I Was (Not) Present

• Franko B (2014)

  1. The artist (as a construct/persona) was present, but the person was not.

  2. Can the artist be present?

  3. And what does performance have to do with it?

  4. Is it performance, or merely spectacle?

  5. Can one teach presence?

  6. Or: how to make a performance?


It was a Sunday morning in London on an August day in 2013, and I kept thinking about Marina Abramović’s performance, The Artist is Present. On and off, this event has being following me. Maybe, in my mind there are obvious reasons why.

This work has met a strong media interest (reviews, documentaries, etc.), and after three years it still apparently inspires artists like Jay Z and Lady Gaga. What follows here is my understanding and personal critique of the concept/idea of being present, expanding on my personal thoughts regarding the performance, The artist is present, which Marina Abramović originally performed at MOMA (Museum Of Modern Art) in New York in 2010.

First, I have to clarify that I purposefully avoided going to see this piece of live work, as I didn’t want to be part of a circus; I don’t want therefore to explain here what I expected out of this work, or what actually happened. One could say that I don’t have the right to talk about a piece of live work that I was not present at.

What does being present mean? Let’s start with the idea of the artist being present - what kind of possible spectator/customer/art lover was “present” in this case, and in what way – physically, or spiritually, or both at the same time? Here I want to mention few performances that reminded me of this work - Vito Acconci’s performances Seedbed (1972) and Text[1] (1969) and Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1981-1982.

Who is present? What does presence mean?

To me as an artist, being present means to take responsibility, some kind of responsibility – together with the audience that by choice is present[2]. Performing this presence must occur in a way one cannot edit, manipulate or control. Marina Abramović’s piece, The artist is Present was in fact a well-constructed and well-planned spectacle, where the audience was very controlled, in a way akin to how they would be controlled in places of prayer – churches, for example. And the project was also constructed to create some kind of collective hysteria. In this case, then, one can say that the artist was present because she was responsible for this constructed effect on behaviour, like in a play an actor playing a role – whatever role, from William Shakespeare or Samuel Beckett.

So, the issues here to me are: What is performance?[3] Was it a performance? If it was a performance, can it be taught?

The answer for me is that this event was less a performance and more a controlled action, a constructed live event enacted by the artist.

I hope that this statement does not come across as a jealous and senseless attack on Marina Abramović. What I’m concerned with and have always been is the honesty of the action. If you define performance as The Artist is Present, it’s fine, and actually it is well played; I don’t have a problem with what is acted, so long as we and the artist agree about its nature.

Undoubtedly Marina Abramović has been a very important and consistent artist, especially in performance art, since the early ‘70s - not only as a solo artist/entity, but also with her collaborator/lover, Ulay. In my view, their activity reached its highest level in the early ‘80s, its culmination being the performance The Lovers - The Great Wall Walk (1988). Then they split, both as artistic entity and as a couple.

But to understand what a performance is, or should be, we also need to go back to post World War II Japan, with the Butoh and Gutai movements. There we find what in my view is at the origin of action/performance.

Of course, one could also say that the Dadaists were doing performance before this, also the Futurists (both the Russian and Italian, although with different political orientations), and Post-Modernists.  In my view it is with World War II and its consequences that we start seeing performance art/action painting with a direct involvement of the body. Why?

In my view, this happened because this form of artistic expression was the only possible way to show the horror of the war that people witnessed or were affected by, in the most direct way: being totally naked in expressing this horror, without posing or acting, or producing artifacts or commodities. Then in the mid 60's we had the development of an artistic movement in North America with artists like Yayoi Kusama, Yoko Ono (her early work), Gina Pane, Carolyn Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Ana Medieta and many others. Their work assumed the need to give a response to civil rights movements, Feminism, the Vietnam War, sexual liberation etc. Then in the ‘90s we started seeing the photographs and filmed documentation of live events/performances becoming not only documents or recordings, but works of art in themselves.

In my view, the point about performance is that at its best, at its most poignant, it is a matter of urgency and necessity; it has to occur only when the person doing it doesn’t have any other better expressive strategies to mediate what he or she feels or wants to communicate. Sometimes this turns into actions, happenings and even direct actions as a way to denounce something or simply to say “we are here”, “I’m here” (but why am I here? because you are here!). The artist is present was rather, a piece of pure spectacle/theatre. What is wrong with that?, one could say. Nothing, I think, if one is not deluded by it.

A day in May 2010 in Brussels now comes to my mind. I was taking part in a public debate on contemporary performance at a festival about performance/theatre. On the programme of this event I read the name of Marina Abramović’s, and I first thought: “Mmmmh… isn’t she supposed to be at MOMA at the moment, performing The Artist is Present?”

The audience for the debate was comprised of media professionals, art students, some performers who where going to take part in the festival (like me), some journalists and a few academics. On the panel there was me, a local curator, an academic from the Art School in Geneva, and a personal assistant/spokesperson on behalf of Marina Abramović. The latter was an academic who had done her PhD research on Marina. I assume this is how they met, and that Marina must have trusted her to represent and to promote her, and especially her work at MOMA. And it is of course also more than possible that the festival would take advantage of the name of such a celebrated artist as Marina Abramović.

To be honest, I didn’t take too well to Marina’s representative. She reminded me of a young legal professional representing a prestigious client rather than of an academic/personal assistant to an artist. Anyway, during this discussion, the fact that was really more relevant was that Marina Abramović was not present in Brussels, because she had something much more important to do. This was to assure her actual presence at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, performing live her solo show every day for three months non-stop, during the opening hours of MOMA.

During the festival in Brussels we were informed by Marina’s assistant that we, the audience attending the conference, would witness via Internet the live performance at MOMA, The artist is present. I believe it was in the early days of the exhibition and performance. I remember that the first question I put to myself and to the room I was present in was: The artist is present where? Is she present here? Where is “here”? There? “There?” where?

Fortunately for the situation, I had to rush out of this conference because I had to set up my own performance, which would take place a few hours later. An assistant to the festival’s director took me away very quickly. It seemed they where a bit worried that I was not too perceptive… fortunately, I must say, because I was starting having problems with what was becoming apparent: what this meeting was about, and what it was planned to coincide with. It was in fact about promoting in Europe an event that was happening in New York. To me, basically this event was a well-targeted advertising campaign for an artist who, ironically, was not present in the place where the meeting was. It was irrelevant if she was present 4000 miles away, somewhere else.

Then, was the artist present, assuming that she was present not in an intimate face-to-face relationship, as a performance is, but in a one-to-many relationship, as with a spectacle? Does it matter? To me it does.

When can a one-to-one face-to-face encounter (regardless of its duration) be defined as a performance? Who am I to ask these questions?

Maybe I ask them on the basis of my experience/practice: I have made one-to-one performances from about 1998 until 2008, from well before they became a very fashionable form of artistic expression in the so-called “LIVE ART” community, especially here in the UK. And of course, there were some good examples of one-to-one performances I witnessed and took part in, which were really successful works and memorable experiences, for example by the UK-based artist Kira O’Reilly and the American artist Julie Tolentino.

My reason for making one-to-one performances was that I felt an urgency, and a necessity in me at that time (mid-late ‘90s): I felt that I personally needed some kind of intimacy with strangers, negotiated through the context of art/performance language.

This does not mean that I could not have some kind of intimacy when I performed in front of larger audiences. In fact, I believe that in those situations I did experience some form of intimacy; but I also felt that in the one-to-one relationship, anything could have happened, if there had not been an unbiased sense of control from both parts involved. One could cynically say that I was the paid performer, and that the audience members were themselves also “performers” who had actually paid to perform, and share that space/moment alone with me, without becoming part of a show or spectacle.

To me, the one-to-one principle implied that in that situation I could be more vulnerable and honest; but at the same time I demanded the same attitude from the other participants in the encounter. As I was making myself “naked” and vulnerable without playing the part of the victim, my “partner in crime” was any single member of the public, whom I had never met before, and most of the time would never meet again.

Whatever happened in this one-to-one relationship, which was limited in time and space, there were no witnesses, only our individual and shared memories of our experience/encounter/performance/ one-to-one. So almost anything could have happened, without censure or restraint.

I didn’t always like all of the things that happened during these brief encounters alone with another person, but I took the responsibility for myself, and the other person had to do the same. I never stopped an encounter, even when it turned surreal (at best) or violent towards me.

Can performance be taught?

It is not necessary to be seen and look someone in the eyes like some dodgy guru to prove that you are present. And of course this is true not only for Marina Abramović’s work, but, I believe, for most of today’s works, especially performance. I just feel that it is becoming more a fashion rather than an artistic necessity, and that what we are experiencing is mostly vanity projects, or at best a spectacle. At the same time, I’m not saying that performance is not possible. There are still artists from all generations that make performances with integrity: I think of artists like Linda Montano, Ron Athey, Kira O’Reilly , Julie Tolentino , Pjotr Pavlensky and even Pussy Riot; there are many other good examples… But in my view a performance cannot be restaged; the moment one does this, it becomes a show. I don’t have a problem with that, but to me all significant action/performance is something relevant because it gives an inspiration and is about change; it takes the form of the performance because the artist could not do anything else.

What I mean is that we have a performance when the artist has her/his back against the wall, so to speak; in this case, I believe performance is not theatre or a piece of live art or a spectacle. Performance is not drama; we can have drama as a by-product of a performance. Performance to me is about putting oneself “on the line”, taking risks because there are no other options at that moment. This cannot happen in didactic and academic structured environments, particularly not Drama or Theatre departments, but has rather to do with “life”. Performance within the context of Fine Art comes out of Fine Art institutions, not Drama or Theatre courses.

In my view, performance is either a spontaneous event or an inspirational moment in a phase of crisis; this moment cannot be re-staged or re-presented, and when this is attempted, it is not any longer performance, but it becomes some sort of theatre/spectacle/re-enactment show. Performance is not necessarily confined to the visual arts context; outside of it, we have examples of performances/actions that vary from a manifestation of feelings to the statement of a “reality”. We can witness them in agitation-prop organized actions/performance events, in connection to a freedom of expression event or struggle of individuals and communities.

An example of this that springs in my mind is the ACT UP slogan and action SILENCE = DEATH event of the mid ’80s in the USA (especially in New York), and also what I witnessed here in London in the late ’80s. Another example is the Mexico City street protests of national health workers against censorship and repression, when people stitched theirs mouths shut in front of the presidential palace; or the refugee demonstrations in France, in the UK or Italy, that have recently resulted in what I call performance/action, as a visual metaphor for them getting in a drastic, desperate and sometimes limbo position.

If we look at Abramović’s work over the last 20 years or so, before her entrance into the mainstream of art and the art market, what has she been doing? She has taught “performance” and making what I call theatre work, with her continuous re-making and re-staging of her biography. She was a professor at the Academy of Arts of Braunschweig in Germany (1993 circa-2004). During this time, she became a “mother” figure to hundreds of students/artists; this in turn promoted her and gave origin to the epithet that she also uses of “grandmother of performance arts”[4].

Then she had her “theatre period”, as it is called also in her biographers’ circle, and then re-enacted the performance, 7 Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum in 2005, which was made up of five re-enacted performances by contemporary artists (or artists who preceded her), and two performances from her portfolio from the early ’70s, and a newly commissioned work.

Notably, Chris Burden did not give permission for her to re-enact Trans-Fixed, saying that to do so would be meaningless[5].

The five artists who gave her the permission[6] to re-enact their work at the Guggenheim Museum were:

  1. • Bruce Nauman, Body Pressure (November 9, 1974, 5 pm to 12 am). Nauman constructed a false wall nearly identical in size to an existing wall behind it. A pink poster with black typeface invited visitors to perform their own action by pressing against the wall.

  2. Performed on November 10, 2005, 5 pm to 12 am

  3. • Vito Acconci, Seedbed (1972). As said above, Acconci occupied the space under a false floor, masturbating and speaking through a microphone to visitors walking above in an attempt to establish an “intimate” connection with them.

  4. Performed on November 11, 2005, 5 pm to 12 am

  5. • VALIE EXPORT, Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969). Wearing pants with the crotch removed, EXPORT walked through an art cinema, offering the spectators visual contact with a real female body. Walking up and down the aisles, she challenged the audience to look at reality instead of passively enjoying images of women on the screen.

  6. Performed on November 12, 2005, 5 pm to 12 am

  7. • Gina Pane, The Conditioning, first action of Self-Portrait(s) (1973). Pane lay on a metal bed above lit candles for approximately thirty minutes. Her suffering was apparent to the audience, who witnessed her wringing hands in pain.

  8. Performed on November 13, 2005, 5 pm to 12 am

  9. • Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). With his head covered in honey and gold leaf, Beuys cradled a dead hare, showing it pictures on the wall and whispering to it. He wore an iron sole on his right foot and a felt sole on his left.

  10. Performed on November 14, 2005, 5 pm to 12 am  

Also not surprising perhaps is that for her MOMA retrospective she borrowed deeply from her past collaboration with her ex partner Ulay, asking students/performers to play her and Ulay’s parts. Where is the performance then, or her presence? What about Ulay’s presence, which was so crucial to her work at its beginning?

Did I answer my questions?

Can performance be taught? I think not.

Why not?

I think performance is similar to most areas of the visual/fine arts. I don’t believe that “fine arts” or “visual arts” can be taught; but showing, sharing, facilitating the acquisition of knowledge and the creative process would allow one to develop, ask questions and give possible answers. In doing so, one can engage oneself in a process that would actually bring very fruitful results.

This may sound like teaching when it is at its best… But it is not so easy.

What do I mean?

I personally think that having a “talent” is not necessarily a good thing, if one cannot ask questions, give some of the answers and ask more questions per se.

It is no doubt good to have an idea of what one would like to do, but personally I think it is much better to have an “image”, even if one does not have an idea of how to execute or present it. For this reason, I believe that “art” cannot be taught, but has to be facilitated. Let us have an example, in this case based on myself.

I’m a “professor”, apparently and actually, at a State Academy of Fine Arts in the city of Macerata (Marche, Italy), and I’m supposed to be an expert on sculpture as a visual language - not as a mere technical entity. But in my view I’m not “teaching” (as much as it is worth something); I share/facilitate/discuss a need to express, not just with well articulated spoken words, but with metaphors and an ephemeral visual language, through image making and using different strategies that are necessary or possible in that moment (whatever the object is based on, including sound and more).

For this very reason, I believe in “art education” because it gives us more chances to express ourselves through practical and theoretical means; it is about expressing and sharing some forms of madness.

Maybe teaching is this?

London, March 2014

Editing and translation by Sabina Addamiano.

Also thank you to Thomas Qualmann, Amelia Jones and Marina Abramović.

[1] Seedbed is a performance piece first performed by Vito Acconci on 15-29 January 1972 at Sonnabend Gallery in New York. In the piece, there is a low wooden ramp merging with the floor. The ramp extends across the width of the room, beginning two feet up the side of one wall and slanting down to the middle of the floor. Acconci lay hidden underneath the ramp, masturbating. The artist's spoken fantasies about the visitors walking above him were heard through loudspeakers in the gallery. This event lasted for 3 weeks where the artist apparently masturbated non stop for 8 hours. This performance is private and public at the same time; although the spectator does not see him, he/she is aware of the presence of the artist under the ramp, and from the loudspeakers set in the gallery, he/she understands what is happening quite clearly. Again I have to clarify that I didn’t see or was present at this event (apart form the fact that I would have been 12 years old, I wasn’t really aware of such events).

    From the 1969 Vito Acconci performance Text:

30 minutes long sits on a chair center stage facing audience

house lights and stage lights on he turns is head toward each member of the audience, one by one, from left to right, from front to back: he stare at each person for 30 seconds each with approximate audience of 60 people at one time - show lasted 30 minutes.

[2] Also it must be clear that presence is not determined by an audience physically being in the space where the performance is taking place. For example, to me a performance “for camera”, where the only audience is the person who has the control on the documenting/filming the performance, in fact conveys a presence. My early performance was specifically for camera and not in front of an audience. Performing for an audience was then a consequential element.

[3] In my view/according to my criteria, one of the factors which define performance is how many times or how long the performance is proposed (its repetition in the same venue, city, geographical/social/political context, its being included in a tour). The first time is to me a performance, the second is a show, the third time gets the bread on your table, so to speak, and after 20 or more times it pays for your holiday with your family.

[4] Another paper could be written about this issue. In my opinion the “mother figure complex” is a very important element in Abramović’s life. I get this element both from her personal biography, in which the role of her dominant mother is stressed. I think that someway she took up the role of her mother, or assumed a “matriarchal” position in her relationship with Ulay and later with her students at Braunschweig, and also towards “younger artists”. Or maybe not!

[5] See Amelia Jones, “The Artist is Present” (TDR: The Drama Review T209, Spring 2011) – page 35

[6] http://pastexhibitions.guggenheim.org/abramovic/. Accessed January 2014


© 2015 Franko B and the contributors