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Popularizing Art. The Abramović Method

Hedi Rosma (4/2013)

Hedi Rosma analyses the foundation of the Marina Abramović Institute in the context of popularizing art.

 

H. R.: "I'd like to hear your opinion on "popularizing" art. Do you think it is important to bring more people to art and why?"
M. A.: "I think in the world there is so much bad taste. To make popular good art will elevate the spirit of human beings and this is so important."

 

As we all know, there is nothing new in concerns about popularity of art, its deficiency as well as abundance. In spring 1903, more than 110 years ago, the head of the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (now the Everson Museum of Art in the State of New York), George F. Comfort, lamented in the magazine Brush and Pencil1 that art is like a breath-taking sunset. You feel the need to sound the alarm and bring everyone to their windows to see the extraordinary sight. Instead, you have to accept that most people pass by without even a glance and only a few will notice that which touched you to the core of your heart.

The title of the article is "The Need of Popularizing Art" and the director of the museum, Comfort, finds that the best way to eliminate this 'deficiency' is to make every single person individually feel that art concerns him personally, so art would not seem as if it were only a matter of a select group of idealists, separate from the society and everybody else. So, what could be done? Comfort's idea is simple – every citizen could (for the benefit of himself, his wife and children) buy at least one work of art, the value of which does not matter, it could be 100, 1,000 or 10,000 dollars. If the citizen finds that he cannot afford to buy a piece of art on his own, he could ask his neighbours to join in. Ten, twenty of even thirty people could come together and buy a painting, for example, and then the 'associates' could take turns displaying it in their homes. That way everyone could enjoy the common property.

Pondering the same questions in 2013, we no longer need to go knocking on our neighbour's door – crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter offer everyone the opportunity to contribute. Since its launch in 2009, 5.2 million people have pledged 878 million dollars through Kickstarter, funding 51,000 creative projects.2

However, when Marina Abramović launched her own Kickstarter campaign this summer, many people thought it was a performance.

 

Ode to monotasking

The campaign titled "Marina Abramović Institute: The Founders" lasted 30 days. During the hottest summer days from July through August, the goal was to raise 600,000 dollars. Even though it was not Marina Abramović who was raising the money – it was the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) – the charismatic presence of the artist was very much felt through numerous video messages and interviews. "This is not a performance, here I speak as a teacher, as the founder of the institute," the suggestive voice with a familiar Serbian accent declared.

Undoubtedly, MAI was initially established by Marina Abramović to present and preserve her own legacy. But in the wider sense, the institute actively seeks to 'forge productive unions' between art, science, technology etc, and has proclaimed the presentation and preservation of long durational works as its primary mission. According to the institute's definition, all works of art (performance art, dance, theatre, film, music, opera and other forms that may develop in the future) whose performance exceeds six hours qualify as long durational works.3 Time, or rather the performer's use of it, is the most valuable component of this genre. And time is the only thing in our rational technology-based society that there is never enough of.

That is precisely the reason why visitors to the centre, which is planned to be opened in 2015, have to sign a contract where they have to give their word of honour to stay in the institute for at least six hours. Mobile phones (and everything else reminding of the outside world) have to be left in the reception, soundproof headphones and a democratic white lab coat must be worn to help the visitor tune in to the experimental environment. Moving on from the reception hall, the visitor must proceed in slow motion walk. (During this painstaking task many will probably acknowledge for the first time what it really means to walk.) But when visitors become exhausted of concentrating on the exercises known as the Abramović Method and experiencing long durational works, they will be gently rolled (in special reclining chairs on wheels) into a room, where they can rest undisturbed.

In this form, the idea of such (time producing) institute is, in a way, an ode to monotasking. It is an experimental playground both for the artist and the audience, a place, where process is more important than the result.

 

Marina Abramovic MAI

Marina Abramović at the site of the institute
© Jason Schmidt

 

 

One dollar = one hug. Lady Gaga goes naked

True, there were plenty of people who were personally offended by Abramović's (successful) appearance on Kickstarter. (Aren't crowdfunding platforms meant for those who have no other means to execute their projects? Isn't it obvious that an artist like Marina Abramović does not have to sacrifice her personal well-being to fund her projects? Besides, why would anyone support an 'institute' that is nothing more than a series of white walled rooms?)

The white walls in the institute have been designed by none other than OMA4, headed by Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu, and the 600,000 from Kickstarter was to cover the first phase of development (the design process). In order to transform the abandoned theatre into an operating institute in the small town of Hudson (population ca 6,500), two hours by train from New York City, MAI will need 20 million dollars in total. It seems unlikely that the Kickstarter campaign was launched simply to raise 3% of the total budget.

Although MAI was regarded as any other project on Kickstarter, where the aim is to raise the necessary sum, the campaign had another, more compelling side to it. Abramović has admitted that she used it as a thermometer to measure the public's interest and the success (or failure) of the campaign had to answer the question whether people – for whom the institute is being developed – really need a place like that.5

Indeed, it all begins with the title of the campaign – "The Founders". In addition to the rewards that usually go with crowdfunding platforms, even the most marginal (as it is commonly understood) of backers received a socio-economic status – they now have every right to call themselves the founders of MAI. In doing so, the institute opened itself to the public even before turning to larger donors, which is rather uncommon for cultural institutions of this calibre.

A certain shift was evident in the rewards the backers received in exchange for their donations as well. For example, people who backed the project with 5 dollars received a full package of "the digital MAI", which includes a rather unconventional virtual tour and three 8-bit video games of the Abramović Method created by the video game designer Pippin Barr. Aesthetically, it is a simple simulation of a visit to MAI, where the pixelated visitor starts the tour from the reception of the institute and (of course, only after signing the contract and giving up their mobile phone) experiences simulations of the installations. To show your dedication (to confirm you really are present), the virtual visitor must press certain keys on the keyboard during the process. In the Abramović Method video games you can, for example, complain to a tree or sort and separate a heap of rice grains and sesame seeds, counting every single grain, without leaving your computer.

The more 'exclusive' rewards included several live stream workshops by Abramović ($25), the opportunity to watch the artist's favourite movies with the artist ($5000), to have lunch ($10,000) and to cook ($10,000) with her. But also, to do nothing and remain completely anonymous ($10,000) – the option that was no less popular among the larger backers. "Exclusivity", though, acquired a completely new meaning when Abramović announced in the middle of the campaign that everyone backing the project with at least one dollar will receive a hug from her personally, which the backers could accept next year in New York or some other (soon to be announced) European city.

The most controversial part of the campaign was probably the video collaboration with Lady Gaga in which the naked singer tries to "find her inner Gaga" while doing exercises according to the Abramović Method. It is not a secret that Lady Gaga was collaborating with Abramović on her album "ARTPOP", which came out in November, so the project had benefits for both of them. On the one hand, a younger audience discovered (Abramović's) art, although, on the other hand, the video derailed public focus from the content with the media touting headlines like "Lady Gaga Gets Nude (Again)", "Lady Gaga Full Frontal NAKED", "Nude in Woods for Marina Abramović", "Lady Gaga Goes Completely Naked in Bizarre New Video".

By the end of the campaign, MAI raised 661,452 dollars and is now wealthier by 4,765 founders.

 

Pippin Barr rice sesame

© Pippin Barr

 

The Prototype

Until the opening of MAI, the greatest manifestation of the Abramović Method will probably be the travelling "Marina Abramović Institute Prototype" (2013), which the artist presented in June at the Luminato Festival in Toronto. The piece consists of seven linked chambers where, in the course of two hours, several self-performative exercises developed by Abramović are carried out. A live stream from the experimental pavilion at Luminato was shown in numerous places in Toronto, including Terminal 1 of the Toronto Pearson International Airport.

As Jörn Weisbrodt, the Artistic Director of Luminato, pointed out in the accompanying materials of the festival, this work can only be complete through the participation of the audience. Here, the work of art is the experience that you get and the prototype will only become a piece of art through its use – the time and attention invested in it.

With MAI, Abramović is essentially continuing what she started with the performance "The Artist Is Present" (2010) three years ago. "Indeed, the artist was present and meeting her might have been the experience of meeting a superstar, but her presence manifests itself, first and foremost, in her work – and in order to reach that, to establish a connection, each visitor must independently work towards that goal, simply standing in line will not be enough."6

Directly or indirectly, what Abramović has been doing through her performances and the MAI project, is educating the audience. She shows that the audience has to be prepared to commit and give up their time – only then can art be given the opportunity to evolve into an experience. The artist, on the other hand, has to learn to value that time and attention, to face her audience, which, as we have seen, does not have to signify the dreaded conformism. When treated as equals, the audience will gladly follow the artist's rules, engage in a dialogue and allow itself to be guided and carried. Because no matter how self-sufficient we become, art will never be complete without the audience.

Finally, what could be said to Comfort, the director of the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts? Maybe that, meanwhile, the dollar has depreciated.

 

1 George F. Comfort, The Need of Popularizing Art. – Brush and Pencil, Vol 12 (1903), No 1, pp 24–30.
2 http://www.kickstarter.com (18. XI 2013)
3 http://www.marinaabramovicinstitute.org/
4 http://www.oma.com/projects/2012/marina-abramovic-institute
5 http://www.good.is/posts/why-performance-art-is-a-tool-to-change-human-conciousness
6 Maria-Kristiina Soomre, Kunstnik oligi kohal. – Sirp 4. VI 2010.

 

Hedi Rosma is the Estonian editor for KUNST.EE.

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