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Life Lessons from Art and Music's Cult Queens Laurie Anderson and Marina Abramovic

The cult artists congregated for an audience-driven discussion about everything from Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' to Ambramovic and her late husband Lou Reed's Guidelines for Life.

by Aliza Abarbanel
02 May 2016, 1:12pm


Photo by Jill Steinberg

There are a few things that happen when two queens of the experimental art world, Laurie Anderson and Marina Abramovic, announce they’re co-hosting an intimate talk at Brooklyn's new arts venue, National Sawdust. For one thing, without any knowledge of the event’s topic or length, over six thousand people will be “interested” on Facebook, 2016’s ultimate tastemaker indicator. Then the waitlist will swell to 1200 people, but only 350 lucky ticketholders will be lucky enough to gain entry, and for those few hundred, no one will know quite knows what's instore.

First, some context. Laurie Anderson is a multimedia artist and particularly acclaimed musician. Her song “O Superman” became the dark horse of the British pop charts back in 1981—an eight-minute-long soundscape of distorted murmurs and tones. It’s absolutely seminal, thanks in part to its use of Auto-Tune a full 30 years before 808s & Heartbreak. Constructed from sparse electronics and a patchwork of Anderson’s manipulated voice, it’s equally a prototype of Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices (the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of a capella) and the future of electronic music.

More recently Anderson explored loss in last year’s film The Heart of a Dog, which reflects on the passing of her husband, Lou Reed, and their beloved dog Lolabelle, through eclectic imagery and an original soundtrack continuing to explore storytelling through sound.

As to her relationship with Abramovic, the pair have been pals since the late 70s, where they met at one of Abramovic’s shows—Imponderabilia, a piece where audience members had to squeeze through a small doorway framed by two nude performers, choosing which one to face. Anderson faced Abramovic.

Known as the grandmother of performance art, Abramovic, is known for over four decades of intensely physical art. Her first piece, Rhythm 10 (1973) played off the Russian knife game, in which a knife is quickly stabbed between a hand’s splayed fingers. Other famed works were no less arresting, variously involving cutting a pentagram into her stomach and taking psychoactive drugs. But she is surely best known for The Artist is Present, a three-month-long residency at MOMA where audience members were invited to sit across from her as she remained motionless for a total of over 700 hours.

Rhythm 10 by Marina Abramovic

At first glance, the gap between Abramovic and Anderson’s work seems substantial. Anderson’s material frequently references global issues, tackling global warming and Wall Street’s role in the 2008 financial crisis in a single song, Only an Expert. In contrast, Abramovic’s work exists in the realm of the personal. She challenges human interaction, forcing the audience to question themselves:

Can you squeeze between two naked bodies—and which one will you face?

Can you watch a woman play with knives? Stab her hand?

How long can you stand to make eye contact with a stranger?

Is this art?

However, their work shares inherent truths: Their pieces are immersive, plunging the audience into a strange universe with its own set of rules. There, the artist is the guide. A Marina Abramovic performance is marked by the feeling that anything could happen, that she could be kissed or killed onstage and do nothing to stop it. There is always a deeply emotional response—whether it be disgust, or hate, or love. Many of the Artist Is Present sitters cried, some even formed a Facebook support group in the weeks following the event. It was a capital E Experience. Meanwhile, Laurie Anderson’s works conjure up a similar feeling of alien-ness. Her deeply creative experiments with sound, frequently combining spoken word with stirring instrumentals, untether you from a world of musical references where songs have kinships to other songs. Her music is wholly her own. That’s the connection: complete artistic control that grips the audience.


Photo by Jill Steinberg

As it turned out, the event consisted entirely of a dialogue between audience and artists. This was absolutely fitting. Abramovic’s work is united around the creation of “charismatic space,” or a place where the performer and audience exist in the same state of consciousness. By framing their talk as a Q&A, it was established as charismatic space. While lectures have set roles—the audience as passive listeners, the speakers as actors—the group dialogue created a sense of community. When a 19-year-old audience member was visibly nervous to ask his question, Abramovic paused the event to lead the entire group in a deep breathing exercise.

Led by audience questions, the meandering conversation touched on topics that served as entry points to anecdotes. A question about early career paths led to The Moth-like storytelling on bad jobs—Abramovic’s an ill-fated stint as a mail deliverer who threw out all typewritten letters because of their tendency to be bills or job rejections; and Anderson’s brief tenure as an admittedly terrible night school instructor teaching Egyptian architecture and Assyrian sculpture. An audience member’s question about modern “pop star spectacles” and their influence on performance art led to a split in opinion on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Anderson praised modern culture’s fluidity between different forms of art, acknowledging, “Ownership is a very different thing. If you try to hold on, you will be drowning.” But Abramovic disagreed, accusing Beyoncé of ripping off Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s audiovisual installation Ever Is Over All, a '97 audiovisual installation that showed Rist skipping down a city street smashing car windows with a sledgehammer a la Lemonade’s “Hold Up.” (Check it out below and you'll see what she's saying).

The unformatted nature of the afternoon meant there was no scheduled conclusion. Rather, Anderson and Abramovic had previously decided to end the talk when the moment felt right. This moment arrived with a question about the balance between art and romantic love.

“I love being an artist but I think to love and be loved is one of the greatest things in the world and I feel so lucky to have had that,” Anderson said. Then, prompted by Marina, she shared a list created with Lou Reed towards the end of his life.

Lou Reed and Laurie Abraham’s Guidelines for Life:

  1. Don’t be afraid of anyone
  2. Get a really good bullshit detector and learn how to use it
  3. Be really tender

Smiling, Marina offered a fourth guideline: “Nobody has the right to put your spirit down.”

And with these tenets, you're pretty much set.

The Journalist Is Present on Twitter.

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