As soon as Seattle Arts & Lectures invited me to moderate a discussion with Marina Abramović at Town Hall this month, like a dork I began preparing. I went back to her most famous performances and searched for more obscure works. I read her new memoir, Walk Through Walls, which was the reason for her Seattle visit, turning down corners of the pages and developing questions from those passages. I looked back at other people's interviews with her, at early and late reviews. I read the completely conflicting contemporary reviews of the book (love from The Guardian, hate from The New York Times). Backstage in our shared green room before the show—she insisted that we share, and hang out, rather than take two separate rooms, which was endearing and is unusual (Rebecca Solnit wanted her privacy)—she found it quaint that I had actually read Walk Through Walls.
So to those two dudes who emailed to accuse me of just sitting there like a piece of furniture because I am lazy and ill-prepared, back off. You try moderating the world's most famous performance artist. Not that I didn't feel as foolish as a piece of furniture up there at times.
Abramović performs. I seem to have forgotten that before we went on. It should have been clear to me starting from sound check, when she said she basically just wanted to take audience questions all night, all the better if they just stood up and belted them out. When she was told that there were no mics to pass around so audience members would write their questions down on index cards and pass them forward, she requested that we have a late-night-lottery-on-TV-style container out of which each question would be drawn by chance, because John Cage.
"Let's do our best!" she said before we went onstage, which felt sportsmanlike. The 69-year-old daughter of Communist partisans in the former Yugoslavia is not unlike an athlete. Her version of spontaneity is that she has very specific instructions for how she wants everything to go, but they really do seem to develop within her moment to moment. I found it sort of fascinating. She is a born guru onstage. So I mostly sat back and tried not to interrupt.
The first thing Abramović did was get everybody to scream.
Now, Abramović is well-established as a screamer's screamer, but this wasn't just any performance-art scream.
It was the scream of Seattle after Trump.
It was great.
The collective scream was painfully sharp and loud. Everybody did it. Even my very mild-mannered physicist father-in-law did it. My skeptical teenage son. Half of us covered our ears. I wanted to feel the pain, so I didn't.
The scream went on for a few minutes, not just the length of one breath. We opened our mouths and let it out over and over. After a few times, it felt different. Not so angry. Cleaner. Like the actual air and noise coming out of me was cleaner. I recommend it.
If there is one thing I can tell you about Marina Abramović that I did not know before Friday, it is that she is very funny. Her most famous performances are so damn serious. She sat at the Museum of Modern Art dressed like a monk and stared at people for 700 hours during The Artist Is Present, for chrissakes.
This is the same woman who before the show (and it was a show, not a "discussion") joked about being deported by Trump. She has a green card, so she can't vote, but she sent Hillary the maximum donation allowed, $2,700. Abramović LLC Director Giuliano Argenziano, who travels with her, said he would be deported first, because Trump's people probably want to dissolve his gay marriage. Given the ridiculous "Spirit Cooking" incident that happened on the eve of the election, when Abramović was accused by the alt-right of being a Satanist friend of Clinton's campaign manager, it is a little frightening to consider what could happen. But Abramović and Giuliano would be welcome in many countries. I reminded them that we'll fight, especially for his marriage. Don't panic, fans: They didn't seem overly concerned.
On the Facebook Live video, you can see that one time I did insist on asking a question rather than dipping into the lottery bowl I held on my lap.
Jen Graves live at Town Hall with Marina Abramovic
Posted by The Stranger on Friday, November 18, 2016
I wanted to know more about the three different Marinas she writes about in the book: the warrior, the spiritualist, and the "bullshit" Marina, as she describes them. I wanted to hear about the last one, the one she fights not to be ashamed of, the one whose vulnerability has helped to inspire some of her lesser known works, like 1996's The Onion and 2010's Confession (to a donkey) (yes). I enjoy those works so much more now that I've met Abramović and experienced her humor. (I also have a sense of how the donkey feels.) I think I was missing most of the humor in her work, actually, some of which is black comedy, and some of which is almost pratfall-physical. It's also easy to forget that she is not an American artist. She may live and show here often, but she was formed by the Eastern Bloc.
I tried to ask her about Rhythm 0, the 1974 piece in which a gallery attendant stopped a man from shooting her in the head...and even after that, she continued performing. (There are so many apocryphal versions about what happened that it's a relief to have a book that Marina says is what really happened—do we trust her account? She is a playful storyteller, but on something like this, I think we do.) She writes about having been afraid of that man for a long time before he grabbed the gun, loaded it, and pointed it at her. He stood close. He breathed loud. She was terrified.
One of my favorite moments in the book is when she describes what happened after she finished performing Rhythm 0. She was naked and had been used and abused by the audience for hours. She had been so afraid. But the moment the performance was over, they became terrified of her. They very nearly ran out.
Is the book perfect? No. Its author can sometimes seem full of shit. Should you read the book? You should. It's an openhearted autobiography of an important artist. The woman behind it is a force of nature, only better—like a thunderstorm that tells smart jokes.