I stared at people today.
I sat on a plywood chair, opposite people and I stared at them. Looked. Gazed. Examined.
It was part of Marina Abramović: In Residence, a Kaldor Project. The idea was that the artist would create a space where her Method could be shown to the public. (There’s also a mentoring program running at the same time with a bunch of performance artists who are developing their work upstairs from the main event.)
Lining up to get into the area had been strange – I was the only solo person I could see. Almost everyone else had come in groups of at least three, and the line featured much yucking it up about performance art and degrees. I took pictures of the Harbour Bridge and pretended I couldn’t hear them talk overly loudly about their time in Berlin.
With a stamp on my hand I entered, dressed in black like most of the people inside. At the door I had to surrender belongings – watches, phones, the usual trappings of life – to the safety of a locker. There were to be no distractions, and certainly no selfies. I bet the people behind me were bummed.
After a preliminary session of exercises conducted by a distracted-looking woman on a video screen (stick your tongue out, say aaaah, breathe through one nostril then the other, give yourself a bit of heart massage) to prepare punters for what awaited within. Walking to the division between the space and the rest of the world (and paying careful attention to the USE THE BATHROOMS FIRST signs, I was handed a pair of big, black ear-protectors, which served to mute the sound of the world. I could still hear some things, but mostly the sound of my own blood in my ears.
Inside I saw dozens of people. They all were doing something – but in exceedingly slow motion. It was as if everyone had become stuck in first gear, moving like treacle. Partial walls divided the space where different events were held, so there was a bit of an air of mystery. Wordlessly, a facilitator took my hand and walked me into one of the rooms, with strangely serene purpose.
I was shown to a plywood seat, opposite a young man. I sat, placed my hands on my thighs and looked at him. He was the epitome of the hipster: glasses, a very neat moustache, a vague tan and a jumper. He looked at me and grinned.
I grinned back.
I looked again and the grin faded. It’s difficult to look at someone’s face for an indeterminate period of time. Part of me wondered if it would be polite to get up. He’d grin again, and I would look, trying to make my face as blank a mask as possible, concentrating on the sound of my breath and the elements of his face. Whether it was the power of concentration or the lack of a substantial breakfast, I experienced some visual tics: you know the old trick about gazing at a candle and seeing portentous images? Something like that.
I don’t know how long the encounter lasted. I do know he became uncomfortable. I suspect he was stoned, so enthusiastic was the grinning, but obviously I represented the equivalent of Poe’s Raven, and his smiles began to decrease, until only his throat moved, hitching as if he were finding it difficult to breathe. He began to close his eyes, to refocus, but nothing helped. Eventually it became too much, and he offered a brief joining of his hands, then got up to leave.
I sat there, considering what had happened. I closed my eyes, reopened them, felt my thoughts empty out of the sink of my skull. A young woman was shown into the position opposite, and her discomfort was clear. She looked at me but could not meet my gaze: her eyes flickered, her hands toyed with her mousy hair. With no watch (my god!) I couldn’t well figure the time but I think she lasted only two or three minutes before her panic got the best of her and she fled.
Figuring it was time to move on – also because it’s an intense experience to look at anyone closely for an extended period of time, let alone a stranger – I stood and walked towards the section exit. A facilitator took my hand and showed me back into the sitting area, some sable tool of the wheel of fortune or karma. This time I was seated facing the other way, and was seated in front of another woman, a Greek lady with excellent make-up and a line in pink clothing so audacious that her success in wearing it with aplomb communicated total bad-assery.
We grinned, in the way which appeared to substitute for a greeting at this shindig. And again I looked at someone I didn’t know, fighting the urge to get up and go, that looking like this was rude or invasive. And it is invasive. It’s deeply personal and incredibly strong. You catch yourself almost dissecting someone’s physiognomy and then realise that they’re doing the same to you. It’s a magnified version of what happens at the barber. It’s bad enough there that you’re looking at yourself, seeing every supposed blemish, every part of you you don’t normally see because if you’re like me, you avoid a lot of time in front of the mirror. Except here, you’re looking with that same almost critical depth at someone else, someone new.
Minutes passed – long minutes. She cracked her knuckles, jumped up and gave me a salute and a smile, marching off out of view.
Before I could rise, another guy sat in front of me. He had a thousand-yard stare, looking to the back of my skull. I sat there and willed myself not to blink; to examine his face as he examined mine, dispassionately and without clue to my thoughts, my opinions.
He broke before I did, briefly bowed his head and rose. I wondered if by turning this – however unconsciously – into an example of brinksmanship whether I was being a bad actor. I must admit, I became aware of my heartrate and my breathing falling, slowing down with each person, until I became a passenger inside my own head, merely observing – nothing more.
There were more procedures to undertake in the area. I was tucked into a camp bed at the end of the wharf by a smiling older man who made sure the felt blanket fit tightly under my arms. I lay there, watching the reflections of the harbour play across the roof, listening to the trains crossing the bridge, hearing the odd sonar of people walking as quietly as they could from the others, resting. I needed a rest, curiously – I felt drained by what had happened, but couldn’t say why.
I rose to slow-walk my way back down the length of the wharf; a conscious act where balance and timing become the focus. Normally I just walk – not well, my podiatrist says, but well enough – and don’t think about it. Now, the hundred or so metres was almost torturous – muscles not normally considered aching as the movement was slowed down, the exclusion of all but the tiniest steps.
I stood on boxes, and felt facilitators touch my heart. I sat at a desk like a school student and counted grains of rice – separating colours into piles – with a mixture of focus and mindlessness. A girl next to me had almost entirely sorted the plate-worth of grains into colours; I made squares of 500 of each and thought that was enough.
I looked for the artist. She was present, but not here. Not in my space.
It’s hard to say whether it was art. I guess Abramović’s method is about durational performance – a perfomance (or better yet, a performing process) which becomes your life. Anything can be art; the formal nature of this experience is all that made it so. The exercises? I’m pretty sure a lot of my drama-schooled friends would say they were basic at best. But there was something great about seeing kids in a curated space, becoming the thing advertised so heavily outside.
Me, though? I felt quiet. Taking off the ear-protectors and walking into the street was like hearing a recording of armageddon.
I had spent almost three hours inside myself, and it felt like minutes.