Preparing for Performance Art with Marina Abramović

August 26, 2010 - 10:13am

My name is Brittany Bailey and I am a performing artist living in New York City.  In 2008, while attending high-school at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I received a Merit Scholarship in Modern Dance from YoungArts.  Recently I completed a three month performance with Marina Abramovic and 30 other performing artists at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. My participation was on the 6th floor of the museum as part of retrospective on Marina’s Performance Art work and life (which she considers to be one) that ran from early March to the end of May.

I did not know of Marina before I ran across a vague posting at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio noting that she was looking for performers to participate in her retrospective.  The entire process was primarily instinctual.  I looked up her name, did a bit of research and after writing to her we met and had an interview.  She was interested in my youth, long hair and that I was not on any prescription medication.  I was interested in the term “Performance Art” and why it was separated from what I knew of dancing and performing in a more general sense.  I considered what I had always studied in dance to be performance art since I knew it was art and it usually involved a performance.

Video: Marina Abramović. Luminosity. 1997/2010
(Yugoslav, born 1946)
Reperformed continuously in shifts throughout this exhibition for a total of over 700 hours.
Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery
Audio courtesy of Acoustiguide

In September of 2009, Marina invited all of the performers to a retreat at her star shaped house in the countryside in upstate New York.  There we fasted, slept in the barn together, did not speak, bathed in the river each morning, and spent hours completing different exercises that Marina conducted.

Marina asked us to bring only a few things to her home by the river, one being almond oil.  I still delightfully use almond oil daily as opposed to any other skin cream or lotion – the smell is so sweet and I can feel how it naturally harmonizes with my skin just a few minutes after it settles.  We fasted because the body spends a great deal of energy and directs a lot of attention to the digestion of what we put into our bodies, but when you take a break from that process, not only do your organs get a well deserved break, but the energy rises from your stomach and into your head and heart.  This change really affects your ability to focus and create on so many new levels.  We also did an exercise where we wrote our name just once, very small, without taking the pencil off the paper for an hour.  Everyone failed miserably the first time, by writing their names 50 times, taking the pencil off, fake writing, doodling, writing huge to take more time, the list goes on.  But we did it again another day and did much better. The point, I think, was to embrace the simplicity of the exercise and to allow yourself to become fascinated with something you have done every day for so many years without thinking twice about.  This activity runs parallel with the use of breath.  One thing I learned from performing Marina's work is that less is so much more.  If you attain the ability to slow down, you have a greater opportunity to appreciate the small details of what makes up nature, a meal, your physical structure or the composition of another person.  You also have more potential and space inside of yourself to feel the impact of the details on your heart and mind and your ability to connect with other people.  By slowing down, I found there to be more energy, more sensitivity, more colors, more smells, more memories, and so many options in my every move than what I first thought to exist.

From the very beginning and even to the end, Marina never demanded anything (except that we gave up our cell phones the moment we reached the barn): instead she very generously shared her wealth of knowledge with us and left each individual to do as they wished with the information.   Once I returned to NYC after the retreat I chose to definitively get rid of my chemical-filled bathroom products and to then experiment with different diets and physical practices. 

Before this show I never realized how every meal and every liquid that I ingested would play a fundamental role to my ability to perform each day.  For example, in the performance of “Relation in Time”, where I sat back to back in stillness with a partner for 2 and a half hours with our hair tied together, there was no opportunity to take a bathroom break. The museum itself is a very dry environment due to the necessary need to protect the paintings by withdrawing moisture out of the air, on top of that in order to remain hydrated throughout the duration of each performance I would prepare hours in advance so that I could avoid the extreme discomfort of needing to relieve myself in the middle of the performance.  My process to staying hydrated was an efficiently calculated equation, and left very little room for anything that went against remaining hydrated.


Once the performances began in March I found that as comforting and filling as dairy was, it was not something I wanted to be working with when I was performing.  I remember having yogurt one morning before performing “Luminosity”, where I sat nude on a bicycle seat 10 feet high on a wall in one of the galleries.  While I was looking into a member of the public’s eyes I could feel the hormones racing through me.  The hormones were not mine, they were from the cow’s milk.  There was no “acting” as if I had not ingested these hormones.  All I could do is be present with them and experience how they affected me and also stood in between how and what this person I am engaging with is communicating.

A separate study of mine in “Relation in Time” was understanding the force of gravity and my relation to it.  There is an exact amount of energy I found on certain days where I could direct my spine upwards just enough to meet gravity’s downward pull.  In this place I found a sensation of floating.  The energy I would use in my relationship with gravity was like a seesaw.  If I was a bit tired one day, gravity would slowly but surely, at a decimalic rate, pull me down and my spine’s alignment would crumble.  With that collapse, my muscles soon became fatigued and eventually my mind as well unless I made a conscious choice to overcome gravity’s force.  On other days I found myself battling gravity instead of working with it and although I would reach a very high, lengthened, and spacious place with my spine and mind, it was not a sustainable position 2 hours in with another half hour to go. Another challenge and sometimes blessing with this performance is the partner that you are connected to.  Some days you are lonely and simply want someone to sit close by with you, where you do not necessarily need to speak or do anything.  This staging was something I never took for granted when performing “Relation in Time.”  But the deepest lesson I learned from this entire experience is how you position and value yourself in a relationship with another person.   In a relationship there is either balance or there is not.  If there is not balance, one person is working harder than the other.  Over time, that feeling of working harder for someone else’s benefit can either bring clarity or ruin the relationship. If you allow someone to rest all of their weight on you, most likely the person will.  While this may seem like an okay thing to do in the beginning, it only takes time before you exhaust yourself and desperately need the other person to take manage of their own weight.  I wanted nothing more than to sit straight while performing “Relation in Time” and many days I would became frustrated with my partner for thinking that I wanted to hold them up.  After several weeks of suffering with a number of my partners and holding them up until I could no longer hold myself up I realized how energetically wasteful it was to be frustrated with another person. I realized ultimately I am the only one causing myself to suffer, that I accepted their weight in the beginning and maybe my partner sees this as “sharing” weight or that it is simply their instinctual way of wanting to “connect” with me.  The relationship was not always this way, and about half way through the exhibit many of my partners and I both realized for ourselves the benefits of finding a perfect balancing point. 

Because of the show, everything in my life was changing; my diet, my body, the depth of my sleep, my energy levels, the depth of my breath, and most importantly my respect for my own limits paired with my eagerness to overthrow those limits each day.  In an attempt to create balance and develop somewhat of a routine inside of the museum, I chose to pair performing “Luminosity” almost daily with the back-to-back hairpiece "Relation in Time". I liked the mix, with “Luminosity” being solo and having direct eye contact with the public and “Relation in Time” being a "duet" without eye contact with anyone. I always thought of “Luminosity” as a beautifully complex dance (on an existential level) of mortal vs. immortal and self vs. universe. On a physical level, it was extremely minimal yet astonishingly challenging in terms of endurance.  The first performance of “Luminosity”, my definition for pain changed and I no longer attached it with a negative memory.  I recognized in that performance that this “pain” would surface early on and that what lied underneath had the power to move me differently than I had ever moved in a dance class.  This new way of moving was more than I could ever hope to tap into as a dancer and I had access to it as long as I did not paralyze my mind with the initial sensations that “pain” gave off.  In “Relation in Time”, it was not difficult to remain physically still, at least on the outside, because I could truly feel how my breathe would move me regardless.  Keeping my mind still was something I explored everyday in “Luminosity,” and I found each week that I could become even more deeply still, yet almost vibrating with energy if I just focused on that idea.  I also found with both of these performances that many actions I had been taught and had thought to be involuntary I actually had control over, mainly referring to blinking, but also yawning, sneezing, and scratching an itch.  I would always tell myself to simply itch from the inside out and it worked just fine for me.


For the year prior to meeting Marina I had been training at the Merce Cunningham Studio and choreographing and creating my own work.  I was extremely happy with everything that I was learning and coming to terms with; however, once the show started I realized I needed some time away from dancing in a unitard. In a sense, the same became true of this work: at the end of many days of performing I felt from the inside out that I could not possibly open up anymore.  This was extremely clear to me one day close to the end of a performance of “Relation in Time.”  As I sat for several hours, I had been getting higher and higher on top of my hips, my knees were soaring forward, my feet were very heavy on my foot stool, and my shoulders were so wide that my lungs and heart were working at their maximum.  Sitting straight and allowing my breath to crinkle out memories, thoughts, and emotional treasure boxes was enjoyable in a way, and although I could have physically continued on, in an instant I felt my heart curl inwards and I knew that the growing and opening had come to a close for the day, that my emotional self was exhausted.  I realized in that moment how frequently humans close even just the sternum and shoulders in order to protect and avoid reaching that foreign raw space inside of our selves.  To walk into a dance class knowing I was not willing or able to be completely open was a state I did not want to practice in.

I am grateful I was able to understand this period of my training because it allowed me to see a broader outlook in my role as student, which I hope to never objectify in considering myself.  As a result of these moments in my training, the first week of May I decided to leave the show for a few days in order to attend a Whirling Dervish retreat.  I heavily debated whether or not I wanted to leave but there were plenty of performers willing to pick up a few performances and I knew that going would not only bring new perspectives to the remaining weeks of the exhibition but that it was entirely fundamental to believing in my ability to receive and direct light through a performance.  In the whirling tradition, alignment – and an open heart –  is everything.  Through being aligned there is a white light that can pass through you like a glowing pole and allow you to continue turning without the fear of losing balance or rhythm.  In Marina’s work, I had been practicing alignment while being still, and in the whirling, I was practicing maintaining that alignment while in motion.  All the while, in both practices, maintaining a rhythm with my breath.  By leaving to go on this retreat I realized that this show at MoMA is all a part of my self-training; how I had to open, unfold, and unwrinkle my body with Marina’s work and teachings of duration, and mental and physical limitations, before I could truly align myself as I continue to dance.

Performing in Marina’s retrospective changed me on every mental, physical, emotional, and in between levels. It changed most of my ideas on performance state, the public, my relation with the public from an artist perspective, my relationship with time (whether its logging it mentally or physically, the two go hand in hand but at certain durations take turns in opposite directions). The performances also changed my desire to move and my understanding that I can move other things beyond myself when I am present.

As strong as I was becoming each day, I was becoming all the more tender.  In “Imponderabilia”, where two performers face each other in a doorway as individuals which the public pass through, my foot would get stepped on multiple times in each performance, I always thought it was nerves that would get to people and cause them to forget for the one moment they are passing that we were real people.  But as often as this happened there would always be one person who would look you in the eyes and take their time while passing.  As often as I wanted to claim, “people are so rude” for stepping on our feet, the statement would become void due to the individual that took their time and avoided our feet. I witnessed most frequently while looking out in “Luminosity” that as often as people tend to move in groups and follow the leader, we as humans are not as predictable or statistically consistent as one could claim.  I saw it happen day after day that one person would walk in and stand in the corner of the gallery and the next seven people would go stand in the corners as well, where the light was hardest to reach.  Then, one individual would walk into the middle of the gallery and somehow that made it okay for others entering the room and even the ones in the corner to join that individual in the center where the light hit, and where I could possibly see the colors of one’s eyes.  It was like a school of fish, until someone broke the norm and chose to sit on the ground. 


What I am trying to describe from my experience is my feeling that every person is extremely complex and unique and I saw, mainly from my position on the bicycle seat, that what brought them to the museum that day and what they brought with them, inside and out, has developed over millions of moments, some of which they were very present with but most of which they were not.  As hard as I tried in the beginning to peer deep into as many people’s hearts as I could I realized this was a huge demand on my energy and not something I could sustain for nearly three months.  I thought this years ago but confirmed it for myself at the end of March; that when you have an experience it either hits you and settles or it hits you and passes through.  Sometimes there are so many experiences at one time that instead of processing right then, which would be impossible to do, your body will store the experience and it is your responsibility to keep your internal self circulating and “cleansing” in a sense so that you have the ability to empty yourself in order to be filled with new experience.  During the exhibition I was constantly emptying myself, even as I climbed up the ladder to get onto the bicycle seat, in order to connect and be filled as full as possible with new experiences from thousands of people of all ages from all over the world.  What I found is that most people, especially on a walk through the museum in one of the busiest cities in the world, have not prepared to engage in this way, and some may have never even thought of this level of communication as an option.  Therefore, it is not my job to reach into them and pull anything out.  I found that each person gives and takes what they are willing and able to in each moment.  If you give nothing it is very difficult to receive and if you give everything it is also very difficult to receive.  Once I began to simply open and process what came my way, allowing experiences to pass through me, instead of going and searching for insight, I was able to give much more because I had more energy

By sending as much energy as I could from my gut through my fingertips day after day, my hands opened so as I walked down the street I could feel my entire open palm and fingertips resting on my legs as opposed to living with my fingers slightly curled into my palm most hours of the day.  The other performers, security staff, Marina, and I valued the time and space given to us where we made a commitment to our selves and the public that we would be present in the moment.  This was our job, but something each person realized had a much greater impact than what was solely happening inside of our own body.  This commitment to something beyond our self but for the benefit of our self and others I feel has an extremely positive impact on a space.  While there is nothing advanced about this level of connecting energies, I realized for this day and age how distant it is from what has become “natural” human behavior.  By making it accessible to live and breathe this way for three months at the Museum of Modern Art, I realized how possible it is to continue to live and breathe this way in anything that I do.  What is marvelous about all of these moments is how luminous they are, like crystals in my memory.  The places my mind went to and the spaces my energy filled during the performances are timeless and universal, something I will always strive for in whatever I continue to create and share with others.


Blog By: Brittany Bailey: 2008 YoungArts Winner in Dance/Modern.

Marina Abramović Film Project    Marina Abramović Video Trailer


by Brittany Bailey, 2008 YoungArts Winner in Dance