This article originally appeared as a longer piece in New York Press.
After waiting at MoMA for 31 hours, I was first in line to participate in "The Artist is Present," a performance piece in which Marina Abramovic looks into an individual audience member's eyes. I thought hard about what I wanted to bring to that experience. Seeing her retrospective had been a turning point for me. As a filmmaker, I spend a lot of time alone in a room writing and editing--and fearing failure. All of Abramovic's work is about failing: It's about discovering when her body will fail, when her mind will fail, when her relationship will fail. But when she knows and understands this failure, she has nothing to fear. In exploring the spaces where she is weak, where her body and her mind break down, she reveals her incredible strength. The incredible strength of a human being.
I wanted to thank her. I wanted to tell her that I was awed, inspired, terrified and opened by her work. I wonder now if I was misguided--if I could have said and shared everything I wanted to with my eyes--because I didn't get to sit with her at all.
Because I tried to sit naked.
Performance art has a unique history with audience participation. In Abramovic's infamous "Rhythm 0," she asked the audience to use 72 objects--from lipstick to honey to knives--on her body. A sign nearby noted, "I am the object. During this period, I take full responsibility." The audience cut her, drank her blood and even pointed a loaded gun at her head, but the gallery let the piece continue.
Like Allan Kaprow's Happenings, Paul Ramirez Jonas' current exhibition in Times Square, Key to the City, is audience participation. He invites audiences to come pick up a key, bestow it on a friend and then go a-unlocking: to explore "social contracts as they pertain to trust, access, and belonging."
If you visited Tino Sehgal's "This Progress" at the Guggenheim this spring, you may have been asked by an 8-year-old what you thought of progress. (The 8-year-old's favorite answer: "Progress is a myth.")
So, at what point does an audience member cross a line? And who decides when that line is crossed? When is it appropriate for a gallery or museum to intervene in an artist's performance? To save her life? When Marina performed "Lips of Thomas," the audience intervened when it became clear that Marina had lost consciousness. This delicate line is one very specific to performance art. In most art, the artist is on one side of the art and the viewer is on the other.
When I walked into the MoMA's square of light and took off my dress, seven guards surrounded me, forced me to put the dress back on and escorted me from the building with the promise that I would be arrested if I returned.
The problem is: an institution can't improvise the way an artist can. MoMA guards didn't have the jurisdiction to decide if I was sketchy or not sketchy. The guards had to follow directions that came from an enormous institution that, precisely because of its enormity, was able to promote, publicize and enable an exhibition of the scope and wonder of Abramovic's retrospective.
But what if that institution--curating an artist whose work is based on spontaneity and unpredictability--trained its security to participate in and enable the art, and not just protect it? Is it possible for an institution to improvise?
When I took off my clothes at MoMA, I hoped so. I hoped that the guards would have the freedom to recognize my intentions and observe my interaction with Abramovic before jumping to action. I hoped that I would be allowed sit before her peacefully, even if that meant getting dressed. I hoped that our interaction would merge naturally with what Abramovic explores in staring into her audience's eyes: We would look into each other and trust.
Being so idealistic, I realized only later that what I intended as a pure and loving act could have come across as the act of a crazy person. As one audience member noted: "She might have had a gun in her vagina!"
Although I didn't get to sit across from Marina Abramovic, she did give me a huge gift. During the 31 hours I spent waiting to sit with her, I developed a host of new friends: friends who are passionate, creative and clearly committed to Abramovic's art.
I still have doubts about that day. If I had known that I would be ejected from the museum, would I have taken off my clothes? Probably not. My intention was to pay tribute to the art, not to disrupt it. But maybe I'll still get to pay tribute to Marina. My new friends and I are talking about developing a performance art piece together, inspired by her work.
It may or may not involve clothes.