It was during her 731 hour piece at the MoMA, ‘The Artist is Present’, that Marina Abramovic decided she needed to create a physical place dedicated to long performances which developed artist and audience relationships. “I had a very strong vision, almost like a premonition, that people need this peripheral experience” the New York based Serbian performance artist remembers. “Some people said, ‘maybe the chair in front of you will be empty, people don’t have time to just sit around’. Then half of the visitors slept outside of the museum. People’s need for experience is enormous.”
Three years later and she’s turned that premonition into the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI), with a concrete plan to transform an old theatre in Hudson, New York, into a performance and education center. So far the funding is the only thing missing, but Abramovic says the MAI could be up and running next year, if she manages to convince the public to contribute to her Kickstarter fund and raise $600,000 by August 25th. In the last 12 days, they’ve raised over $180,000, and Abramovic is giddy, “I haven’t been able to sleep for nights, it’s incredibly exciting. I’m going crazy calling everybody to donate,” she confesses, before asking me to donate.
The MAI will preserve and present long durational work; performance art, video, dance, theatre, music, and film. “I’m putting all my experience from the last 40 years into this,” Abramovic says about the centre, which will also play an educational role and host workshops, lectures and research. “The institute isn’t about my art, it’s about the culture itself. We can put together improvisation, art, science, spirituality, new technology, and really see how that influences society today. We need more collaboration between artists and scientists, to create a different dialogue."
Abramovic sketches out the MAI experience – participants will shed their watches, laptops and iPhones, don white lab coats and soundproof headphones, and take a slow motion walk, before immersing themselves in a series of chambers for six hours. The chambers will be dedicated to things like gazing into the eyes of a stranger, absorbing the energy of a crystal chamber, drinking water, levitation, and scientific experiments, before participants watch a theatre, dance or performance piece. Afterwards, participants can be taken into a “parking lot of sleepers”, where others watch them sleep. “It's a total experience and if you don’t give us time, you can’t experience it,” Abramovic explains. “You can’t just come for a few minutes and then go away, you have to really want it. You’ll have an experience which can change you, and then you go back and see what you can do with that experience in your own life.”
Participants will don white lab coats and soundproof headphones before immersing themselves in a series of chambers for six hours. The chambers will be dedicated to things like gazing into the eyes of a stranger, absorbing the energy of a crystal chamber, drinking water, levitation, and scientific experiment.
In total, the project requires $20 million and Abramovic has already put in $1.5 million. “I bought the building on my birthday and I donated it to the institute,” she says. “It’s not a private institution, it’s non-profit. I don’t have any more money, I could never put $20 million in, because everything I have would not have been enough. Now it’s up to the public.”
That’s why the Kickstarter campaign has been so important – not just financially, but in symbolising the fact that this will be a cultural institution that belongs to the public. “Kickstarter is a genius invention, it’s democratic and it gives normal people who are not rich, the ability to actually support something.” she enthuses. “For me it’s a great test to see if the institute is needed by the young generation.” It’s this age group who Abramovic believes the Institute is appealing to, “85% of people who come to my lectures are extremely young. That's the generation of the future, they’re the one who needs some kind of model that they can get inspired by and see the insanity of life around us.”
“85% of people who come to my lectures are extremely young. That's the generation of the future, they’re the one who needs some kind of model that they can get inspired by and see the insanity of life around us. Crossing borders is a sign of a different century culture. I want to see how change can be made, to really cross the borders and involve more people”
Those allegiances might also have something to do with Abramovic’s recent feelings of alienation among her peers. “I’ve been so criticised lately by my generation, they say ‘Oh, she was interested in performance, now she’s interested in fashion, she’s interested in James Franco, she’s doing a rap with Jay-Z, she’s doing this and that,’ We need to create a new territory, in which all of this can be mixed and there are no taboos. Crossing borders is a sign of a different century culture. I want to see how change can be made, to really cross the borders and involve more people.”
Opening up new conversations between science and spirituality is one of Abramovic’s latest interests, and is representative of some of the topics the MAI will explore. She recently returned from a trip to Brazil where she studied shamanism. “I’m very interested in the things that our rational brains can’t explain. There are lots of things that science prove later on, which spirituality has actually practiced for a long time,” she says, citing the scientific studies of Buddhist monks, the Dogon tribe’s astronomy beliefs, and a healer she worked with in Brazil, John of God. “These people demonstrate certain things that are not possible for our society to deem acceptable.”
While the public’s initial financial support for MAI has been heartening, Abramovic says her own friends have been curiously absent from the list of benefactors. “It’s terrible to say, but the closest friends who say, ‘oh, we hope you’ll have success with Kickstarter,’ they’re the ones who don’t donate anything - and I am so pissed!” she exclaims, half laughing. “Then I look at the people who donate and I’ve never met them in my entire life. The odd thing is that with a large amount of people and a small amount of money, this concept can work. Now I am so aggressive, I tell friends I will never talk to them again in their life, if they don’t put a dollar in right now!”
The incentives for backers range from an 8-bit video game tour of the Institute ($5 donations), to gazing into Abramovic’s eyes by webcam ($1000 donations). The sliding scale of value epitomises her wry sense of humour - a $10 donations gets you a digital brick and founding commemoration, while a $10,000 donation lands you with… nothing. “Yes, you get nothing,” Abramovic confirms, laughing. “You don’t get mentioned and you don’t get to do anything, it’s the most immaterial reward ever.”
And what if, the $600,000 fails to materialise by August 25th? “In my life, if somebody says no to me, then it’s always just the beginning,” Abramovic considers. “Sometimes a project takes eight, ten, 15 years. I never give up. So if I don’t succeed with Kickstarter, then I will try something else. But right now, I don't have a doubt in my mind. I completely believe in the necessity of this kind of institution.”
Follow Karen Orton on Twitter here @AaronKorton