Marina Abramović and Debbie Harry: NYPL Live 28 October 2016

I haven’t been to an event for Live from the NYPL at the main branch of the New York Public Library since December 2011. I did have tickets for three events in the fall/winter of 2012 but it looks like I never attended any of them, which is a shame. That was when I was recovering from pneumonia. Looking at the tickets they would have been interesting interviews. The events are usually an interview between an artist, performer, or writer and Paul Holdengräber, Director of NYPL’s Public Programming or a conversation between two artists, performers, writers – sometimes two people who are friends but work in different art forms. Last night’s event was a conversation between two friends – musician and punk rock icon Debbie Harry and Serbian “pioneer” performance artist Marina Abramović. Anyone familiar with the music of the late 1970s/1980s is familiar with Blondie, the group that Harry fronted and formed with her partner Chris Stein. Blondie blended punk, new wave, hip-hop, and ska and brought it to pop audiences. Abramović, active since the early1970s, is described as the “grandmother of performance art,” and “her work explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.” Since I’m a huge fan of Yoko Ono, I took some exception to this categorization of Abramović – Ono was doing Cut Piece in 1964. Abramović’s Rhythm 0 was in 1974.

I’d forgotten that they served food and beverages (including wine) in the Celeste Bartos Forum so when I got there, a lot of people were on line buying food and wine. I’d gotten there later than I’d wanted so many of the seats were taken or rows were already saved for friends. I got a seat near the back. When two women asked me to move over one so they could sit together, I refused. I would have to move to a seat behind either someone with a big head or someone very tall. They understood and found two seats together somewhere else. I didn’t care if the tall person or the person with the big head heard me. I was tired of going to events and not being able to see anything. When the event started, I noticed that the big screens on either side were not only being used for illustration but they had cameras pointed towards the stage so everyone could get a better view of the people on the stage.

After an introduction by Ruth Rosenfeld from the NYPL (Holdengräber, who is a delightful speaker, was unavailable), Abramović and Harry made their entrance. Abramović was dressed all in black, just like you’d expect an artist to dress, and Harry was all in red – a ruffled red shirt over another red shirt and (I think) red skirt with red patterned tights (or pants with cutouts on the side – difficult to tell from where I was) – just like you’d want a rock star to be dressed. Abramović started right up and pretty much carried the conversation. She was funny and the audience laughed a lot. She showed a film that they had made when they entered the library. They had to enter through a back door where the dumpsters were. So first Abramović is shown in front of the dumpsters, head down, being asked by Harry (off-camera) what she’s doing and being told by Abramović that she’s waiting for Debbie Harry. Then you see Harry doing the same thing with Abramović doing the off-camera question and Harry answering that she’s waiting for Marina Abramović. It was very funny. Then Abramović had them show a 4-minute film of a fundraising event at a museum in LA. In the old days, it was kings who sponsored artists. Now it’s the businessmen and banks who do the king’s job of supporting artists. At the event the men were in black tie and the women in fancy gowns – Abramović had them all put on lab coats (you can see a few women in attendance who did not comply) so they’re all the same. While they’re eating, people have just their heads sticking out of the tables. Then Abramović and other artists/students are reading about artists’ responsibilities while standing on top of the tables (“An artist should not fall in love with another artist”) and the crowd of businesspeople and actors/celebrities are either not getting it or maybe they are but they don’t look amused. They look mostly bored. Then Harry comes out, being carried on a litter by four men and there’s great applause and she catwalks up and down the tables singing “Heart of Glass” to people dancing and jumping up and down.

Harry asked Abramović why she decided to write a memoir (it was on sale and there was book signing after the conversation – all sales went to the NYPL) and Abramović said she was 70 and it was time. She had difficulty finding a collaborator. The first kept saying, “Oh, that’s just like me!” and Abramović knew she wouldn’t work. Others wanted her to tell her story chronologically and Abramović speaks in spirals. Eventually she found someone who understood her and could work with her. Abramović asked Harry about the rumors that she was working on her autobiography and Harry said she is about to. The difficult thing is that Harry didn’t keep diaries and she had trained herself to forget and so that’s what she did. Stein’s book used his photographs. Each time he looked at photo, memories would come flooding back. Abramović has all her diaries and said her 14-year-old self has the same emotions as she does now. The audience laughed. I found that a little sad. Harry said she’s feeling like she’s waiting for the next impetus to start work on the book. Abramović said some people in Belgrade were enraged about the way she wrote about the city. Their childhoods may have been happy or remembered as happy but she didn’t have the same experience. She found Belgrade sad and depressing – if they feel otherwise then they should write their own biography.

While they continued to talk, Abramović had them show a silent film – there was a caption crawling along the bottom that I couldn’t see. The film was Abramović talking to a donkey in (I think) Kenya and telling the donkey all her complaints (that’s what was captioned). She was kneeling in front of the donkey, who occasionally moved his ears, twitched his tail, or turned his head but never walked away for a few hours. Eventually he walked off – I think when she was done. But it was strange to see how much he seemed to be listening to her. Abramović said the donkey even moved his ears at the right moments.

Abramović asked Harry about her family and Harry said her family was conservative and strict and her mother thought that artists were no good. She was 18 or 19 when she left home and it was “deliciously scary.” At some point she met Timothy Leary, who was jolly and had bright blue eyes. His jolliness was in contrast to Harry, who was always depressed and angry. Abramović asked about drug taking and Harry said she didn’t really indulge. Abramović went to Amsterdam from Belgrade and she was completely lost because of the freedom – everything that she had been fighting against or for was now possible.

Abramović asked Harry if there was something her rational mind can’t explain and Harry said that being psychic was her specialty. Harry was serious. Later she told a story about being dead – feeling herself leave her body – and being taken over by another person. The man sitting across from her immediately recognized that person as his dead wife.

Abramović talked about having no tools to deal with the energy you have after a performance. It’s over and in the Western world there’s no way to take that energy and make it into something positive. Harry said it took her years to get to the point where she could relax with friends and some wine after a performance. Part of it was the routine after you’re finished because it’s the opposite of what you did to get ready – make-up, dressing, etc.

Abramović said it took years for her to be recognized and then you’re glorified, trashed, and called a sellout. Why does it always happen that way? Harry thought it may just be human nature.

At this point Abramović asked the audience to come to the mic and ask one question of Harry and one of her. She also asked for just people under 30. So at first no one got up. She asked again and there were chuckles in the audience but no one seemed to want to be the first. Eventually people started coming up – of all ages. And many of the questions were directed at Abramović – it was definitely her audience.

The first woman told Abramović they had a mutual friend, who Abramović said she certainly remembered. It appeared that he was an old beau. The woman handed Abramović a note from the mutual friend, which Abramović said she’d open later.

The first question was how did it feel to become famous. Abramović said she only ever wanted to make art. She’s been criticized for having three abortions because she only wanted to create art and she would have been a terrible mother. The first 20-30 years were bad but the last 15-20 years have been good. Her advice was to never say no and to believe in yourself. Simple yet not easy.

Abramović was asked what inspired her. She said she is not inspired by other artists because that artist was inspired by something else so your inspiration would be secondhand. She wants firsthand. Abramović said it’s important to be curious in life and not be afraid of what you don’t know. Go out into the world and experience. Buy milk 99 different ways – it’s a good exercise.

Finally, a question directed at Harry. A woman said her friend Chris couldn’t be there because of family health issues and he’s missed other Blondie/Harry appearances because of other things happening in his life. Chris is Harry’s biggest fan. Harry said that Chris is good name. This prompted Abramović to show two of her films about relationships. One had Abramović and a man with wide open mouths just screaming at each other. The other had Abramović holding the limb of a bow right at the center of the riser section. A man took an arrow and put it in the bow string and pulled back so that the arrow was aimed at her heart. They just stood there that way. The only sound was of their hearts beating. Abramović said that when asked why they didn’t reverse the piece, the man had answered, “Her heart is my heart.” Abramović asked Harry if she had ever had a broken heart and Harry said she had suffered from a broken heart. Abramović said she hates a broken heart because then they always have a piece of me.

The next question was how did they achieve success and what were they most proud of. Harry said you need tenacity, driving force, and obsession to achieve success. Abramović said she’s not proud of this yet because she hasn’t achieved it but it is the ability to forgive. She’s still learning.

Then at Abramović’s request they screened The Onion, where Abramović bites into a large onion (with the peel still on it) while there’s a voiceover narration of her complaints about her life. She had to film it three times because first the light was no good and then the sun was no good. She’s wearing red nail polish and red lipstick, which she claims was unusual for a female artist in the late 90s. Abramović is really biting into that onion and eating it – you can see her eyes tearing up as it gets more and more difficult to eat. This reminded Harry of The Onion Song, which she sang (“onions make you grow, grow, grow…you eat onions, they do the rest”).

A pianist said that she found both women inspirational and that lately she’d been writing bad music on purpose. It was full of dissonance and she didn’t enjoy playing it and her friends didn’t enjoy listening to it. She didn’t know why she was compelled to write it and she asked what should her relationship with her audience be. Harry said it was obviously a searching mechanism and that she didn’t have to share the music with her friends. Abramović reminded Harry that she’d said that she likes to play in front of an audience that doesn’t like her. Harry said yes, that it’s a lesson in how to reach an audience. Abramović advised the pianist to go home, take a hot bath, and sit in the quiet for three to five hours. You have to figure out what it is that you like to do.

Abramović then showed a photograph of herself that is dedicated to Saint Teresa de Ávila, who would float above the ground. Abramović is dressed in black, arms spread out and above the floor in a kitchen. Because of Abramović’s accent I didn’t catch if this was something she actually read in Teresa’s diary or imagined it as something from Teresa’s diary but the photograph was of Teresa after a long day and she wanted to make a pot of soup. But the divine force lifts her above the ground and she’s angry at the divine force because she’s hungry and the soup is burning on the stove. Harry asked Abramović if she’s ever been angry at the divine force and Abramović answered that she has not been, at least not yet. Harry said she has been frustrated with the divine force.

The next question was to Harry – “What was your favorite thing about NYC in the 1970s?” Harry said that it was dirty, chaotic, and full of energy. She quoted, “When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.”

“What was your very first experience of fear?” Abramović said it was right in her book – she was four years old and she and her grandmother were walking in the forest and she was reaching out to a bush when her grandmother screamed because she saw a snake. Abramović’s grandmother’s fear made her own fear grow.

A songwriter said he understood about frustration with divine force. He wanted to know how to create when you’re not heartbroken. Harry said you used observation and interaction of relationships. Abramović said she didn’t think anyone could do anything when they’re happy because why change when you’re in a state of happiness. She feels that heartbreak and suffering were good for creativity but not depression because that’s medical. The audience seemed to be in agreement but I couldn’t disagree more. People create despite their unhappiness not because of it. Just as people create despite their addictions not because of them.

The next question was how did they as strong women make it in male-dominated professions. Harry said she was expected to marry and raise a family, so to step out of that was traumatic. She was told several times to do something, so she turned around and did what she wanted. Abramović thought that was a great answer.

A man said he was a male version of Debbie Harry in his headbanging town. He asked her what it’s like to be a sex symbol. Harry said she didn’t know. She said Stein said it was difficult to walk down the street with her (before she was famous) because of all the stares. She never noticed it. Abramović said she did not have a good relationship with her ex the way that Harry did with Stein.

A woman asked for the best advice they could give to her 15-year-old daughter, who was currently wandering around the East Village. Harry said that’s a tough age and there’s a lot of pain you have to go through to discover yourself. Love is the big answer. And everyone is not going to love you. Abramović told the mother to send her to travel around the world and not to overprotect her. Leave her free. Both approved that she had left her daughter to explore on her own while the mother was at the NYPL.

Abramović looked at the line and decided it was too long and they would take two more questions. And that the people should talk among themselves and decide who had the best questions. Of course, that didn’t happen. The next person came up to the mic. “What do you do when you have an art block?” Abramović said that’s frightening and frustrating. Now, 50 years later, she knows it’s a phase and it will pass. She advised not to go to the studio – that was death because there are no ideas there. You need to take ideas that completely surprise you. An exercise she did with her students was to have them write down ideas. Good ideas would be saved and bad ideas would be thrown in the trash. Three months later, she ignored the good ideas and went through the trash because those would be the ideas that they were afraid of. She was not interested in the good ideas.

The final question was about the invisible world. Harry said it was automatic for her and necessary for her to have it, so she has it. “Were you in an altered state?” “You mean stoned?” Harry answered. The audience laughed. She said sometimes but not always. It gives you the freedom of relaxation. Harry said she believes that Abramović pushes herself (she had compared her to a marathoner earlier) because it releases her. Abramović said that not eating was a good way to get into that altered state. She had gone 16 days without eating but that was too long. Four to five days was plenty. Your mental state changes. Sitting for long periods of time also brings you to a tranquil state. People need to do exercises to stop thinking. The only time people are not thinking are when they sneeze and when they orgasm.

Harry said she’s in a preparatory state because she’s going to write a book. She wants to recapture the state she was in during the 1970s. Abramović said the 70s were good because you made art to make art. Harry said the 60s too, because of the happenings. (People always think the time of their youth and when they began were the best time.) Abramović said it’s important not to waste the last period of your life and you should give your knowledge to the next generation. Now was the time for them to give back. “Okay!” said Harry and they were done.




By Carene Lydia Lopez