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Changing Places: From Spectator to Reperformer

Fig. 1. The author reperforming Nude with Skeleton at the press conference at The Artist Is Present exhibition. The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, Russia, October 7, 2011. Photograph by Valerij Ledenev. Courtesy of Valerij Ledenev.

So, there I was: an art history doctoral candidate on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship lying naked at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow—an activity neither proposed in my fellowship application nor predicted upon my arrival in Russia. This is one way of introducing the story of an art historian participating in reperformances at Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present exhibition in Moscow in 2011—a sensationally effective but superficial way.

The story, in its broader perspective, is about exploration of an atypical research method in contemporary art. The evolution of contemporary art media and categories redefined the roles of author and audience and re/moved the border between them, creating at the same time new possibilities for art historians’ research approaches. In performance art, for that matter, participation diversified the character of the audience, and the introduction of reperformers usurped and “diluted” the singularity and the aura of the author—of the work of art. (Here I think about performance and its reproduction in serial reperformances through Walter Benjamin’s notion of reproducibility in relation to the aura of the artwork: “By replicating the work many times over, [the process of reproduction] substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.”[1]) As if—like doppelgängers—artists or hired people began reperforming pieces that had been created and originally performed by other artists.

I joined the ranks of reperformers when an opportunity to participate in reperformances at the Moscow edition of The Artist Is Present exhibition unexpectedly presented itself. I was in Moscow researching Russian performance art of the 1990s. Although I focused on interviewing artists and combing through their archives in Moscow, and later, in Izhevsk, Perm, Ekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk, I was open to novel approaches to researching the history, theory, and practice of performance. The turn from spectator to reperformer was not something I had planned or prepared for but was rather a matter of grasping an opportunity that arose unexpectedly while I was a witness to the training of reperformers on their first day. Aware that reperformance had been a widely discussed issue, I took the chance to research it in practice, to see what it was like to experience the space of performance not as a spectator but as a reperformer.

On the morning of October 3, 2011, I was en route to the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. It was there that the public was invited to witness a four-day training of the reperformers. Young Russian men and women—predominantly artists, dancers, and actresses—had been interviewed a few months earlier, and roughly forty were selected. I was not in Moscow during the selection process, but I was interested to see what a training of reperformers entailed. I arrived at the Garage early, well before the doors opened, just to make sure I would get a good seat. It turned out that I was the first and, for a long time, the only visitor. The training entailed various durational exercises, many of which had a meditative quality and centered on slow repetitive tasks requiring one’s total focus and attention. Other exercises practiced one’s immersion and presence in a group. By the end of the evening I was on speaking terms with the young Russian interpreter, a representative of the Garage assigned to work with the whole group, and I learned that a few of the reperformers had resigned. I asked whether I might join the group. Soon after my inquiry, Abramović sat down to talk to me briefly and then invited me to join. Perhaps my long durational witnessing of the training seemed a characteristic worthy of a reperformer. After all, at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, Abramović had also trained audiences in durational spectatorship.[2]

My training, which began the following day, was a gratifying experience. It introduced a break in my daily activities of researching Russian art of the 1990s. It was a time of rest, days of respite from Moscow’s efficient but jammed public transport system and overcrowded sidewalks. My three-day training brought a rewarding sense of connecting with other people, sharing meals, bonding over activities, and anticipating our reperformances. We were fed simple and nutritious meals. One evening, however, a luxurious delicacy awaited us: an unusual “dessert.” Each of us was given a ball made of minced almonds and a sheet of edible gold leaf, which we wrapped around the ball and then ate.

A dress code introduced for reperformers sent a puzzling message about the relationship of reperformers to other bodies in the space. We were given long-sleeved jumpsuit overalls to wear. Abramović and two choreographers who accompanied her were dressed the same way. After the training ended and the exhibition opened, the reperformers were obliged to wear the overalls between reperformances. Frankly, I did not like our uniforms. To me they conveyed the idea of sameness, deprivation of individuality, and suggestion of mere labor, not art. But then, who spoils laborers by feeding them with gold leaf? Furthermore, in contrast to our overalls, visitors who came to observe our training, the Garage interpreter, and another assistant who was working with us all wore white lab coats.

Fig. 2. Training of reperformers for The Artist is Present exhibition at Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, October 3–6, 2011. Courtesy of Marina Abramović Archive.

At the Manchester International Festival in 2009, Abramović also had audiences dressed in such coats, but there was no juxtaposition of lab coats to overalls. Did the juxtaposition set up at the Garage contrast physical work with intellectual work? Did it imply a power relation? How did the artist, who wore the same overalls during the training days and at press conferences, fit into this scenario? To further complicate the situation, when the exhibition opened, those of us who performed naked were obliged to don white coats when walking from our changing room to the performance areas in the galleries.

Fig. 3. Reperformers at the press conference at The Artist Is Present exhibition. The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, October 7, 2011. Courtesy of Marina Abramović Archive.
Fig. 4. Marina Abramović and the reperformers at the press conference at The Artist is Present exhibition. The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, October 7, 2011. Photograph by Valerij Ledenev. Courtesy of Valerij Ledenev.
Fig. 5. The author is introducing herself; reperformers were asked to briefly introduce themselves at the press conference. The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, October 7, 2011. Photograph by Valerij Ledenev. Courtesy of Valerij Ledenev.

The artist was not always present at our training, as the exhibition was being installed in the adjoining space and she was also engaged there. Yet, a clear rapport was established between her and the reperformers. Abramović often returned to us and was also present at the end of the day. On Thursday, the last day of training, she took us around the exhibition and talked about her performances and other works on display. It was certainly an intensive day for her, yet she wanted to personally tell us about her works. I can still remember her genuine demeanor and attention as she interacted with us.

On the last day of training we finally began to reperform. In Moscow only four performances were presented: Imponderabilia, Point of Contact, Nude with Skeleton, and Luminosity (in the New York exhibition a fifth performance, Relation in Time, was reperformed). We all, I think, assumed that our reperformances would be bona fide, adhering to the details of the original performances, but it turned out that Abramović revamped those performances chosen for reperformance. The “conditions” for reenactments (“Ask the artist for permission. Pay the artist for copyright. Perform a new interpretation of the piece. Exhibit the original material: photographs, video, relics. Exhibit a new interpretation of the piece”) that she had proposed a few years earlier when she presented reenactments of other artists’ performances in Seven Easy Pieces were not applicable to our situation, because Abramović maintained her agency throughout the conceptual part of the process of reperformance.[3] Although the artist’s instructions were minimal, the format of the reperformances, such as the duration of each performance, its placement in the gallery space, the obligation to wear the overalls during breaks and white coats when walking to the performance spot, among others, neither depended on us, the reperformers, nor left us much room for any choices. My impression here differs, for example, from that of Abigail Levine, a reperformer at MoMA. In New York, according to Levine, “Marina’s instructions were minimal, leaving much more room for us to make choices.”[4] In Moscow, by contrast, we were more like stand-ins in Abramović’s remakes. The question thus arises, what exactly was constructed with the help of reperformers at The Artist Is Present? Is the term “reperformance” still adequate in this situation? These questions, unfortunately, are beyond the scope of this essay.

Fig. 6. Exhibition flyer for the Russian version of The Artist is Present exhibition at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow. October 8–December 4, 2011.

Imponderabilia was the oldest of the four works reperformed. It was one of Abramović’s and her former partner Ulay’s early performances from the series Relation Works (1976–79), performed at Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna in June 1977.[5] Abramović and Ulay stood, naked, facing each other in the main gallery entrance that was rebuilt so that the space between their bodies was forty centimeters wide. Each passing person had to turn sideway and decide whom to face—her or him. Two cameras recorded the performance, and the recording was streamed to video monitors in the gallery.[6] The performance lasted ninety minutes and was stopped by the police. At the Garage, however, the doorway opening was built substantially wider, the piece was sometimes reperformed by two female performers, its duration was decreased to sixty minutes for each pair, and no video recording was made. These changes altered the experiences of reperformers and the audience members passing between us.

Point of Contact was the only performance of the four performed in clothing: black trousers and jacket, with a white shirt underneath.[7] According to Abramović, she and Ulay were standing and looking into each other’s eyes while pointing at each other with their levelled index fingers, avoiding touching.[8] The piece, which lasted a few minutes, was performed only for a film camera. Together with three other performances (Rest Energy, Nature of Mind, and Timeless Point of View), it was filmed by experimental filmmaker Ruud Monster in a studio in Amsterdam in January–August 1980 in a series entitled That Self and screened at De Appel art institute in Amsterdam September 22–29, 1980 (McEvilley, Ulay & Marina Abramović, 92). In the artists’ oeuvre this piece marked a transition from their earlier pieces focused on exploration of conflict, aggression, and difference to the next series of works focused on repetition, endurance, and meditation (Stiles et al, Marina Abramović, 79–80). Its reperformance at the Garage brought a considerable alteration of the piece by adding the presence of the audience and extending the piece to ninety minutes per each reperformer pair.

The remaining two performances—Nude with Skeleton and Luminosity—were Abramović’s solo works. Nude with Skeleton has its origin in Cleaning the Mirror No. 2, a performance for video created by Abramović for her exhibition Marina Abramović: Objects, Performance, Video, Sound at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (April 9–July 2, 1995). The video showed Abramović lying on the floor for ninety minutes, breathing heavily, and animating the skeleton on top of her naked body. This performance became the model for Nude with Skeleton, which at the Garage was performed before an audience and shortened to sixty-minute performances with reperformers lying on benches. 

Fig. 7. Reperformance of Nude with Skeleton at the press conference at The Artist Is Present exhibition. The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow. October 7, 2011. Photograph by Valerij Ledenev. Courtesy of Valerij Ledenev.

Abramović performed Luminosity at the opening of her show Spirit House at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York on October 30, 1997, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. It required Abramović, wearing black pumps only, to support herself on a bicycle saddle mounted to the wall, with her arms spread to the sides. According to New York critic Cynthia Carr, Abramović “sat motionless for maybe 20 minutes, then slowly and precariously stood up, her feet on support beams a couple feet off the floor. Then, after another 20 to 30 minutes, she sat. And so on for the duration.”[9] At The Artist Is Present reperformers had to maintain their balance for thirty minutes by propping their bare feet on metal footrests fixed to the wall. During training I attempted to perform Luminosity, but the distance between saddle and footrests was set for women taller than me and was not adjustable. I could barely touch the footrests with my toes. Nevertheless, I performed it once, on the second day of the exhibition. A person scheduled to reperform it did not show up and I was asked to help out. Throughout the performance, I was thinking that any minute I would fall off. I managed to stay upright, but I was glad I was never asked to perform it again.

Before the exhibition, I was imagining that my experience would be in some way strong and unique. As a viewer I have had many transformative experiences, some of which left me with emotional tension, and some that inspired awe, triggered feeling of sadness and terror, made me uncomfortable, made me smile, or simply made me part of a community. I was mistaken to expect that reperforming the works would be for me at least as powerful an experience.

My experience was problematic. When reperforming Nude with Skeleton, for me a constant internal question was where to establish an axis of relation: Am I in that space in relation to Abramović, or rather am I in relation to the audience? Additionally, at the Garage, in contrast to MoMA, there was no Abramović present each and every day of the exhibition. That presence and possibility of “connection” with Abramović, which MoMA reperformers Abigail Levine and Lydia Brawner mentioned as integral to their being there, was not available for us in Moscow.[10] That the skeleton, without fail, made indentations on my body, causing discomfort, was not a problem. I could block the pain. What bothered me was the disquieting and overwhelming feeling that my “being there” was a solitary mental experience. Lying on my back, I was only slightly aware of the public and could not engage in any eye contact, which may have prevented me from experiencing any connection with them. I never felt any energy coming from the audience. I was rather like a doppelgänger searching in vain for its real counterpart, for that auratic object of an embodied performance artist, which my very presence in fact had cancelled. Maybe that was where my problem lay. Perhaps I was a doppelgänger with the wrong attitude: that of responder to a relation, rather than initiator of one, which an artist always is in relation to audience? The performance became for me a sad lesson of non-belonging. A positive affect, which I felt many times during encounters with the bodies of a performing artist and gathered audience in different performance spaces, was not part of my experience as I reperformed Nude with Skeleton.

Nude with Skeleton is a work about being bare and vulnerable—about life and death. As I lay for an hour at a time under a facsimile skeleton, I was at times hoping to obtain some kind of visceral feeling or a deeper understanding of the performance. Nothing of that kind happened. Maybe the audience had some thoughts about mortality as they looked at my breathing body lying motionless under the skeleton, but I did not. During our training, Abramović had told us that around the time she made this work, her close friend had passed away, and that he was on her mind throughout the performance. I was unable to make that connection or to conjure up a comparable emotion. Beyond the dents in my flesh, the skeleton made no impact on me.

Abramović’s ideal that while performing one has to be in the present was difficult for me to achieve. While performing Nude with Skeleton I found my thoughts sometimes wandering off to random topics about my life and research in Russia, and as soon as I caught myself doing it, I immediately tried to return to the present and to refocus on my performance. I struggled in this process but I was not alone; some of the MoMA reperformers also noted difficulty staying mentally in the present.[11] How can one actually create the state of remaining in the present? An attempt to think about the tableau vivant I was reperforming—lying under the facsimile skeleton—neither provoked further thoughts nor stirred emotions in me. That was not an effective approach to achieving “being-in-the-present.” What followed was often a realization that it was not my piece, not a visualization I would have liked to convey to the world at large had I been an artist. But how could I know what I would do were I an artist, given that I am not one? My thoughts were getting entangled. A persistent question returned: What was the point in doing such serialized reperformances with hired people?! Somehow I thought that when one can freely choose what to reperform and how to do it—whether changing many, or some, or none of the characteristics of the original work—“being-in-the-present” may be attainable. But I will never know for sure.

The practice of reperformance shows that it has become a broad concept: from a unique single reperformance to a serial non-stop production of reperformances, as at The Artist Is Present. On average each reperformer was scheduled to reperform two or three pieces per day. It turned out that many Russian reperformers refused to perform in the nude, and so those who agreed to undress for reperformance (including me) ended up reperforming the three nude pieces over and over. From October 8 through December 4, 2011, I reperformed Nude with Skeleton and Imponderabilia. Even though I performed only one or two days a week, the repetitiveness of my performing task deprived me of the uniqueness of the experience that I have always associated with performance art. In addition, what our reperformance slots were called in Russian added a sense of serialization and labor. These periods, which MoMA reperformer Jill Sigman called “relays,” were called “shifts” in Moscow. If “relay” suggests cooperation and relief by someone else, the word “shift” has an entirely different connotation—repeated compensated labor. One might also perceive in these groups of young people hired to “reperform” in accordance with Abramović’s instructions a practice of franchising. These notions, prevalent in my experience of “reperforming” at The Artist Is Present, led me far from the sense of variety and singularity that performance art had always meant for me as a viewer.

There are many interpretations and scholarly articles on the practice of reperformance, written by those who have experienced reperformances and those who have not. Mechtild Widrich, for example, seems to reiterate reperformer Levine’s idea that the act of reperformance is about duration (the term used by Levine) or temporality (the term used by Widrich):

What re-performance and re-enactment in all its kaleidoscopic options share is that we, no matter if we are part of the audience, ourselves re-enacting, or watching someone else re-perform a piece we once did, refer back in time and simultaneously forward.[12]

This quotation suggests that no matter what our agency and role in the practice of reperformance is, we all, via reperformance, refer to both the past and the future—that reperformance is about temporality. This sense of temporality might be experienced by and important for some of us, but not necessarily all of us, “us” meaning different agents in this practice of reperformance. My experience as a reperformer never was about temporality, never was related to “back in time and simultaneously forward.” What reperforming actually taught me has been totally opposite to what Widrich argues, namely that it actually matters who we are as agents in any given art practice. It is not possible that the same art practice means the same for all different kinds of agents participating in that practice. Furthermore, for me “changing places” from spectator to reperformer was never a complete change of places but was rather a state of flux. Despite the fact that the whole experience seemed unsatisfactory at first, it nevertheless became a treasured one, as it led to questions about the relationship of original performance to its reperformance and about the nature of this reproduction.



[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (Third Version),” in Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938–1940, ed. Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002), 254.

[2] Paula Orrell, ed., Marina Abramović and The Future of Performance Art (Munich: Prestel, 2010), 91–93, 95.

[3] Seven Easy Pieces, Guggenheim Museum, New York City, November 9–15, 2005. Marina Abramović et al., Seven Easy Pieces (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2007), 11.

[5] Thomas McEvilley, Ulay & Marina Abramović: Modus Vivendi 1980–1985 (Eindhoven: Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1985), 10.

[6] Marina Abramović and Ulay, “Imponderabilia,” in Performance by Artists, ed. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1979), 160.

[7] The LIMA website wrongly states that Point of Contact was performed in Dublin, Ireland, in summer 1980, whereas it was Rest Energy that was performed there at the “Rosc ’80” exhibition. See Anne Crookshank, ed., Rosc ’80: The Poetry of Vision. An International Exhibition of Modern Art and Chinese Painting (Dublin: Irish Printers, 1980), 20–21.

[8] Kristine Stiles, Klaus Biesenbach, and Chrissie Iles, Marina Abramović (London: Phaidon, 2008), 81.

[9] Cynthia Carr, “The Hard Way,” Village Voice, November 25, 1997, 69.

[10] Lydia Brawner, “The Artist Is Present: Performing the Icon,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 23, no. 2 (2013): 223.

[11] Jill Sigman, “On the Wall: Reflections on Being Present,” Contact Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2011): 24–25.

[12] Mechtild Widrich, “Is the ‘Re’ in Re-Enactment the ‘Re’ in Re-Performance?,” in Performing the Sentence: Research and Teaching in Performative Fine Arts, ed. Carola Dertnig and Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014), 138–47, 145–46.