In July 2015 I participated in three-days of training in the Abramović Method, which was led by Marina’s artistic collaborator Lynsey Peisinger. The Abramović Method is comprised of a series of meditation-like exercises intended for the curriculum at the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI). The three day training resulted in a 2 week durational performance and artist residency called Marina Abramović: In Residence (2015) situated on the wharf not far from scenic and iconic Circular Quay in Sydney. Over the course of the three days we were asked to slow-walk for lengthy and sustained periods, covering just a few metres of ground each time. We were asked to separate and count mounds of rice and lentils. Other exercises included sitting still and staring at a block of colour on the wall or alternatively sitting opposite another person and gazing into their eyes without moving or blinking. We were asked to limit our talking and to restrict our eating during the day. The three day training in the Abramović Method was to equip us with the skills to undertake two weeks of facilitation for the In Residence project on the wharf. This project has already travelled to London, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Sydney and there are plans for it to travel to China and Iceland.
The Sydney iteration of Marina Abramović: In Residence was hosted by John Kaldor – long-time philanthropist of the arts – and follows on from the internationally acclaimed 13 Rooms (2013), which also featured a delegated performance work conceived by Abramović. In Residence was comprised of two projects; one was a residency where 12 artists were asked to live on site at the pier developing their ideas whilst engaging in the Abramović Method. The artists lived and slept in cubes or cells, as Marina referred to them, lightly furnished with a bed and lamp. The second part of In Residence was the participatory event in which 52 facilitators – of which I was one – would help silently move and encourage the public to engage in the activities that define the Method; the slow-walk, energy-platforms; mutual gazing, colour gazing and sleeping in beds. Over the course of the 2 weeks the 52 facilitators had silently held the hands of around 40,000 members of the public; walked with them, gazed into their eyes, tucked them into beds and stood with them hand-in hand on ‘energy platforms’.
In hindsight, the labour intensive nature of the work seems central to the aesthetic operation of the project and raises some interesting questions about the relation of art to labour and categories of human action; Is this work or is it art, is it art-work or work as art? Can it be all of these? Some other questions include: What are the aesthetic and institutional apparatuses that drive such a project? What might emerge from a study that tracks the influence of the Abramović Method on performance aesthetics in a trans-national context, whilst also being particularly attuned to the Australian and Asia-pacific context?
The reception of In Residence was largely positive with participants reporting that they felt ‘transformed’, ‘elated’ or ‘lost for words’. In conversation, one young man said to me that he’d forgotten what it was like to be tucked into bed and how incredibly moving it was. Another expressed that they attended In Residence on the strength of Lady Gaga’s endorsement of Marina. They were curious about the exhibition and weren’t expecting the level of care and intimacy experienced in performing these simple exercises with the facilitators. Others were astounded that they’d spent so much time in the exhibition, reporting they intended to stay for an hour but had become so immersed that they stayed for 3 or 4 hours.
The participants were expected to leave behind any electronic devices that could show the time including watches and mobile phones. The disorientation produced by not knowing the time was a common thread in the reporting of experiences by the public. Other experiences were slightly more traumatic. One person was reminded of the day her mother was first institutionalised in an asylum because of the strangeness of people slow walking and lying motionless in beds. A Brazilian woman was confronted when she saw the rows of people willingly separating rice and lentils. This had the unwitting effect of transporting her to childhood memories of an unkind family cook who would force her and her brother to sort lentils as punishment. Others admitted that they felt haunted by the spectres of forced labour camps. These stories, memories and affecting recollections would emerge and circulate during the two weeks of the exhibition as people documented their thoughts and shared their feelings with the facilitators.
Perhaps the most intimate of all the exercises included carefully tucking strangers into bed. There were around 50 camper beds arranged in rows creating a paradoxical scene of somnambulist industry as facilitator’s stewarded people in and out of the covers. I asked myself, who would come to an art event and sleep? Many did and so did I in the end. Some of the strangers mouthed a quiet or teary ‘thank-you’ as I tucked the covers around the contours of arms and legs, others laughed hysterically finding it infantilizing and others still cried uncontrollably as the intimacy of the act was too much to bear.
Over the course of the two weeks around 40,000 people moved through the exhibition, repeating the same actions, marking time across the draughty and uneven floor of the wharf. Some were deeply moved by the exercises, or otherwise disturbed and responded by crying, shaking, slapping their legs or worse still, fainting. Some resisted by wilfully straying from what they felt was coercion to behave in a certain way or enacted creative flourishes and interpretations of the exercises. Some participants resisted the space by running, gesturing wildly, handing out pamphlets warning the perils of conformity, or otherwise making “irreverent” gestures; often intending to break the ambient temporality of the wharf, or alternatively disturbing the mood unintentionally by other means.
As well as the human players it also seemed that the draughty walls of the old wharf performed with timely streams of sunlight, gusts of wind and olfactory assaults by ushering in smells of ocean bound sewerage. Most of the public dutifully performed the tasks and some were overcome with desperation, hoping to get a glimpse of Marina. They betrayed their intentions through distracted side-ways glances and furtive movements toward the ‘presence of the artist’. Repeatedly performing the tasks over two-weeks began to have a strange effect on my sense of time and body in space, creating a proprioceptive warp that was both disturbing and seductive.
I would intermittently think to myself, ‘what am I doing here? What is the meaning and economy of this very strange labour, at once intimate, compelling, and yet splintering and divisive? Who is this stranger and how odd to stare so attentively into their face, their eyes, without ill consequence. A sense of the uncanny crept in, a kind of unnerving double play on my part of being In Residence – suggestive of the ‘oikos’ as the Greeks called it, or the economy of ‘keeping house’ – but also away from home. I live in Melbourne with my three school aged children and travelled to Sydney to be a facilitator in this project. So much of my work at home is gendered domestic labour and what a strange predicament that I should be paid to be repeating these tasks as an act of art; repeating the same making of beds, same caressing of faces and holding of hands ordinarily reserved for the private spaces and people of home. I felt moments of rapture In Residence and the transformative potential of being there. I felt lost, moved and at times bodiless. I also felt the claustrophobic pall of re-performing the banal and libidinal labours of ‘oikos’ or the home; the miring and discipline of the body required in the act of being Resident for nobody in particular and everybody specifically.
As I slow walked or gazed away the hours and days beside the bodies of strangers and fellow facilitator’s I began to succumb to an idea that the bodies moving slowly around me formed a kind of Leviathan– a finely balanced assemblage of muscles, delicate gestures and quiet intentions. Managing the fragile yet well- hedged ecology of this massive art work proved increasingly difficult as exhaustion set-in and as the numbers of participants grew towards the end of the exhibition. Yet In Residence was by many accounts successful and the after-image of the wharf and its temporary ‘oikos’ of strangers doing strange things remains as a kind of inspiration.