In a deep recess of Twitter, under the search term “Marina Abramović fancam,” a hyper-filtered 18-second video in a garish purple hue has turned the artist into a hyperpop internet relic. Clips of the artist are overlaid with artificial sparkles and, boldly, soundtracked by the obscure Selena Gomez track “Rare.” Stripped bare of context, the artist is repackaged into a gaudy, overproduced, and unforgettable piece of art that represents the great soup-ification of time and space by the internet: a seemingly incompatible stew of elements plucked from past and present, mixed together to create something wholly unique and wholly unstuck from linear time.
It’s an unintentionally fitting ode to an artist who, over her nearly half-century career, has tested and surpassed the limits of both the human body and time itself. It’s been nearly 50 years since Abramović burst upon the art scene with her Rhythm 10 (1973) performance, but it’s this seminal piece that continues to offer insight into what inspires her. With 20 knives and two tape recorders, the artist turned the Russian game of stabbing a knife between your fingers into an exploration of both her physical limit for pain and the melding of history. After cutting herself 20 times (once with each blade), she replayed the tape, listened to the sounds of each round, and attempted to replicate them again — using the past as a blueprint for the present.
Decades later, her newest work continues to build upon the blurring of time. With The Hero 25FPS (or frames per second), she has reached into her past and pulled her 2001 film The Hero into the present. In the original work (filmed at 25 FPS) Abramović is clad in black as she sits atop a white horse and holds a white flag. The Spanish countryside acts as the backdrop as her hair and the flag blow dramatically in the wind for 17 minutes. Packed with symbolism and dedicated to her father — the celebrated Yugoslavian war hero Vojo — the film could be interpreted as both a show of strength or surrender.
In Abramović’s reinterpretation of the piece, the film has been turned into two interlocking projects in collaboration with The Cultural Institute of Radical Contemporary Art (CIRCA). First, the original film was expanded from PAL (square format) into a widescreen video using never-before-seen footage. Beginning on June 13 and running through August 13, this new version has been broadcast every evening at 20:22 local time on massive screens in London, Seoul, Dublin, Milan, Berlin, Japan, and New York — allowing a new and far more expansive set of viewers around the world to encounter her art.
It was from this grueling, post-production work that the second part of the project was borne. As the original film was pulled apart so that it could be expanded, Abramović saw a beauty emerge from each frame. The result is 6,500 unique frames to be sold as NFTs on Tezos, a blockchain that the artist and CIRCA chose specifically because it's reportedly more environmentally friendly and less energy intensive than other blockchains. When the public minting begins on 25 July at 2PM UTC, buyers can purchase either a single frame (.jpg) or a sequence of frames (.gif), with each frame costing £150. For the artist, it’s an entirely new way to meld the past and present with the future, but also an opportunity for audiences to essentially acquire time. Using a percentage of the funds from the NFTs, Abramović will also launch Hero Grants, which will help fund projects in the web3 space that, ideally, will make the world a better, more sustainable place.
The artist is no stranger to taking a risk for her art, but with the NFT and Hero Grant program, the stakes are no longer limited to her body. At 75, she is looking towards the future and towards the legacy she will leave behind. By entering this new technological space, her goal is to inspire and encourage an entirely new generation of heroes to rise up and give a bit of light to a world desperately in need of hope. As Abramović and CIRCA prepare for Monday’s public mint of the NFT, we spoke with the artist via email about revisiting past works, the flattening of time, and why it's essential to always remember to stop and breathe.
You’ve explained that the decision to create an NFT of The Hero (2001) was born out of the task of editing each frame of the original film. The process has turned a singular artwork into thousands of unique NFTs. With such a rich history of creating video-based work, how has this process of making NFTs out of film stills inspired you creatively?
I remember very well when I first started using video in a very controlled way. I visited Copenhagen to perform [Art Must Be Beautiful Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975)] and they had video facilities which, back then, was still a very new media like NFTs are a new media today. I did not give any instructions to the videographer but when I saw the video I was shocked. It had nothing to do with my own work. He was using all the possibilities of the camera; close up, far out, total shot, filming my feet when I was doing something with the hair and so forth.
My work and what he recorded had nothing to do with each other. I was so repulsed by this experience that I told him to delete the whole performance straight away, and he did. Immediately after that I went backstage to do this performance only for the camera. The camera is going to be my public, the camera is going to be my silent viewer. I decided how it's going to be framed on my head and asked him to press the button and go out to smoke a cigarette. And that's it. What I understood after this is that I have to have total control. It’s not enough to just make performance, but the same energy has to be put into controlling how it’s recorded, until the recording is as close as possible to reality. 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.
I find NFT very inspiring because it is also about exploring the possibilities of immateriality — except you are dealing with the experience of a digital audience. This is new territory for me. I’ve been inspired to learn about Web3 and the possibilities that blockchain technology provides to this new (and old) generation of artists. That it gives artists sovereignty is very important and I am curious to see what emerges from within this space. This is why I am donating a percentage from The Hero 25FPS to creating Hero Grants.The grants we award are my small way of contributing to this future.
There’s a 2018 essay called “The Big Flat Now” by Jack Self that focuses on the idea that “cultural production in the third millennium is totally flat.” Essentially, the past, present, and future have merged into one thanks to the hyperconnectivity of the internet and global society. Durational performance pieces have always been integral to your practice, so I’m curious what you think of this idea that time and space has flattened.
Time is very important to me. In the beginning of the early 1970s, performances were short. [One] hour maximum. Maybe sometimes even shorter than that. The more I did performance, the more I understood that I wanted to extend the time. When we started to perform longer for two to three months, the performances actually became life itself. There was no longer any division between life and the performance. We were actually performing life.
In performance, I have experienced the non-existence of time where time stops existing. Time kind of flattens and stretches to infinite. I’ve rotated around the sun 75 times and let me tell you — I’ve seen a lot of shit. I think the greatest risk today is that the line between performance and reality has been blurred to the point where we can no longer separate performances from reality. This is dangerous.
The morality of our politicians is currently at such a low. We don't have anyone looking forward to the future. We don't have people like Gandhi, we don't have people like Dr. Martin Luther King. We have Greta, we have visionary new movements of collective action like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter but we still need people with vision. We need people who can bring new light to the end; [people] that we really can look at their morality and be inspired. Art is always going to exist. Since humanity exists, art exists. But what we are lacking now is real heroes. We need the real heroes right now at this moment.
I’m always most inspired by the source of inspiration: the sun rising, the forest moving, the spring awakening, or even the volcano erupting. Everything else is synthetic. It is the gray in between. The only thing that is vital is life itself.
Much of your artistic career has been defined by site-specific works where the interaction from the audience is vital, yet these works live on in recordings — either through film or photographs taken during the performance. Now, a new layer has been added by taking a film from two decades ago and cutting it into thousands of single frames. Do you worry at all that the message of The Hero won’t maintain its strength when pulled apart into these thousands of NFTs?
Absolutely not. Does The Hero have more strength in a private art collection owned by an individual collector or decentralized into thousands of new possibilities on the blockchain? Jackson Pollock described the canvas as a dead carcass; that to experience the art, you have to be there as he was dripping the paint onto the canvas. Same with performance. The Hero existed 21 years ago. What is left now is a memory — and that memory can exist in video, photography or, as we are doing, NFTs. When I performed Rhythm 0 (1974), the audience could do whatever they wanted with my body. One man pointed a gun at my head. With [The Artist Is Present (2010)], people could sit as long as they wanted. And now with The Hero 25FPS I am inviting the same amount of audience participation because the work is divided into these seconds and seconds and seconds. So that, actually, the people who want to have the work can collect as many seconds as they want. They can decide how much of the movement and how much experience they can have. It's interactive, you interpret it yourself, and it's emotional, because this work is emotional. So, everything together.
Performance can only exist with an audience and the artist must be brave and prepared to take risks in order to nurture and grow that audience. It takes a lot of hard work being an artist. A lot of boring paperwork, emails and life admin in-between the site specific performances you mention that ultimately define an artist's career. With this performance on the blockchain, I am inviting a new audience to engage with my work and this is very important to me. With this performance, The Hero will exist as long as the blockchain exists, which I am told could be a very long time. I am also supporting a new generation through the Hero Grants who are experimenting within this new web3 space and I believe that what they are doing is very important. I am happy to support them. We should be more concerned about the planet being pulled apart and searching for solutions to these problems instead of worrying about an object hanging or not hanging on a wall — especially in the middle of this heatwave. These are the problems that the future demands from artists and everyone else alive today to solve.
NFTs are incredibly divisive. Many critics have called them cash grabs or pointed to the energy intensive process of “minting” them on the blockchain. You made sure to ensure that your NFT project was both affordable and environmentally friendly, but fans of your work may still be disappointed that you’ve ventured into the NFT art space. Do you worry about this criticism? What would you say to these fans and critics?
You know, I have been criticized my entire career. When we first pioneered performance work in the 1970s, people complained and said this is not art, this is bullshit, and so on. They couldn’t understand what we were exploring conceptually within the realm of immateriality. They wanted a physical painting, a sculpture. Something solid that they could hang on a wall, sell, and understand. How do you quantify nothing?
So many years later, now we have NFT which is also immaterial, also about time, and also about the direct experience of the audience. I see a lot of connections there between how people criticized me early on in my career and the criticism that this new generation are receiving today who are pioneering and building the future within this new Web3 space. With The Hero 25FPS, my intention is to ask that question again through the prism of a new medium: NFT.
The young Millennial and Gen Z generations have very pessimistic views of the future of this planet, especially in regards to the climate. You’ve been alive for 75 years and have traveled extensively across the world. What kind of advice do you have for those who feel hopeless? What kind of legacy do you personally hope to leave for new generations of people, and artists, after death?
I’ve circled the sun 75 times and experienced so many different sides of life. There have been moments where I have felt great emptiness and sadness. Fear. Joy. Utter joy, in fact. But these are all colors that make up the palette of life. Artists use paint, but what they are really painting is life itself. Every day right now is a shaky, uncertain, constantly changing landscape. How do you overcome these daily challenges that life presents? If my work can contribute to these challenging moments in a person's life then I will be very content with my legacy.
The concept of heroism is often bestowed to these larger than life characters who arrive on a white horse with a big sword and save the day. But not everyone is this hero. Not everyone can change the world. So what do we do? What can we do in these moments where we feel powerless? I would say that we have to focus inward. We have to revert to some form of simplicity and focus on what we can control. The love that we can pass on. The kindness that we can share. These are what matter. This is what we will remember in our hearts when we are about to die. But also the breathing. Breathing is very important. To stop and breathe is a secret weapon. When I am feeling scared or overwhelmed I stand by an open window for 10 minutes, close my eyes and simply breathe.
Sometimes when the problems we face are so huge, it requires us to focus on the simple actions. And you can't do anything without taking risks. But at the same time, you have to be absolutely ready for total failure, because failure is part of that trip. Because you're going somewhere you've never been. How do you know that you will not fail? And this is what all artists and all human beings should be ready to do. Take risks. Go out of the safety zone of your own life and see what is there for you. This is the legacy I hope to leave behind.