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July 11, 2022

An Interview with Marina Abramović

The legendary performance artist speaks to Alex Estorick about her genesis NFTs and the new age of heroes
Credit: Marina Abramović, (Still from) Body of Truth, 2019. Courtesy INDI FILM
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An Interview with Marina Abramović

Throughout her career, Marina Abramović has pioneered performance as an art form, putting her body at the center of events in space and time to engage with contemporary artistic, social, and political circumstances. This month sees the launch of her first NFT project, The Hero 25FPS, a collaboration with CIRCA due to be minted on Tezos on 25 July, 2022.

Described as “a performance hosted on the blockchain,” the work revives the central theme of 2001’s The Hero, to be presented across the CIRCA global network of screens in London, Seoul, Milan, Berlin, Tokyo, Dublin, and New York — appearing every evening at 20:22 for three months. Filmed at 25 frames per second, unreleased material from the original work has now been separated into thousands of unique frames. Audiences will be invited to collect either a single unique frame (JPEG) or multiple unique frames in the form of a GIF. Given the artist’s centrality to the world of contemporary art, her decision to embrace the NFT community has profound implications for the future of the art world.

Marina Abramović, The Hero 25 FPS, 2022. Courtesy CIRCA

Alex Estorick: Are there any ways in which NFTs and blockchain technology change the way you view performance, or indeed time-based media?

Marina Abramović: This question reminds me of an important story. 

When I was 14, I asked my father to give me oil paints — because oil paints mean you are a serious artist. My father didn’t really care about art but he knew this soldier, Filo Filipović, who became an abstract painter after the war. Filo came with me and my father to the shop and we bought canvases, pigment, some plaster, cement, and lots of different things. We went home and he gave me my first painting lesson, which I will never forget for the rest of my life. First of all, he cut the canvas and placed it on the floor. Then, he threw some glue on top and then some white paint and then yellow pigment and lots of red pigment. Then he put some cement on the back and began to pour gasoline all over the place. 

Finally, he took a lighter and lit the whole thing and everything literally exploded in front of my eyes. He looked at me and said: “This is a sunset!” And left.  

This was a really important lesson. I then waited a long, long time until everything dried before hanging Filo’s sunset on a nail on my bedroom wall. This was around August time and so I went on summer holidays with my parents. When we returned a few weeks later, the light was hitting the canvas so that all of the glue, cement, and pigments melted away and left behind only a pile of dust on the floor. Nothing was left apart from its memory. 

It is really important for artists to understand the best tool for them to use when making their work. Painting is a great tool, as is sculpture, writing, filmmaking, photography, and now especially this new form of digital art including NFTs. Any of these mediums — these are just the tools. What is most important is the concept and what you do with these tools. A good idea will stand the test of time and remain invaluable, regardless of technological advancements. Strong ideas are universal. 

Marina Abramović, Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives

The first time I performed, I stood in front of the public and felt electrified. It was something that I had never experienced before. Energy ran through my body like electricity. After that, I could not go back to the studio and make something two-dimensional. I had to perform. And I understood that this was really a tool for me. I also realized that performance is a time-based art. You have to be there to experience it, otherwise you don’t see it. But also it’s the kind of art that you can’t hang on the wall. Filo’s sunrise lives on forever, minted into the minds of anyone who hears this story. It is immaterially-immortal. If you are not in the time and space when a performance is happening, you just miss it. 

Performance in relation to NFT is a mental and physical construction that you make at a specific time within a digital space, in front of a digital audience and where energy dialogue is happening. Most importantly, you then use that energy of the audience to do new things — build new possibilities. 

What excites me the most about The Hero 25FPS aside from the way it engages with time is that we have created the Hero Grants — awarding a percentage of the funds generated to people working within Web3 to support new ideas that will make the real world a better place. 

Marina Abramović, The Hero 25FPS, 2022. Courtesy CIRCA

AE: You’ve spoken of the importance of Web3 communities that are currently seeking out new ideas. Many participants in these communities have been historically excluded from the art world. Do you feel an affinity with crypto artists and, if so, what advice would you share?

MA: You know, the older generation of artists likes to ridicule these Web3 artists and likes to think that “this is nonsense, this is just bullshit” and so on. The same happened to me in the 1970s. Same with all performance artists in the 1970s. When we invented performance art and when we started to work with immaterial work — when neither the galleries nor museums could sell or show anything — everybody was thinking this is ridiculous. This is counter art. And this is happening today with the Web3 community. I didn’t do NFT for a while because I needed to find for myself the right concept that really worked. With The Hero 25FPS [25 frames per second] we have achieved this by dividing The Hero footage into seconds, so that the people who want to have the work can collect as many seconds as they want. And they can decide how much of the movement and how much experience they can have with the work. So it’s interactive, you interpret it yourself, and it’s emotional, because this work is emotional. 

It’s really important to create a space where this Web3 community can be creative and figure out how we can change our consciousness. How we can move forwards, and how we can stop this violence. Art by women sells for 50% less than that of art by men and I recently read that as few as 5% of NFT sales go towards projects from female artists. We must change this. And, you know, creating these Hero Grants for the people who can be our new heroes within this new space is very important to me, because that’s the future. We need new heroes. 

My advice to this Web3 community would be: Just don’t give up! Take risks and be prepared to fail, but remember: You are the future, you have the vision, and it takes time to visually become the great vision. It takes a lot of hard work, it doesn’t just happen overnight.

Yves Klein, Cession d’une Zone de sensibilité picturale immatérielle à Claude Pascal. Série n°1, Zone n°06, 4 February 1962. Photography by Giancarlo Botti. Courtesy ADAGP Paris

AE: Collectors often keep hold of NFTs for only a short time before selling them on. What are the implications of a more ephemeral experience of art today? How is it perhaps different from similar explorations of the 1960s and ’70s?

MA: You know, in the beginning of early performance practice, there was a group of us at the time that actually thought we should not film at all or document in any possible way. No photographs. Meaning that, only what we do then and there exists within the memory of the audience seeing the work and that’s it. But, very soon, I understood that actually this is not possible, that I really needed to have documentation and I wanted to kind of save and project for the future how the performances were made. 

The story of my first painting lesson aged 14 really informed my entire career because later on I understood that, for me, the process was more important than the result. Then I began looking into different artists that really inspired me like Yves Klein who, in 1959, sold to his collectors the pictorial sensibility. How do you sell sensibility? The collector wrote the cheque, gave [it] to Yves Klein and took the match and burned the cheque. And then, you know, it became again this idea of immateriality. I came through lots of these different experiences and realizations through my work to discover that I was interested in the immaterial in art and not materiality. 

If we think about performance art, it’s always about immateriality. Performance is such a difficult art form because it’s so immaterial. It’s there at a specific time in a specific place for the audience to come and see. And all that is left with the audience is a memory of that event. And performance is very important to be done for the public, so it’s also interactive. 

And so many years later, now we are in the 21st century, what do we have? We have the NFT which is also immaterial, also about time and also about the direct experience of the audience, and I see a lot of connections there.

Marina Abramović, The Hero 25 FPS, 2022. Courtesy CIRCA

AE: Web2 has taught us to be skeptical of new technological paradigms. How can artists maintain their autonomy as creators while being enfolded within vast digital networks?

MA: Skepticism is the worst “ism” on this planet. I am skeptical of skeptics. 

I filmed The Hero in 2001, shortly after the dot-com bubble exploded. At that time, there were only 400 million people online. After ten years, there were two billion. Today there are nearly six billion. This is remarkable. I find it incredible when people are skeptical about the future of technology within art. We must embrace new mediums and new tools with all of our creativity. The future demands us to take risks and confront fears associated with failure. I have failed so many times in my life but each time I learn something new and grow as an artist. An artist should never repeat themselves. 

There is currently an exhibition on display in Florence at the Palazzo Strozzi where they have drawn parallels between the work of Donatello and NFTs. It’s very interesting. You know, Donatello was pioneering the fabrication of his craft in ways that we can’t even imagine — finding new ways to carve movement in marble and develop new techniques that are still alive today. This was in the 15th century and I’m sure he had his skeptics. They are of course now dead but his ideas live on. You can’t do anything without taking risks or trying new things. You also can’t give a shit what people think. I wear slippers every morning that say “fuck negativity.” But at the same time, you have to be absolutely ready for total failure, because failure is part of that trip. 

When you take a risk — like when Columbus braved superstition and ignorance by sailing across the Atlantic when his skeptics thought he would fall off the edge of the Earth — you just have to make a conscious decision to go somewhere you’ve never been before. This is heroism. How do you know that you will not fail? This is what all artists and all human beings should be ready to do today. Take risks. Go out of the safety zone of your own life and see what is there for you. Sail to the edge. Today, we need new heroes.

Marina Abramović, 2018. Photography by Carlo Bach. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives

AE: What do you see as the potential of the NFT as a medium rather than simply a sales mechanism?

MA: In 1985/86, I was asked: “What is the future of art in general?” I said that I see the future as the completely immaterial transmission of the artist’s experience to the audience in an immaterial way. An exchange of energy. That was then and now it looks like this prediction is coming true. 

I see NFTs as becoming the foundation of all human architecture because the technology allows for total trust and transparency. 

I recently watched this interview with David Bowie from 1999, where he spoke about the Internet and the influence it would have on all of our lives. This was 23 years ago before YouTube and Google. He spoke about the “demystification process going on between the artist and the audience” which is far greater than any sales mechanism. I don’t care about sales. I care about ideas. Which reminds me, Bowie also wrote a very good song called Heroes (1977). He said “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming” and I couldn’t agree with him more. We need new heroes. 

Marina Abramović, The Hero 25 FPS, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Your work, The Hero (2001) is set to be broadcast every evening for three months across the CIRCA global network of screens. How do you view the relationship between large-scale social events of this kind and the personal experience that NFTs afford?

MA: ​​When Josef [O’Connor, Artistic Director at CIRCA] invited me to participate in CIRCA 2022, I immediately thought of The Hero because, right now, we are really facing a nuclear Third World War. There is nothing quite like the CIRCA platform in terms of scale and audience and we are showing this work for three months. That’s a long time. A lot of my most important works have been durational and we felt this moment in time called for something extraordinary. An extended pause. 

I love the fact that a woman is holding the flag and appearing center stage on all of these screens around the world at this moment in time. Especially with what is happening now in America, where I live, with Roe v Wade. It is terrible. All of this toxic masculine energy belongs to the past. The Hero is facing the future. It is important for art to find new avenues to engage with new audiences, especially now, otherwise we are all fucked. 

I decided to embrace NFT because it enables artists to become sovereign. The Hero Grants will also help to fund new ideas within this Web3 space and I am excited to see what new ideas emerge from within this space. Art doesn’t have the power to change the world but art can ask the right questions. Art can show the way. But there is not something else that can change you, every individual has to change themselves first. It’s up to us. It’s not that some kind of miraculous force will come and then everything will stop. We always put this responsibility somewhere else. Responsibility is us, ourselves, what we can do right now, today, to change something. The Hero Grants are my small way of contributing to this future. 

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With thanks to Josef O’Connor and Anika Meier.

Marina Abramović has pioneered performance as a visual art form throughout her career, developing some of the most important early examples of the practice. These include Rhythm 0 (1974), in which she offered herself as an object of experimentation for the audience, as well as Rhythm 5 (1974), where she laid in the center of a burning five-point star to the point of losing consciousness. These performances married concept with physicality, endurance with empathy, complicity with loss of control, and passivity with danger. 

In 2012, she founded the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), a non-profit foundation for performance art, that focuses on performance, long durational works, and the use of the “Abramović Method.” She was one of the first performance artists to be formally accepted by the institutional museum world with major solo shows taking place throughout Europe and the US over a period of more than 25 years. In 2023, Abramović will be the first female artist to host a major solo exhibition in the Main Galleries of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Her first European retrospective “The Cleaner” was presented at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden in 2017, followed by presentations at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark; Henie Onstad Art Center, Norway (2017), Bundeskunsthalle, Germany (2018), Centre of Contemporary Art, Toruń, Poland (2019), and concluding at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, Serbia (2019). In 2010, Abramović had her first major US retrospective and simultaneously performed for over 700 hours in The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

She has been awarded the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale; the US Art Critics Association Award for Best Exhibition of Time Based Art; the Austrian Decoration of Honor for Science and Art, Vienna; Honorary Royal Academician status by The Royal Academy of Arts, London; Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People; and the Princess of Asturias Award for the Arts.

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.

The Hero 25FPS NFTs by Marina Abramović. Public Mint: Monday 25 July, 2022 at 2 pm UTC. Visit NFT.CIRCA.ART to subscribe for updates and apply for a Hero Grant.