Opinion

Before Abramović, A History of Nothing

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John Duncan’s ‘Maze’ event (1995) (courtesy the artist)

As might be expected, Marina Abramović’s new performance event at the Sean Kelly gallery, Generator, has attracted a healthy level of press coverage that is concomitant with her reputation. Based on a premise of collective sensory deprivation, and the unanticipated insights that this can confer about communication and identity, the Generator experience begins with the voluntary blindfolding of participants and with noise-canceling headphones being placed upon the same. Each gallery-goer attempts to navigate through their environment in this limited state, up until the point where they can raise a hand and be led out of this paradoxically theatrical environment. While this experience will likely be novel to many of her recent converts, the performance has clear precedents among the work of at least one other artist who helped to shape the performance and intermedia subcultures of the mid-late 1970s. Namely, at least two of John Duncan’s events — Maze from 1995 and Voice Contact from 1998–2000 — also involve the voluntary blinding of participants and the subsequent entry of those participants into an unfamiliar space.

Beyond the superficial similarities, though, are some very significant differences in the demands placed upon both audience and performer. Both Voice Contact and Maze called upon participants to leave their clothing in the care of a guard before entering the selected performance arenas, though visitors to Maze were given no knowledge of how long they would remain inside. Voice Contact did not involve this latter plot twist, but nonetheless challenged participants to orient themselves in a darkness that was also permeated with the sound of constant drone, and thus more difficult to properly navigate through. The sonic detail in Voice Contact is not insignificant; this denial of visual distraction both reflected and inspired a genre of psycho-acoustic concerts and installations that Duncan has remained a key player in ever since. Duncan himself joined as a participant in his own Maze, leaving himself susceptible to the same psychic and physical risks that were borne by other participants. Indeed, Abramović has also hinted that she will join the sensorially deprived audience for her own event, though the announcement of this as a potential enticement to participate hints at the show’s shortcomings.

(screenshot via the New York Post)
(screenshot via the New York Post)

If Generator becomes widely regarded as an inessential work, it is not for the simple reason that it has been “done before” by peers such as Duncan, but perhaps because Abramović’s fame sets up a scenario in which audiences are showing up to be seen in an environment where seeing is actually discouraged. The audience’s anticipation of literally bumping into celebrity defeats the purpose of the event, i.e. its glimmering promise of revealing the totally unanticipated. Thus this new iteration of previously attempted experiments lacks the full sense of audience/performer co-creation embodied in its precedents, and the artist’s own immersiveness in the work may be hindered as well. Such immersion could often be essential to the continuation and expansion of the artist’s creativity, as when Abramović ascetically endured periods of unbroken silence in the performance Nightsea Crossing until experiencing the “sensation that she could [see] in every direction around her, as if every pore of her body could see” while also “developing a spectacularly magnified, all-encompassing sense of smell.”

It is telling that, when asked for comment on this new work, Duncan cites “the tension in [Abramović’s] events with Ulay” as the last work of hers that he “really found interesting.” Interestingly, Abramović and Ulay’s famed creative partnership throughout the 1970s largely avoided collaboration with an audience, often going to great lengths to ignore spectators — yet they were, again, immersive dialogues which held out the promise of the artists as well as the audience receiving an epiphany once the creation of a “third force” apart from either performer emerged. It was what other creative couplings like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin deemed the “third mind,” and what Abramović / Ulay themselves deemed as “rest energy”: a reservoir of untapped or latent energy that would expand one’s communicative capabilities beyond the realm of language. I would submit that, for anything like this energy to manifest itself, all involved parties must view each other as more or less equal in creative potential — there should be no asymmetry arising from an audience that is in awe of their host, or vice versa.

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John Duncan’s ‘Maze’ event (1995) (courtesy the artist)

Generator may have some redeeming value as another episode in performance art’s struggle against visuo-centrism, and against the strictly rational ideological frame that leads from this diminution of the remaining senses. However, it is more valuable as a cautionary tale against the perils of celebrity, showing how being a known quantity can frustrate artists’ attempts to coordinate their personal development with that of their audiences.

Generator continues at Sean Kelly Gallery (475 Tenth Ave, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 6.

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