The Artist Is Not Present But the Brand Sure Is

Marina Abramovic & James Franco
Marina Abramovic & James Franco at MOMA’s “The Artist Is Present” (2010) (screengrab via YouTube video “James Franco on Display“)

CHICAGO — So much of performance, online and off, is essentially about energy. Marina Abramović knows this, and so after her 2010 endurance-based performance at MoMA “The Artist is Present,” she disappeared in order to train with shamans in Brazil where she learned more about energy, and took time to heal. After reading fellow Hyperallergic writer Jillian Steinhauer’s “Jay Z Raps at Marina Abramović, or the Day Performance Art Died” last week, however, I’ve been thinking about the idea of the artist’s brand as being present rather than the artist herself, and how that affects Marina’s arguably new-age-y reasonings around “energy” and being present.

This question has spawned many Facebook conversations on my wall, from which this mothership blog post response was birthed. For all of her talk about creating world-changing performance art, understanding energies, and of the stuff that makes people cry, the “grandmother of performance art” has also essentially become a brand, a former shell of her performance artist self. Her wish is to go mainstream. In other words, she is a celebrity, and the Artist Isn’t Present, but the brand sure is.

Before I really get into this topic, I want to first admit that I have always been very moved by Abramović’s work and her presence. About five years ago, I ended up at lunch one day with her and a group of people at some restaurant in downtown Chicago. Marina Abramović offered me a business card with what appeared to be her personal email address. She was quite present that day at lunch, and told me to write to her when I felt ready. As a budding young female art critic, I swooned and said I TOTALLY WOULD!!!! (how else would my 25-year-old girl self react, really?). I held onto that business card, waiting for the right time so as not to waste Ms. Abramović’s energy, writing to her as some lame fan girl. I wanted to be present with Marina, whether it was on the emails or in-person. And surely she understood that, being a seminal figure in performance art and all.

And so last week I wrote to that email address, which I obviously will not disclose here. I received a reply … from her “people.” So excited by the idea of being present with the artist herself, I decided to alert my Facebook village with the following status update:

MarinaPresentMore than 60 likes and 10 comments later, at which point the performance of this social networked excitability felt complete, I returned to the email and replied to the office director, aka one of Marina’s “people.” The very passionate man with the sexy Italian name explained to me that the artist was not present right now; in typical Marina fashion, she was “on a retreat, living in total isolation in a hut by the river with no food, just water.” On top of this, he explained, the artist would not be available for any interviews or conversations until “next September,” 2014. That is more than one year away. To further the internet performance of being “present” with Marina’s people and our continuing conversation on email with her “people,” I realized that I had to once again alert my Facebook Village.

MarinaNotPresentMuch fewer “likes” appeared on this status update, which was also longer length-wise than the celebratory two-liner that appeared the day before. I explained to the office director that I did not want to follow another page on Facebook, and good luck to Marina and her team. He responded quickly, possibly confused, telling me that if I did want to keep up with the Institute, Facebook was the most effective way. This led me again to the question of how an artist’s brand is present, but the artist is conveniently absent. Philadelphia-based artist Asimina Chremos chimed in on my Facebook thread on the problematic nature of Abramović’s brand, and her evolution toward celebrity:

“I don’t see a problem with artists starting institutions for the further development and preservation of their excellent work, and to inspire, support and educate next generations as well. Meredith Monk, Robert Raushenberg, go for it. What is disturbing about Abramović is her self-fulness in all this. I suppose it is a natural outgrowth of ‘The Artist is Present.’ She’s been insisting on her presence since the beginning. Her bold embodiments were at first quite radical, but now, in the environment of late-capitalist USA, ‘presence,’ instead of being numinous and luminous, has been subverted into the solid and smooth airbrushed facade called ‘celebrity,’ with all its attendant, devilishly dancing dollar-signs. I propose that perhaps Abramović has embraced this tsunami of attention with the naive delight of a peasant girl from the 18th century who finds herself transported from the farm to royal court in a ballgown, rather than with the discerning eye of one who views herself within the broader picture of the human condition and its politics, economics, and history.”

If the artist is actually present, in the same room with other people, that doesn’t ensure that she is actually there as more than a brand. Anne Yoder, co-editor and co-founder of Projecttile Lit, a literary journal specializing in non-traditional writing with a feminist bent, added that when she was at MoMA PS1 on Sunday, Abramović spent the majority of her session plugging the institute “as if it were a fundraising event,” which was followed by her publicity assistant telling the audience how they could contribute and also follow the Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and through a variety of websites.

In other words, even if the artist is present, it becomes more about her artist brand, and you can follow it/her on Facebook, as Marina originally explained to all of her “Facebook People” in a promotional video for the Marina Abramovic Institute, which we here at Hyperallergic blogged about sometime ago. Abramović chose to address her “Facebook People” rather the art world, which would have leveled the playing field and certainly included other performance artists, writers, curators, and culture workers. In this instance, Marina instead participated in this cult of artist-as-celebrity and artist-as-brand.

“I need to create that space for all other artists, that performance really becomes mainstream art. It’s not just about you; it’s about others,” she says.

She ends the video by announcing ways people can learn more about the Marina Abramović Institute — through Facebook, of course.

“We have new Facebook just for the Institute,” she says, as the URL flashes across the screen. “Please go, be part of it. I love you!” The piece concludes as she sends a kiss off to her Facebook people. For if you, Facebook person, go to the new Facebook page, you can experience the presence of an artist’s brand.

Screengrab from a promotional video for the Marina Abramovic Institute video
Screenshot via “Marina’s Message to Facebook” on Vimeo

This is not to completely trivialize the power of Abramović’s work either, as it, too, becomes a commentary on the new idea of what it means to be “present” for artists, writers, and culture workers of any kind in the increasingly fluid IRL-URL space which engenders a fraught relationship between the self and the selfie. Staying present nowadays is an ever-shifting challenge and a strange, virtual-mediated reality. Part of Marina’s presence as a brand is tied in with her references to Shamanism and new age-y practices, especially in between her intense durational performances. Her interest in working on energies in this fashion marks a shift from a more modern Western psychoanalytic approach to that of spirits, energies, and perhaps even mysticism. This is all a part of the brand.

” … I was just in Brazil, and I went to meet two Shamans, and I spent five days with them on a special retreat in the forest,” Abramović told Interview Magazine in early 2012. “These three days really fixed me more than three years of psychoanalysis.”

An Xiao’s 2010 piece “The Artist Is Kinda Present” responds to the difficulties of staying present and Abramović’s 2010 piece, providing commentary on the nature of social relationships in an age of ever-present mobile devices and social media. Re-imagining Abramović’s piece as a coolly zen meditation exercise, Xiao allowed the participants to be “present” with her, the artist, through text messages or tweets while they sat in front of her and she wore dark sunglasses that frustrated any attempt to read her emotions; the artist responded until the participant felt they had reached a satisfactory connection or were just bored.

An Xiao, "The Artist Is Kinda Present," 2010. (image by Hrag via Flickr)
An Xiao, “The Artist Is Kinda Present” (2010) (image by Hrag via Flickr)

This experience is different from Abramović’s pointed mode of artist-as-brand. When she addresses her “Facebook People” and the media by asking them to follow her Facebook page for regular updates rather than being present or even kinda present, the artist is a brand — and it is much easier to have control over a brand than an actual human experience. In her  performance “The Artist is Present” (2010), Abramović describes the idea of “unconditional love,” another tenet of the sort of energy exchange typical of a new age-y worldview.

“Unconditional love with someone you’ve never met is a straightforward feeling that is so overwhelming and fulfilling,” Abramović tells Interview Magazine. “It’s not easy to do. I was trying to set up a zone where I was really empty. I am receiver and sender at the same time.”

Perhaps next time when Marina’s brand throws down with another rapper, let’s hope it’s someone attempting to transcend and create rather than maintain the status quo. Or perhaps she will just focus on her next project, which is working on a film with James Franco, who she told Elle magazine is “the most interesting actor of the moment.” If that doesn’t spell celebrity branding, please pinch me IRL, poke me on Facebook, or step up and brush some dirt off my shoulder just so I know that the artist’s brand, rather than the artist herself, is present.

Correction 7/19: The representative from Ms. Abramović office with whom the author corresponded has clarified in the comments below that he misspoke and originally meant  that the artist is unavailable through September 2013.

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