What Marina Abramović’s Institute Tells Us About How the Art World Contextualizes Performance

A woman looking inside the model of Marina Abramović’s Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art. Photo by Hyperallergic’s Jillian Steinhauer

Since the official unveiling, on May 7, of the plans for Marina Abramović’s Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, designed by architects Shohei Shigematsu and Rem Koolhaas in a converted community center in Hudson, New York, the art and performance worlds have greeted it primarily with criticism and snark. There’s good reason for that, I suppose. It’s a grandiose self-aggrandizing project that continues Abramović’s own evolution from art world hooligan to bankable brand (her own terminology).

But what the criticism often misses is a deeper exploration of the aesthetic realities of the space Abramović is creating, how that space shapes the spectator’s experience, and ultimately, how such an approach informs the experience of live art. One of the only writers I’ve really seen attempt to do so is Hyperallergic’s Thomas Michelli. But first, I want to draw attention to something from Hyperallergic’s initial report which Michelli quotes at length:

But the institute isn’t just for performance artists; Abramović wants to teach the public how to see and appreciate durational work. Visitors will be schooled in the Abramović Method, which blurs the line between audience and artist by turning spectators into performers themselves. Upon arriving at the institute, visitors will don white lab coats, check their belongings, sign a contract — “Give me your word of honor that you’ll spend two and a half hours in the exhibit,” is how Abramović explained the current version, at an exhibition at PAC in Milan — and then move through the different experiences and rooms, receiving a certificate of completion at the end.

Writing on May 12, in reference to the above, Michelli commented:

What Abramović has in mind — a theater, bleachers and viewing platforms for watching performances as well as watching audiences watch performances — not only threatens to transport Performance Art out of the wild and into a petting zoo, but the Institute’s other attractions — a Crystal Chamber and a Levitation Room are two of its novelties — smack of the relational aesthetic shenanigans recently visited upon the New York scene by the echt-shallow Carsten Höller show at the New Museum.

There’s something fascinating about both the construction of spectator experience in Abramović’s institute as well as Michelli’s critique of it (which I sympathize with in its sentiment but find troubling in its terminology), that is indicative of how far apart the discourse remains between the contemporary performance (theater and dance) world and the visual arts. Namely, whether it’s the institute’s glib attempt to “blur the line between audience and artist” or Michelli’s reference to “shallow” relational aesthetics (I don’t disagree with him about the Holler show), it strikes me as weird that no one is simply calling it “theater,” which is what it is.

At a basic level, what Abramović has done is take performance art, which often relies on contextualization within an art space, and put it in a theater. She may want to us to see her institute as a museum, I suppose, or, in effect, an art gallery, but a space in which audiences wander for a period of time and interact with live events isn’t a museum anymore than, say, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is.

This touches on two of the issues we’ve tried to raise here at Culturebot in our exploration of the convergence of performance practices and discourse. First, as Andy argued some months ago:

It is as if when visual artists and curators “discover performance” they think that they are the first to ever encounter the aesthetic issues it proposes. It would seem that they are frequently unaware of – or indifferent to – the fact that there is a long history of performance theory; that theater, and especially dance, have for many years explored issues around presence, embodiment, presentational aesthetics, the observed/observer relationship, the visual presentation of the constructed environment, the semiotics of representation, etc.

Second, as I argued recently:

By and large, such work [performance art] insists upon an understanding or interpretation of its intent in order to place it in discourse with art or society. In order to talk about it, we need to name it, to define it, since it often (though by no means never–there is good [performance art]) has a reduced capacity to speak through the very vocabularies it engages.

So it’s both odd and unsurprising that nowhere in the discussion of Abramović’s new center does anyone actually call out the fact that, for all intents and purposes, her artistic project, after more than forty years, seems to have arrived at some form of theater. It no longer engages in a complex fashion with its context, either a non-traditional one (such as the walk across the Great Wall) or a traditional one in which expectations are subverted or attacked (an art gallery). Her work has, through the long interrogation of her practice, arrived at placing performance within a space for performance, where audiences pay a certain amount of money to watch a show for some period of time and consume an experience. They are cleverly invited, through costuming, into the closed cosmos of the performance; no more will performance art blur the line between the fictive and the real. We’ve gone from boundary pushing to, as Michelli aptly puts it, a “petting zoo,” an immersive, interactive experience. Her approach, divorced from any serious engagement with theater practices, has evolved from a radical form of visual art experience into a rather conservative–or at at least unoriginal–form of theater.

Punchdrunk’s work, for instance, isn’t exactly your traditional play-text in a theater, but it’s hardly radical or boundary-pushing. Sleep No More represents nothing so much as the ability to turn what were once radical experiments into commercial theater over the course of forty or so years. And it is this aesthetic presentation of performance that Abramović appears to have arrived at. She’s discovered hip commercial theater, to which the best analogy visual art critics can propose is an exhausted and increasingly vapid form of visual art (relational art).

Not that the comparison is entirely wrong, mind you; my point isn’t to mock Michelli. Rather, it just strikes me as–again–a fantastic demonstration of the distance between discourses, at least in the US. We’re truly speaking different languages here, and just as the contemporary performance world could stand to engage more deeply with the visual arts discourse, the ongoing issues raised by performance art, which continues its trendy embrace by the art world (to say nothing of the re-contextualization of contemporary theater and dance within visual arts spaces), suggest the visual art world’s need for a deeper engagement with contemporary performance practices and their attendant theory and dramaturgy.

Specifically, while reading these discussions of Abramović’s institute, I was reminded of one of the most provocative pieces I saw in January during festival season, which offers a striking example of the complex–and in this context, ignored–ways contemporary performance engages in these issues of space, spectator/spectacle relationship, and performance’s relationship to broader issues of social and political engagement. Consequently, it was one of the most understated shows, as well, which is why I think it flew largely under the radar (pun unintentional). Namely, Michael Kliën’s (with Steve Valk) Choreography for Blackboards.

I only had the bandwidth to touch on it briefly at the time, but I think that, by contrasting it with the reductive principles at play in these discussions of performance art, it’s illustrative.

The performance took place at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn, in the main gallery space. The audience entered and was provided a program, which explained the conceit of the piece. In a large area in the middle of the room, delineated by taped lines, a half-dozen people were drawing on a half-dozen separate chalkboards. They had each been provided a series of instructions (to which viewers were not privy) informing what or how they were to draw. These instructions also apparently contained durational notes, such that at certain intervals the performers would complete one series, erase and wash the blackboards, and then begin another. The audience was invited to wander the space freely. There were seats where one could watch the performance, but most people would engage and then disengage, wandering to read statements (such as “Brute Agency”) on placards posted irregularly–and seemingly without narrative pattern–throughout the space. There was also a back room where tea and water was served. Finally, once the blackboard segment ended, Valk and Kliën led an open discussion with audiences and performers.

“Choreography for Blackboards,” by Michael Kliën, with Steve Valk

What struck me about the piece was how successfully it effected its theoretical basis. It remains impressive in this regard. Just a few days ago, I was having a discussion with a choreographer and dance programmer based here in New York who was complaining about the vogue-ish European idea that performance is all process, of which she was skeptical on the grounds that the audience, of course, only experiences a presentation of the work and sees it as fixed in time, “finished,” in other words, regardless of the artist’s intent. While I sympathize with the point, I think it’s more complicated than that, and I think Kliën and Valk’s work points toward ways in which a “performance,” as a distinct, time-based event, can nevertheless naturally lead audiences, through the experience, into an engagement with the process itself. This piece was also exciting on another level, because Choreography for Blackboards functioned without the expectation that the audience was knowledgeable about such discourse or theory in advance.

Instead, it presented audiences with a simple sort of question: since the name of the show is “Choreography for Blackboards,” how, exactly, is what these performers are doing “choreography”? Well, we also know that they’re following instructions. So as we watch, we become aware that the way “choreography” is being defined is as a sort of set of directions, that guide or inform–in potentially unknown ways–an individual’s actions over a given period of time, which we understand because the performers (if we can call them that) seem to come to the end of specific movements of the piece at more or less the same time, despite working independently. Thus we can conceptualize the people at the blackboards as movement artists following a choreography–they are individuals, each producing the performance in distinct ways, simultaneously engaged in a larger, concerted effort.

Having arrived at this, the viewer becomes aware of something else: Most of these same principles are being enacted upon the viewer within the space. Like the artists, there are constraints–durational, spatial, and behavioral–placed upon us within the space, yet we also have a certain freedom of where to look, how to watch, what to do, what to experience. Once we understand how the “performers” are being choreographed, we understand that these same principles are working on us, and the difference between audience and performer collapses, as does the distinction of what constitutes the spectacle (since the spectator watching the blackboard choreography is simultaneously aware that he or she is also a performer within a spectacle from the perspective of anyone watching through the windows).

As such, you don’t have to read any of Kliën and Valk’s theoretical work, like Choreography as an Aesthetics of Change, to understand that choreography, as they describe it therein, is:

a metaphor for dynamic constellations of any kind, consciously choreographed o[r] not, self-organizing or artificially constructed. It has become a metaphor for order, intrinsically embodied by self-organizing systems as observed in the biological world or superimposed by a human creator. If the world is approached as a reality constructed of interactions, relationships, constellations and proportionalities then choreography is seen as the aesthetic practice of setting those relations or setting the conditions for those relations to emerge. Choreographic knowledge gained in the field of dance or harvested from perceived patterns in nature should be transferable to other realms of life. The choreographer, at the center of his art, deals with patterns and structures within the context of an existing, larger, ongoing choreography of physical, mental and social structures, whereby he/she acts as a strategist negotiating intended change within his/her environment.

It’s a quite brilliant execution of just this concept. As the process of the art emerges, it begins to break down these very barriers, and the subject of the performance called Choreography for Blackboards ceases to be the actions of the chalkboard artists, but rather the choreography itself, an engagement–a very genuine one and basic one–with the process. Through the event, these patterns, organizations, and interchanges are revealed; we come to focus on how choreography as a process can be a mechanism to analyze–and potentially reconfigure–the basic social interactions of our daily lives. It becomes unsurprising, from this perspective, that there is information on Occupy Wall Street and its radical democratic practices incorporated into the show as a display.

OWS, as easy as it is to make fun of or declare dead, managed a remarkable achievement: it asked people to consider how they, as a group, could envision a better or more equal or at least more preferable society. The true test of whether OWS is a successful political action or movement is not whether it helps affect changes to the tax code or the break-up of banks or anyone’s laundry-list of policy solutions, but rather whether it manages to lead people from its often tedious (to watch or take part in) exercises in discussion and democracy to seeing these same principles as at play in the larger democratic process–or indeed, if they are not, to demand that they be, that voters, as members of a democratic society, should have the ability, through democratic participation, to play a role in shaping that society and the economy it supports. Those who would prefer a set of reasonable policy changes in the short term (which includes me) and who get fed up with OWS and its endless discussions interspersed with attention-grabbing protest actions (again me, from time to time) fail to give them credit for trying to force this point.

But to return to Kliën and Valk’s Choreography as an Aesthetics of Change, it’s interesting trying to explore this in terms of some of the other discourse touched on here. For instance, there’s an argument, I’m sure, that could tie their work back to relational aesthetics. As Nicolas Bourriaud wrote in the essay that defined the field (Relational Aesthetics from 1998):

The exhibition is a special place where such momentary groupings may occur, governed as they are by different principles. And depending on the degree of participation required of the onlooker by the artist, along with the nature of the works and the models of sociability proposed and represented, an exhibition will give rise to a specific ‘arena of exchange.’ And the ‘arena of exchange’ most be judged on the basis of aesthetic criteria, in other words, by analyzing the coherence of its form, and then the symbolic value of the ‘world’ it suggests to us, and of the image of human relations reflected by it.

Replace “exhibition” with “performance,” and at first blush, Bourriaud could have been describing the sort of interchange that Kliën and Valk helped achieve with Choreography for Blackboards. The crucial difference, though, is that relational aesthetics seeks to achieve its experience through the relation of audience and object; in this regard, it functions in a semiotic fashion similar to traditional theater practices which rely on empathetic engagement with the closed fictional cosmos of a play (or film, of TV show) to take the spectator to some other place, point to a future real-world action, etc., etc. For Valk and Kliën, though, the experience is not a matter of the relation of viewer to object (whether physical or the objectified ephemeral performance event), but rather to reveal processes that act upon them, to make evident these processes, and to use the language of choreography to analyze them.

In fact, both Valk and Kliën were involved with the Ballet Frankfurt’s social practice experiments when they worked there (Valk as a dramaturg, Kliën as a choreographer and performer) under William Forsythe. Kliën continued these experiments at Ireland’s Daghda Dance Company, in collaboration with Valk and others, which served as a platform for various artists and initiatives from 2003-2011, when its activities ceased following austerity budget cuts in that country.

Compared to such efforts, derived through rigorous performing arts investigations, the sort of things Abramović is playing with strike me as little more than glorified entertainment. Her attempts to break down audience/artist barriers amount to gimmicks; her institute reinforces the visual arts’ reliance on theory and its own discourse to situate and reify the work being presented therein. Performance art’s dependency on its relationship to context and discourse continues apace, and within this mode, there is less and less room for meaningful exploration. Her institute is a tomb for the form.

Fair enough; Abramović isn’t everything. But the larger institutional embrace of her particular version of performance art is deeply troubling. Again, as museums and art spaces become more inclusive of performing artists from outside the visual art tradition, they play a greater and greater role in shaping our understanding of such work. But the willingness to embrace Abramović and her brand, while convenient and feel-good-y in the short-term, suggests a continued unwillingness for these institutions to re-imagine their own mission and role within the field. Rather than treat performance in whatever stripe as a shared experiential process, Abramović’s approach suggests–and the support from MoMA and others attest–that the museumification of performance promises to objectify it, hermetically seal it, reduce as much as possible the open, spontaneous experience of live art, and instead subject it to the same stultifying treatment as any other exhibition.

All the Institute for Preservation of Performance Art needs, I guess, is an audio tour to serve as the final nail in the coffin.

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