On Marina Abramovic’s Performance Art Boot Camp, Merchandising

Abramovic. (The New York Observer)

Abramovic. (The New York Observer)

This past Sunday, MoMA PS1 hosted a talk by Marina Abramovic  inside the top-floor post-apocalyptic space designed for “Expo 1” by Adrián Villar Rojas.

Ms. Abramovic began by talking about teaching and her “cleaning the house” workshop: pretty much the performance-art equivalent of boot camp. “You have to go through some training if you want to perform,” she said firmly. For these five-day retreats, Ms. Abramovic would bring her disciples to places chosen for their extreme temperatures. “Always too cold or too hot. As the Sufis say, ‘The worst is the best.'”

What’s involved in her training workshop? “They have to be naked straight out of the bed and go do different exercises which I learned through my crazy nomadic life,” she said. The students did not speak. They didn’t eat anything except herbal tea and water (“mostly water,” she emphasized). They took eight-hour walks. They opened and closed doors and stared at primary colors for hours. They swam in the ocean, in Denmark, in January at dawn. One day is devoted to moving entirely in slow motion, which, unsurprisingly, poses certain challenges. “The very difficult thing is go to toilet slow motion, like peeing slow motion,” said Ms. Abramovic. “That’s not easy, but it’s possible.”

She flew through slides of past works, arriving at what will be the culmination of her career: the Marina Abramovic Institute that she is building in Hudson, N.Y. The artist lit up discussing the lab coats and noise-canceling headphones visitors will wear, the levitation chamber they will visit, and it was hard to reconcile this Marina Abramovic—cracking jokes, interrupting herself out of excitement—with the regal, stony presence she adopts in performances.

Though the website says the Institute is scheduled to open in 2015, Ms. Abramovic and Siena Oristaglio, director of social media for MAI, said the date will largely depend on when they raise the necessary money. While it’s hard to picture the performance-art matriarch flacking, she’s deep in the fundraising fray. For starters, she has engaged the services of Pippin Barr, who created an 8-bit online video game version of The Artist Is Present back in 2011. In the game, players walk through MoMA, past pixelated paintings like Starry Night (1889) and wait in line for hours to sit across from a pixelated Marina Abramovic.

The game proved to be the one endurance test Ms. Abramovic—who sat in the museum for 736 hours—couldn’t take. “I tried to wait in the line to sit with myself so many times, but I was always being kicked out of line,” she said. (If you don’t move forward when the line does, presumably because you’re doing something else with your life than monitoring your place in a virtual queue, you get bounced out.) Mr. Barr is currently creating a virtual version of the Institute, where players can make actual donations when they buy their tickets.

Additionally, Ms. Abramovic will raise money through a product line (it was only a matter of time!) that will include water glasses with instructions on how to drink the water, pencils and umbrellas. MAI prototypes, like the seven-chamber pop-up version that appeared at the Luminato Festival in Toronto in June, will also be used to generate revenue.

The question and answer session generated some juicy comments (though a portion of them are unfortunately absent from MoMA PS1’s recording of the talk).

“Your profile has increased enormously,” said a young man wearing cut-off shorts, who asked Ms. Abramovic to reflect on “the positive and maybe some of the not-so-positive aspects of…beginning to approach celebrity status.”

She focused on the positive. “If you are a young artist this hurts you and destroys you like an overdose of drug,” she said. “You think you’re a genius and just die. It doesn’t happen to me.”

Mr. Biesenbach wrapped up the talk by thanking Ms. Abramovic and telling stories about her involvement with MoMA PS1, including one heated board meeting that she attended. “I was sure you were going to get me fired,” he said, “because you made every trustee look into the every other trustees’ eyes for 10 minutes and then scream.”

After the talk, I asked Ms. Abramovic about her experience with Jay-Z. “It was insane!” she exclaimed, “I went to the countryside right away.”

On Marina Abramovic’s Performance Art Boot Camp, Merchandising