event will include a chorus of performers chanting portions of Abramovic’s artist manifesto, and the ceremonial offering of realistic, life size cakes of both her and Debbie Harry. A final device will be the “spirit cups,” a single shot espresso mug with a tiny hole designed by Abramovic to spill on the user as they consume. This, she explains, is a practice in forced libations, enacting a habit of her grandmother who would leave food and drink for “the spirits”.
In listening to this proposal I was relieved. None of the proposed projects seemed outside of my physical ability or moral code. For me the greatest challenge would be the dynamic eye contact with strangers. As Marina unveiled her intentions and vision, I could not help but understand it as a continuation of her past work. In her biography, “When Marina Abramovic Dies” the introduction outlines the procedure for her funeral from her last will and testament. Quoting from the text, “The ceremony should be a celebration of life and death combined. After the ceremony there will be a feast with a large cake made out of marzipan in the shape and looks of my body. I want the cake to be distributed between the present people.” (Westcott, xiii) The MOCA gala performance as presented seemed clearly conscious of the crowd that would be participating. The surreal banquet and mock funeral would intentionally flirt with the grotesque in an attempt to reveal the nature of the gala itself and invite it’s participants to face ever present states of dichotomy, whether it be eye-contact between different classes, or life intertwined with symbols of death. After our introduction to the project our group moved forward into the Ahmanson Auditoruim. Choreographers Rebecca Davis and Lindsey Peisinger invite us to crawl below the table, mount lazy susans, and poke our heads through to the surface. In turn we establish eye contact with other hopeful auditioners. Rebecca and Lindsey silently evaluated our abilities and dismissed us with a reminder that the performance would be, in part, a dialogue with pain. It was necessary to evaluate our ability to perform over the next few days should we be called upon. I finished the audition in a daze, having stared into more eyes in 30 minutes than I average in 30 days. I hoped for a call back, but did not expect it. Wednesday and Thursday passed with no alert. Rising early Friday morning I discover two things: a last minute call back to be an understudy centerpiece and Yvonne Rainer’s letter posted on my Facebook page.
This letter of protest led me to seriously evaluate my choice to participate in the performance. The last minute invite was stressful as it required me to cancel a studio visit I had planned for later that day, and I would have to find someone to cover my shift at work Saturday night. To participate in the performance would require sacrifice on my part. Because I had to weigh the value in my choice Rainer’s letter was effective in causing me anxiety. Bearing in mind I was only asked to be an understudy, I was very uncertain as to what this would ultimately yield. I viewed the sum of $150 plus a MOCA membership as a thankful gesture on behalf of the museum for what would be the donated labor of all the performers and artist involved to a non-profit cultural institution. The amount never purported to be a working wage, it was described as a stipend in the open call. Rather, my motivation would be the opportunity to work with Abramovic.
I found many flaws in the protests of Yvonne Rainer and her undersigned supporters. First and foremost, the impetus for her to pen the original letter was hinged upon the account of one individual in violation of their non-disclosure agreement. This individual’s account was highly emotional and infused with an outrage in the audition experience that I did not share. Secondly, Rainer had attempted to mar the credibility of a work of art that had not yet been realized. I feel the possibility exists that Rainer and her supporters are perhaps unknowingly and reluctantly swept up and charged up by the ubiquitously viral Occupy movement, a movement I sympathize with and am aligned with. I share the hopes of many that now and in the future artists will speak brilliantly and gracefully on behalf of the voiceless and accurately represent and reflect the activity of the genuinely exploited and marginalized. It is my opinion that Rainer’s protest was, in part, an attempt to put forward her own aesthetic, and that she sought to discredit and censor the work of another artist. I found it disappointing and unprofessional of Rainer to assume that she understood the planned performance without experiencing it first hand, or establishing a legitimate dialogue with the museum.
Exploitation is something I am no stranger to. Having experienced sexual harassment and emotional and physical abuse in more than one art studio work place, I took Rainer’s allegations very seriously, wondering if my history of abuse from employers made it impossible for me to recognize the conditions that foster abuse. Ultimately I concluded that a group of educated, willing performers do not need to be spoken for; we need to be spoken with. The only time I felt degradation from my participation in the gala was the generalizations about myself and the other performers made by Yvonne Rainer. Her protest letter was not speaking for the voiceless but rather usurped my voice as well as those of my co-performers by her evaluation of us and our choices as “… desperate voluntarism (that) says something about the generally exploitative conditions of the art world such that people are willing to become victims of a celebrity artist in the hopes of somehow breaking into the show biz themselves. And at sub-minimal wages for the performers, the event verges on economic exploitation and criminality.” Nothing in this statement accurately reflects my reasons for wanting to participate. Nor does it allow for any legitimate motivations on my part. My desire to work with Abramovic has been degraded by Rainer into a desperate attempt at fame, disregarding my personal relationship to Abramovic’s work as an artist or the opportunity for me to challenge and grow as a performer by inclusion. Nor did I ever feel coerced into a situation that was designed to degrade me. Abramovic and her team never dismissed the possibility for failure of the vision, or for abuse of us by the guests. They were prepared to intervene and stop any abuses of the performers, were it to occur. In my experience of the audition I was treated seriously as an artist and believed I would be protected by these women who I felt to be peers and professionals.
Writing to EJ Hill Friday morning, I asked his thoughts on the letter, and am reproducing Hill’s response to me here, as yet another intelligent and reflexive voice on the matter,
“The way I’m approaching it is from ideas of access and representation. Under any other circumstance, none of us would even dream of being admitted to this event. This event is intended for (and I’m reluctant to employ such an overused term here, but for the sake of clarity) the 1%. What an amazing opportunity for these people to put faces to such an important movement! It will no longer be just some abstract thing that’s happening on the news and on the internet. It will be live and in person. It will be right in their laps, literally. As they wine, dine, and consume in excess, we will be right there in front of them, looking them dead in the eyes.
This goes far beyond “a flimsy personal rationale about eye contact” as Rainer mentioned. This is a chance unlike any other to participate in this growing movement. A way to say “This is real, this is happening and you can’t ignore it.” I don’t think the piece is concerned with placing blame on anyone, Wall St. or otherwise, but it’s a way to put people face to face who otherwise, may never have the chance. A way to illustrate that some people have, and others have not as much. Maybe it’s naive idealism, but imagine what kinds of things could be achieved if we were all allowed to sit at and eat together at this event, elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder. Amazing things could happen… But maybe for now, the first step is simply maintaining eye contact.”
All of these reflections I offer as a thought process in my dismissal of the claims made by Rainer. Saturday evening, I was given the opportunity to be the staunch and dynamic presence of table 20 at the MOCA gala.
My table was stationed near the entrance, the arrival of dinner guests quickly mutating into a organic, lab coated mass of iPhone paparazzi. The nude centerpiece closest to my table was the first sight visitors arrived upon and it created a traffic jam. A disturbing moment of this entire evening occurred not more than 15 minutes after the doors opened. A woman came running into the tent, yelling “We are the 99%!” She was grabbed by four guards and removed suddenly and silently; it terrified me to see the immediate muting of something I believe should be heard. I had hoped that there would be discussion at my table of the Occupy movement in some form, but it seemed that the arrival and removal of the protester went eerily unnoticed by all guests present.
Though I did not recognize any of the people dining at my table, I commend them now for the respectful and intelligent art patrons they revealed themselves to be. Callousness can come from any class, but I truly believe it is important to offer people the opportunity to reveal their nature. One man thanked me after sustained eye contact. I received winks and smiles I was unable to return but were pleasant just the same. One woman locked in eye-contact told me she was unnerved. Rightfully so.
Highlights of the chatter from my table included an embrace and acknowledgment of the lab coats as a democratizing force. When Abramovic gave her opening address for the evening, she established the rules of interaction between guests and centerpieces. Additionally she stated “if any of the guest are disappointed that there is no male nudity tonight they will have to take it up with MOCA.” It was clear to me that she was drawing attention to the museums prohibition of nude males as part of her initial plans. It was refreshing to hear her address this issue for the first time, and at a decisively public moment. This detail is a legitimate failure on part of the museum, the event and the performance. Perhaps if Rainer would had decried sex-discrimination on behalf of the male performers instead of exploitation as the crux of her letter her efforts would have been more successful. Guests at my table heard Abramovic loud and clear. Repeating multiple times “she was telling us MOCA forbid it.” Quite a bit of time was spent watching people eat self-consciously aware of my gaze. Experience yielded that most were uninterested or uncomfortable in making sustained eye-contact with me. Physically I suffered only mild discomfort from sitting under the table, nothing worse than a seat on an airplane. I was fortunate, as other performers have since related not all of the guests were as respectful as my own. Certainly the nude centerpieces endured a greater physical demand than myself. Here I offer another perspective from the sculptress Vanessa Madrid, an understudy nude centerpiece called in for the last hour of the gala,
“I noticed one of the nudes moving around a lot… flexing her muscles, moving her head etc. She indicated that she couldn’t stop shaking so it was determined that she needed to be replaced. I had to run into the bathroom and lose my clothes and hop on. Luckily, this happened right as Debbie Harry was performing so no one was looking at me. I got to experience the role, without all the pain and intensity of the first 2 hours. I can imagine when everyone took out their camera phones it would have been rather intense…”
“To me the most powerful aspect of the piece was our ability to observe back, to be a witness to what was said and done. We would not go away, we will watch where you look, how long you look, observe your expression and look you right back in the eyes (this was especially important for me as a nude). My favorite moment was seeing Debbie Harry performing “Heart of Glass” above me, slowly rotating with the skeleton raising and lowering with my breath, a tiny spider crawling up my neck. Oh, and the husband who said to his wife, “we should take her home tonight” as they were leaving. I was not an object passively lying there to be watched, but actively engaged. At least that was my experience.”
When Debbie Harry took the stage nearly an hour later I feel the event lost its focus. Everything prior to this point had been very somber and uncomfortably confrontational for the guests. On the stage Blondie’s lead singer removed her white lab coat to reveal a brazen red cocktail dress and began to strut the cat walk. Centerpieces and tables were abandoned as the guests once again became a mass of spectators observing through the screens of smart phones. This was short lived as it was only four songs before life size cakes of Harry and Abramovic were brought to the stage. Marina and Debbie in rhythm removed the hearts from their cakes, offered them to each other and left the stage. The remainder of the cake was cut up by shirtless male models and disseminated into the crowd. The consensus among the guests was that they found the cake to be unappetizing. One source alleged that a small protest chant occurred near the stage, condemning the cake ritual as violence against women. I interpret this cake protest once again as a reflection of a greater collective agitation against injustice, instigated by the Occupy movement.
A choreographer came to my table and relieved me of my position. Climbing out from under the table, I was given thanks from a few of my diners. Outside the tent I found other performers enjoying the deserts that had just moments before been under our noses and off limits, a waitress came to us unprompted and handed us yet another plate of treats. We marched back to the auditorium to meet Marina, she had requested a group photo to be shot, and wanted to hear our experiences. There in the auditorium we were a captive audience of each other and Abramovic for the last time. To my knowledge none of the centerpieces were physically touched by any guest. The most disrespectful activity was one guest laying out a line of salt as faux cocaine in front of a centerpiece. This action was spotted almost immediately by a volunteer, the salt removed and the guest reprimanded. Another performer was offered $300 by an alleged gallerist, to leave the table and, “go home and watch TV.” The centerpiece performer from the table which hosted Governor Jerry Brown explained the woman who had purchased the table was livid and disgusted by the performance. This donor claimed that the museum would never get another donation from her. Interestingly, the Governor was apparently supportive of the project, reminding the woman that this was art.
T.D., the casting director, told Abramovic she had to go upstairs to meet with guests, and, almost like a child Marina protested, “no I want to be here, I want to hear more stories.” Performers continued to give her their accounts. One centerpiece was notably honored that her guest had maintained eye contact with her for an extended period, rather than watching Debbie Harry’s performance. As the personal accounts tapered off, Abramovic was happily swarmed by the performers, giving autographs and posing for pictures. Not having a camera or object for signature, I vied for a hug but the crowd was too thick with fans. Another performer and I went upstairs to find the next best thing to the actual Marina, leftover cake and wine.
I would actually like to thank Rainer for initiating a dialogue that she never directly or openly participated in with the performers. I was not aware that Rainer was present in our rehearsal that Friday. It was only later that I read accounts that she had dressed in black to appear as if one of the performers, and without introduction entered into discussions with individuals, trying to draw parallels between us as prostitutes. From another account I heard that she told performers outright to leave the tent. Her letters without a doubt spurned many discussions amongst the performers and Abramovic; these moments would have had no other impetus if not for her claims. As time allowed there were informal meetings in which performers addressed the entire cast and team. A very heartfelt letter read to all of us by a chorus performer on Saturday established the deep personal connection she felt to her performance. Another performer spoke directly to Abramovic and the group stating that she did not receive food on Friday after rehearsal and that our $150 fee barely rates compared to the $2500 a seat the museum will be receiving. It was an incredibly bold and commendable statement to raise before the group and attests to Abramovic and her staff’s genuine openness and interest in hearing our opinions.
For myself the matter of payment is a non-issue, as I would have done it all for free. My participation stems from a belief in Marina Abramovic and a trust in her vision no different than belief in the art careers and intentions of my fellow artists in the Los Angeles community. If one is willing to trade one’s passion for money, the price will never be fair. To pursue art an artist must receive an internal reward, a pride in what they do as a meaningful pursuit. Making art is a terribly inefficient way to make money. As it turns out organizing a gala is a great way to raise funds if you are a museum, and I see no reason that such an occasion should not be an attempt to establish a gray area of art and social function. Abramoviç offered her reasons for working as art director in this gala as a duty to support the museums, because without museums there would be no culture. If the aim of Rainer’s critique sought to discredit the museum system of funding it was sloppy and hollow. In the end it was an attack on the proposed work of a single artist. Every gala is and forever will be a spectacle, by definition. It is not a sensible tangent to boycott in and of itself. My words here only skirt the issues of a much larger discussion concerning wealth and it’s involvement in the arts; a discussion that I hope to continue with the LA Art community this Sunday Nov 20th at Occupy LACMA.
Carrie McILwain is the assistant director at RAID Projects Los Angeles. She holds a B.F.A. in Glass and Ceramics from California State University Fullerton. She is currently accepting applications to be exploited by other nurturing, brilliant individuals: [email protected]