Preparing for Performance Art with Marina Abromovic

by Brittany Bailey

My name is Brittany Bailey and I am a performing artist living in New York City. In the spring of 2010, I completed a three-month performance with Marina Abramovic and 30 other performing artists at the Museum of Modern Art. My participation was on the 6 th floor of the museum as part of a retrospective on Marina’s performance work and life (which she considers to be one). It ran from early March to the end of May.

I did not know of Marina before I ran across a vague posting at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio that stated she was looking for performers to participate in her retrospective. The entire process was primarily instinctual. I looked up her name, did a bit of research and after writing to her, we met for an interview. She was interested in my youth, long hair and the fact that I was not on any prescription medication. I was interested in the term “Performance Art” and why it was separated from what I knew of dancing and performing in a more general sense.

courtesy of Marina Abramović The Artist is Present

In September of 2009 Marina invited all of the performers to a retreat at her star-shaped house in the countryside of upstate New York. She asked us to bring only a few things to her home by the river, one being almond oil. At her home we fasted (a process that directs the body’s energy away from the stomach, enhancing the ability to focus and create), slept in the barn, bathed in the river and spent hours completing different exercises that Marina conducted. One exercise we did, for example, was in writing our name—we had to prolong the act so that it took an hour to write our name only once without taking the pencil off the paper. Most of us failed miserably the first time. We wrote our names 50 times, took the pencil off the paper, pretended to write, doodled, wrote huge to take more time, the list went on. The point, I think, was to embrace the simplicity of the exercise and to allow ourselves to become fascinated with something we have done every day for so many years. One thing I learned from performing Marina’s work is that by slowing down, you become aware of your energy, your sensitivity, colors, smells, memories, etc.

From the very beginning and even to the end, Marina never demanded anything (except that we gave up our cell phones the moment we reached the barn). Instead she very generously shared her wealth of knowledge with us and left each individual to do as they wished with the information. Once I returned to NYC after the retreat I chose to definitively get rid of my chemical-filled bathroom products and to experiment with different diets and physical practices.

Before this show I never realized how every meal and every liquid that I ingested played a fundamental role in my ability to perform. For example, in the performance of Relation in Time, in which I sat back to back in stillness with a partner for 2 ½ hours with our hair tied together, there was no opportunity to take a bathroom break. The museum itself is a very dry environment due to the necessary need to protect the paintings by withdrawing moisture out of the air, so remaining hydrated was a challenge; I had to prepare hours in advance. My process was an efficiently calculated equation and left very little room for anything that went against remaining hydrated, including drinking coffee.

Once the performances began in March I found that as comforting and filling as dairy was, it was not something I wanted to be working with when I was performing. During one afternoon’s performance of Luminosity, a performance in which I sat nude on a bicycle seat that was attached to the wall 10 feet above the audience, I remember feeling my hormones run wild while making eye contact with an audience member. I came to realize that it was not my hormones, but a reaction from the cow’s milk that was in the yogurt I ate hours earlier. There was no “acting” as if I had not ingested these hormones; all I could do was be present with them and experience how they affected me.

One challenge (and sometimes blessing) I experienced while performing Relation in Time was the relation I had with my paired partner. In a relationship, there is either balance or there is not. If there is no balance, one person works harder than the other, resulting in exhaustion and a need for his or her partner to manage their own weight. I wanted nothing more than to sit straight while performing Relation in Time. Many days I became frustrated with my partner for thinking that I wanted to hold them up. After several weeks of suffering with a number of my partners, and holding them up until I could no longer hold myself up, I realized how energetically wasteful it was to be frustrated with another person. I realized, ultimately, that I was the only one causing myself to suffer. I also realized that my accepting their weight in the beginning could have been read as a sign of me sharing the weight. The relationship was not always this way, and about half way through the exhibit many of my partners and I realized the benefits of finding a perfect balancing point.

Because of the show, everything in my life changed; my diet, my body, the depth of my sleep, my energy levels, the depth of my breath and most importantly my respect for my own limits and an eagerness to overthrow those limits each day. In an attempt to create balance and develop somewhat of a routine inside of the museum, I chose to perform Luminositydaily, back-to-back with Relation in Time. I liked the mix. In Luminosity, I performed solo and had direct eye contact with the public. Relation in Time, on the other hand, was a duet in which little to no eye contact was made. I always thought of Luminosity as a beautifully complex dance (on an existential level) of mortal vs. immortal and self vs. universe. On a physical level, it was extremely minimal yet astonishingly challenging in terms of endurance. In my first performance of Luminosity, my definition for pain changed; I no longer attached it with a negative memory. I began to recognize that pain would surface early on in the performance. I had to remind myself, though, that what lied underneath had the power to move me differently than I had ever moved before. This was especially beneficial to my being a tap dancer. Even with the initial sensations that the pain gave off, this new way of moving prevented my mind from shutting my body down. In Relation in Time, it was not difficult to remain physically still, at least on the outside, because I could truly feel how my breath moved me. In Luminosity, however, I could, if I focused hard enough, feel myself be deeply still while my insides vibrated with energy. I found with both of these performances that I had control over many of the actions I previously thought were involuntary—mainly blinking, but also yawning, sneezing, and scratching an itch. I told myself to simply itch from the inside out and it worked just fine.

courtesy of Marina Abramović The Artist is Present

I spent the year before I met Marina training at the Merce Cunningham Studio. I was extremely happy with everything I was learning. However, once Marina’s show at MOMA started, I realized I needed some time away from dancing in a unitard; it was becoming too hard for me to open myself up. This became extremely clear to me one day while performing Relation in Time. After several hours, my feet became very heavy on my footstool, I started sitting higher on my hips, my knees were wrongfully pushed forward and my shoulders were so wide that my lungs and heart were working at their maximum. Sitting straight and allowing my breath to crinkle out memories, thoughts, and emotional treasures were enjoyable in a way, and although I could have physically continued on, in an instant, I felt my heart curl inwards and I knew that the growing and opening had come to a close for the day. My emotional self was exhausted. I realized, in that moment, how frequently humans close themselves in order to protect and avoid reaching that foreign raw space inside of them. To walk into a dance class knowing I was not willing or able to be completely open, was a state I did not want to practice in. I am grateful that I was able to understand this period of my training because it allowed me to see a broader outlook in my role as a student, which I plan to always consider myself. As a result of these moments in my training, during the first week of May, I decided to leave the show for a few days in order to attend a Whirling Dervish retreat.[1] I heavily debated whether or not I wanted to leave, but there were plenty of performers willing to pick up a few performances and I knew that going would not only bring new perspectives to the remaining weeks of the exhibition, but that it was entirely fundamental to believing in my ability to receive and direct light through a performance. In the whirling tradition, alignment—and an open heart—is everything. When your body is aligned, it allows you to continue turning without the fear of losing balance or rhythm, like a glowing pole of white light stabilizing your every turn. In performing Marina’s work I had been practicing alignment while being still; in the whirling, I practiced it while in motion. Both practices required a maintaining of rhythm with my breath.

As strong as I was becoming each day at MOMA, I was becoming all the more tender. My foot, for example, got stepped on a number of times while performing Imponderabilia—a performance in which two performers face each other in a doorway while the public passes through. I always thought it was nerves that got to people and caused them to forget for that we were real people, but as often as this happened there was always that one person who looked us in the eyes and took their time passing through. I found that even though people tend to move in groups and follow the leader, we as humans are not as predictable or statistically consistent as one could claim. I saw it happen day after day: one person would walk in and stand in the corner of the gallery and the next seven people would go stand in the corners as well, where the light was unlikely to reach. Then, one individual would walk into the middle of the gallery and somehow that act made it okay for others to enter. It was like a school of fish, until someone broke the norm and chose to sit on the ground.

What I am trying to describe from my experience is my feeling that every person is extremely complex and unique. I saw, mainly from my position on the bicycle seat, that what brought them to the museum that day—and what they brought with them, inside and out—has developed over millions of moments, some of which they were very present with, but most of which they were not. In the beginning I tried hard to peer deep into as many people’s hearts as I could, but soon realized that it was a huge demand on my energy and not something I could sustain for three months. What I found, especially in a museum as big and busy as MOMA, is that most people are not prepared to engage in this way and that each person gives and takes what they are willing and able to in each moment. When people experience something it either hits them and settles, or it hits them and passes through their body. Sometimes there are so many experiences at one time that instead of processing them right then, their body stores the experience. It is their responsibility, then, to keep their internal selves circulating so that they have the ability to empty themselves in order to be filled with new experiences.  Once I began to simply open and process what came my way, allowing experiences to pass through me, instead of going and searching for insight, I was able to give much more because I had more energy.

courtesy of Marina Abramović The Artist is Present

By sending as much energy as I could from my gut through my fingertips day after day, my hands opened so that when I walked down the street I felt my entire open palm and fingertips resting on my legs. The other performers, security staff, Marina, and I valued the time and space given to us. We made a commitment to our selves and the public that we would be present in the moment. This was our job, but there was something more going on than what was happening inside of our own bodies. The understanding and commitment that existed between us all had an extremely positive impact on a space. While there is nothing advanced about this level of connecting energies, I realized how distant it is from what is considered to be natural human behavior in today’s world.  By making it accessible to live and breathe in this way for three months at MOMA, I realized how possible it is to continue to live and breathe this way in anything that I do. What is marvelous about all of these moments is how luminous they are, like crystals in my memory.  The places my mind went to and the spaces my energy filled during the performances are timeless and universal, something I will always strive for in whatever I continue to create and share with others.

[1] Dervishes are members of a Turkish order whose ritual consists in part of a highly stylized whirling dance.



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