This past Sunday, a crowd of about 200 gathered outside the entrance to a faded-looking building at 7th Street and Columbia in Hudson, New York. They were there for a first public peek at what will be Marina Abramovic's Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art. The building—brick, columned, with "Community Tennis" lettered across its front—seems a long way from what the architectural renderings depict for the future museum, which is a sleek "interactive building" seemingly encased in glass. (The project is led by architects Shohei Shigematsu and Rem Koolhaas.) The institute is projected to open in mid-2014; for now, this open house would give Abramovic the chance to meet people from the town and describe her plans for planting the world's first "performance art" institute in their front yard.
The doors opened right at 11, and the waiting crowd spilled into the space. Built as a grand theater, later remade into an indoor tennis court and then an antiques market before being shuttered, the building showed its years of disrepair. But signs of renewal were everywhere in the vault-like space: Fresh scaffolding gleamed against the massive walls, and work lights illuminated a giant, crumbling balcony and a (roped off) upstairs area. Abramovic, dressed all in white but for the black rims of her glasses, moved through the crowd, greeting people as they found their seats. Younger faces were scattered throughout the crowd, but for the most part, attendees were in their 40s through 60s, members of the established cultural set who've been migrating to Hudson from New York City for decades.
Institute director Serge Le Borgne greeted the crowd from the podium: "Today is going to be a very big performance." Next to him a screen flashed computer-created images of the institute's planned spaces. "You all are going to be the future of this building," he continued. "You are going to be the spectators. You are going to be the participants."
People began fanning themselves from the heat.
"Talking about art today means talking about commodity, talking about what is bought and sold," Le Borgne proposed. "I don't think that is a good way to talk about art. Marina and I are interested in creating actual social networks that are real. Some people can spend all day in front of their computers, in contact with friends they've never met. Part of what we want to do with the Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art is refabricate those social constructs."
The crowd erupted into applause.
"Speak louder!" Abramovic loudly whispered, popping out from behind the projection screen.
"I can't, it makes too much feedback."
"Oh!" she said, disappearing again.
"To spend time with Marina Abramovic is a performance," said Le Borgne.
Then Abramovic took the podium. After thanking the crowd, she said: "There are many performance centers in the world, but no performance centers designed for the creation of long-duration works. Performance art is time-based art. If you create a painting or an object, that is something else. But a performance occurs in a span of time. There are all kinds of performances and performance art. If you experience a performance you like, then you leave with a memory. Or if you experience a performance you hate, then you leave with a bad taste in your mouth."
The audience laughed.
"I so tire of seeing people walk quickly through a gallery, run by a few works of art and walk out the door in five seconds with their cell phone in their hand as they tweet about what they've just seen," she continued. "I believe we need to reclaim time. Long-duration art has the power to change your mind. I am not making a foundation; I am making an institute, where I and someone else are the directors, and others can come and work—and create work. With the public, performance art can exist. Performance art needs community. You are that community." She gestured to the crowd.
(The day before, speaking to WGXC, a Hudson-area radio station, Abramovic had said, "One quote about the institute that the press keeps repeating is that I said 'It's going to be like Andy Warhol's Factory, without the drugs.' I think this is true.")
Then Abramovic described what visitors can expect when visiting the finished institute. Her description sounded almost frightening, like some sort of futuristic hospice where you check in but can't leave. Or maybe it even sounded boring. But "boring" is a means to an end for Abramovic:
"First, you will sign a contract that says you must stay for six hours, regardless if there are events scheduled for the entire time or not," she began. "Then you will surrender your Blackberry, your iPhone, your watch, your computer… anything that reminds you of time. Then you will be given a white lab coat, because you have become an experimenter. You will also be given sound-cancelling headphones which you can wear when you like."
But that wasn't all.
"You will have an attendant that will move you from room to room. You will be sitting inside a futuristic wheelchair that I'm creating specifically for the institute with designers and architects. It will be designed to have hot food contained in one arm, cold food inside another, and a place for liquids to drink. You will never have to get out of the chair unless you need to. The attendant will take you where you want. Even if you fall asleep—which people might after a 6- or 24-hour performance—you will dream of the performance because you will have in a sense not left it. This is all designed for long-duration experience."
Abramovic anticipated the crowd's next question. "And what about bathrooms?" Palpable in the room had been the uneasy suspicion that the facilities would be located in the wheelchairs themselves, but no. "There will be private bathrooms at the institute! Three categories: men's, women's and artist's… a new category. I am designing special toilets based on the ideas of Robert Filliou, a great artist and thinker."
She then opened the floor to questions.
"Why did you choose Hudson of all the places in upstate New York?" a twenty-something woman asked. (Abramovic has a home in Kinderhook, 15 miles north of Hudson.)
"Rem Koolhaas has said to me 'Real art is not happening in cities. It is happening outside cities,'" Abramovic answered, to huge whoops and applause from the audience. "Originally I was going to do something like this in New York City, but I am so glad I decided not to. The first time I came to Hudson I travelled out here and felt this great release of tension. I believe it's important to have to travel out of New York City and come here to Hudson for the institute, as a journey, that is an important part of the experience. So much is beginning to happen in Hudson, restaurants are opening here, there's the Basilica, the diner is here now—I believe it's important to have a diner—and there's a lively music scene. The train is making a line that will travel one hour from New York, or so I've heard."
She continued, "There is the St. Charles Hotel opening across the street, I believe." A few nods around the room. "I would like to work with the designers of the hotel to have it correspond with the institute. For instance, one idea I had was to have the televisions in all the rooms only tune to one channel, a channel that shows what's going on in the institute across the street."
Then she said, "There are plans to build a homeless shelter near here. I want to meet with the person responsible for building this shelter. Are they here?" Everyone looked around (they weren't). "Anyway, I want to meet with them because we have to embrace this kind of thing. I want to know everyone in the community. I want to know you."
A middle-aged man asked, "What will the open hours of the institute be?"
"I was toying with having it be open six hours a day," Abramovic said. "And maybe have it be open for 24 hours for special projects."
"Will the six-hour duration apply to all mediums?" asked a young woman.
"Yes!" said Abramovic. "Painting, film, dance, performance, everything will be long-duration. The institute will have many different chambers that ritualize everyday activities. Sleep, meditation, drinking water. Rooms with crystals and magnets. But the main space will always have something happening in it, works that I commission. My dream is to ask David Lynch to create something for the main space that lasts 362 hours. Matthew Barney has also asked me if he could create a long-duration piece for the space." (During the WGXC radio interview the day before, Abramovic had mentioned Antony Hegarty, Laurie Anderson and Björk as possible sponsors once the space got going.)
"How much will admission be?" asked someone sitting in front.
"This is something I have put a lot of thought into," Abramovic answered. "I don't want it to be elite. I don't want to charge a lot of money for entrance so only rich people come. That is something I hate. It is difficult for me to decide how to charge a fee for a six-hour experience. But I come from ex-Yugoslavia, which is Communist, so we have different ideas about these kinds of things. I will make a decision."
"Will there be employment for locals from the institute?" asked a woman.
"Yes!" said Abramovic enthusiastically. "This has already been happening, of course. But when it is open I also want to keep the permanent staff very minimal, but then other projects will have additional staff. But yes. There is so much work to be done, and it will continue. With projects like this you can't just drop a global concept out of the sky and plop it down somewhere, you have to work with the community it's in, together to make it happen, to be involved."
"Will the institute create work that a family can enjoy?" asked a younger woman, who was sitting with her husband and young daughter.
"A good question," said Abramovic. "I think long-duration artwork may be difficult, or perhaps different, for children to experience. I've done long-duration work for kids and seen them react differently, some paying attention, some sitting on the sidelines distracted or bored. I do have ideas for the types of things. I also think it is an important challenge today to teach children how to concentrate."
A smattering of applause for this.
"Do you think there is a problem with opening something like this and gentrifying the town, so that rent prices and other things go up so the artists can't afford to live there anymore? How do you plan to address this issue?" asked a woman, who got a few 'tsks' from the audience.
Abramovic's answer was delivered in a big voice, but seemed to sidestep a true answer. "Yes, this is the wonderful thing about escaping the big cities where these kinds of things occur. It is important to escape big cities where the limitations like this don't exist. That's why I am so excited to be doing something like this in Hudson."
Did Abramovic not understand the question? Was she deflecting it? The question was a valid one, but it seemed an unusual one to ask about a burgeoning place like Hudson. With its low rent prices, space to burn, oodles of empty buildings and surrounding small towns in all directions, it's hardly a trendy borough of NYC. While there's already markings of a thriving bohemian culture in Hudson, it has stirred actively for two decades but never quite peaked. As a four-year resident of Hudson myself (I live in the neighboring town of Catskill with my partner, and we both work in Hudson and spend most of our time there), from my perspective younger local artists have expressed nothing but enthusiastic curiosity about Abramovic's plans for the institute. Older locals, some of whom don't even appear to like art, seem collectively supportive of anything that brings attention. If locals are worried about anything, it's that the institute might not happen, like so many things up here haven’t.
"The institute will take millions to finish." Abramovic told the crowd as the event was winding down. "When I first bought the building I spent $125,000 of my own money putting in a new roof. I originally wanted to fund it myself. But it was at that point I realized I couldn't spend anymore of my own money, that's why we have to raise more money. I want to dedicate the next ten years of my life to this project. I feel it's my legacy."
Then it ended. Abramovic told everyone that two of her films would be playing in the space until 5, and all they were welcome to stay and watch. She invited people to look at the model. "And I want to meet you all," she added.
… will become this.
Everyone's first look.
The new roof was the first thing Abramovic had constructed after purchasing the building. Its cost—$125,000—was what made her realize she wouldn’t be able to fund the institute on her own, as she'd originally planned.
Watch where you step!
Institute Director Serge Le Borgne addresses the crowd and explains how he met Marina Abramovic in Paris in 1997.
Marina Abramovic explains “long-duration” art next to a projection of the model for her Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art (a model you poke your head inside of to view the interior).
In the future everyone will sign 6-hour contracts, wear lab coats and noise-cancelling headphones, and get pushed around in wheelchairs.
A woman from Albany asks Abramovic about activities at the institute that families might enjoy together, while her daughter quietly plays a video game.
Abramovic, mobbed by attendees after her presentation.
You got the impression people were already proposing long-duration projects for Marina to commission.
You are here.
Rem Koolhaas’ model of institute’s interior main space and other chambers.
Post-presentation, people don’t seem to want to leave. A good sign!
Mark Allen is a writer and performer living in New York.