Marina Abramović and OMA’s Shohei Shigematsu with a model of the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art (Photo: OMA / Loren Wohl)
Artist Marina Abramović began her Met Gala Monday in Queens, inside MoMA PS1’s geodesic Performance Dome, where she detailed her plans to transform a crumbling old theater in Hudson, New York into the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation for Performance Art (MAI for short). Hours later, having sharpened up her all-black ensemble, she was striding up the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum of the Art on the arm of James Franco. “Today is a big day for me,” she told the morning assembly of press, curators, critics, and friends after a warm introduction by PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. “In the life of an artist, it’s very important to think of the future. When you die, you can’t leave anything physical—that doesn’t make any sense—but a good idea can last a long, long time.”
Her good idea is to channel 40 years worth of pioneering performance art into a living archive-cum-laboratory that will explore “time-based and immaterial art,” including performance, dance, theater, film, video, opera, and music. The focus will be on “long-duration” performances, those lasting for between six hours and…forever. “Only long-duration works of art have a serious potential to change the viewer looking at it and also the performer in doing it, because the performance that is long becomes more and more like life itself,” she said. “There’s no division between normal daily activity and the performance. This is what I experienced especially at my  performance at MoMA, which was three months long. That really changed me mentally, physically, in many other ways.”
Abramović commissioned OMA to transform the crumbling theater that she acquired in 2007 into a space for training artists and audiences alike. “It has an interesting level of decay,” said OMA partner Shohei Shigematsu, pointing out a rotted column and ghostly baselines from the building’s post-theater incarnation as an indoor tennis court. “The project has to house a very specific program of long-duration performance, so the first thing we decided to do was insert a very monastic box inside that can house many things. It’s actually slightly bigger than the tennis court, so you can still play tennis if you wanted to.”
Shigematsu is leading the project with Rem Koolhaas, an old friend of Abramović. The firm welcomed the challenges of designing for different types of visitors, from artists to meta-viewers. “What’s interesting for us architecturally is that you get these layers of audiences,” Shigematsu said. “The audience that gets trained to be an audience, and the audience that observes the audiences getting trained to be an audience. Typically, you’re just watching the performer, but you start to get this kind of cross-view of people looking at each other and no longer know who is the performer and who is the audience.” Inside, the plan is to carve out a wall of rooms that will face the main performance space. Changes to the exterior will be minimal, aside from opening up some windows and making an atrium for the entry canopy.
The timeline for the project remains vague. In the most optimistic fundraising scenario, the Institute would open in 2014. Paris art dealer Serge Le Borgne has already signed on as director. In the meantime, Abramović will continue instructing interested parties in her “Abramović Method” of performance. “We will continue doing these experiments everywhere until we have the physical building,” she explained. Read on for more details gleaned from last week’s press conference.
Why did you decide to create this Institute rather than a foundation?
Marina Abramović: A foundation mostly is to present your own work, but for me it was very important to create a situation, create a center, for different things, where all seven performing arts can be shown—you’re talking music, dance, opera, video, film, performance art that I’m doing, and any other performance art in the future for which we don’t yet have a name.
Why did you name the Institute after yourself?
MA: Not because I want to live forever. I took my name because I feel like I’ve become a brand, like Coca-Cola. When you hear “Marina Abramović,” you know it’s not about painting. It’s about performing art, and it’s about hardcore performing art.
Why do this in Hudson, New York?
MA: I was trying to create this institute in Brooklyn, and it was impossible to find the right location. When I went to Hudson, and I saw the building in Hudson, which was a former theater built in 1929—Martha Graham even performed there at some point—I knew it was really the right place and the right location. Plus, it’s so comfortable. It’s just two hours from New York. And it’s isolated in a way that is less stressed than New York, stress-y life.
Visitors to the Institute will be able to enroll in a school of sorts to learn “the Abramović method.” What does this involve?
MA: When you enter the space you have to put on a lab coat with “The Abramovic Method” embroidered on it. This is very simple: the lab coats make you different from the normal viewer and turn you into an experimenter. Then you go to the school. You are given headphones that completely block outside sounds, and it’s suggested that you close your eyes most of the time. You have to leave all of your belongings and also sign a contract with me that you give me your word of honor that you will spend two-and-a-half hours in this experiment. And then when you do that you get the certificate of accomplishment.