Marina Abramovic interviews Praxis

Marina Abramovic interviews Praxis (Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey)

Sitting in a small café in SOHO, New York City, winter, 2003

Marina Abramovic: I like the adoption project and would like to be adopted! My family life was so difficult, my mother never kissed me, and I never had any good relationship to my family, so I was thinking maybe you should adopt me.

Brainard Carey: Well, we can solve that! We have to create adoption papers, which we can do after this conversation.

Abramovic: That’s very interesting. I really love it. So, how did it all go, the adoption project?

Delia Bajo: It is an ongoing project, but it has gone very well so far. We continue to poster the city with our notice of adoption, and people keep calling. We have had dozens of conversations with people who are interested in adopting us as well as people like yourself who want to be adopted. For those who want to adopt us, we first have to explain what we do and who we are. Many times people reach us through our website, and by contacting us we can arrange adoption.

Abramovic: How does the adoption process work?

Carey: Well, people ask about being adopted because they have either seen our sign which says, -Adopt An Artist-, or they have been to our website. Often people just ask what it is. We explain that is it a process by which you may ask to be adopted by Praxis or you can adopt Praxis or both. In other words, you could end up being your own grandma! If people are interested, it doesn’t cost anything, it is an agreed-to arrangement between us and them that says you are now adopted and we see our goal as adoptive parents to be encouraging to any direction or dream, to offer hope if possible. As more people become adopted, the family grows and we have annual family picnics where everyone gets together.

Abramovic: All your work is very ephemeral. I mean the performance of miracles, adoption, the New Economy, all of it. If you were to have a museum retrospective, how would it look?

Bajo: A museum retrospective, yes, I think walking into it would feel like you are entering someone’s body through a vein, their bloodstream, and as you traveled through the exhibition you would have the sense that you are a surgeon working on a friend and you would be careful, and a little bit scared because what you do will have a great impact. People will leave the exhibit thinking they have accomplished something. The objects and films that we would show will be understood as the imaginings of two bodies working together to find a new paradigm for living and working. It would seem like an insane proposition and a divine one at the same time. Perhaps a new form of anarchy.

Abramovic: Let’s talk more about the adopt an artist project, how would you exhibit that?

Bajo: In the adoption project we are documenting phone conversations and in the end we will create a sound work. Of course there is also family gatherings and picnics and we would document that as most families would, with photographs and videos.

Abramovic: And the New Economy, the hug, footwashing and bandages?

Carey: Well, when I think of what Delia was just saying about an exhibit looking like surgery from the inside, that makes sense to me. The New Economy and all its actions would not be represented by documents in the normal sense. Somehow we would create a situation where the viewer is actually discussing the New Economy and analyzing it without being obvious or academic. Something like learning a new language through a conversation.

Abramovic: I would like to bring back your work to show my students. I think it would be very interesting to talk to them about. What I like about these pieces is the intimacy involved and the really personal contact is so direct. You have a general public but you separate them one by one, it is not like dealing with the unknown mass of the public, it is a person to person contact and that is very important. You are making a book now, what will it be like?

Bajo: The book that is being published by Onestar press in France, documents the project, Asking Advice. That project began four years ago. When I became pregnant we decided to ask for help and advice from the international community of the Internet, in essence, the world.

Carey: We had no insurance and very little money. We sent out an email with the subject heading “Asking Advice” to 100,000 people we didn’t know.

Bajo: We were asking advice and also searching for humanity, that is, is there a community, a real global village that might care or at least offer advice?

Carey: So people wrote us hundreds of letters – some that were very beautiful. Some sent donations and it was remarkable how warm people were and how much hope it gave us. We compiled all those email letters into a book.
I’m hungry, do you want some food?

Abramovic: Let’s order baguettes and coffee. Delia has such a mesmerizing face. You should do something with your face. Something, I don’t know.

Carey: People often say Delia looks like you.

Abramovic: Her face really looks Slavic in a way.

Carey: She looks like a Botticelli painting to me.

Abramovic: What are the Talisman Paintings? To me they are power objects.

Bajo: They are paintings which can be described as “wireless downloads”, that is, you digest them without using your eyes. In the talismanic tradition, we are kissing each bandage before applying it with special glues. As we kiss these bandages we are focused on a thought. It is that thought which is then downloaded by the viewer, wirelessly, so to speak, meaning we are not connecting with this surface of the painting in the normal visual sense and we are not interested in a physiological response from the viewer. It is like creating an unannounced radio station that sends out its waves which are either picked up randomly or listened to closely or not at all. But nevertheless, the radio waves are there, and that is what we create with our thoughts and actions of building a talisman.

Abramovic: Why are you doing these paintings?

Carey: I think the Talisman paintings come out of our own sense of being hurt and needing comfort.
There is this non-visible circumstance here and everywhere which is a recurring thought you have with everyone you meet. The thought is, &ldquodo I like you or not?&rdquo Sometimes we find the answer to that question quickly and sometimes not at all. We investigate and analyze strangers to find our preferences and desires. The Talisman paintings are part of our investigation.

Abramovic: OK, Stop. Why do you have this need to help, to make these paintings, because it is a type of healing process.

Bajo: I think everything started when we first fell in love. Individually of course we were working before we met, but as I look back on both our histories, we were both children who asked too many questions, wanted to runaway, and were also probably the ones who received the most loving attention because we were the last children to be born in our families. Now our needs as a couple and a collaborative are still about asking questions and wanting to run away, but we also have an attraction to public service and new models of community. The talisman paintings reflect our own history and they are like the sparks that jump gaps in our understanding. We make them to bridge a gap that is too wide to cross.

Carey: I love that! We have talked about that spark idea a lot between ourselves. Just as chemical sparks occur between the neurons in our brain in the synapse there, perhaps that is a model for learning, a new paradigm, a new way of looking at life. Rather than gradual learning steps, can we jump large gaps in perception and knowledge? Is it possible to travel in a wholly different way? When we met, that is what happened, individually to us. It could be called falling in love, but it is also about trust and learning by leaping.

Abramovic: I find in contemporary art that when you say the word spiritual it is a dangerous term, people seem so against it – and I find that all your work is very spiritual. How do you deal with this danger. People saying “Oh this is new age, what is this about” This is the same criticism I get about my work. How do you deal with it?

Carey: It is a struggle. For one, we never use the word “spiritual.” We talk about the “non-visible world”. People seem to accept this. When we ask people if they want a bandage for a visible or nonvisible wound and they choose nonvisible, we all know what is going on, what is unsaid, which is that we are talking about an internal wound, and in most cases a personal and emotional one.

Bajo: We try not to use terms related to New Age pop-psychology as a rule.

Carey: When we are asked to talk about theory, we describe ourselves as Software developers who demonstrate our latest software through wireless downloads such as a hug. This enables us to get into more depth about our process without throwing up the hurdle with an often divisive term like “spiritual” which can be very vague to people anyway.

Bajo: We try to make the public perform with us which may also deflect some criticism. So this creates a situation where the audience cannot separate themselves from the performer. As in the experience of a hug, I think that makes it difficult to be critical of the intimacy or so-called “spirituality” shared because you as the participant chose this and it is often too tender a situation to criticize in a normal academic sense, because you have so little emotional distance.

Abramovic: Why do you think there is this kind of strong reaction to the word “spiritual” or work that involves it? This is something I never really understood myself.

Bajo: Perhaps “spiritual” sounds scary, like a terrifying recovered memory or an evil past life. Spiritual also sounds very personal, something you do alone or at least not in a museum. I mean, if we could avoid it, if it wasn’t necessary, why would we look inside ourselves and pursue unseen spiritual benefits? Wouldn’t we just rather live in the moment and forget all that?

Carey: I think for a critic, when you have a formal distance from a work of art and can talk about light and form- it is a comfortable position to work in. If the work is about, say, for example, what happened to you, like an abusive childhood, and the steps you have taken to recover, the content may overwhelm the form and cause personal discomfort for the viewer and critic. In that example, perhaps the critic will have to look at whether his or her childhood was abusive and how we draw the line on what is acceptable discipline techniques, for example. This situation, because of what it is asking the viewer in terms of their own relation to the subject may prove fatal, because if the viewer is not interested in looking at those issues, the entire work may be vehemently rejected, because in essence, it has struck too close to home.

Abramovic: Do you think one of the ideas of art is to increase awareness and that what you are doing is increasing this kind of awareness? But at the same time do you have very negative reactions, do people attack you?

Bajo: Absolutely. In Asking Advice we received letters that said things like, “eat shit” or “fuck you, you lying spammer!” or worse. Some got very mad, that’s what makes the book a good read.

Carey: Also in the Pray For Me project.

Abramovic: Because with prayer, you have the sound of religion, the institution.

Bajo: Yes, when we did that in Dublin as well as NY we had very little negative feedback, I think because it is such a sacred sounding process, many people are almost afraid to attack it, especially not knowing what lies behind it. But of course we have gotten some negative reactions. Since people can anonymously drop off slips of paper they can really write anything. So we get the occasional, ”Pray for yourself, asshole” or some rant about how God doesn’t approve of this, but in fact it’s rare to hear negative responses, and we have performed over 1,000 prayer requests. When we performed this in Dublin, one person sent in a prayer request that asked that we pray for bad reviews of our project! We had an email dialogue with that person which turned out to be rather superficial, as they were more of a prankster. I think critics and gallerists and museums have more conceptual difficulty with it.

Abramovic: That’s very interesting. Just yesterday I was talking with Thomas McEvilly and Pat Steir and we were discussing the whole relationship of the galleries to the artists and their function. Nowadays it is an extremely difficult relationship because the galleries put a certain kind of pressure on the artists to produce work that can sell. And because of this, it actually influences the development and the nature of the work. One artist who was a friend, James Lee Byars, who was a very important artist in Europe, only had one major show here and it was at Mary Boone. And Mary Boone told him that he should not do any kind of “bullshit performance”, just show objects, because people will not buy the work if they can see the performance for free, and would not take him seriously. What do you think about this type of attitude here in America?

Carey: Unfortunately that’s true. Museums seem to be the more forward thinking institutions these days or at least some curators like Debra Singer at the Whitney who included our project and also brought in several other projects that were not commodity oriented or even in the museum itself. However, Chelsea and SoHo are not experimental scenes as SoHo was in the 70s. Your work for example, flourished in those years, didn’t it?

Abramovic: In the 70s it was simple, we didn’t sell. The galleries became desperate which is why we got the 80s. Very often I think, the works that are important historically had no commercial value, but are very important. They make history. But how do you deal with the situation because I don’t see your work as a commodity that can be consumed right away, but I think this is important work. How do you deal with the pressure of the society you live in here?

Carey: Fortunately, we have each other which is a great help, we support one another in the struggle to survive as artists. Some methods we use to deal with pressure is crying and making love. We both cry easily and it seems to provide relief. And making love is also very energizing when we feel tired and full of knots and worries. That is our best method for coping with daily pressure I think. Making love is like going to an enchanted forest, everything slips away, there are no worries, we fuse together. Of course the economic pressure is another related issue that is problematic because we have so little for sale.

Abramovic: In my case, like the show I just had at Sean Kelly, there was lots of publicity and everyone was very enthusiastic, but I didn’t sell a thing ­ at all. There was this dream bed that everybody used which was the object you could buy and put in your home, but everyone just used it and no one bought it. So that is the situation. In Europe, there is the possibility that pieces of the exhibition could be put in museums one day, but who knows. Even the piece Balkan Baroque which I received the Golden Lion for in Venice which was like an Oscar, what do I do with a golden lion? It is in my storage at the moment, I don’t know what to do with it. It is a very difficult situation for us. How do you see your work as it interacts with the social and political situations in the world today?

Carey: We are doing what we can to contribute to a new way of thinking and perceiving. There are several politicians I can name who could use new methods of thinking and planning! Unfortunately, changing your way of approaching the world is difficult, even if you are very interested.

Bajo: I think now things are changing a bit in the art world that may reflect social and political overtones. Museums are beginning to expand their own definition of their role and this could be beneficial to new art forms and perhaps that will change the gallerist and public sensibility toward art and that in turn can have a social and political effect.

Abramovic: Do you think there is a move back to the more conceptual, non-material notions where you might sell the idea of the work?

Carey: I think that’s possible. I think artwork is moving more out into the world where people aren’t expecting it. I think there can be both; you can have work in galleries or museums, but also perhaps there can be work within the world that people can interact with and see more like a common event, like eating breakfast. Collecting art is another issue.

Bajo: The ideal thing is that the same way collectors buy paintings or sculptures they can also sponsor dreams and get the same rewards. Collectors always like something material.

Abramovic: But how can we change the situation? I think it is a matter of education, of educating the collectors, by showing them a new way of perceiving the world, a new way of collecting. I think we are still involved in 19th century collecting attitudes where it is easiest for the collector to have a painting because all you have to do is put a nail in the wall instead of an installation that involves electricity and labor. It is a very complex question because it is not working right now the way it is.

Carey: I think there is a renewed interest lately, I think we are moving in a common direction. There was a tremendous turnout for your recent project, so we know this is something people want, something they need, there is an interest in the work we are doing.

Bajo: Marina, but you said there might be a new way of educating collectors, a new way of collecting and sponsoring.

Abramovic: Yes.

Carey: But that’s really up to the artist isn’t it?

Bajo: That’s true.

Carey: Look at someone like Sol LeWitt and the way he sold his drawings. A gallery didn’t create that for him, it was his invention, his concept.

Abramovic: Or Lawrence Weiner creating word sculpture. You can put them on any wall you want and if the wall is painted over, you can put it up again on the newly painted wall.

Bajo: So we have to come up with an answer ourselves.

Abramovic: For me, what is interesting is that there are very few artists who think this way. You two are very rare. Most artists correspond to the spirit of the times. And the spirit of the times is that life is fast and consumption is fast so generally artists are producing fast work to be consumed fast. And then we are nowhere- we are just accommodating the needs of society and that is wrong. You have to go against the time to make any difference. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do a long process performance because everything is short, we don’t have a second for anything, not a second to reflect, we don’t have any time. We have to go against society to make a new space. That’s a complicated position for the artist. You have to believe incredibly in your concept to deal with having a second job and finding a place to live and food to eat, you have to really believe in what you are doing.
So what is our situation, how do we deal with the question of living as artist?

Carey: I think we need to keep on being persistent with this new way of seeing, to keep dreaming, to want another way so bad that there is no choice.

Abramovic: What forces or situations influences your work?

Carey: I think, one of the situations is what we were talking about, it is consumerism in this culture of buying, wanting, having and needing. There is a vacuum that is being created within us all. Consumerism and our love for it is shining the spotlight so to speak on an unknown area within us that needs to be filled. Lately, I feel like more people have been saying that they are trying to find out what they want, not who they are, but what they want. I think that is interesting because we tend to make ends meet somehow, to pay bills and work without often thinking, what do I want?

Abramovic: Yes, but you must go against the grain.

Bajo: We are born and we are introduced to society rules right away. It is dictated how we behave, how we eat, what art is. Anything that comes out of the norm is hard to digest, we seek the comfortable and a challenge is difficult. What anyone really wants isn’t an easy question.

Abramovic: What do you think your work will do to society, what is the meaning of your work in society?

Bajo: Hopefully to change something, to reach out, to change the world somehow. Everybody is trying to change the world a little bit, but you must do something bold, to strike out and take a chance at real change however far-reaching it may be, or else how will anything happen?

Abramovic: Why do people need art?

Carey: I’m not sure they do. I would like to think that the direction of our work and a lot of other work being created at the moment, almost erases the label of artists. I would like to see a world where there is not these separations of artists and audience and different labels, but different experiences. Experiences that you don’t need to be educated to understand, experiences that happen outside a gallery similar to the prayers or the New Economy, where you walk into a store and you get a hug. It could really be an integrated part of everything so that you do not even make the separation of, “oh I saw art today” you simply had experiences, without name or authorship even. Like going to a grocery store – you may have a great experience of some kind in there that you don’t label ­ in fact we all met recently in a grocery store! It was a part of life, but drew on our collective experience in your Sean Kelly exhibition. Did we have an art experience in that store? The answer is yes and no because it was mixed up, but it didn’t matter, something genuine was occurring and art was involved though we might not label it as such. Is it possible to create that in all different venues throughout the world? Could artists be a catalyst for enriching our life experiences on another level? Not necessarily at a gallery, but everywhere, a part of everyday culture? Someone gives you an apple or maybe a key, but something that happens daily that you know is part of the culture and you know somehow artists have had a hand in this, but is not so author based.

Abramovic: And not so based in Ego, the name recognition. That creates some kind of opening, than you can look at or experience work and go right for the essence, instead of saying, oh this is a Schnable or something, but you deal with the content. That kind of anonymous experience is really much more beautiful and very strong.

Bajo: Yes, it is. We are looking toward a world where individuality does not exist. Our reward system changes and so our work and needs shift into a mode that is more like being an organ in a body. That would make our collective work and experience a matter of life and death, and that might be just what is needed for our specie to survive and grow.