By Roland Betancourt
In recent years, following her 2010 MoMA retrospective, Marina Abramović has exploded as a pop cultural icon standing in as a synecdoche for the trajectory of post-war performance art. In addition to her MoMA show and its resulting documentary, her friendships and collaborations with James Franco and – most recently – Jay-Z and Lady Gaga have brought her to the forefront of pop-culture as a sort of envoy from the art world. For Jay-Z, she operated as a validation tactic at Pace while he lip-synced to “Picasso, Baby.” For Lady Gaga, she has served mainly as a mentor and a collaborator in Gaga’s filmed undertaking of “The Abramović Method” in Hudson, NY.
However, we cannot still see Abramović as this angelic, Messianic envoy from the art realm, transubstantiating pop with her presence. She herself has become a pop-cultural icon, carrying more weight in this liminal zone of pop-artists populated by Gaga and the like than among her art-world peers. She does not have much active traction in the art world per se – or in its academic circles. In this sense, Abramović captures precisely the goals that Lady Gaga has apparently laid out for herself in the age of ARTPOP, where art is in pop, rather than pop in art.
This, however, is a misconstruction of what precisely constitutes pop. In my attempts to locate pop in this series of essay, I have demonstrated – or at least defined as my own theory – that the domain of pop is not in the realm of these popular artists (i.e. best-selling musicians and actors, who claim the title of “popular” and hence “pop” merely by their literal popularity, evidenced by Twitter followers and movie earnings). This is not to discredit this body of artists due to their popularity, quite the contrary: they themselves are the medium of pop – the body upon which virality manifests its symptoms and chaotic creations. However, the location of pop is not merely the latitudes and longitudes of the terrain, but rather the contours of its topography and human geography: this, as I have argued again and again, is the domain of the fan, the followers, the subscribers. It is the space of those who partake of virality, existing on its edge, but rarely crossing it – those for which 15 literal minutes (or even seconds) of fame is still a thing.
If we follow my argument and choose to believe my proposition, then Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP project – if defined by the interactions we have noted so far with Abramović – is a failure. This is not to say that the music sucks, that Lady Gaga is over, or any other litany of woes that would spark the ire of an army of Little Monsters. It is merely a failure in so far as, my Little Monsters, Mother Monster has forgotten that you are the kings and queens of the kingdom, the writers of its history, and thus: the kingdom itself.
How then does an artistic collaboration with Marina Abramović, where Lady Gaga undertakes the processes and preparations used to prime a performance artist for her work, help advance the project of an art pop, which is explicitly defined against the model of pop art?
To release a film of a naked Lady Gaga undergoing “The Abramović Method” is quite blatantly an act of putting pop culture in art (literally), not the inverse as Gaga wishes to do. Marina Abramović’s presence in these collaborations is perfect: after all, her identity as an art-world-exclusive, elite artist has given way to a highly popular artist – which would probably make most contemporary art historians groan and practicing artists snarl. It is Abramović’s own transformation into a popular artist at the level of Gaga that makes her so ideal – she has undertaken the seemingly impossible, an inverse apotheosis: I supposed that using a Christian model one might call it the Incarnation, yet here she has not maintained her divinity, but become fully human. It is through this that Lady Gaga has smartly chosen Abramović, but this important – crucially inexorable – aspect of that choice has yet to manifest itself in any of their collaborations or interviews. In fact, Gaga’s use of Abramović has simply been a way of attempting to deify pop through art, not recognizing the potency of the false icon that lies before her, which contains the power to precisely achieve the proper goals of an art pop.
An artist who has perfectly embodied the manifestation of art pop is the quasi-viral sensation Hennessey Youngman, a persona constructed by contemporary artist Jayson Musson. In his YouTube and Vimeo videos, Hennessey Youngman lectures on the intricacies of artistic production, art theory, famous artists, and the art world at large in his series Art Thoughtz. His laid-back, colloquial approach to the material and gansta rhetoric make the videos amusing, while cutting through the thicket of jargon that his videos necessarily address. The videos are often peppered with radically inaccurate facts that push the satirical nature of the piece to riotous comedy – at least for the art historians in the room. This series would be quite amusing if you encountered them in a gallery such as Pace, and their wit and intelligence would surely draw one in. But, what makes these a perfect manifestation of art pop (rather than pop art) is not that they use a colloquial, popular rhetoric to unfold their ideas – that would still place them well in the domain of pop art. Instead, it is their first-person address to the webcam and the fact that they have been uploaded on YouTube.
Jayson Musson is a clever artist who works in the medium of film and video art. Hennessey Youngman, however, is a YouTube celebrity whose vlogs on art take on the location of pop right at the brink of virality, in that thriving zone of cultural production that shuttles between (1) his YouTube audience and (2) the pop superstars, mega artists, and celebrity scholars that he cites. Jayson Musson is successful in producing an ideal embodiment of art pop because he produces art through the medium of pop – that is: on YouTube and in a format that is readily understood as one specific to that medium. He does not resort to the validations and institutional entities of the art world as his medium – as does Lady Gaga – but rather has cleverly instituted a momentary suspension of these systems through Hennessey Youngman. The character of Youngman serves as a recursive tactic in a manner similar to that of Ryan Trecartin’s various schizophrenic characters, yet while a crucial figure like Trecartin may overwhelm the audience with his procedural representation of the experience of pop-culture, Trecartin still operates within a domain much closer to that of pop art (even if Trecartin is much more aware of what the location of pop is today than the art world’s stereotypical construction of pop in the outdated visage of Andy Warhol). Nevertheless, in attempting to define art pop, we cannot be distracted by knowledge of what the location of pop truly is today – as rare as that might be. Instead, we must be snobs: fervent connoisseurs of our YouTube videos and Vines.
Thus, I want to consider:
1. What really is art pop?
2. How are traces of it already manifest?
3. And, rhetorically: What should Lady Gaga and Marina Abramović do in order to properly manifest the goals of an art pop?
To answer these interrelated questions, I will start with the last, which is the easiest: I want to see Marina Abramović twerk. I want Lady Gaga and Marina Abramović to sit at a table, face the camera point blank, and take two heaping tablespoons of cinnamon. That’s right: I want to see Lady Gaga and Marina Abramović do the Cinnamon Challenge – a common YouTube video trope where one or more people attempt to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon without water. Because of the absorbent nature of cinnamon and its irritating properties, the challenge is not only nearly impossible, but also quite difficult and painful as it invariably causes the challengers to choke, gag, and have difficulty breathing. Its effects are startlingly quick.
Perhaps the best example of this video is that by the brilliant GloZell Green, a popular YouTuber whose rendition of the Cinnamon Challenge went viral with nearly 33 million views (at the time of writing this). The video even came to acquire – as many such videos tend to – a heavily auto-tuned track that describes the events of the challenge, a gesture that in itself riffs on the popularity of the Gregory Brothers’ “Auto-Tune the News,” famously embodied in Antoine Dodson’s “Bed Intruder” incident and subsequent song. In GloZell’s video, we watch as an allegedly naïve GloZell – not knowing the severity of the challenge, a common trope in many of the Cinnamon Challenge videos – takes a ladle of powdered cinnamon into her mouth and begins spiraling as the cinnamon burns her throat. While the YouTubers often attempt to be stoic in their efforts, they are soon overcome by the potency of the cinnamon.
GloZell’s work overall is comparable to Musson’s, given that the persona of GloZell – with her usual naïveté of the severity of the challenges, her confused responses to her husband who often interjects, and her mother’s similar interruptions of her videos – constructs a character that is disjointed (even slightly, perhaps) from real life, while nevertheless forcing herself to undertake painful and dangerous challenges. In the Salt and Ice challenge, where GloZell presses ice-cubes over salt onto her skin as she counts to 60 twice, we see her actively struggling with the severe pain from the cold burns, which eventually freeze her skin, leaving visible scars upon her arm. While this may be a facile comment, there is a potent similarity between GloZell’s actions in her videos and the actions of Marina Abramović’s well-known performance art, which is traditionally based on rites of endurance in the face of bodily harm and stress.
While GloZell is not standing in an art gallery as people commit crimes upon her flesh (as Abramović in her 1974 Rhythm 0), GloZell is certainly submitting herself to user-requested tasks over which she herself has little control. The farcical nature of her confused and naïve affect in the face of such tasks may suggest an actor-like approach to the performance, which might distance it from the foundations of performance art – but I would argue that this alleged persona is no different than the mental preparations to which Abramović submits herself before undertaking her own challenges. GloZell is not developed or articulated as a character distinct from her performer; she simply operates in a seemingly naïve state of mind so as to allow herself to undertake these challenges. One might even go on to argue that the logic of Abramović’s work also operates on the trope of the challenge: her performance art – as most endurance-based performance art – takes on the proposition of an act as a sort of challenge. Sitting at MoMA for the duration of The Artist is Present and staring stoically at those who sat before her was a proposition that operated as a challenge in the sense that its fulfillment – despite all preparation and skill – was still in question, an aspect that is stressed in the narrative of the resulting documentary.
Returning to GloZell, we must note the prevalence of challenge videos on her YouTube channel. As I have stressed before, YouTubers are not one-hit wonders that emerge from a viral video, but rather a dedicated group of performers who produce videos – often as full-time jobs, depending on their viewership – and who receive a steady stream of tens of thousands of views per video. GloZell is no exception to this profile with over two-million subscribers and over a thousand videos. Most importantly, GloZell distinguishes herself from just another YouTuber creating the odd challenge video in that the challenges she undertakes are sometimes non-existent, completely bordering on farce and serving as a medium-specific reflection on of her own work.
This is exemplified in her Cereal Challenge video, where GloZell fills a bathtub with milk, pours cereal into it, and then goes diving in the mix, trying to consume the cereal without her hands. While its farcical nature foils the seriousness and alleged rigor that is sometimes erroneously associated with performance art, let us remember that GloZell still has to consume massive amounts of milk and cereal until she no longer can. Even in a moment such as this that seems to step out of the system to ridicule it, GloZell’s auto-didactic training in the medium of YouTube videos does not fail her – she still undertakes the task in the face of possible bodily harm and with the immense challenge to her endurance.
In these respects, GloZell is the consummate embodiment of an art pop project’s performance artist – she is the true Abramović of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP fantasia. But, I do not want to limit the strengths of GloZell’s actions to her alone, but rather allow for this model to apply to the most casual YouTuber’s undertaking of such a challenge. If anyone were to ask what the point is, or what the meaning of this alleged performance art is, I would not bat an eye to defend such artists and their work by trying to sketch out some hollow narrative about how it is a political, social, or economic commentary – or whatever other banal recourse to meaning one might like to play out. It is precisely the potential for hollowness – and note that I am not saying it is indeed – that makes these challenges so meaningful. What we see in the proliferation of these challenges is the development of a medium-specific language of artistic production – one that, even if you do not wish to see it as specific to art or art history, is still nevertheless specific to YouTube. In their deployment of some of the crucial bullet-point aspects of post-war performance art, as misconstrued or simplistic a manner in which I may have presented them here, I would go as far as to consider these – no matter what my fellow art historians might say – as the direct descendants of the works of figures such as Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Saburo Murakami, or Carolee Schneemann – and certainly Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden.
Therefore, I don’t want to see Lady Gaga in Jeff Koons’s studio learning how to make stainless-steel balloon animals. I don’t want to see an “Art Rave” where people might dance besides his work, unless they are producing art on the spot with a tablet or an iPhone – that art being Vine videos and tweets that are being live streamed all over the room and around the world. I want to see Koons and Gaga getting down and dirty in the nitty-gritty pixelated bowels of pop culture – they should be getting drunk with a Kardashian during a twitcam live stream while explaining art theory in the style of Hennessey Youngman meets Drunk History.
I want to see Marina Abramović and Lady Gaga do the cinnamon challenge on YouTube as a new form of “music video” that is released first, and only after is supplemented by a wonderfully auto-tuned song that would make Cher envious. Instead of seeing a naked Lady Gaga roaming through the woods, practicing the Abramović Method, I want to see the structure reversed: I want to see a naked Marina Abramović twerking for the camera to a Lady Gaga song in her bedroom, wearing sweatpants in a manner that would put the artist known simply as Lady to shame. Preferably, Marina would be dancing on a table from which she would surely take a tumble – not in an art gallery. Ain’t nobody got time for that. But, a seven-second Vine of Marina Abramović twerking. Now, I’ve got time for that.
Roland Betancourt is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University writing a dissertation entitled, “The Proleptic Image: An Investigation of the Medium in Byzantium.” In April 2012, he co-chaired a major symposium at Yale entitled Byzantium/Modernism on the mutually generative collision of Byzantium and Modernism. In addition to various other projects, he is currently editing a special volume of the journal postmedieval entitled, “Imagined Encounters: Historiographies for a New World,” which asks scholars to suspend disbelief and create cross-temporal analyses using artworks and theories from different historical spaces.
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