In conversation with Lawrence Rinder
City Arts & Lectures
September 12, 2013
San Francisco, California
A New Bauhaus?
By John Held, Jr.
Reflecting upon my attendance at the lecture by Marina Abamovic, in which she responded to questions concerning her artistic practice posed by Berkeley Art Museum Director Lawrence Rinder and promoted her evolving Marina Abramovic Institute (which the evening benefited), two divergent currents vied for my attention: Alan Kaprow and The Who’s, “Tommy.”
I interviewed Mr. Kaprow in 1988, during a retrospective of his work, “Proceedings,” a symposium in his honor hosted by Jeff Kelly, a Bay Area resident, then living in Arlington, Texas. I asked him about the shift in terminology from “happenings,” and “installation,” which he had became associated with, to “performance,” a term which had gained favor in the popular vocabulary. Later on we conversed about the recreation of older “space/time” works, a controversy which has tailed Abramovic.
(Alan Kaprow) “Performance is the replacement of the word happening, or event, or activity, which we used in those days to refer to a number of somewhat related kinds of real time events. What’s called an installation today is the child of what used to be called, before the happenings, an environment. Now, I think that if you look at the words there, the shifts indicate something like a real change toward the installation compared to that of the environment, and the performance to that of the happening…
The environment, the etymology of the word, and the whole connotation of the word environment, is that of a surround, in which the particular parts are not necessarily placed with some kind of formal care for their external cohesion, but rather as an interaction between the person who is being surrounded and the stuff of that environment. It has a kind of a fullness to it, which the word installation doesn’t. Installation suggests a discreteness.
Now, look at the word performance. It too has a conservative evocation. When you hear that word you think of Jascha Heifitz performing on the violin, Sir Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare, and so on…there is the return to a kind of artifying activity, a kind of singular focus on the performer as artist, in a way that a virtuoso was a performer in classical music, or still is. Or an actor.
Now, I think those two words, installation and performance, mark accurately the shift in attitude toward a rejection or sense of abandonment of an experimental, modernist, position which had prevailed up to about, lets be generous, up to about 1968-1969, and began gradually becoming less and less energized. So, I think what you’re getting there is the flavor of modernist exhaustion and incidentally a return to earlier prototypes, or models, of what constitutes art.
And it’s no accident that the majority of most performance …tend to be of an entertainment, show biz, song and dance, in which the focus is on the individual as skilled presenter of something that tends to have a kind of self-aggrandizing, or at least self-focusing, purpose. It is artist as performer, much like somebody is an entertainer in a nightclub. And they’re interesting. Some of them are very good. I think Laurie Anderson is very good. She’s got all the skills that are needed in theater, which is what this is.
Many others who jump on the bandwagon, coming from the visual arts, have no theatrical skills, and know zilch about the timing, about the voice about positioning, about transitions, about juxtapositions, those moment by moment occurrences in theater that would make it work. But it’s another animal, whether good or bad, from what we were doing, and I think, in general, even the good ones are a conservatizing movement.”
(John Held, Jr) You prefer the activity, or the event, rather then an audience/actor dichotomy. You were taking the action away from galleries and into the environment itself.
(Alan Kaprow) “Well, I wanted to pursue this thread, so to speak. I was like a hound dog on the scent. I wasn’t particularly concerned about leading the artworld like the Pied Piper. I mean, it would be nice if they followed, but it wasn’t really necessary. So you asked a moment ago about how I wasn’t part of a group, although I occasionally intersected, and the reason is that I was really quite charmed by this scent that I was on. So, I don’t want to put anybody else at a disadvantage here as being less good. But what interested me was that scent, which was, to put it another way, about the possibility of a totally new art. An art, which like Mondrian’s pictures, would dissolve into a kind of life equivalent.”
With my prompting, Kaprow goes on to remark about the occasion of his visit to Texas, a retrospective of his “happenings,” which predated, by several decades, Marina Abramovic’s controversial “re-staging” of her “performance works,” staged at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2010.
AK: “… at first it seemed impossible, because how can you retrospect on a thirty-year career where everything was a throwaway.
Events were simply dissolved into the air, as all events are…So, it occurred to us, that the way that we may go about this was not to have a show in the conventional sense, since there’s nothing to show, but to have a yearlong of retrospections. Which might mean, and it turned out this way, that I would invent my career. And that’s the way it would be interesting to me.
All these events had been, for the most part, once only things, and they were meant as changeable events, there was no fixed form in them, depending upon where they were, who did them, so why not continue to change my memory of them. After all, it’s a faulty memory, and I might as well take the whole thing by the horns, so to speak, and do it with great joy. That is, change willfully.
So, in taking one of the first of the selected events to recapitulate, the one we did in New York a few weeks ago, which you’ve probably heard is very often quoted as a fairly well-known prototype of that time, “18 Happenings in 6 Parts.” I wholesale changed it. I took it’s principals of participation, of changeability, of simultaneity, and spread these, instead of the original loft work where the thing had taken place in 1959, I had it take place at the desires of the participants all over New York City.”
Kaprow mentions Laurie Anderson, who at the time was the public face of the new “performance art” moment. Contemporary performance art also came out of the Conceptual Art movement, and became, unlike Anderson, increasing associated with the body as canvas. Notable among this tendency was Vito Acconi’s, “Seed Bed,” (1972) and Chris Burden’s, “Shoot” (1974). San Francisco artist Tom Marioni was contemporaneously concerned with a theme later prevalent in Abromavic’s work – duration- exemplified by Marioni being handcuffed to artist Linda Montano for three days in 1973.
This is the heritage from which Abramovic springs. She appeared with Marioni early in her career at the 1973 Edinburgh festival, where she first performed, “Rhythm 10,” in which she repeatedly stabbed at her fingers with knives, and just recently in the exhibition “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” which opened at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago (Abramovic and Marioni both attending) and traveled to Blaffer Art Museum, Houston, last month, where Marioni, presented his iconic art as social practice work, “Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art” – a thirty year plus durational art practice.
These tendencies developed by Conceptual artists in the 1970s are now bearing fruit for a wider public. “Chris Burden: Extreme Meaures,” a retrospective exhibition takes over the New Museum, New York, this fall. Abramovic makes an appearance in the latest Jay Z video, “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film.”
It’s problematic for many that something formerly personal, hermetic and intended for an specialized audience is now making wider inroads with the public, seen by some as a watering down of original intention. Abramovic, with her conception of The Abramovic Institute, which the evenings’ lecture benefited, has become a pivotal lightning rod in this discussion. Raising over $600,000 on Kickstarter has only inflamed the emotions of many, who resent once marginal/now mainstream cultural figures exiting the ghetto (https://www.sfaq.us/2013/09/lambs-wheeled-to-slaughter-maria-abramovic-institute/). One enters the proposed Institute and sheds one’s worldly possessions, signs a contract to remain in the Institute’s program for the next six hours to undergo the rigors of situational and durational art practice. In her lecture, Abramovic describes the Institute as “a new Bauhaus.”
I’m of two minds on the subject. On one hand, I sense a trend in contemporary art to include the notion of healing in the work. I was previously a firm believer in art as a solely alchemical process. As one proceeded in an artistic career path, one evolved as did the work itself. I viewed art as a medium of personal enhancement. More recently, in following the development of dancer/choreographer Anna Halprin, who had an impact not only on Post-Modern Dance, but also on the Fluxus art movement, I have come to believe the value of the art is not only changing oneself, but of sharing this change with others, usually through participatory acts incorporated into the work. As such, I find the idea of the Abramovic Institute commendable.
But my mind also turns to Tommy, the protagonist of The Who’s 1969 rock opera. The formerly deaf dumb and blind boy, alone in his isolation, focused only on the present, becomes a Messiah to a worshiping public.
If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high,
You’d laugh and say “nothings that simple”
But you’ve been told many times before
Messiahs pointed to the door
And no one had the guts to leave the temple!
I’m free-I’m free
And freedom tastes of reality
I’m free-I’m free
And I’m waiting for you to follow me
In her lecture, Abramovic mentioned a forthcoming project in which she will be going to Qatar and living alone in the desert for a month. Sound familiar? Is this not a spiritual road previously trod?
Tommy, freed from his “lower-self,” seeks to share his experience by the establishment of a Holiday Camp.
Welcome to the Camp,
I guess you all know why we’re here.
My name is Tommy
And I became aware this year
If you want to follow me,
You’ve got to play pinball.
And put in your earplugs
Put on your eyeshades
You know where to put the caulk
(“We’re Not Gonna Take It”)
The establishment of the Holiday Camp draws several reactions from the public. Some are enchanted…
Listening to you,
I get the music.
Gazing at you,
I get the heat.
I climb the mountains.
I get excitement at your feet.
(“We’re Not Gonna Take It”)
…and some are not.
We’re not gonna take it
Never did and never will
Don’t want no religion
And as far as we can tell
We ain’t gonna take you
Never did and never will
We’re not gonna take you
We forsake you
Gonna rape you
Let’s forget you better still.
(“We’re Not Gonna Take It”)
Abramovic has her supporters and detractors. More than several of her remarks were met by spontaneous hoots of joy and approval from the audience. But I also heard the word “masochist” applied to her, and when she encourages others to follow a similar path, she of necessity becomes a “sadist.” A sadist on the side of spirituality? Encouraged by proven methods, that we, like the artist, remain in the present, putting aside the past and the future? Abramovic presents us with a path difficult to comprehend and harder to achieve, but she offers us a challenge that is noteworthy and artistically of the moment. It’s the starting point of a new path in artistic approach. That’s good enough for me.
While reading over my notes taken during the Abramovic/Rinder conversation, it struck me as found poetry. I present them in their hastily scrawled state. They should not be construed as direct quotes. I am not an experienced note taker, and wasn’t attempting to get the exact wording down. I’m sure the lecture will eventually be available in transcript, but I am hopeful that my hurried first impressions might shed some additional light upon the evening.
First program in the Cultural Studies Series.
Body and Performance
Body controls the mind rather than visa-versa.
MOMA changed everything.
Performance 3 months long –
As long as the Great Wall walk
But a public to witness the work.
Nude body vs. clothed
Only a problem for Americans
Naked body is simple
Concept is important.
Ulay and her in the doorway?
Artists are the driving force of the museum.
Audience has to make decision to face either male
Or female genitalia.
Making art with the mind.
Didn’t care how much the body hurt.
New balance of body and mind.
Work without consciousness
Will power can achieve performance without consciousness.
You can never learn from someone else.
You have to do it yourself.
Illustrated two states of mind.
Took pills meant to treat schizophrenia.
Audience observed the effect.
70s body art
Public is important.
Documentation should not take precedence over the audience.
What is documentation and what is the artwork?
Performance is the work.
Documentation takes place afterwards.
Long Durational Performance
Is the most transformative.
There is a difference between duration and endurance.
Go through the boredom.
Nam June Paik.
This is going to be boring –
Death and its eventuality.
Death is part of everyday life.
Crying women paid to weep at relative’s death.
Real artists must suffer.
Depression and suffering.
Birth is not easy.
Creativity is like birth.
The real artist is possessed.
And that is suffering.
Suffer for the universal in general.
New York 1978.
Performance is not entertainment.
It is Life changing
An energy transfer that can’t be described.
Change in blood pressure.
Don’t learn from life.
Learn from Performance.
Tap into energy
State of Performance
Lower and Higher Selves
Higher Self during Performance.
Standing sitting lying
Sculpture that public can use.
The audience is performing with the artist.
No predictive ending.
In the 90s, people looked to the 70s.
Her duty to lecture on re-performance art.
Always mention source
Only way to understand performance is to do it.
It’s not a foundation.
See dematerialized art-
Sign contract for six hours.
Go to different chambers.
A new Bauhaus.
About lifting the spirit up.
Change the culture.
How to raise money.
Money from MOMA bought the building.
$600,000 for engineering plans.
See if the public wants it to happen.
$1 – get a hug.
$10,000 – don’t get anything.
The worse childhood you have, the better artist you become.
Inspiration comes from nature.
Going to Qatar
Will be in the desert for a month.
When we do things we like –
it’s too easy
Things don’t change.
One year went without lunch
To train for MOMA performance.
To change the chemistry of the body.
“The Artist is Present,” the film.
Recorded over 1 year.
For the audience to understand what the performance was about.
How serious she took it.
First time museums
MOMA and the Guggenheim
Took performance art seriously.
Have you engaged in Buddhism?
Balkans lie between East and West.
Eastern and Western sense of time.
Two cultures changed me.
No feeling for possession
A year without money
How the mind works.
MOMA be there 100%
And true to oneself.
People more aware of 6th floor.
Shifted to the 1st floor.
We live in past or future.
We don’t know how to live in the present.
To live in the present is the most important thing
With both mind and body.
Bring mind and body to same place.
Not turn people into artists.
But all people can benefit.
Rice and sesame seeds
Dump them out
Separate one from the other
And count them
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