Alchemizing Energies: Ann Liv Young, Marina Abramović, and all of Us

On December 4th I experienced blindness, hugged a stranger intimately for several minutes, ran—gently—head first into a wall, did five pushups in front of an audience, tried to explain how I write about dance, held a microphone, and danced alone. The first few experiences happened in Marina Abramović Generator at Sean Kelly Gallery. The rest occurred while interacting with Ann Liv Young in Jail at JACK.

Marina Abramović’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 was her most recent exhibit in New York, during which forty years of her work was on display. Also during that time, she sat in the museum from open until close. Through each day of her retrospective, viewers were invited one by one to sit opposite her in silence; Marina’s aim was to create “an energy dialogue” with each individual. This time, though she is often in the space participating with the rest of us, Marina’s Generator asks its audience to become the (sensory deprived[1]) “activators” and performers.

Jason Wyche, New York

Jason Wyche, New York

Ann Liv Young’s self-created character Sherry has gotten her into trouble in New York several times in recent history. Per JACK’s description: “Following a series of incidents with her participation (including her infamous interruption – through her avatar, Sherry – of another performer’s piece at American Realness Festival; the PS1 debacle of a few years ago; as well as a 2013 performance at JACK, which ended up with Young in a physical struggle with an audience member), we wanted to find out what an Ann Liv Young performance would be like if she was stripped of control over the space.” Last weekend, Ann Liv was in a cage (one that she made sure we all knew she could easily break,) and we were to come in and ask her questions about why she was in there throughout the course of four hours each night: what was she working on, what is “sherapy”[2], and was she sorry?

active honesty

In Marina’s sensory-deprived space, I felt freedom. In Ann Liv’s jurisdiction, though she was the one behind bars, I felt like I was in the cage. But not in a bad way. Entering into both of these performance artists’ realms, dishonesty with one’s self was not a desirable option.

In Ann Liv’s piece, it did not make sense—and it would have gotten me into rhetorical trouble—if I lied. To use a cliché, to tiptoe around an uncomfortable personal truth, or euphemize in any way, is to invite Ann Liv to ask more and more questions until one says what it is that they are trying not to say.

Actions in Marina’s space were unseen by other participants, except those trained professionals who kept an eye on us, and the pictures they took. Because it was my space to explore, whatever I did felt of and for myself; dishonesty in action would have been self-deception, and it would have felt boring. If I had huddled up in a corner of the space, blindfolded and alone, which I did try to do at one point, it would have been less interesting to me than what I did, which was improvise in and through the space. Still, the choice was up to me.

Jason Wyche, New York

Jason Wyche, New York

active anti-desperation (an extrapolation of “Ann Liv Young in Jail”)

Participating in both Marina and Ann Liv’s work, I could have become desperate. I can see how having freedom to wander through space with no sight and no hearing could lead to feelings of intense isolation. In terms of exposure of myself (to myself), I was similarly on edge in Ann Liv’s performance, because I was afraid she was going to yell at me, and somehow not unfairly (re: her intolerance of dishonesty.) Or, at the very least, I was nervous she would ask me to do something in front of a large audience that I did not want to do.

The way Ann Liv squinted through the bars of her cell to really look at us against the bright stage lights, holding eye contact a fraction longer than would be socially tolerable, I felt confident she would uncover some skeleton in some closet that I have buried down in my depths, even if I was unaware of it. She did not, but I did leave two hours before the show’s end.

What Ann Liv did expose was my youth. She asked her audience who we all were, and I said I was a choreographer. But when she announced to everyone, angrily, that Culturebot was supposed to come the day before, I raised my hand and said actually that’s me. She asked me how old I was, and I told her. She reiterated my age for the audience, identifying me as very young.

Later, when she put on her blonde wig to become Sherry, Ann Liv—I know I should say Sherry, but for me it’s difficult to differentiate the two—asked another audience member: Looking at me, could you tell where I’m from? Could you tell how much money I make? The person answered that he could not. “Sherry” indeed has a class-less, geography-less look about her, whereas the truth of my biographical particulars felt bound to my external appearance. I looked young, and I am young. I probably looked like I live in Brooklyn, and I do live in Brooklyn. Etc.

I also looked like I was a critic, and in a sense I am one. I clung to the word “response”, though, like a rhetorical weapon (or, really, a shield) when I conversed with her about writing, me in the audience with a pen, her inside her jail: I’m not writing a review, I’m writing a response. I’m writing about my experience of the show. She commented on the strangeness of our relationship: writers—especially young[3] writers—don’t know her at all, and she doesn’t know them, and yet they review her work. I said, That’s true, but I’m writing about my experience, and I do know myself. Do I? These are the kinds of absolute statements I try to avoid at all costs in conversation, but they somehow seem to pour out of me when on the defensive about my life.

Later, when I left, I honored her request to let her read from my journal. As I approached her cell, I was stricken with actual, physical fear[4] that she would read my journal, and asked her not to read anything except for what I’d written about her piece. She said she wouldn’t. I did not believe her. Is this a sad commentary on my hesitance to trust someone or self-preservation? I didn’t know. Probably more the former, because within the context of this performance she had neither done nor said anything to make me believe she would go against her word.[5]

I didn’t have anything particularly private in my journal, and it was nothing that would have embarrassed me were it read out loud. Mine was a fear more rooted in Sherry’s blatant disregard for and condemnation of traditionally accepted limits of performance. Her beliefs are not merely theoretical: she puts them into practice. This practical application is the reason Ann Liv was jailed in the first place. I had no doubt that if Sherry found it essential to Truth, Honesty, and all things holy to read other excerpts of my journal, she would have done so regardless of my delicate feelings.

But I was wrong: Sherry read aloud only what I wrote (until my chicken scratch handwriting got in the way, then she gave me back the journal to finish reading myself.) When I finished, she asked how I planned to write a whole review out of that.[6] I once again clung to the “response” language. She asked if I would make it a haiku. She seemed disappointed, perhaps by my unoriginality, failure to incite any live arguments with my written words, or by my general youthfulness, or a mixture of all three. She said thank you for coming, dispassionately. As I left, she turned on Kanye West’s “Amazing” to continue her raw version of karaoke she had established at the beginning of the night. I’m a monster. I’m a killer. She growled along, using and exaggerating all the same stylized vocal tactics as Kanye.

Brian Harkin, New York Times

Brian Harkin, New York Times

energy[7]

As I left Ann Liv’s performance and walked to the bus, considering whether to get a beer or a bar of chocolate to chemically alter the state of my nervous nervous system after a day of two very different, very me-oriented performances, I thought of Alexander Dorner’s quote that Marina chose as the epigraph viewers saw before entering the space: “The new type of art institute cannot merely be an art museum as it has been until now, but no museum at all. The new type will be more like a power station, a producer of new energy.” In lieu of depressant/stimulant intake, I went home, frantically wrote a draft of this essay as a six-page mass of run-on sentences about self-awareness and authentic interaction, then went to sleep.

age and the performing artist(s)

At one point in Jail, Ann Liv mentioned that she was not old, but getting older. In The Wall Street Journal, Marina responds to her interviewer: “You say ‘retire,’ and it makes me shiver.”

realness, a post-script

“You have to be lonely in order to understand everything, to understand why we are here. This is the main question we must ask ourselves: what the hell am I doing here? What is my function? What is my purpose? When you find the purpose — I was lucky that I knew somehow from the beginning. I focused all my life on that purpose.” — Marina Abramović

“I am quite gifted at reading people—not even reading them but sensing them, which is very much from studying dance, from kinesthetics, body language. I have done so many ‘Sherry’ shows, I don’t prejudge. I let the audience come in, sometimes I have a very tight structure and sometimes a loose structure, and I just go with what feels right. It is great that people are so scared, because then I can make them unafraid.” — Ann Liv Young

Liability release form audience members had to sign before attending "Ann Liv Young in Jail"

Liability release form audience members signed before attending “Ann Liv Young in Jail”

[1] Each person who enters the gallery wears a blindfold and noise cancelling headphones.

[2] Sherapy is therapy that Ann Liv gives when assuming the character of Sherry.

[3] That I’m young, that society is obsessed with youth, that young people are often unwise, that often youths do not receive respect (and/or often do things that don’t deserve respect) has been particularly frustrating to me recently. Youth is this contrasting, fleeting thing. Mark Greif, in his essay about our fetishization of youth, “Afternoon of the Sex Children,” writes that “the beauty of children is the beauty of another, merely incipient form of live, and nothing to emulate. One view of the young body is an ideal. The other is an unpressed blank.” It is my thought that, were Ann Liv to be pressed, she would agree with the “unpressed blank” description over that of the ideal.

[4] To be fair to everyone involved: the fact that my heart was beating out of my chest may have also been due to the fact that Sherry’s “sister” had just lead me and a handful of other audience members through a series of cardiovascular exercises and pushups.

[5] However, see post-script quote re: Ann Liv’s ability to tamper with expectations.

[6] What I wrote about her thus far was almost one-hundred percent descriptive, and totaled 140 words, because I had to put the journal down to do the warm-up and then I left it sitting on the floor until I got up to hand it to her.

[7]  Is the issue of energy what the quote “youth is wasted on the young” is all about? Young people are the lucky ones who have frequent bursts, and often steady streams, of energy, yet we don’t have years of experience that tell us how to use it, save it, or alchemize it the way we could?

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