Methods for Feeling

One of the benefits of moving to New York City is the constant outpour of art events going, and the magical realization that you’re not too far away from seeing a very big name you’re used to reading about but never really thought you could see first hand. I had a bit of that experience last month with Marina Abramović’s Goldberg, which was a performance designed by her but performed by the pianist Igor Levit. It was probably a weird choice for my first performance to attend, since it featured classical music and I don’t really know much about the genre outside of idly listening to it on NPR when I drove around the treacherous roads of South Florida.

This performance, or maybe, the performance of you getting ready for a performance, follows Marina’s latest projects with her institute, the Marina Abramović Institute, that center around readying the body for performance art. Her work is known for long and/or intense periods of endurance, and Goldberg was testing out her Method for Listening to Classical Music, which was getting yourself into that blank mindset to listen to a performance.

The setup was simple in hindsight, mostly locking away all of your possessions, especially your cellphone, sitting in a special lounging chair near the stage, and staying in silence until you find complete stillness. During this time, Igor was sitting at the piano in the back of the room, both on a platform that was moving very, very slowly forward. When he arrived completely to the front, he begun to play, with the platform rotating around, stopping when he finished. So this felt more like a performance added on to a concert the night I went to it, but as time goes on and I reflect on it, I see what was interesting about Marina’s Method as performance.

Whether the Method was successful or not is up in the air for me. The time when we all sat in silence, we wore supposedly noise-cancelling headphones, but they didn’t really silence the world so I could totally concentrate; there was a couple in front of me who kept signaling and talking to each other and the sirens of police cars and ambulances could still be heard, making this ideal mental stillness and silence feel pretty impossible for me, given that I have a lot of mental chatter in the first place. There were also a couple of times I started to doze and I know for sure someone behind me fell asleep from their breathing. Then, when Igor was playing, I heard classical music, and done well I imagine, but I’m near-ignorant of technique, so I couldn’t really tell if I was hearing anything better. I wasn’t particularly moved by it, but I could tell it was difficult by the way he played. The most fascinating parts for me during the night might have been incidental, mostly that there were times I closed my eyes without realizing it then opening them back up to see Igor and the piano in a different place. There was something interesting about the kinetic acknowledgment of time moving and the ephemera of the moment. I left feeling very plebeian, since everyone was a little more dressed up than I was (or, at least, my clothes are more street style), and enough older and affluent looking to feel like I was out of my element, that I couldn’t ‘get’ it.

I think the message of what Marina was trying to do got lost in the posturing of high culture for me, but it wasn’t all for naught. Allowing some time to process it, I realized what the performance was showing people was that we don’t take the time to fully appreciate things, intentionally getting into mindset and (dis)comfort zones that would reveal more of that experience to us. There was language around the performance that was specifically pointed at cellphones, and how everyone having them is changing relationships with art is a topic constantly making the rounds. In the pamphlet given after the show, there was even a description of an afterschool program where one of the students did a project about how cellphones absorb our attention instead of allowing ourselves to idle, intentionally idling being a thing Marina would support.

We’ve all read the ‘cellphones are ruining society!’ and ‘cellphones are connecting us to society!’ thinkpieces already, and we know the better argument is the current methods of how we connect to other people in this new way online distances us from connecting to people in physical proximity to us. We’re connecting, just with different people and the technology with which we use has its own politics that mediate that connection.

The interesting solution would then be something that allows us to critically engage with what is already in our lives and allow us to work with the negatives that come along with those. The idea of having a Method for something in your everyday life is a potentially useful tool; ultimately, it’s a ritual, with the intent of preparing you for an experience one way or another. I could imagine a Method for Meeting a Friend Over Coffee which would involve you shutting off your phone an hour before you meet, sitting somewhere nearby to think about the last conversation you had with this friend, your thoughts about them, things you want to say, and then arriving early to sit in stillness, waiting for them to arrive. Marina would probably have you keep your mind blank the entire time, but you get the idea.

Really, this form of performative ritual is playful in its roots, intentionally doing something so you’re put into a certain headspace for something else. I’m a huge advocate for play that doesn’t rest solely in a leisure capacity, I’d like play that entangles into my life and enriches my experience with those I care about. Performance art and play already have a legacy, and I think this is an interesting line of thought to follow for contemporary play artists to follow. There is also room to critique this performance as an attempt to have a “pure” artistic experience, and as evidenced with my experience, you couldn’t really shut out the city noise or human behavior. There was a lack of humanness in the experience, I feel play is an avenue to reinsert that humanity into engaging with art again.

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