The Performance Club


This article was written on 11 Nov 2011, and is filed under Claudia's Blog.

Yvonne Rainer Blasts Marina Abramović and MOCA LA

[update: final letter, with quite a list of signers, here. And to clarify: I received the below letters through email, with explicit instructions to spread far and wide.]

Rainer received the following letter from someone who attended the Abramović audition for a work to be performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles’ gala:

So, I spent an hour today at the Abromovic [sic] audition at MOCA. The deal is that the artists/dancers she will hire will spend 3(!) hours under the dining tables of the donor gala with their heads protruding from the tables. They will be sitting on lazy susans under the table and slowly rotating and making eye contact with the donors/diners. Of course we were warned that we will not be able to leave to pee, etc. That the diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc but will be warned not to. Whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected. What the fuck?! And the chosen performers are expected to be there all day friday and saturday. The hours probably total 15 or more and the pay is $150 (plus a MOCA one year membership!!!). I am utterly appalled. This should be illegal. There is another audition for another role where the performers lie naked on tables with fake skeletons on them. Since I cannot stomach being a turning, severed head while people get drunk in front of me, I am seriously considering taking a naked role and performing an intervention at the gala celebration where I use my body as a surface to communicate the fact that I worked x number of hours for $150. I swear I need to do something…to speak for my community of artists who are being taken advantage of by major museums. sick shit.  God, we need a revolution.

This is Rainer’s response, written to the museum’s director [update: Abramović responds and Deitch responds:

November 9, 2011

To Jeffrey Deitch:

I am writing to protest the “entertainment” about to be provided by Marina Abramovic at the upcoming donor gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It has come to my attention that a number of young people will be ensconced under the diners’ tables on lazy Susans and also be required to display their nude bodies under fake skeletons.  

This description is reminiscent of “Salo,” Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists. Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramovic by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramovic and MOCA have no such credibility, only a flimsy personal rationale about eye contact. Subjecting her performers to public humiliation at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed and Ms Abramovic’s obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing — this is not a critique of Abramovic’s work in general — but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.

Ms Abramovic is so wedded to her original vision that she – and by extension, the Museum director and curators — doesn’t see the egregious associations for the performers, who, though willing, will be exploited nonetheless. Their desperate voluntarism says something about the generally exploitative conditions of the art world such that people are willing to become decorative table ornaments installed by a celebrity artist in the hopes of somehow breaking into the show biz themselves. And at sub-minimal wages for the performers, the event is economic exploitation as well, verging on criminality.”

This grotesque spectacle promises to be truly embarrassing. We the undersigned wish to express our dismay that an institution that we have supported can stoop to such degrading methods of fund raising. Can other institutions be far behind? Must we re-name MOCA “MODFR” or the Museum of Degenerate Fund Raising?


Yvonne Rainer

Douglas Crimp

taisha paggett




  1. [...] Repost from “The Performance Club,” with links Posted on November 11, 2011, by admin Yvonne Rainer, Douglas Crimp and Taisha Paggett Blast Marina Abramović and MOCA LA [...]

  2. Siobhan B
    November 11, 2011

    Abramovic hopes “the performance itself will bring some kind of dignity, serenity, and concentration to the normal situation of a gala”: Not sure I agree with that precise choice of nouns. Is she not aware of the grotesqueness of her own idea? How does “dignity” arise from inviting people to dine over rotating human heads (intentionally suggestive of meat rotating on spit?), particularly people who probably aren’t there to think critically about their roles as consumers (of food, drink, art)?

    When I first read Yvonne Rainer’s letter, I actually didn’t think this event was so egregiously exploitative. I thought about my own willingness to be involved in unpaid performance projects, and how the greatest compensation (even when I am getting paid) usually comes in the form of having an interesting experience. But those projects have been for my friends or for artists who are struggling to make ends meet, not for a massive institution and its wealthy donors. Given the net worth of the people who will be in the room that night, combined with how much of themselves the performers will have to give, I’ve come around to Rainer’s assessment that this is exploitation “verging on criminality.”

    Some questions: Will there be just one head per table? Will Abramovic’s head be one of them? Whose idea was this – hers, or the museum’s, or both?

  3. Branko Miliskovic
    November 11, 2011

    The main concern is not just about the exploitation of the chosen performers who themselves participated freely for the audition and haven’t been forced to do so , but for me , frankly , there is one even greater issue and shall I say ”abusing the dignity of each single performer” turning them into passive , brainless models ready and available to perform some of Abramovic’s notorious living installations, which in this context , after all what was going on in MOMA 2010 , becomes nothing less than amusement for the capitalism.
    I am not sure if Abramovic is planing to keep contaminating the chosen sample of the performers or will she be conscious enough to understand how bad her work after 2010 is becoming.

  4. andrew cooper
    November 12, 2011

    Agree with Branko Miliskovic. What gets me is that in a big way art is a collective space for dream . If enough artists took responsibility not to dream the capitalist dream this kind of thing would look even more stupid than it is, isn’t that the very least we can do? Well done on the artists writing the letter as actions of this kind often result in not being asked back or ostracisation.

  5. Jennifer Doyle
    November 12, 2011

    The Toxic Titties offer a wonderful “inside” view of this kind of thing (they infiltrated a Beecroft performance at the Gagosian in LA). It’s in a special issue of Signs that I co-edited with Amelia Jones in 2006. Worth looking at.

    There is an assumption here that the participants in this would be either so star struck or so desperate for cash they’d be willing to be humiliated in front of art patrons. Given how many people auditioning for this are likely young artists themselves – well, the whole situation beyond appalling.

    It’s especially gross considering the possibilities for really challenging performance sitting at MOCA LA’s doorstep. They should be so lucky as to sit around Ron Athey’s naked body, or bear the brunt of Johanna Went’s noise. (Neither have been programmed into the PST festival.) But in those instances, patrons would be asked to, I don’t know, like, think and feel. And stand up for art. And that is clearly not the experience being sought out here.

  6. TS
    November 12, 2011

    How is this different from the wide range of humiliating situations found on Reality TV? How is this different from the losers at Occupy Wall Street who are willing to subject themselves to sexual assaults, lack of public toilets (until recently), and other degrading conditions because they believe in a witless cause?

    America is a free country. Adults are free to make choices. I’ll bet some people find flipping burgers for $9 an hour a lot more appalling than $150 for two nights of sitting nude under a table.

    • VT
      November 23, 2011

      Why don’t you do it, then?! :)

  7. Constance Bulgar
    November 12, 2011

    This is all in light of the fact that the lowest level of employees at the MOCA were asked to volunteer their time to “work” at the event so the profits would be better since they were unable to secure a proper sponsor.

  8. jonte
    November 12, 2011

    I am neither appalled or sadly surprised, why should the art scene as it is now, be any different to any other part of corporate America. Naked minions paid a pittance for the entertainment of bloated Champagne swilling ‘Art’ patrons. I say occupy MOCA.

    • mary beth
      November 15, 2011

      yes !! right on

  9. hhjt55
    November 13, 2011

    This is not exploitation. All performers understand what they are getting into and have agreed to be compensated in a manner they find acceptable. No one is being forced to do this. Of course, it may be in poor taste but that’s all. Not something to get too excited about.

  10. sheree rose
    November 13, 2011

    well, i have a lot to say from a very oersonal, probably sour grapes point of view. i have followed marina abramovic’s work for many years-from her beginning performances with her male partner, whose name, unfortunately, i cannot recall at this moment.
    (whatever became of him, anyway?)
    i was enthralled and inspired by her bravery and honesty-which served me well when i met bob flanagan, “supermasochist”. many of our performances involving pain, endurance, exhibitionism and voyeurism were based on her ideas and practices.
    more recently, i participated in an on-line 30-day performance with martin o’brien, a brilliant english artist, in which we recreated some of abramovic’s audience participation pieces.
    so, i was very excited to be invited to audition for her moca gig. in retrospect, the audition was a performance piece in itself. i had to wear a black turtleneck shirt, have my hair tied back, wear yoga pants and flat shoes. i had to sign-in at a tent, sign a variety of forms., have my picture taken, and have a number slapped on my chest (mine was 29). sitting in a row were several dozen other aspirants-we all looked like extras in the music video, “addicted to love”.
    at our appointed time (3:45) we were ushered by a woman in a white lab coat into an elevator which brought us down into the bowels of moca. we were led through many corridors those which i glanced rooms filled with wooden boxes, electronic equipment, ladders, wires, and various kinds of arty flotsom and jetsom.
    there were arrows painted on the floor which eventually led us into a back-stage kind of space with some couches and cushions scattered about. we were told to do some stretching exercises before sitting cross-legged on the cushions. then, marina herself appeared, also wearing a lab-coat, and explained the nature of the performance. (sorry, i have to leave it at that for the time being.
    to be continued!

  11. Thomas
    November 13, 2011

    More akin to a Santiago Sierra performance, indeed.

  12. Pat Roberts
    November 14, 2011

    This is appalling. Clearly, the young performers (although willing) are young and naive. They don’t realize what they’re doing is bad for the profession in general. The “artistic” part is also questionable.

  13. Ben Leeds Carson
    November 14, 2011

    Daft. Such a tiny, flimsy subnominal percentage of the established art world is in possession of any sort of critique… of capital, of the roles of incorporated bodies, of this propogandistic ‘received wisdom’ about bodies or power (“the performers freely chose to take those jobs!”)… ugh. no words, want to give up on it all… I have this naïve hope that academics can make something better but of course that doesn’t make any sense …

  14. sheree rose
    November 14, 2011

    well, there we were, about 16 women-i think there was one brave man among us.
    marina had two assistants with her-(all in the lab coats) they were young women who looked a lot like marina-tall, thin brunettes, very serious-complete with rosters, check-sheets and pencils . marina spoke to us from her position of power-she was very much like a research scientist-she explained what we would be doing-having to not move for three hours-she cautioned us not to drink for two hours before the performance. she thanked us for our participation and left the room never to be seen again. the assistants told to stare straight ahead-no movement of any kind for about five minutes. as we sat there, they circled us, taking notes and rating our “performance”. it felt like a meditation session-only it was stressful due to the fact that we were being judged by our demeanor.
    finally they told us we could relax. then we moved another room further down the underground maze. this room was like a theater-with rising seats and a stage down below. we were again instructed to sit on the cushions on the floor-this time they were placed on turntables-like lazy-susans housewives used in dinner parties in the ’50s. there were several tables covered with black tablecloths. we were given a few minutes to turn around on the devices while sitting cross-legged-not an easy thing to do. again, we had to gaze straight ahead and retain our composure.
    we were then told to line up according to size. they divided us into two groups and had us sit at the table. we then saw the hole in the middle of the table. we were instructed to go under the table, position ourselves on the turntable, put our head through the hole (with black cloth covering our bodies) and turn around slowily while maintaining eye contact with the others sitting around the table. we were told that the “diners” would be eating and drinking in front of us, but under no circumstances would we be allowed to interact with them. we were to look at each person and maintain some kind of a connection with them, as we kept rotating throughout the three hour meal. i was beginning to have my doubts about the feasabilty of my participation in this event. i watched as each person played their part. some of them performed quite well-they maintained eye contact as the circled under the table. the effect of having a living head looking at you but showing no emotion was unnerving to say the least. i had the impulse to touch their hair or their nose-i can only imagine what i would do if i was actually eating a meal! all the while, the assistants were carefully checking each one as they did their turn as the centerpiece.
    they encouraged us to “really engage” with the people at the table through constant eye contact. they circled us and kept taking notes-rating us on what? it was like a staring contest-but very one-sided. finally, it was my turn-literally. i awkwardly got under the table-a very smaill space. i positioned myself on the turntable-but i was too short to get my head through the hole.l no problem-they provided me with an apple crate which was placed on top of the turntable. it was a precarious perch at best with the apple crate slipping off the turntable. i was finally able to get my head through the hole, had the black cloth draped around my body, and proceeded to take my turn. well, i kept slipping off the turntable, trying to straighten up using my hands, all the while turning slowly around looking soulfully into eyes of my fellows aspirants.
    finally, after two complete revolutions, complete with at least two slippages, i was told that my audition was over. they thanked us for our participation-and gave no indication if we had made the cut. they told us to retrace our steps-following the arrows in reverse -sort of like hansel and gretel which this whole experience seemed to mirror (marina as the witch who entices with sweet treats).
    i felt sort of used, like we were promised more than we were given. marina swept in, gave a few pronouncements, and left our fates in the hands of her assistants.
    maybe i expected to have a few moments with her-have the vaunted eye-contact with the high priestess herself. the irony was that they wanted us to be human and robots at the same time. we had to be flexible and graceful while maintaining our posture-keeping our heads straight and eyes wide closed!
    could i have maintained this pose for 3 hours in the face of beautiful, rich, arty moca supporters-eating fabulous food, drinking expensive wine and being entertained by pop stars? i fantasized that i would rise up like a zombie-overturn the table and thow food and drink all over the astonished guests. give them a taste of the anarchy of true performance art. marina, i hardly knew ya!

  15. claudia
    November 14, 2011

    Here’s GalleristNY’s dispatch from the LA MOCA gala:

    And here, more to the point for the general public, is the LA Times report on which celebrities attended:

  16. Aaron Mattocks
    November 17, 2011

    Not sure if anyone else has picked up on this in the comments thread – but let’s also look at the crazy gender politics:
    ‘Post manifesto, the artist sent out a heartfelt thank you to her performers but also noted of the round, naked person/skeleton tables, that “MOCA said no nude men, so if you want to complain there’s no men at the tables, complain to them.” ‘

    Is this because the art world (as a reflection of the actual world) is more comfortable (only comfortable?) with the subjectification of the female body? Why?

    This is so egregious and irresponsible. Jeffrey Deitch has lost it. He’s already made himself famous as a censor and now he’s producing performance art as Vegas spectacle. He clearly places no value and has no respect for that which constitutes the LA MOCA collection and has made his entire career.

    • Name *
      November 24, 2011

      OMG you’ve GOT to be kidding… One of the most famous “ART” institutions in the world still can’t handle naked men? This actually makes me think Abramović’s piece is that much more poignant—but all the while capitalizing on it.

  17. Boryana Rossa
    November 23, 2011

    To the last comment: I can’t believe that Abramovic’s work is still featured in feminist shows…

  18. VT
    November 23, 2011

    This piece seams like the most tasteless experience there could exist .. I can’t imagine an institution of the caliber of MOCA needs such crap to attract patrons to a gala .. and what kind of patrons would those be?!?!

  19. VT
    November 23, 2011

    .. the last paragraph of Rainer’s letter sums it up really well ..

    “This grotesque spectacle promises to be truly embarrassing. We the undersigned wish to express our dismay that an institution that we have supported can stoop to such degrading methods of fund raising. Can other institutions be far behind? Must we re-name MOCA “MODFR” or the Museum of Degenerate Fund Raising?”

  20. LM
    November 25, 2011

    Agree with Boryana Rossa!

  21. [...] Rainer: Marina Abramovic’s exploitative ”grotesque spectacle” Share this:EmailPrintTwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  22. [...] about the row between Yvonne Rainer and Marina Abramovic. There’s more background on it here and here. And reviews that seem to back up Rainer’s point here and [...]

  23. Debra Levine
    November 27, 2011

    Mme Abramovic’s vision less than original:

    The timidity about including naked men is hilarious, if not infuriating.

  24. [...] read with interest and dismay Yvonne Rainer’s critique of Marina Abramović’s performance proposal for the Los Angeles MOCA gala earlier this month. [...]

  25. [...] participated in Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective at MoMA support Yvonne Rainer’s critique of the artist’s gala at LA’s MOCA. This complaint about the performers’ working [...]

  26. Debra Levine
    November 30, 2011

    Okay, Claudia, we did the calculation and it turns out that our museum values the kitchen staff more it does than artists! In an art museum~!

  27. [...] of what influenced adult such clever reactions in a art community: One performer who auditioned sent a minute to dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer angry that a opening conditions were exploitative, generally given how small income performers [...]

  28. [...] Hand Movie (1966). I am going to post more about Yvonne Rainer soon. Apart from being a real tough guy, she is singular and prolific and performing at Dia:Beacon again next month. The second is Richard [...]

Leave a Reply

6 + three =