A Conversation, A Manifesto, An Experience

Written by  Amie Tullius

Marilyn Arsem once stood in the rain holding 40 liters of peppermint ice cream for eight hours. Another time, she spent a day rolling in long strands of seaweed until her body was covered and entangled. Arsem is an American pioneer in performance art who has been teaching performance art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for over 20 years.

Her work has taken her all over the world, with recent performances in Indonesia, Chile, Uruguay, and Taiwan. This month Utah has the rare opportunity to experience Ar­sem's work. She will be speaking at the University of Utah as well as creating a durational performance at downtown Salt Lake's Nox Contem­porary Gallery.

Arsem has an openness and curiosity in her demeanor, and as we speak I get the sense that she is taking me in, perhaps learning as much about me from my questions as I am her from her answers. She spoke with me from her office in Boston about her work, the nature of performance art, and what the audience might expect from her upcoming performance. I've excerpted her piece Manifesto: THIS is Perfor­mance Art throughout the article. tulliusI Scream, durational performance by Marilyn Arsem at ‘Live Action Goteborg’, Goteborg, Sweden, May 2011. Photo by He Chengyao

Performance art is now

When I ask Marilyn Arsem if she can give us an idea of what to expect for her performance at Nox she laughs and says, "Ah... nope." And then explains, "I tend to wait until I arrive at a location before I decide what I'm going to do. In some cases I've done some research on the politics or history of the location, but I'm much more interested in trying to respond to what I find there at the point at which I arrive."

Performance art's manifestation and outcome cannot be known in advance

"What the work ends up being," she says, "is more of a process of engagement. It's not about making statements, it's more about asking questions, or discovering something, or really examining a particular topic or concern."

Performance art is real

Through our interview, Arsem describes several past performances. She paints the scene, describing colors, textures, the weather that day. She tells the story from the perspective of herself as the performer, as well as the perspective of the viewer. She switches nimbly from subject to object, describing herself as a work of art, and then describing what the experience was like for her, and then telling about reactions from the audience. As she talks I start to see her reluctance to explain her work to me, instead she tries to make it as real for me as possible so I can begin to understand it for myself. The performances she describes are widely varied and contrasting experiences which, instead of giving me a sense of what to expect from her upcoming performance, leave me with no idea of what to expect at all. But they leave me very curious.

Performance art requires risk

"Risk comes in a lot of ways," Marilyn Arsem says.

The artists take physical risks using their bodies

"I did a performance in Scotland where I lay under three tons of earth for eight hours. All three tons weren't directly on my body, but I was buried alive. You walked into the greenhouse, all you saw was this big pile of dirt. And you would hear my voice... but if you got closer, you could actually see the ground rising and falling from my breathing."

The artists take psychic risks as they confront their limits

"I had my voice amplified. I had a microphone. I didn't talk as much as I expected. I was really afraid that I would have a panic attack. Right at the very end of the eight hours I started listing everything that I was afraid of. One of the last ones was 'I'm afraid of being buried alive.'"

Performance art is not an investment object

Fortunately for Utah, the purpose of Nox Contemporary is not to make money. Owner/director John Sproul said that when he started the gallery, it was because the community needed such a venue—a place to show artists that were really great, but not necessarily commercially viable. A lover of performance art, Sproul jumped at the opportunity to host Marilyn Arsem.

Performance art is experience— shared time and space and actions between people

The performance involving ice cream was in the courtyard of a museum in Sweden. As is her method, Arsem didn't plan the performance ahead of time. When she got to the site, she let the situation determine her work. "We walked in the yard and looked up," she says, "and this Atmosfear (f-e-a-r) freefall ride—the tallest one in Europe—was looming over the courtyard of the museum, and every five minutes you would just hear screaming." It wasn't an attraction that the museum advertised on its website.

"So I said: Okay, I want to be holding an armload of ice cream, and I'm going to stand out here for the entire evening of the festival... and every time the ride falls I'm going to scream with it."

The record of performance art resides in the bodies of the artist and the witnesses

She got 40 liters of pink peppermint ice cream. "It was a nice rainy, misty night, so everything was melting down my front, which is what I had hoped, and I just stood there and screamed." The audience, she tells me, would go into the museum, look at the collection, then come back out to see how Arsem was doing. Some people even screamed with her.

The story had come from a question I asked about the performances involving risk for the audience as well.

"Well," Arsem continues, "finally someone in the audience sort of crept forward and said [whispering], 'can we have some ice cream? Can we taste it?' And I said, Sure! So people started licking it."

Performance art is ephemeral

Aesthetics run like nerves through this woman who has spent her career using her body as an instrument of art. In the end, in a sudden intuitive tangent, she paints for me an image of a performance that beautifully concludes our conversation.

Performance art reminds us that life is fleeting

"I did a piece last year in Germany," she tells me, "where I walked backward until I disappeared."

"I brought the audience outside," she continues, "I greeted them and said, 'I'm going to have to leave now, and, I'm sorry, but you can't follow me.' And I started walking backward. I was planting a line of red poppy seeds— so next year, hopefully, they'll grow, and you'll see a line across this landscape, of red flowers. The audience would go and see [other] performance[s] in the building, and then they'd come back out again to the same spot, and I'd be further away."

We are only here now.

"I was wearing a red dress against this lush green field. And I just kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Until I disappeared."

More of Marilyn
Lecture: Marilyn Arsem on the Nature of Durational Performance Art—Fri., Nov. 9, 5pm, U of U, Art Department, Room 158.
Performance: Marking Time—Sat., Nov. 10, NOX Contem­po­rary (444 S. 400 W.) 10am-6pm. Come all day, or drop in as many times as you like over the course of the day to see the progression of the work. {Witnesses are privy to a unique experience that will never happen again.}
The full version of "Manifesto: THIS is Performance Art" can be found at: www.infractionvenice.org/this-is-performance-art.html

 

Risk, Engagement, and the Extended Present Moment
The Full Interview With Durational Performance Artist Marilyn Arsem
by Amie Tullius

Marilyn Arsem is an American pioneer in performance art who has been teaching performance art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for over 20 years. Her work has taken her all over the world, with recent performances in Indonesia, Chile, Uruguay, and Taiwan. This month Utah has the rare opportunity to experience Arsem's work. She will be speaking at the University of Utah as well as creating a durational performance at Nox Contemporary. Arsem spoke with Catalyst arts writer Amie Tullius by phone from her office in Boston.

Catalyst: From my reading I gather that you were pioneering in the discipline of performance art-- did you come to performance art from another form of visual art, or from a different discipline altogether?

Marilyn Arsem: Well, at the time I started doing performance art I had studied some of everything. I had started out painting, and studied music, but I started doing performance art in high school. My friends and I did happenings, because we were reading about them. This was in the sixties. I also was involved in music and dance and I did some experimental theater, as well as visual art. But it was really performance art that was most satisfying. Or, I would say that it allowed me to examine the things I was really interested in examining: aspects of time, working with real time, engaging the viewer in different ways. I was interested in working in materials-- really sculptural materials. I was interested in context, and performance art was a place and had an audience that responded to that kind of work. I wasn't interested in character, or narrative, or storytelling, which is really the theater direction, I was much more interested in the sculptural and visual.

C: Does the work become somehow more universal when it's in a gallery (as opposed to an outdoor site) and less related to the site?

MA: It actually is a site. It's a gallery. It's intended to be neutral, but it's not: it's a gallery. And it has it's own set of rules that people follow when they enter it. It generally is painted white, which has it's own impact. Anything you do in it gets viewed as art-- there can be no mistaking that it can be anything but art. Whereas when you're doing something outdoors you often have people encounter the work and they don't necessarily assume immediately that you're engaged in artmaking. You know, you can play with those kinds of realities in an outdoor location.

I can't ignore what gallery-ness implies, and what it makes people feel, and do, so I have to work in it. Like working in any site, it carries its own information.

C: One of the lines of your manifesto (Manifesto: THIS is Performance Art. http://www.infractionvenice.org/this-is-performance-art.html) is: "Performance art's manifestation and outcome cannot be known in advance." How much preparation goes into a piece, and how much is spontaneous in the moment?

MA: I'm most interested in designing work that sets a process in motion, and giving enough space and time for it to go where it needs to go. You can make certain assumptions about how materials behave, or what happens when you get more and more tired. But if you include the audience as a part of it, you can't predict that. So you-- you meaning I-- you need to be really alert and be present, and be able to include what happens or take it into account and work with it. Even if I have a starting point, I try to make it open-ended enough so that I can respond to what happens.

C: Can you tell me in a very broad way what viewers can expect from the performance?

MA: Ah...nope. I'm still thinking.

I tend to wait until I arrive at a location before I decide what I'm going to do. In some cases I've done some research on the politics or history of the location, but I'm much more interested in trying to respond to what I find there at the point at which I arrive. It is looking, talking to people, just seeing, seeing what's happening. Part of the reason I started doing that is that I realized that if I prepared a work here in Boston-- and, you know, this is because I travel a lot. I go halfway around the world, and when you bring a prepared work you spend all your time trying to get the place to conform to, well, what I know in Boston. If I needed particular equipment, or a certain kind of material, I'd be in a situation where I'd be asking the organizers to get certain things for me that they might not have. And at the same time I'd be essentially ignoring what was there. And so it seemed much more interesting and a much more intense experience to have to really pay attention to where I am and what I find there. And to really pay attention to my frame of mind right in that moment and try to create a work that is a response or a conversation between who and where I am and the place I'm encountering.

What the work ends up being is more of a process of engagement. It's not about making statements, it's more about asking questions, or discovering something, or really examining a particular topic or concern.

C: So you won't know what you're doing until shortly before you're performing it?

Actually, I did a performance in Sweden this summer when I changed my plan in the middle of it. I was sitting at a picnic table on a public pier on the lake. I had brought a certain set of materials and then I began performing. I was working with nothing initially, and I was just at the table, and I did this thing where I was holding my hands out over the table... and I would say that what it led me to is an emotional state, a mental state, where as I thought about the materials that were sitting by my knee under the table, less and less did it seem that those should be the materials that I work with. I had these manufactured wooden balls, and they just didn't seem right.

I arrived the day before we were performing. This is a typical structure in festivals. I arrived the day before, looked at the site, asked questions about how the public engaged with it, asked about the town, and learned that it's the largest interior lake in Sweden and there's a lot of summer activity in this town. (I'm being a bit light right now, but usually I'm agonizing over it and really panicked-- but that's how I always work.) So, I thought and I thought and I thought, and I went around to all the shops and found these balls. But once I started the performance, they were just not right. A little too manufactured. It was in a much more open mental space that the balls didn't fit.

There was someone else performing, so all the attention was elsewhere. And one of the people that was assisting was standing right near me, so I turned to her, and I said, "Can you go get me fifteen stones?"

And she went to the parking lot [laughs] I'd shown her basically the size I wanted. So she went and got me some, and brought them back and put them down on the bench. And eventually I started working with stones. So, very natural material. They had dust and sand on them, so there were other textures. It was a kind of universe that I was creating on the surface of this table. I'd put down black paper, so you really saw the stones and their shadows and the dust that came off of them and then blew in the wind. Really clearly. It was a kind of painting, as I moved them around. Or sculpture, rather.

I don't often change my mind in the middle of a performance, that's a little scary. Ironically, when I went back and looked at my notes about what I was thinking about in terms of what I would do in that location, I realized that one of the first things I'd written down was: "I should work with stone."

C: I was going to ask you about the nature of risk, because you talk about that in the manifesto-- and if you had a sense of some of the sense of risk that might be involved in the performance at Nox Contemporary... but it seems that the risk is almost built in.

MA: The risk is built in. I could fail miserably.

Risk comes in a lot of ways. I mean, there's some physical risk that people take. My work is more about psychic risk. Alastair MacLennan, who is a performance artist in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was talking about risk, and the levels of risk that are really subtle-- not the really sensational ones, but the ones that are really the result of time, or trying to do something that's very precarious in one way or another. And it's not nearly so dramatic, but if you pay attention it's certainly there.

I did a performance in Scotland where I lay under three tons of earth for eight hours. All three tons weren't directly on my body, but I was buried alive.

I had my voice amplified. I had a microphone. I was in a greenhouse-- I was wintering over!-- and so there were speakers right when you came in and I, I didn't talk as much as I expected. I was really afraid that I would have a total panic attack. You walked into the greenhouse, all you saw was this big pile of dirt. And you would hear my voice-- maybe-- like I said I wasn't talking constantly, but if you got closer, you could actually see the ground rising and falling from my breathing.

Some people came in and it was like, oh, yeah, big deal.

And then other people came in and thought about what the experience actually would be, underneath, and felt it differently, felt it in their own body.

It was a very scary performance.

Right at the very end of the eight hours I started listing everything that I was afraid of. I one of the last ones was "I'm afraid of being buried alive." It was really, really hard to do. But very subtle piece.

C: In that piece, how long were you there before deciding that that was the right way to go?

Actually, this was a rare one where the festival, because of their legal paperwork asked me to make a decision ahead of time. And they named the sites I could work in, and one of them was a greenhouse. And I thought, "Ok! I'll winter over in the greenhouse for a day." And I, in my mind, fantasized that it was one of those beautiful Victorian moss-covered old glass greenhouses. By the time they finally sent me a picture, I realized it was an 8'x10' plastic greenhouse on a cement slab. So it was a very generic greenhouse. It was still a greenhouse, and it was out in the garden, so that part was fine.

C: I think that people will be very curious about how to approach the performance. It's from 10am to 6pm: how long should they stay? Are there any conventions for experiencing performance art that viewers should be aware of?

One of the aspects of durational performance that I think is most interesting is that it seems to be more similar to, say, installation work, in that it's often designed so that audiences can come at one time, leave and come back later. And certainly much durational work has a cumulative impact on the person doing it, as well as the people witnessing it. So, the longer you are there, the more that you might see. And for the performer, the action is often impacted by the accumulation of time. And one's body is affected by that extension of time as well. So what it is at the very beginning is quite different from what it is at the very end. And that is part of the pleasure of durational work-- that you give enough time for something to really happen, to change. For some process to unfold in its own way and in its own time.

I guess in general, what I might say about an audience and what they might expect: I think what is true is that every artwork has its own structure, and inherent to that some set of...mmm... I would say rules. Some kind of assumption about the action, and assumption about the viewer. It often means that a viewer needs to pay attention to what is there, and not assume...

...you know, like when you go to the theater--I'm interrupting myself here-- but when you go to the theater you know a certain set of things: you know you're supposed to sit in the seats; you know you're supposed to be quiet; you know that the lights will get dark, and then that something will start happening up there on the other side of the room. And there's a set of conventions for behavior.

When you work in an open space, or outdoors, in performance, it's not following a conventional set of rules. But that doesn't mean that there are no rules, or no structure. It means that the audience really has to take the time to discover it. And then I think that they know what they need to do.

C: That seems like a level of risk for the audience.

I've seen audiences consult with each other about whether they thought it was ok to do something. Or they wait for someone brave to take that one little toe step forward.

I don't know if you saw that picture on the website of me holding 40 liters of peppermint ice cream in my arms?

C: Yes!

That's a really good example: sitting here in Boston, looking at the website for this museum, they don't put on their website that there's an amusement park adjacent to the museum, whose screaming from the freefall ride permeates the entire museum.

It wasn't until I got there, and we went to look at the museum (straight off the airplane, I need to see the space immediately). So we walked in the yard, and looked up, and this Atmosfear (f-e-a-r) freefall ride--the tallest one in Europe--was just looming over the courtyard of the museum, and every five minutes you would just hear screaming. So I said: ok, I want to be holding an armload of ice cream, and I'm going to stand out here for the entire evening of the festival--because there were other performances inside-- and every time the ride falls I'm going to scream with it.

It was a nice rainy, misty night, so everything was melting down my front, which is what I had hoped, and I just stood there and screamed.

Well, finally someone in the audience sort of crept forward and said [whispering], "Can we have some ice cream? Can we taste it?"

And I said, Sure!

So people started licking it.

It took me days before I put two and two together to realize that I'd chosen ice cream: I scream. I just went with my immediate image, I didn't try to second-guess myself, I just said: Ok, I'm going to hold an armload of ice cream. I chose peppermint to soothe my throat. But I also knew that peppermint would be pink or green, which seemed like a much better choice than brown melting down the front of me. A little more festive.

Someone from the audience came up to me while I was doing the piece and said, "Interesting: food on the top, and shit on the bottom, and it didn't even go through your body." It just melted down the front of me. It was really pretty disgusting.

C: It sounds very intense. On many levels.

MA: Yeah. It was. But, that's a really good example. I would not have thought of that piece, sitting here in Boston. And you know, by leaving it open that way I paid attention to what the context was, and worked from it. So the audience went in to see work [inside the museum], came back to check my progress [laughs], sit in the rain with me, and screamed with me, sometimes.

C: I guess the last question I have-- I thought it would be nice to encourage people to come to the lecture. Just a taste of what's in store in talking about durational performance.

I think that time is often overlooked in artwork, in visual artwork. Even though conservationists are always dealing with the effects of time on objects-- trying to either deny it, or debate at what level they are going to restore the work, whether they are going to restore it all the way back to its original version... Time really does impact everything we do, and yet we're often trying to disallow it. All performance has a time element, and yet, often, the time is a comfortable length. So I would suggest that durational performance is about an uncomfortable length of time, either for the artist or the viewer.

So really the lecture will be about what time does to not just the artist making the work, but also the viewer witnessing it.

C: I'm hoping now to get a longer version of the interview on the website, I'd love for people to hear whole ice cream story.

I did a performance last summer in Germany where I walked backward until I disappeared. I brought the audience out and greeted them and I said, "I'm going to have to leave now, and, I'm sorry, but you can't follow me." And I started walking backward. I was planting a line of red poppy seeds, so next year, hopefully, they'll grow, and you'll see a line across this landscape, of red flowers. It was a situation, again, where there were other performances in the building, so the audience would go and see another performance in the building, and then they'd come back out again, to the same spot, and I'd be further away. I was wearing a red dress against this lush green field. And I just kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Until I disappeared.

You can see Marilyn Arsem's Lecture on the Nature of Durational Performance Art, Friday, November 9, 2012 at 5:00 PM, Room 158 at the University of Utah's Art Department.

Her performance, Marking Time, will be Saturday, November 10, 2012 at NOX Contemporary (444 S. 400 W.) from 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM. Please feel free to come all day, or drop in as many times as you like over the course of the day to see the progression of the work.

Amie Tullius is Director of Sales at J GO Gallery and has been a frequent arts writer for Catalyst.

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