Katherine Guinness and Grant David Bollmer

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ABSTRACT: This essay examines affect and the limits of experience in the work of performance artist Marina Abramović. Abramović’s early performances play with the boundaries of pain’s transmission, emphasizing the social character of its expression and its use in constructing surfaces and margins. Recent works cast these limits aside in favour of a holistic understanding of affect, in which the space of performance produces sensible ontological affects that unite bodies. This shift in Abramović’s work mirrors debates surrounding the politics of affect in cultural theory and provides the grounding for The Marina Abramović Institute to train bodies to “properly” experience affect.

Why must you hurt yourself? Do you know that it hurts me?

– “Willem’s Song,” The Life and Death of Marina Abramović

When she was a child, artist Marina Abramović purposefully attempted to break her own nose. Fifty years later, two-thirds of the way through her seminal work The Artist is Present, she removed a table that stood between her and the work’s participants. These two events, seemingly minor and unrelated, reveal the power of—and huge discrepancies in—Abramović’s artistic history of feeling. As one of the most well-known and controversial performance artists working today, Abramović serves as a “feminine feeler” who explicitly deals with the potentials of feeling, revealing the limits of an affective politics in her work. Throughout her oeuvre, Abramović (often referred to as “the grandmother of performance art”) has used her own body to test the boundaries of pain and personal endurance. In the participatory aspects of some of her pieces, the expressive limits of pain overflow her own body and are mirrored onto her audience. [1] While she may feel the pain she inflicts, for these performances to be effective the audience must bear witness to her feeling.

In the past decade, her work has progressed from the personal and the bodily to the institutional and collaborative. The grand scale of her work currently includes the Marina Abramović Institute, or MAI, a school of sorts located in Hudson, New York—and neuroscience research center—scheduled to open in 2015. [2] At the MAI, Abramović teaches the public her “Abramović Method” of performance through workshops and exercises that include drinking water, sitting, lying down, and standing for long periods of time, with the intent to induce in participants “a timeless state of mind” and “to increase awareness of their physical and mental experience in the moment”—experiences associated with Abramović’s durational performances (MAI 2014). Abramović’s early works, in which her body appears subjected to the limits of pleasure and pain, have morphed into an institution that appears dedicated to teaching specific techniques for managing the body, its experience, its temporality, and its affects.

In this essay we will trace the history of Abramović’s work and its evolution from personal, self-inflicted pain subjected upon the body, through her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in which she performed The Artist is Present (signifying a turn towards a role as mediator of self-reflection), and ultimately to the establishment of the MAI. Abramović’s performances are often regarded as political for their emphasis on the presence of the female body. In the tradition of feminist performance art, Abramovic’s willingness to present herself as a fundamentally embodied subject of violence challenges the history of a “disembodied” male creator (c.f. Danto 2010). However, we argue that this reading disregards Abramović’s mobilization of affect to create surfaces and separations that are ultimately articulated to other issues of difference and control. In her recent work, the negotiation of pain has shifted to an attempt to regulate the feelings of others through a strict regime of control, one we will liken to Foucault’s theorization of the Panopticon, defined by self-management through the affective and embodied that renegotiates modern mechanisms of control exercised through vision and visibility.

Before we begin to address theoretical concerns about the body and affect, we must ask a few basic questions. What sort of child, such as Abramović, is not afraid of or chooses to ignore the pain that they know will come from throwing themselves against a very sharp bed corner? Abramović stated that she knowingly injured herself on the bed because she hated her nose and wanted an excuse to have reconstructive surgery. She had devised an elaborate plan to carry around photos of Brigitte Bardot in her pocket, so that once her nose was broken she could show them to her doctors as a helpful suggestion on how to fashion her new nose (Abramović 2013). What if the pain of Marina Abramović is not the same as the pain you or I feel? And a second set of questions: why did Abramović feel the need to have complete, unfettered visual access to the participants of The Artist is Present—access that was supposedly blocked by the presence of the table? She stated that the impetus for the table’s removal was when a man in a wheelchair came to sit with her, and she “didn’t even know if this man had legs or not because the table was obstructing the view” (Pearson & Kern 2010). Discussions of The Artist is Present suggest that the physical relationship between the two individuals produces an intense affective bonding that exists beyond speech; yet how is vision articulated to the transmission of affect in this work and what does this relationship between the visible and the affective signify? We do not presume to have the answers to these questions, but rather invoke them to draw attention to how affect’s transmission cannot be assumed to be generally “political,” and must also address additional contextual specificities that bring together and highlight the limits of the subjective and the ability to claim knowledge about another’s experience—along with other demands about visuality, affect, and the regulation and management of bodies. In other words, we begin with the assumption that, maybe, Marina Abramović does not feel like you.

The Performance of Pain

In any attempt to understand the experience of pain one encounters deep contradictions. Pain is invisible, expressed by and projected onto objects that substitute for the inability to know the internal state of someone else, communicated through metaphors that cannot capture the essence of feeling. The wound and the knife may signify pain, but do not reveal its experience. Consequentially, pain—or rather, the difficulty inherent in its expression—produces a boundary of subjectivity that, in its most dehumanizing form, can be used to legitimate violence against the other (Scarry 1985). Because one cannot directly comprehend the pain of another, the moment of recognizing or misrecognizing pain can be mobilized to deny the other’s personhood. At the same time, while pain is privately experienced it enters into public discourse to signify a powerful bond between individuals: “I feel your pain” is simultaneously an empty statement and a claim of empathy. Pain becomes visible socially, in relation to others, even though direct access to the pain of another body may never be possible. This affective relation is complex and contradictory, potentially unequal, and can likewise perform violence against the other. When we recognize pain, to quote Sara Ahmed (2004, 21), “the pain of others becomes ‘ours,’ an appropriation that transforms and perhaps even neutralises their pain into our sadness.” Whose pain is recognized? How is it recognized? These questions cut to the political uncertainties that emerge at the nexus of the human body’s subjective experience and social desires, whether to assuage human suffering or to perpetuate acts of violence and terror that deny the possibility of the other’s pain.

Abramović’s early works often demonstrate these problems of expressing and recognizing pain. In Rhythm 0 (1974), she provided her audience with 72 objects, some of which could provide pleasure (honey, a rose, feathers) and some of which were to induce pain (scalpels, a whip, a gun and bullet). The members of the audience were invited to use the objects on the artist as she remained passive for six hours. Overwhelmingly choosing objects traditionally associated with pain, the audience carried her around, cut her clothes and skin, and pointed the loaded gun at her head. The work taught Abramović that “the public can kill you. If you give them total freedom, they will become frenzied enough to kill you” (O’Hagan 2010). Rhythm 0, as a collaborative, participatory performance, emerges from an inability to grasp the pain of another. The liminal space of performance (Turner 1969) stripped from the audience the desire to recognize the humanity of the other, when permitted by the performer to do so, becoming “free” but capable of violent acts usually prohibited by the norms of everyday life. This freedom only emerges from a sabotaging of affective relations, a willful disregard for the experience of the other. The performance requires the involvement of the audience—but rather than a kind of positive, shared world-making, the artwork is created out of Abramović’s willingness to serve as an empty placeholder for the violent desires of her audience, perversely completing the fantasy of the abject other through the evacuation of her own subjective agency.

Abramović’s 1975 piece The Lips of Thomas further demonstrate her experimentations with the relations produced or denied by the recognition of pain. According to the program notes, the performance (and thus her assumed pain) ends only if an audience member intervenes:

I slowly eat 1 kilo of honey with a silver spoon.

I slowly drink 1 liter of wine out of a crystal glass.

I break the glass with my right hand.

I cut a five-pointed star on my stomach with a razor blade.

I violently whip myself until I no longer feel any pain.

I lay down on a cross made of ice blocks.

The heat of a suspended heater pointed at my stomach causes the cut star to bleed.

The rest of my body begins to freeze.

I remain on the ice cross for 30 minutes until the public interrupts the piece by removing the ice blocks from underneath me.

Here we have the inverse of Rhythm 0. The audience still collaborates in the work, but only to a limited degree. Abramović subjects her body to a series of unpleasant and painful acts, cutting herself open, bleeding, and whipping herself beyond the point of conscious sensibility. According to the notes, at a particular moment in the performance Abramović stops experiencing pain. The ability of the artist to walk away from The Lips of Thomas, rather than freezing to death in a form of crucifixion by ice, requires the audience to recognize these acts as painful and destructive, projecting onto the artist the experience of that pain brought about by the performance itself. That the performer supposedly lacks the ability to feel is corrected by the members of the audience, who are there to save the artist in spite of herself. The Lips of Thomas is a projection of pain where it supposedly does not exist, while the ability to inflict pain without its recognition is required for a performance like Rhythm 0 to realize its artistic intentions. Pain, in these works, is not something communicated. It only exists as a problem articulated to the limits of recognizing the other as one who feels or cannot feel.

While The Lips of Thomas (supposedly) requires the audience to recognize Abramović’s suffering organically, any possible spontaneous recognition of pain is further problematized by its re-performance as part of her Seven Easy Pieces exhibition at the MoMA in 2005. In this series Abramović recreated seven famous works of performance art, including those by Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, and her own. In the re-performance of The Lips of Thomas, critics read the cutting open of the old scars, reforming the five-pointed star on her stomach, as “a test of endurance for spectators as well as for the artist” (Carlson n.d.). By the third cut, and surely with the memory of the audience’s position as saviour in the original performance, a member called out, “you don’t have to do it again, Marina!” The cries stirred a frenzy within the group, as audience members exclaimed that she should stop, dismayed because of the self-inflicted “pain”; the pain of the artist was experienced as the emotional horror of the audience. Yet where is pain actually located in Abramović’s work? Is it in her own body? Apparently not, if the notes for The Lips of Thomas are to be taken literally. Is it in the audience’s ability to internalize and take possession of her pain, making it theirs, not hers? Moreover, reframing our earlier question, what if Abramović cannot experience pain herself, even before her notes suggest that she cannot feel it? Or, at least, what if she does not experience pain in the way others might?

These are speculations, as are those of one critic who, in watching the second Lips of Thomas, stated, “I had a strong desire to read [her] affect throughout, but her reaction to the ordeal seemed unaffected. Her face remained impassive as she cut her stomach…” (Carlson n.d.). We are all different people, with different feelings and different desires. The recognition and misrecognition of pain directly call up these differences, rendering impossible any judgments about the experience and feeling of others. Pain only becomes visible socially, but as a social force that nonetheless denies internal experience a place in public life, producing distinctions and affinities out of collective abstractions in which affect itself is merely phantasmagoric. In these early works, Abramović’s pain is never legible—only the social reading of her pain (or lack thereof) can be understood, as the members of the audience dehumanize her or save her from self-destruction. [3]

These suggestions move increasingly further from any claim that Abramović’s work represents the personal experience of pain. Her early performances play with the ability to comprehend the pain of others, revelling in the impossibility of knowing what the other may feel. Consequentially, Rhythm 0 and The Lips of Thomas do not merely represent a body pushed to its limits in the experience of pain, but rather require the interplay, recognition, and misrecognition of the experience of the other. They are not about the knowledge of experience that is transmitted affectively, but are about the very limits of that knowledge. In these works, pain is experienced socially, while internal, psychological experiences are marginalized. Abramović’s pain is a permutation of the audience’s willingness to inflict violence, resulting from the misrecognition of her humanity. Her pain is transmuted into the audience’s discomfort from looking and the ability of the audience to misrecognize the other in favour of subjectively felt emotions. These are not works about the body’s experience, but rather about the social embeddedness of the body, in which any knowledge about experience and feeling is forever deferred for a hermeneutics of the body’s surface in which visually present signifiers offer readings or misreadings of pain. The artist is, then, an empty signifier for the audience’s attribution (or non-attribution) of feeling. Abramović, in performing pain, renders herself an object for the projection of the audience’s own either humanizing or dehumanizing emotions and desires.

Upending Barriers, Removing Tables, Shattering Mirrors

The same themes are part of Abramović’s massively popular work The Artist is Present, which ran from March to May of 2010 at the MoMA. During this work, Abramović sat in a wooden chair set up across from another chair, initially separated by a table. Members of the audience were invited to come and sit across from the artist each day as long as the museum was open. Abramović has claimed that this experience was similar to what we’ve been asserting about her earlier pieces, stating that for participating audience members, “I’m just like a trigger for themselves. I’m like a mirror to them. After a while they don’t look at me anymore, their eyes look inward into their selves” (Pearson & Kern 2010). While the artist is no longer inflicting precisely the same sort of pain on her body as in her previous works, she is still positioning her body as a kind of pained receptor for the affect of the audience. Yet this encounter is inherently missed as those who gaze upon the artist inevitably turn back towards themselves. While the artist may be present, she is only there as a mirror for the desires and feelings of the MoMA visitor.

However, this reading was not Abramović’s only interpretation of The Artist is Present: “I gazed into the eyes of many people who were carrying such pain inside that I could immediately see it and feel it,” she claimed (O’Hagan 2010). This second understanding of the work is most clear after the key moment in which Abramović removes the table from her performance, when the relationship between the artist and the audience ceases to be one of a fundamental misrecognition, but of a profound intersubjective relation that transcends other forms of communication and association. It is not the internal states of the other that are misrecognized, but rather the fundamental unity of self, environment, and other. The performance enables a recognition of a state generally invisible to the public, brought about through the encounter with the artist. Most significantly, the revelation of this state has seemingly become Abramović’s desire in the creation of workshops and her institute, initially for other performers recreating her work and, increasingly, for whoever wants to pay for the privilege of the presence of the artist.

After the removal of the table, Abramović appears to have embraced a sense of feeling in which the ideal for an individual and her body is to embrace techniques of self-management to perform a holistic relationship with others and the physical environment. Pain ceases to express the limits of subjective experience and the projection of feeling onto another—and all the violence these feelings and experiences may entail. Instead, the negotiation of pain is merely an effect of a more authentic connection to the natural ground of the real. Strategies for dealing with pain become techniques to manage the body, abstracted into concepts that supposedly describe the ontology of embodied experience. This approach is most evident in the plans for the Marina Abramović Institute and her Abramović Method.

The impetus for her Method were the workshops Abramović held at her home in Hudson, New York for the performers of her MoMA retrospective. The MoMA decided to include, along with video and photo documentation of original performances by Abramović, re-perfomances of key works, enacted by young performers. At her home, these performers signed contracts that they would submit to her orders and relinquish contact with the outside, surrendering their mobile phones. Abramović taught them a regime of hygiene referred to as “cleaning the house,” which involved fasting, nostril flushing, and tongue scraping (Thurman 2012). She maintained complete control over their actions, which included how they governed their own bodies. One performer relayed, “Because of the show, everything in my life changed; my diet, my body, the depth of my sleep, my energy levels, the depth of my breath and most importantly my respect for my own limits and an eagerness to overthrow those limits each day” (Bailey n.d.). Whereas Abramović’s work once seemed to be about the limits and possibilities of pain and its intersubjective expression, her Method and Institute create a kind of subject that is better attuned to the experience of pain and is consequently more adept at negotiating the body’s relationship to nature, daily life, and other bodies. Her teachings extend beyond helping performers recreate her work and into what could be called daily life. Abramović made headlines late 2013 for using her methods of feeling to help pop-star Lady Gaga kick her marijuana habit. The singer claimed that she had lost control over her drug use, and “It wasn’t until I was with Marina and she said, ‘Okay you’re coming to my house, No television, no computer, no marijuana, no nothing, no food. For three days, art only. You eat only art’,” that she was able to quit (McGovern 2013). In short, Marina Abramović is teaching people to feel in the ways that she feels in order to regulate themselves with more self-control. If her early works were about the limits of pain’s expression, then her recent projects are about bodily management to deal with pain as a condition of daily life. She has invented a generalized method for being and existing in contemporary society. If Marina Abramović does not feel like you, then you need to learn to feel as she does.

Surfaces and Holisms

While Abramović’s work is often regarded as political for its emphasis on the female body and the pain it experiences, we argue that this reading disregards the mobilization of affect in creating surfaces and separations that are ultimately articulated to other issues of difference that are almost always neglected in art criticism (cf. Davis 2013). Our above reading of Abramović’s early performances suggests that her works were very much about playing with and thinking through the limits of the body and the ability to know the experience of another. The limits of pain’s expression are central to larger systems of dehumanization that legitimate violence against the other. Rhythm 0 and The Lips of Thomas are certainly attuned to these issues. While pain is social, we cannot disregard the limits of the experience and expression of the pain of others. Our attention should turn not only to the ways that specific techniques of the body unite one with another, but also to the very divides produced by the same processes. Yet, in her recent work, the separations and divides of pain become a holistic affectivity, in which a kind of enlightenment is achieved through the intense management of the body and its relations. The Abramović Method stresses techniques of achieving stillness, spatially removing oneself from the temporality of everyday life. While initially intended to enable performers to recreate physically the feats of stamina often required by Abramović’s performances, with the MAI these methods become a self-help system that defines well-functioning selves as those in a proper relation with nature, able to be still for long periods of time, in a supposed balance with the world through an affective bond that conjoins once separated subjects. Yet it should never be forgotten that the Abramović Method was created so others could re-perform her earlier works; it was designed so one can accept the violence and pain forced onto one’s body. The Method is one in which privileged individuals learn to cope with the cruelty of the contemporary economic life (cf. Mirowski 2013), learning to sit and stand and endure, as if these acts are somehow enlightening rather than the things that many workers in the service industry have to do everyday (cf. Sharma 2014).

To make these claims, we next turn to affect theory, a body of literature that, in its most extreme version, suggests bodies and subjects exist not as individuated entities, but as abstract flows and intensities necessarily conjoined in relation to one another. Affect theory provides a theoretical context to examine the changes in how Abramović conceptualizes the role of the body and its experience in her art, from Rhythm 0 and The Lips of Thomas to The Artist is Present and the MAI. After this turn through affect theory, we return to discuss the MAI and the Abramović Method and how together they serve as a potential model for generalized techniques for the management of the body and its affects.

A Feeling for Affect

Greg Seigworth and Melissa Gregg suggest that affect “arises in the midst of in-between-ness,” is “found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves” (2010, 1). Affect is about relation and the flows that constitute relation. By turning to affect, rather than conscious meaning or interpretation, a “subject” can never be thought of as an isolated body, individual, or thing. One is inevitably bound together with others in a fluid encounter that dissolves clear boundaries between entities. The autonomy of the self is reframed as a kind of assemblage or process, extending beyond the physiological limits of biology to act and interact with others and the greater environment that, while it does not completely do away with the body, extends and transcends an individual consciousness into the open, virtual multiplicity of existence.

Defining affect in this way detaches it from any individualized, cognitive experience of emotion and feeling. Affect is not and cannot be located within any one body, but rather is an immanent force that transcends the individual as a uniting, binding, yet flexible substance. It traverses bodies while constituting them, bringing together isolated others in a way that reveals how autonomy is ultimately an illusion. The self overflows the limits of any one individual as it moves to a larger plane of immanence. Those once thought apart are unified through an ontological force that is a “non-representational” excess, unable to be fully brought into subjective, interpretive experience (Thrift 2007).

In cultural theory, the implications of affect take two different directions—directions that have radically different effects for the understanding of feeling and emotion in political and aesthetic experience. The first direction stresses how political formations have a necessary dimension that cannot be reduced to signification, meaning, and claims to reality. Bodies move and are moved by others in ways mediated by material reality often forgotten when meaning and signification are assumed to delineate the totality of what goes by “culture” and “society” (Grossberg 2010, 193-195). Yet affect is never purely disarticulated from meaning and emotion; bodies are not merely asubjective forces that uniformly act on and are acted upon by the ontological plane of reality. Instead, specific manifestations of affect are articulated with other cultural forces and discourses—as emotion, as intimacy, as passion—to advance political projects and goals that have no intrinsic progressive guarantee because of their affective qualities. The possibilities for relation are shaped and transformed in ways that may be liberating, but can just as well be oppressive and discriminatory. Affect, in this sense, creates boundaries between groups and populations through the policing of bodies and articulation of meanings ascribed to the experience of specific feelings (Ahmed 2004, 2010). It perpetuates personal attachments that guarantee the failure of everyday desires (Berlant 2011), legitimates the colonization of daily life by work (Gregg 2011), and reshapes the rights and abilities of citizens in the name of the regulation of sex and intimacy (Berlant 1997). While affect may seem to exist detached from signification and meaning at a purely ontological level, this theoretical dimension is irrelevant when juxtaposed with the everyday mobilization of affect as something that can be used to delegitimize specific experiences and bodies from political reality.

The second direction, in direct opposition to the first, emphasizes the political power of the ontological, never returning to the role of meaning and articulation to discuss the political. Instead of the messy reality of meaning and signification, affect is found in the biological nature of cognition. The politics of affect thus emerge from the physiological capacity of the body to act and be acted upon (Brennan 2004; Massumi 2002; cf. Grossberg 2010, 195-198). Some neurological capacity—be it the mirror neuron, the brain’s empathy circuit, or the “missing half second” of consciousness discovered by Benjamin Libet—is invoked as physiological evidence for the body’s affective capacity. However, this understanding of affect in cultural theory relies on biological truth claims that it either distorts or simply cannot support without contradiction. These physiological processes “retreat to the singular neurophysiological body in order to explain the transmission of affect between people” (Blackman 2012, 77), providing an account for affect that is inherently contradictory, erasing from “ontology” subjects identified by the history of medicine and psychology as physiologically unable to experience and produce the affects that supposedly ground the immanence of all relation as such (Bollmer 2014).

This second sense of affect points to a politics in which the capacities of the body create an autonomic collective social bond; the force of the political intrinsically emerges from bodies being together and the self dissolves into the field of relation. This view of affectivity seems to be increasingly popular in cultural theory (i.e., Bennett 2010, xi-xiii; Manning 2013), often through reference to historical theories of social and communicative transmission (Sampson 2012), in spite of the numerous critiques that note the limits of neurological affect, both from historical and psychological perspectives (Leys 2011; Wetherell 2013) and those grounded in the concerns of cultural theory (Hemmings 2006).

These two directions mirror the mobilization of affect in Abramović’s work. Rhythm 0 and The Lips of Thomas examine affect as a bridge between individuals in a way that is not inherently reducible to signification, although many elements of her performances are clearly symbolic and Abramovic’s pain is articulated to symbolic structures of meaning represented by objects such as honey and wine. Yet this bridging is often problematized, as her works highlight the political articulation of affect that enables—or prevents—violence against the other. Affect is one dimension among others, interwoven with symbolic and social structures, and at best only partially sensible beyond the solipsism of individuality. When examined in light of these affective strategies for recognizing (or misrecognizing) pain, The Artist is Present, on the other hand, emerges as an apparatus for realizing the physiological transmission of affect between individuals, especially after the removal of the table from the performance. Instead of barriers that separate or surfaces upon which affect is refracted, producing imagined affinities out of proper and improper feelings, The Artist is Present is a work that supposedly reveals the intersubjective bonds that exist beyond symbolic, communicative knowledge, that emerge from the shared physical experience of being together. However, by producing this bond within the liminal yet regulated space of her durational performances, Abramović positions the experience of affect as one that does not emerge from the body’s physiological nature but must be produced through exceptional spaces, bodily training, and regulation. Relation only occurs through a biopolitical apparatus that defines proper bodies as ones that experience and regulate affect in a way that enables the endurance of pain as a condition of daily life.

The MAI as “Panaffecticon”

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (1977) famously argued that Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison was a generalized institutional model for vision and observation in Western modernity. The Panopticon served as a diagram for how social control is not maintained through actually being observed, but from internalizing the gaze of the other, of embracing a model of self-management in which one is potentially observed even if correction and punishment never actually arrive. Our context is one in which vision and observation, while still essential for countless means of control, are perhaps no longer as central as they once were in maintaining order, but articulated to other forms of sensation that change the meaning of vision and observation in contemporary culture. Instead, the regulation of feeling is required for contemporary control (cf. Berardi 2009; Gregg 2011); the internalization of a specific regime of affection is necessary for the crafting of today’s workers. Visual methods of surveillance have been replaced by techniques of neurological evaluation, in which the internal affective states of a body serve to define which bodies are “proper” and which are to be corrected, confined, or let die (Rose and Abi-Rached 2013; Bollmer 2014).

Following Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon, the Abramović Method, especially as embodied in the MAI, can be seen as a model for a kind of “Panaffecticon.” Rather than the gaze of the observer, the participant in Abramović’s workshop internalizes a specific way of feeling, in which one is holistically synthesized with the world as a totality, in which the boundaries of self and other break down and one has a closer relationship with the materiality of existence than those who have not been processed by the Institute. As the MAI has not yet been completed, an MAI Prototype was built and tested at the 2013 Luminato Festival in Toronto. The structure, consisting of seven interconnected tent-pavilions, allowed participants to engage in a series of exercises that will eventually be available at the MAI. The MAI Prototype exemplifies how Abramović’s work has moved towards a holistic model of affective connection, but positions this understanding of affect as something that must be produced with the conditioning of affectively “docile bodies” through models of self-management similar to those discussed by Foucault (1977, 136).

Upon entering the MAI prototype, one must relinquish all personal items and means of communication (shoes, mobile phones, jewelry, purses, etc. are stored away in lockers) and don matching lab coats and headphones. Then a contract must be signed giving one’s “word of honour” to stay for the duration of the workshop. Control is enforced not through actual correction, but rather through the vague threat of contractually mandated punishment enforced through internalized self-discipline. The gaze too, plays an important role in maintaining control, as one steps into the next room and is met with the large, looming eyes of Abramović herself, as she welcomes participants with a pre-recorded video (fig. a). Next, the body and mind are prepared with physical and meditative exercises. The body is further regulated in the “water-drinking chamber” in which participants are presented with several coolers of water containing various minerals. They are educated as to which minerals contain the best properties for their bodies’ needs, and then guided on how to properly drink the appropriate water. As with her workshops for the MoMA performers at Hudson, Abramović is controlling the body down to what is being put into it, not just through the limiting of harmful chemicals. She is governing the necessity of water, suggesting that there is a proper way to drink and absorb minerals to be in balance with the Earth. The MAI, as Panaffection, is an institution designed not to produce the internalization of observation, but rather the internalization of an affective holism with the physical world itself while relying on techniques of individualization, compartmentalization, and separation. While it uses biopolitical mechanisms similar to Bentham’s prison system, it does so not to manage prisoners, but to manage the affect between people, objects, and how one feels towards one’s self.

As we discussed earlier, one way of viewing affect is as an immanent force of the political that emerges from bodies being together, where the limits of the self dissolve into the field of relation. This deterritorialization of subjectivity can be seen in the next few rooms of the MAI Prototype. There is the “eye gaze chamber,” in which one stares into the eyes of another participant for a lengthy amount of time. This exercise echoes the results of The Artist is Present, bringing the participants closer, allowing them to become mirrors for each other’s inner feelings. As with the removal of the table, vision is mobilized as a force through which one can articulate the bodies of two separate people. In the next room, participants’ bodies are electrically dissolved into abstract energetic forces that transcend and traverse the limits of the biological through the use of a large Tesla coil. Each participant holds an electrical source and they “become transmitters and conductors of energy” as the current flows through them collectively (figs. b, c). Even sleep is regulated at the MAI, as the penultimate room is a sleep chamber in which one is allowed a set amount of time for rest. Once the process is complete, one receives a certificate of completion and Abramović invites you to see how it can “help you in your own life, and whatever work you are doing,” showing that this exercise is not meant to just be another pavilion at an art fair, but a lesson in the regulation of the self. The MAI Prototype is a crash course in how to feel like Marina Abramović, carried out safely under her watchful virtual gaze and checked against the threat contractually produced by one’s own word of honour.


Marina Abramović attempting to break her nose as a child reveals to us instabilities about the experience of pain. In her early works, these instabilities require the audience to recognize pain that may not be taking place, or misrecognize pain in a way that drains the artist of agency and humanity. The pain of the artist is never fully present. It only emerges in the interplay of the audience and performer, where internal experience and feeling drift off into that which cannot be expressed or known. With the removal of the table from The Artist is Present, however, the pain of the artist and the audience become something expressed through the intersubjectivity of affect, made sensible by the visual relations produced in the exceptional space of the performance. With the MAI, the feats of physical endurance required by Abramović’s durational performances become a set of strategies for managing affect and pain in daily life. We suggest that this last moment be treated as the emergence of a technical apparatus for learning about the regulation of affect and the internalization of a specific holistic form of relation. The MAI is an institutional “Panaffecticon” that educates participants about feeling and the regulation of the body, a space external to daily life designed to produce subjects adjusted to the affective demands of contemporary capitalism. Her early works demonstrate the political complexity that necessarily comes with the experience of pain, with the ever-present spectre that Marina Abramović may not feel as you do; with the MAI—and the ontology of affect—this complexity is reduced to a self-help strategy that suggests the possibility of attaining an optimal relationship with the world, where one copes with the pain of daily life through the affects revealed in the pained experience of durational performance.


(A) Marina Abramovic Institute, video still from “Marina Abramovic Describes the MAI Prototype,” directed by Noah Blumenson-Cook, 2013,, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 License


(B) Marina AbramovicćInstitute, video still from “Marina Abramovic Describes the MAI Prototype,” directed by Noah Blumenson-Cook, 2013,, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 License


(C) Marina AbramovicćInstitute, video still from “Marina Abramovic Describes the MAI Prototype,” directed by Noah Blumenson-Cook, 2013,, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 License


1. While this essay will discuss a few of her works in detail, the MoMA’s website has an excellent multimedia database of the works included in her retrospective exhibition with video and photo documentation as well as commentary from Abramović. (

2. For more information on the MAI and the thought process behind its inception, see the large number of videos available on its Vimeo webpage, including this introduction:

3. There has been at least one occasion when an audience member saved (unplanned) Abramović’s life. During her 1974 Rhythm 5 she jumped into the middle of a burning star, but because of the star’s construction and the large size of the fire, all of the oxygen was immediately sucked out of Abramović’s lungs and she collapsed, unconscious. She narrowly escaped being burned alive once audience members realized something was wrong and pulled her out.

Works Cited

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Bollmer, Grant. “Pathologies of Affect: The ‘New Wounded’ and the Politics of Ontology.” Cultural Studies 28 (2014): 298-326.

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Katherine Guinness received her PhD in Art History and Visual Culture from the University of Manchester. She studies contemporary art and feminism, especially the work of German artist Rosemarie Trockel. Her writing has been published in Esse: Arts + Opinions and Nyx: A Noctournal. She teaches at the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney. Grant Bollmer is a lecturer in the Digital Cultures Program, Department of Media and Communication, at the University of Sydney. His research examines discourses of connectivity and their relation to technology and the body. His work can be found in the journals Cultural Studies, The Information Society, and Memory Studies.

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