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Gallery Talk at Hirshhorn Museum on Marina Abramovic

Posted: April 30th, 2011

We have had some inquiries regarding the talk that Blithe gave on behalf of Coble/Riley projects at the Hirshhorn’s Friday talk series on March 16th, 2011. We decided to post the notes from the talk on our website, as well as some additional resources. We were really excited to be able to discuss Abramovic’s work, since her practice is one that we both greatly admire, and also find challenging. The talk covered Marina Abramovic‡ and Ulay’s piece “Light/Dark” as well as discussed issues around “re-performance,” archive, and authorship in the artist’s work.


The talk and Q&A were 45 minutes.

1. Introduction.

– Here today to represent my collaboration, Coble/Riley Projects, which is composed of DC/Denmark-based artist Mary Coble and myself.
– Together we make performance-based video works that are interested in injecting gestures and actions into specific sites; in particular our work is interested investigating sites that are in a state of decay. You can come get a taste of our work at Conner Contemporary art where are showing our piece Ascension/Immersion, which is up until April 30th, 2011.

– For those of you who know Mary’s solo work, it is very much rooted in an “endurance” performance tradition. That same tradition that Marina Abramović and other ’70’s performance artists helped to coin. In our collaboration, that strategy of repetition of action and extended time is still very much part of our process- however it is mediated through video. When we formulate our work, we engage the tools of video to both frame the action, and also extend and transform the time of the performance through editing and looping techniques. So in our work video is a tool that we use to conceive the performance. This is very different from a more pure performance tradition where video is really a tool for documentation, and is not the final product.

2. Light/Dark

This distinction between documentation and what the actual work resides in performance is a tricky, and one that is central to discussing Abramovic‡’s work. This is also true of the work presented here, Light/Dark. To briefly introduce the work, Light/Dark was first performed in 1977 at an art fair in Köln Germany by Marina Abramovic‡ and her collaborator and partner at the time Ulay. The piece was then was performed a year later in Amsterdam and recorded, which is the version you see here. To be clear, the piece you see here is a documentation of the work, Abramović considers the work of art to be the performance itself. The recording here is a bit over 9 minutes. The original performance was twenty minutes.

– Some other things to note that are not immediately evident in the video. There are two bright lights shining on either side of the performers, so they cannot see the slaps coming. They are however not completely blinded, they are able to see each other’s expressions. This slight sensory deprivation is key to understanding the space they experienced in the performance.
– The slap is a very loaded gesture. I think especially seeing it in black and white, it conjurers up connotations of dramatic slaps in film (Godard’s Breathless).
– However like other work in this series, for the Abramovic‡ /Ulay, these works were not about violence, experiencing pain, or exploiting power dynamics within their personal relationship. This performance was meant to illicit an experience, to push the boundaries of the body. To quote Abramovic‡ she says “We never did things for the pleasure of pain. We were looking for a key, a way to break through the body, to open something up, which is a desire that comes from another side of truth or reality.”
– That said, as time goes by and we get further removed from the immediacy of the work, a work light Light/Dark can come to take a number of meanings without a backstory. It is difficult not to overlay readings of gender and power in the piece.

3. Re-Performance.
– At Abramovic‡ ‘s retrospective at the MoMA Light/Dark was not one of the pieces that was re-performed during the exhibition. Abramovic‡ is not willing to allow works that are violent or dangerous to be re-performed. She is very clear and explicit about that. She believes that performance requires a real set of skills, and cannot be done by just anyone. She refuses to re-perform anything that is dangerous.

– That said, if you go to YouTube and you go do a search for Light/Dark you get a number of re-interpretations from artists, student artists, fans, the works. Ironically this kind of re-enactment is exactly the kind of thing Abramovic‡ is trying to combat with her re-performance work.She believes that if you want to re-perform an artists work, you should get permission and even pay them for the use of their idea.

– I know my collaborator Mary Coble has also had issues with students emailing her documentation of her performance that they have re-done or modified, and it really bothers her. Abramovic‡ is trying to confront this problem within the field, and to have the same rules of authorship apply to performance as in other media. For her (as well as Mary) this kind of copy-cat performance strays from the artists original intention of the work. The purpose of MoMA retrospective and re-performance in general is really about preservation and archive of the work as it intended by the artist. Its about preserving the idea as its intended to be seen.

Additional notes about re-performance.

– For Abramović , without re-performance, the works dies. This speaks to her idea that documentation really fails to represent the true work.
– She wants to both train people to perform her work, and give permission.
– She believes that the work changes, people bring new presence to the work.
– She believes performers get the “gift” of ownership from the artist
– She believes you must give up ego in order to allow for re-performance.

The curator of the exhibition The Artist is Present, agreed to the re-performance with the idea that in a retrospective the museum has the responsibility to exhibit the work as close as possible to its intended presentation.

Open up for Q & A.
Notes from Q&A (written from memory, not a 100 percent accurate!)

Comment. The meaning in the documentation is valid. If Abramovic‡ chooses to show documentation, she has to embrace how the meaning of the work shifts over time.

Q: What is the difference between acting and performance? Why doesn’t she just hire actors to do the work?
A: An easy explanation is to think about in acting if someone gets stabbed the knife is usually fake. In real life its real.
Q: What is the Abramovic’s training method?
A: She hosts retreats where students go and do a series of workshops. She is talking about opening a school in upstate NY. She talks about this in the MoMA lecture.
Q: How will this work live on after Abramović dies? Are there a chosen few who will be able to carry out her work?
A: In a way yes. I think that is why she is so invested in education and training her method to another generation of performers. It is difficult to anticipate how this will hold up over time. Will these pieces actually be collected? How will there meaning become transformed and translated over time? All of these elements are fascinating and remain to be seen.


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