A still from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s disturbing masterpiece “Salo” (via filmcritic.com)

Since Marina Abramović was picked to provide the entertainment for LA MOCA’s upcoming gala we’ve all been wondering what the performance art queen would conjure up to do her bidding. Now, we kind of know and it raises some serious questions, namely, is performance art ever an excuse for labor abuse?

The Performance Club has published the letter of one potential performer who has written a letter to choreographer Yvonne Rainer explaining the cruel conditions they are expected to perform in for MOCA’s wealthy donors during the gala:

“They will be sitting on lazy susans under the table and slowly rotating and making eye contact with the donors/diners. Of course we were warned that we will not be able to leave to pee, etc. That the diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc but will be warned not to. Whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected. What the fuck?!”

In response to the concerns, Yvonne Rainer has penned a very critical letter to the MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and let the rather new Angeleno what she really thinks of Abramović’s performance:

“This description is reminiscent of Salo, Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists. Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramović by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramović and MOCA have no such credibility, only a flimsy personal rationale about eye contact. Subjecting her performers to public humiliation at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed and Ms Abramovic’s obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing — this is not a critique of Abramović’s work in general — but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.”

Everything for the donors? At a museum? Unheard of! </sarcasm> Rainer goes on to write [emphasis ours]:

“Abramovic is so wedded to her original vision that she – and by extension, the Museum director and curators — doesn’t see the egregious associations for the performers, who, though willing, will be exploited nonetheless.”

This performance may indeed cross the line and raises questions, including if this was not done in the name of art would any of this be allowed? And what kind of conditions have we created in the art world that pressures volunteer performers into potentially abusive and inhumane conditions?

Rainer goes on to ask:

“Must we re-name MOCA ‘MODFR’ or the Museum of Degenerate Fund Raising”

After being read the letter, Abramović told Artinfo:

“Wow … I hope the performance itself will bring some kind of dignity, serenity, and concentration to the normal situation of a gala, and actually change the energy of the space and bring the performance into an everyday life situation … All these accusations, you can’t have them before you actually experience the situation and see how I can change the atmosphere, that’s my main purpose … I really respect Yvonne.”

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

31 replies on “Yvonne Rainer Accuses Abramović & MOCA of Exploiting Performers”

  1. Um, with all respect to the doyenne postmodern dance/ur-lesbian- feminist filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, before you criticize a work of art, at least SEE IT. Critiques based on 2nd hand sources are just irresponsible.

  2. And another thing! This extra irks me: “…how *I* can change the atmosphere, that’s *my* main purpose…” (emphasis mine). The problem is the performers she’s paying to do the work will be the ones *actually* changing the atmosphere.

  3. “After being read the letter, Abramović told Artinfo:”

    She even has the performers reading for her?!

    Am I reading Rainer’s letter wrong or am I to understand that it’s the audience that makes the performance exploitative, not the performance that makes the performance exploitative? 

      1. If her performance is about exploitation/power relations I don’t think it would be as effective if she subjected herself to the performance.  I’m not saying it’s right or a good work of art (because, as far as I can tell, it isn’t and it’s not).  I’m just saying: exploitation in art is to corporate exploitation  as  sex in art is to porn – though it may be in bad taste, they’re not the same thing and shouldn’t be treated the same way.

      2. It’s not that Marina didn’t do similar stuff in the past. Besides, it’s clearly a work about power relations (so forth and so on, yayaya) and the only thing you can do about it is to help to terminate that kind of “social” relations in the world around you. Or just let it be and simply contemplate nature.

        By the way, does “because my name is lion”  ring any bell?

  4. Unfortunately, Marina’s idea is unfeasible. It is not only degrading for the performer, but for the gala attendees as well, who will be forced to spend their expensive evening accommodating silent spinning heads in the middle of their tables. Sometimes ideas are bad, and just because she’s Marina Abramovic doesn’t mean she should be immune to criticism in the wake of an undeniably bad artistic idea.

    Also, Marina seems to not have done her homework. Decades before Marina even ventured to this country Anna Halprin staged a mid-dining performance that successfully accomplished the same goal that Marina is haphazardly shooting for. Lunch (1968) is a masterwork of post-modern performance, yet Marina seems to have all but missed it.

    For shame, Marina

  5. Such a very bad idea, I am trying to imagine eating while being stared at by someone sitting in the middle of the table. The words dignity and serenity are not the first words that come to mind. Historically, at museum openings and galas, it is the individuals who serve the patrons their food who are invisible, maybe the wait staff should be paid extra to stare at the donors as they swirl around the tables with the donor’s food.

  6. Great work with the graphic, btw, whoever made that.  An absurd situation deserves a snarktastic illustration.  The only thing funnier might be to actually be a fly on the wall watching this whole dining fiasco unfold….

  7. The only problem that I can see is in not more actively courting performers who may actually enjoy being subjugated, confined and humiliated. There are enough people who enjoy such treatment that they need not have recruited those who are only begrudgingly willing. Then again I associate with performers who enjoy being burned with blowtorches and having their genitalia stitched together so my perspective on this might be a bit skewed…

  8. Are you kidding me? This is so ridiculous. The performers are being paid to do this. If they don’t want to participate, no one is forcing them to. It is as simple as that. Things would be different if this were not a consensual agreement. I’m sure that for every one disgruntled dancer that auditioned, there are two (or more!) that are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Marina. Endurance based performances are never easy, but the mental and physical challenges, as well as the personal growth that comes from them, is part of the whole deal. If those that auditioned are not willing to accept the challenges of the piece, then they just shouldn’t do it.

    1. Are you really raising the old, ‘if you don’t like it go get another job’ argument? That’s the exact logic behind sweatshops, porn and Walmart’s labor practices. Just because you can get someone to do something (with money or prestige or whatever) doesn’t mean it isn’t exploitive and wrong. It’s an absolutely gross and exploitive way for a famous (and therefore powerful) artist to treat a group of people who are already undoubtedly making huge sacrifices to have an art career of their ow. It’s a really nasty carrot on a stick. 

  9. What’s so exploitative about performers rotating on lazy susans giving eye contact in the nude?  It sounds like FUN and the performers were even getting PAID for it — unlike many performance artists who aren’t paid a penny for their work. Rainer’s letter is her attempt to show off how politically correct she is.  Is she saying nudity is degrading? Not being able to leave to urinate seems unfair.  More effective in terms of the spectacle would have been for them to pee on the lazy susans or on the donors.  Now THAT sounds a bit more like “Salo,” which by the way definitely is calling out for a remake.

    1. Hey Gerry, I think the issue is of an institution contracting out performers that can potentially be degraded for fund raising purposes. I don’t mix small performances with large institutions like MOCA and in this case I think the performance, according to the potential performer, sounded potentially humiliating to the performer. But now it seems that MOCA has changed their tune and is not allowing gala goers to touch the performers, which is a whole different thing and not what was originally conceived.

  10. Abramovic has never been a comfortable artist, why should she change? Is political correctness/censorhip now to define art goals & limits? Being a performer/model requires physical & psychological discipline, it has never been about feeling comfy but rather with experiencing limits, so the complaining performer should probably switch professions.  Certainly not new but power re-inversion is usually resourceful & provides good food for thought :). Attendants might probably endure a tough process but I doubt they´re unaware of what an Abramovic performance involves. After all, it’s far from her most extreme interventions or Viennese Acitionism. Abramovic is one of the most renown performance artists world-wide, who is Yvonne Rainer? Much as I love Passolini the comparison is out of place and such statements may make Rainer become popular but do little for her professionalism.

  11. Who is Yvonne Rainer? Alex P. Real..Are you for real?  Rainer was taking on “power re-inversion” and dealing with the “experie[nce of] limits” while MA was still painting clouds in Serbia…(about fifteen years before she started to perform.)  Further, MA had nothing to do with Viennese Actionism.  In fact, the closest thing MA’s gala performance direction resembled was Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More Video”….So much for the part in the manifesto that reads (and I am paraphrasing):  the artist must not steal from other artists

    YouTube video
  12. “This performance may indeed cross the line and raises questions, including if this was not done in the name of art would any of this be allowed.” 

    Good question but I believe that it should be acknowledged that this situation is, as it were, unique to art. For what little we know of the performance through a recitation of the performer’s letter, it sounds to me as if it is first to make the viewer uncomfortable, or hyper aware of their own situation. 

    That said I do agree that when it’s not the artist themselves performing the piece there’s a lot more to take into account. And that said if this performer has a fundamental issue with the piece perhaps she or he should not take part. 

  13. Abramović, Rainer, gala theater & performance art politics: a public forum in the wake of
    Marina Abramović’s 2011 MOCA gala performance and Yvonne Rainer’s critical
    letter of said performance.

    Please join us for a moderated open forum instigated by the outpouring of reactions and criticality surrounding, although not limited to, Abramović’s recent performance as part of MOCA’s fundraising gala.  Using Abramović’s Los Angeles performance as one example, we hope that this forum will expand the depth and scope of performance art practice in the face of art / money / power, will investigate
    modes of working and programming that are seen as successful and not, and will serve to examine more deeply the role and function of performance art in museums and art spaces.

    We encourage those who participated in the performance at MOCA to attend this open forum and share their experience and their thoughts, as well as those who were guests at the dinner, those who worked as food servers during the dinner, those who were selected to perform but decided against it,
    performance art bloggers, MOCA staff, Debbie Harry, the cosigners of Yvonne
    Rainer’s letter, etc. All are welcome. 

    An abundance of thought and reaction to this event (as an event, but also as a mode and model of production) has been documented on blogs and on facebook, at numerous dinners and privately over drinks.  We look forward to coming together in the same room to further the investment and interest in some of these very important issues surrounding contemporary performance art practice.

    Saturday, 17 December 2011
    1:00 PM – 4:00 PM

    Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions / LACE
    6522 Hollywood Blvd.
    Los Angeles CA 90028

    LACE is equidistant from the Hollywood  / Highland and Hollywood / Vine stations of
    the MTA Red Line

    Free admission and open to the public.

    Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/121823981266338/


    Dino Dinco, multi-disciplinary artist and curator and Performance Art Curator in Residence, LACE

    Jennifer Doyle, UC Riverside Professor, author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire  (2006) and Hold It Against Me: Difficulty, Emotion and Contemporary Art (forthcoming, 2012).

    Matias Viegener, Professor of Literature and Critical Theory, CalArts and co-founder of the participatory art collective, Fallen Fruit

    * Please note: We will be taking up a monetary collection for a couple of performers who were part of the gala performance and who will be traveling from San Francisco to participate in this discussion.  These two artists were some of the first to write extensively about their experience, helping to ignite the broad and often spicy discussions documented online. 

    Please extend some true Los Angeles art community hospitality to our out-of-town artist guests in helping to make their presence possible. 

    Thank you.

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