Here is the full transcript of performance artist Marina Abramović’s Talk: An Art Made of Trust, Vulnerability and Connection at TED conference.
Now let’s go back in time. It’s 1974. There is the gallery somewhere in the world, and there is a young girl, age 23, standing in the middle of the space. In the front of her is a table.
On the table there are 76 objects for pleasure and for pain. Some of the objects are a glass of water, a coat, a shoe, a rose. But also the knife, the razor blade, the hammer and the pistol with one bullet. There are instructions which say, “I’m an object. You can use everything on the table on me. I’m taking all responsibility — even killing me. And the time is six hours.”
The beginning of this performance was easy. People would give me the glass of water to drink, they’d give me the rose. But very soon after, there was a man who took the scissors and cut my clothes, and then they took the thorns of the rose and stuck them in my stomach.
Somebody took the razor blade and cut my neck and drank the blood, and I still have the scar. The women would tell the men what to do. And the men didn’t rape me because it was just a normal opening, and it was all public, and they were with their wives. They carried me around and put me on the table, and put the knife between my legs. And somebody took the pistol and bullet and put it against my temple.
And another person took the pistol and they started a fight. And after six hours were finished, I started walking towards the public.
I was a mess. I was half-naked, I was full of blood and tears were running down my face. And everybody escaped, they just ran away. They could not confront myself, with myself as a normal human being.
And then — what happened is I went to the hotel, it was at two in the morning. And I looked at myself in the mirror, and I had a piece of gray hair. All right — please take off your blindfolds.
Welcome to the performance world. First of all, let’s explain what the performance is. So many artists, so many different explanations, but my explanation for performance is very simple.
Performance is a mental and physical construction that the performer makes in a specific time in a space in front of an audience and then energy dialogue happens. The audience and the performer make the piece together.
And the difference between performance and theater is huge. In the theater, the knife is not a knife and the blood is just ketchup. In the performance, the blood is the material, and the razor blade or knife is the tool.
It’s all about being there in the real time, and you can’t rehearse performance, because you can’t do many of these types of things twice — ever. Which is very important, the performance is — you know, all human beings are always afraid of very simple things. We’re afraid of suffering, we’re afraid of pain, we’re afraid of mortality.
So what I’m doing — I’m staging these kinds of fears in front of the audience. I’m using your energy, and with this energy I can go and push my body as far as I can.
And then I liberate myself from these fears. And I’m your mirror. If I can do this for myself, you can do it for you. After Belgrade, where I was born, I went to Amsterdam. And you know, I’ve been doing performances since the last 40 years.
And here I met Ulay, and he was the person I actually fell in love with. And we made, for 12 years, performances together. You know the knife and the pistols and the bullets, I exchange into love and trust.
So to do this kind work you have to trust the person completely because this arrow is pointing to my heart. So, heart beating and adrenaline is rushing and so on, is about trust, is about total trust to another human being.
Our relationship was 12 years, and we worked on so many subjects, both male and female energy. And as every relationship comes to an end, ours went too. We didn’t make phone calls like normal human beings do and say, you know, “This is over.” We walked the Great Wall of China to say goodbye. I started at the Yellow Sea, and he started from the Gobi Desert.
We walked, each of us, three months, two and a half thousand kilometers. It was the mountains, it was difficult. It was climbing, it was ruins. It was, you know, going through the 12 Chinese provinces, this was before China was open in ’87. And we succeeded to meet in the middle to say goodbye.
And then our relationship stopped. And now, it completely changed how I see the public. And one very important piece I made in those days was “Balkan Baroque.” And this was the time of the Balkan Wars, and I wanted to create some very strong, charismatic image, something that could serve for any war at any time, because the Balkan Wars are now finished, but there’s always some war, somewhere.
So here I am washing two and a half thousand dead, big, bloody cow bones. You can’t wash the blood, you never can wash shame off the wars. So I’m washing this six hours, six days, and wars are coming off these bones, and becoming possible — an unbearable smell.
But then something stays in the memory. I want to show you the one who really changed my life, and this was the performance in MoMa, which I just recently made. This performance — when I said to the curator, “I’m just going to sit at the chair, and there will be an empty chair at the front, and anybody from the public can come and sit as long as they want.”
The curator said to me, “That’s ridiculous, you know, this is New York, this chair will be empty, nobody has time to sit in front of you.”
But I sit for three months. And I sit everyday, eight hours — the opening of the museum — and 10 hours on Friday when the museum is open 10 hours, and I never move. And I removed the table and I’m still sitting, and this changed everything. This performance, maybe 10 or 15 years ago — nothing would have happened.
But the need of people to actually experience something different, the public was not anymore the group — relation was one to one. I was watching these people, they would come and sit in front of me, but they would have to wait for hours and hours and hours to get to this position, and finally, they sit.
And what happened? They are observed by the other people, they’re photographed, they’re filmed by the camera, they’re observed by me and they have nowhere to escape except in themselves. And that makes a difference. There was so much pain and loneliness, there’s so much incredible things when you look in somebody else’s eyes, because in the gaze with that total stranger, that you never even say one word — everything happened.
And I understood when I stood up from that chair after three months, I am not the same anymore. And I understood that I have a very strong mission, that I have to communicate this experience to everybody. And this is how, for me, was born the idea to have an institute of immaterial performing arts. Because thinking about immateriality, performance is time-based art. It’s not like a painting.
You have the painting on the wall, the next day it’s there. Performance, if you are missing it, you only have the memory, or the story of somebody else telling you, but you actually missed the whole thing. So you have to be there.
And in my point, if you talk about immaterial art, music is the highest — absolutely highest art of all, because it’s the most immaterial. And then after this is performance, and then everything else.
That’s my subjective way. This institute is going to happen in Hudson, upstate New York, and we are trying to build with Rem Koolhaas, an idea. And it’s very simple. If you want to get experience, you have to give me your time. You have to sign the contract before you enter the building, that you will spend there a full six hours, you have to give me your word of honor.
It’s something so old-fashioned, but if you don’t respect your own word of honor and you leave before — that’s not my problem. But it’s six hours, the experience. And then after you finish, you get a certificate of accomplishment, so get home and frame it if you want. This is orientation hall. The public comes in, and the first thing you have to do is dress in lab coats.
It’s this importance of stepping from being just a viewer into experimenter. And then you go to the lockers and you put your watch, your iPhone, your iPod, your computer and everything digital, electronic. And you are getting free time for yourself for the first time. Because there is nothing wrong with technology, our approach to technology is wrong. We are losing the time we have for ourselves.
This is an institute to actually give you back this time. So what you do here, first you start slow walking, you start slowing down. You’re going back to simplicity. After slow walking, you’re going to learn how to drink water — very simple, drinking water for maybe half an hour. After this, you’re going to the magnet chamber, where you’re going to create some magnet streams on your body.
Then after this, you go to crystal chamber. After crystal chamber, you go to eye-gazing chamber, after eye-gazing chamber, you go to a chamber where you are lying down. So it’s the three basic positions of the human body, sitting, standing and lying. And slow walking. And there is a sound chamber.
And then after you’ve seen all of this, and prepared yourself mentally and physically, then you are ready to see something with a long duration, like in immaterial art. It can be music, it can be opera, it can be a theater piece, it can be film, it can be video dance. You go to the long duration chairs because now you are comfortable.
In the long duration chairs, you’re transported to the big place where you’re going to see the work. And if you fall asleep, which is very possible because it’s been a long day, you’re going to be transported to the parking lot.
And you know, sleeping is very important. In sleeping, you’re still receiving art. So in the parking lot you stay for a certain amount of time, and then after this you just, you know, go back, you see more of the things you like to see or go home with your certificate.
So this institute right now is virtual. Right now, I am just making my institute in Brazil, then it’s going to be in Australia, then it’s coming here, to Canada and everywhere.
And this is to experience a kind of simple method, how you go back to simplicity in your own life. Counting rice will be another thing. You know, if you count rice you can make life, too. How to count rice for six hours? It’s incredibly important. You know, you go through this whole range of being bored, being angry, being completely frustrated, not finishing the amount of rice you’re counting.
And then this unbelievable amount of peace you get when satisfying work is finished — or counting sand in the desert. Or having the sound-isolated situation — that you have headphones, that you don’t hear anything, and you’re just there together without sound, with the people experiencing silence, just the simple silence.
We are always doing things we like in our life. And this is why you’re not changing. You do things in life — it’s just nothing happens if you always do things the same way.
But my method is to do things I’m afraid of, the things I fear, the things I don’t know, to go to territory that nobody’s ever been. And then also to include the failure. I think failure is important because if you go, if you experiment, you can fail. If you don’t go into that area and you don’t fail, you are actually repeating yourself over and over again.
And I think that human beings right now need a change, and the only change to be made is a personal level change.
You have to make the change on yourself. Because the only way to change consciousness and to change the world around us, is to start with yourself. It’s so easy to criticize how it’s different, the things in the world and they’re not right, and the governments are corrupted and there’s hunger in the world and there’s wars — the killing.
But what we do on the personal level — what is our contribution to this whole thing? Can you turn to your neighbor, the one you don’t know, and look at them for two full minutes in their eyes, right now? I’m asking two minutes of your time, that’s so little. Breathe slowly, don’t try to blink, don’t be self-conscious.
Be relaxed. And just look a complete stranger in your eyes, in his eyes. Thank you for trusting me.
Chris Anderson: Thank you. Thank you so much.Multi-Page