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An Interview with Marina Abramović: Art, Science and the Marina Abramović Institute

"One boy said that he came to the Kickstarter from Lady Gaga's page and spent 11 hours researching performance art and drinking water slowly. This makes me very happy, because I hope the institute will be this kind of resource for a new generation of artists, scientists and thinkers."
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I recently started a series on innovative storytelling and creative crowdfunding. In this series, I look for exceptional artists, filmmakers and storytellers who collaborate with audiences in immersive or interactive environments. In my last post, I interviewed filmmaker Christie Strong about the transmedia Kickstarter campaign for her upcoming documentary, Bombshell: The Life and Death of a Pinup. In the article, I mentioned several well-known storytellers, like Spike Lee and James Franco, who are using Kickstarter, indiegogo and other crowdfunding platforms to connect directly with new communities of interactive supporters. This developing form of collaboration between artist and audience naturally deepens engagement and challenges -- as it changes -- the way we experience art and our relationship to the artist.

Legendary artist Marina Abramović is one of the most fascinating people to gravitate to Kickstarter as she raises awareness and support for her project, the Marina Abramović Institute.

Perhaps you got to sit in front of Abramović at the 2010 MoMA exhibit, The Artist Is Present, or you may have seen the stunning documentary about the exhibit (of the same title) or the newly circulating video featuring Lady Gaga demonstrating the Abramović Method. If you haven't been exposed to Abramović's long durational performance art before now, I highly recommend seeking it out. It will change you.

For starters, check out this very special video (directed, edited and produced by Milica Zec), released by the Marina Abramović Institute for this article. In the video, Abramović speaks about her performance in The House With the Ocean View (2002):

Abramović is in the last few days of her Kickstarter campaign for The Founders project, so I wanted to ask her some questions about the campaign, her work with long durational performance and the exploration of her work at the Marina Abramović Institute.

SS: How is the Marina Abramović Institute a continuation of the themes from your work and how does it introduce new themes? What does the exciting Kickstarter campaign for The Founders project mean to you in terms of collaborating with audiences?

MA: The Institute continues many themes of my work. First of all, it will provide a home for the form that I worked the most in during my career: long durational performance. It will also be a home for my method, the Abramović Method, a series of exercises I have developed over many years that help to prepare participants to perform or experience long durational works. Finally, I have collaborated with many scientists and spiritualists (Brazilian shamans, Tibetan monks, Australian aborigines) throughout my life, and have found that these experiences have enriched my own work, so I want to create a place dedicated to these kinds of collaborations. MAI will be this place.

SS: I love what you say in GOOD Magazine about how long durational performance can transform consciousness. In the article you mention that you love working with scientists "because that is truly what [the] institute is all about." Could you elaborate? What other forms of long durational performance art do you predict will develop in the future and what is their tie-in to science?

MA: Absolutely. After my performance The Artist is Present (2010) at MoMA in New York, many scientists became interested in why so many people who sat across from me began to cry. I was incredibly moved by this experience also, and was very curious to know what happens in our brains when we spend time not talking, just looking at one another. So I have done a number of projects now with neuroscientists that include a re-staging of The Artist is Present with me and the audience wearing electrode caps to monitor what is happening. What they have found is that there is an incredible amount of activity that happens when you take the time to really look at another human being without any verbal exchange. The scientists are now using all of this data from these experiments to try to understand more about non-verbal communication between human beings. They have even developed a brain-powered car that I hope to install in the science chamber of the institute. You can watch a video of the car, directed by Noah Blumenson-Cook, and pre-register for a ride on the Kickstarter! It is a very unique experience. I hope to give the space for other cross-discipline collaborations like this one to occur at the institute, because I think this is really the future of humanity. We have to learn from each other and collaborate and not remain in our separate boxes.

SS: In a world that feels clipped to fit Twitter platforms, you perform long durational art in real-time. Durational art seems to happen in a different real-time than social technology, almost like "realness out of time." Do you think there's any way you would ever incorporate social media or some form of social technology into a performance piece, or somehow manage to layer or fuse realness with real-time media while in front of an audience as a way to shift consciousness in the room? Or do you think the use of too much media would create a barrier between you and your audience instead of a bridge? Do you think most media platforms exist too far outside the body for them to be real or fully integrated? Will you perhaps explore this connection at your institute?

MA: Although I have not used social media in my own artistic practice, in the MAI prototype in Toronto, the experience of participants was live streamed to the public and shown at the Toronto airport. This created a situation much like the one at The Artist is Present: through being observed by others, the public not only becomes a part of the work, they also have no place to go but inside themselves. I think this is a beautiful phenomenon. I will also be teaching Abramović Method exercises on the live stream to people who back the Kickstarter at the $25 level. I have just had the experience also of answering questions on social media from the public (on Reddit and Kickstarter). Though this is not a performance art piece and I am speaking as an educator and founder of the institute when I do this, I do very much enjoy engaging with the public in this way. We do plan to have a technology chamber at the institute, and I do imagine that some of the pieces of other artists who create works for the institute will engage with technology and social media.

SS: When Lady Gaga showed up at MoMA for your show, she brought with her an entirely different audience who perhaps had no idea what long durational or performance art was. What are your expectations of how this new, unfamiliar audience will react to your work and what they might even add to it?

MA: I am thrilled Lady Gaga has helped to teach her audience about long durational work and performance art. I have had a number of experiences already of young people who found the institute online through social media, who told me they came from Lady Gaga's page and are now researching long durational work. One boy said that he came to the Kickstarter from Lady Gaga's page and spent 11 hours researching performance art and drinking water slowly. This makes me very happy, because I hope the institute will be this kind of resource for a new generation of artists, scientists and thinkers.

SS: I've been exploring modern forms of narrative and the evolution of the relationship between storyteller and audience. In long durational work, how important is a story to you, if at all? Does a story have a body, like a person? If so, can it be removed from the fabric of time and purified, like the body of a person? What is the story you are telling?

MA: Yes, I believe stories are very important to all performances. The life story of the performer shapes their work, and the life stories of the audience alter how they receive the work, what they read into the performer. The story I am telling is a long one that I hope people will join me in.

SS: What question have you never been asked that you wish you had?

MA: Are you happy?

SS: Are you happy?

MA: Yes, I am happy at this moment in my life.