Marina Abramović (with the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art she recieved in 2008) at the screening of Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present during the Vienna International Film Festival 2012, Gartenbaukino. Imavge via Wikipedia Commons.

Marina Abramović with the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art (image via Wikimedia Commons)

CHICAGO — “You are the future, and you get love by video,” chants artist Jillian Mayer in “I Am Your Grandma,” a simple, catchy, one-minute video in which the artist ponders the idea that she will be a grandmother and her grandkids will find this video on YouTube. This is a fleeting thought that, when made into a super-sharable video, actually takes just one minute to pose relevant questions about the permanency of the stuff we choose to post online.

YouTube video

Mayer’s video (above) operates in the vein of performance on the internet, which I define as a hybrid between performance art and internet art that takes the form of either viral YouTube videos or memes. In the process, it also engages with Marina Abramović’s statement that she is the “grandmother of performance art.” Abramović’s work has now become de facto meme-ed through her 2010 performance “The Artist is Present” — consider her suspiciously “chance” encounter with past collaborator and lover, Ulay, which appeared quite fairytale-esque, and the spin-off “Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry” blog — and in fact she may be not the grandmother of performance art, but rather the ‘grandmother’ of performance art on the internet. A little meme goes a long way.

But first, what is a grandmother? According to, a grandmother is “a mother of one’s father or mother,” a “female ancestor” when plural or, a “familiar term of address for an old woman” when capitalized. In terms of artist communities as family in a similar way to queer culture definitions of family or “gamily,” family is defined through leaving biological ties behind, and establishing one’s own family based on cultural necessity and tight bonds of friendship rather than heteronormative nuclear family structures based purely on blood relations and lineage.

Screengrab from Jillian Mayer's YouTube video "I Am Your Grandma"

Screengrab from Jillian Mayer’s YouTube video “I Am Your Grandma”

Artists, writers, and other creative types, whether or not they identify as queer, form families in a similar way. Considering the myriad definitions of “grandmother,” and the notions of “family” that are redefined and restructured by artists, queers, and others who live outside of normative cultural values, it becomes important to consider how Marina could possibly be the “grandmother” of all of performance art. Does this mean that she is the “female ancestor” of all performance artists ever up until now? Is she known in the familiar term as grandmother as “old woman,” and as such does not have a lineage? Or is she a grandmother to the cadre of performers that she invites into her performance art oeuvre and questionably exploits for cheap labor?

The variable definition of “grandmother” makes it impossible to know, and it’s possible to cast Abramović into a Disney fairytale-esque grandmother archetype, a botched attempt at pop culture branding, or just a result of her internet-based performance persona. After all, it is on Abramovic’s Wikipedia page that I first read of the idea of her referring to herself as the “grandmother of performance art.” And if Abramovic’s maternal nature does in fact stem from performance on the internet, perhaps she is closer conceptually to the hip young artist Jillian Mayer, who is making videos for her unborn grandchild but really, may actually be a “grandchild” of Abramovic’s own brand of online performance.

Jillian Mayer contemplating 'grandmother' as internet performativity (screengrab via YouTube video)

Jillian Mayer contemplating ‘grandmother’ as internet performativity (screengrab via YouTube video)

YouTube video

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...