Accumulation & Decay: An Interview with Marilyn Arsem

by Jeffrey Byrd

Arsem "Edge" photo by Daniel S DeLucaMarilyn Arsem has been making performances for over 30 years. In 2015, she was honored with the Maud Morgan Prize by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This biennial award is given to women artists from Massachusetts who have made significant contributions in contemporary art. Arsem will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Museum opening on November 12, 2015. I had a conversation with Arsem at her Jamaica Plain home in May. We talked about her early work as well as her most recent pieces. We also talked about her upcoming book this moment: missives from another world, thirty years of performances photographed by Bob Raymond which chronicles three decades of performances at Mobius, Boston’s leading space for live art. Mobius will sponsor a book launch at Samson Projects, 450 Harrison Ave/29 Thayer Street in Boston from 5-8PM on June 21st.

Afterwards, we watched a cheesy movie.

JB: Most of this past year, you’ve been busy working on a book, this moment: missives from another world, thirty years of performances photographed by Bob Raymond.

MA: The book is documentation of Mobius performances from the last 30 years. But it is actually only 70 images out of a possible 35,000. Bob Raymond, my husband, photographed Mobius events from 1983 until his death in 2012. He was at nearly every single event: forty weekends a year for 30 years.

JB: That’s pretty remarkable.

MA: Yes. The archive of images is now at Tufts University in the Mobius Inc. records at Tufts University’s Digital Collections and Archives, Tisch Library, in Medford Massachusetts. It includes not just Bob’s photographs, but the papers of Mobius, posters and newsletters, etc. from 1983 onward.

JB: You founded Mobius in 1975, right?

MA: I founded Mobius in 1975, when I began creating original performances developed with other artists working in different media, producing them in spaces around Cambridge and Boston. We took the name Mobius in 1977, incorporated in 1980, and opened a public performance and exhibition space in 1983. The space is run by the Mobius Artist Group, a collaborative of artists working in all media.

JB: It’s clear you have these dates memorized since you have been working on the book!

Arsem "The Cure" Poland photo by Marcin PolakMA: I did write an introductory essay on the history. The 70 images are the ones that Bob picked and printed for exhibitions in 2009 and 2011. I did not want the task of actually choosing from the 35,000 images. I thought it was more important to make a book of images that he had chosen. We asked the artists who are pictured to write about the image; about documentation; their experience of doing the work; or their experience of seeing the image potentially 30 years later. It is an interesting range of commentary about the work that has gone on at Mobius. There are introductory essays as well. Jed Speare, who was the curator of Bob’s 2009 exhibition that happed at Studio Sotto, wrote a preface. I wrote a description of the early days of Mobius and the changes that Bob’s documentation went through over those years and the wonderful Jeffery Byrd wrote a lovely essay about performance and documentation.

JB: Well…I was happy to do that!

MA: There’s never been a book about Mobius in any form. This is the first publication that we’ve done really. We’ve made some catalogs of projects, and DVDs of performances or CDs of sound work, but we’ve never actually published a book.

JB: Well, I’d say it’s high time…it’s long overdue. Thinking about the many performances Bob photographed and thinking about the role of Mobius, do you think this book becomes a portrait of performance art in Boston?

MA: Àine Phillips edited Performance Art in Ireland: A History and decided to publish any and all photographs that artists submitted for the book as long as they were high enough quality to reproduce well. You get a sense of the very broad range of performance art in Ireland. I think this moment is not the book that actually covers all performance art in Boston. If you could look at Bob’s 20,000 slides and 15,000 digital images in the Mobius Inc. records, then you would see the range of performance in Boston. This book reveals much more the development of Bob’s photographic eye, as well as the impact of moving from slide film to digital imaging.

JB: You could write a history of technology through performance documentation.

MA: My essay addresses that to some extent. I tried to describe what it was like to videotape a piece in the 80s. You had to borrow big cameras and record on real tape. We had problems with RF signal interference from the airport! People with their iPhone cameras just don’t understand the kinds of issues we used to deal with!

JB: These kids just don’t know how good they’ve got it!

MA: And the whole issue of low light…you had to blast the subject with light in order to videotape. You often couldn’t videotape the actual performance; you had to set up a different session to shoot.

JB: Knowing all of this is another way of acknowledging just how great Bob was at taking pictures and interacting with the artists. In my essay I say it was collaboration—the performance and the documentation. When reading the three essays, I noticed that we all mentioned Bob’s care with the shutter and making sure that the shutter sound did not disrupt the ambiance of the performance. The editor in me wanted to cut it out, but then I realized it was a testament to just how well Bob understood the medium of performance art. I think one of the major principles is that the needs of the future should not trample on the experience of the present.

MA: Oh that’s a nice way to say that…

JB: I think the care that went into the production of the images is something that you can’t overstate so it’s good we all mentioned it in the essays.

MA: It gets mentioned in some of the artists’ responses as well.

JB: It means a lot. It’s not trivial.

MA: Bob also developed an interest in photographing details, trusting an evocative image that didn’t necessarily make clear what the action was or what the narrative was, but would still carry some sense of the work. Realizing there is no way the image can represent the entire work; he became more willing to let go of the notion of representing the whole work and tried to find an image that revealed some aspect of the work. They become much more emotional, much less objective.

JB: They are less descriptive perhaps, but powerful. It’s fascinating to think there are so many images in the Tufts archives. There are other books to be written!

MA: Tufts is hoping to work with Mobius to secure funding to have all the images digitized and available online.

JB: Mobius shouldn’t be ignored any longer. The idea that Tufts is a part of this is significant. So many things have changed in these 30 years with Mobius. What has changed in your work?

Arsem "I Scream photo by He ChengyaoMA: My early work was image-based, and some of it had a more theatrical construct with a kind of narrative arc of beginning, middle, and end. But unlike theater, it didn’t deal with conflict and resolution, and it didn’t involve text. It was done in galleries so I could design and control the context. But at a certain point, I began making more work outdoors. You can’t be in control of the environment outdoors and there are other elements that become part of the work whether you want them to be or not. The question for me was how to structure the work so that it took advantage of everything that was out there, random or otherwise. When you are working in a gallery and you say that the performance begins at 8PM, the audience has an expectation of theatrical time…that it’s only going to be a couple of hours at most. Working outdoors also gave me more room to expand the time-frame of the work. Doing durational work outdoors eventually led me to durational work indoors, but thinking of the performance as an installation where the audience comes and goes rather than as a timed event like theater. I think that in durational work, you are either dealing with a question of decay or a question of accumulation. An audience can come and go and understand the trajectory of the work. They don’t have to stay there for the whole time in the way that a narrative construct expects people to stay the entire time and put together the pieces.

JB: There are two concepts I hear coming into play. One is control and one is time.

MA: When you do durational work, you can believe you have control, but if you do it long enough, you can’t control it anymore and it takes you over and that’s the best part of it.

JB: In your early work, objects seemed to serve as visual metaphors. Your very recent pieces seem to have stripped away the need for metaphor altogether. What do you think?

MA: You don’t think they are totally metaphoric?

JB: There’s a Zen quality in that they are at once totally metaphoric and also not metaphoric at all. In 2013, you performed a work called Edge for the Near Death Performance Art Experience curated by Vela Phelan at the Boston Center for the Arts. In that piece, you pushed the two glasses across a table for seven hours…there are indeed metaphors that one can place upon that piece, but in the seven-hour time span that it took to complete the action, I think one grows tired of every metaphor and you are only left with the action.

MA: Yes.

JB: That’s powerful to me. Over time, the metaphor is exhausted and all that remains is the truth.

MA: Even though it was totally predictable, some people missed the glasses going over the edge of the table. I was moving them at 2.14 inches per hour.

JB: You are such an engineer when it comes to these things!

MA: It was interesting to me that people knew what was coming, but still missed it. For me, that’s like when you know someone is dying, but then you somehow miss it.

JB: I think sometimes we don’t want to see the climax.

MA: Maybe. The glasses went over during Jeff Huckleberry’s piece. I didn’t want people to come just to see the ending. It’s not about seeing the climax…well anti-climax really. Those two glasses went over the edge and then I simply stood up and walked away.

JB: There’s something about the inevitability of the action. You know that the glasses are going over the edge. Not seeing it actually happen is somehow reassuring perhaps.

MA: It’s related to that notion of accumulation or decay. You can see it at any point and you know how it will develop.

JB: We can also choose how we want to experience those two concepts. Some people want certainty and finality, some do not. And that tells us something about ourselves.

MA: That idea about not being able to sustain the metaphors…it just becomes what it is.

JB: There are certain exercises in Butoh where you do something to the point of exhaustion and your body becomes very economical. The flourish and the ornament drop away. Time becomes a crucible for what the idea or emotion really is.

MA: As a performer, it’s interesting to be willing to trust that.

JB: It’s scary and you have to trust it. You have to walk that tightrope. So you are about to have a major show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Arsem "Earth and Orange" photo by Ana Rita RodriguesMA: Yes, I’ll be performing for 100 days, six hours every day. The museum had some concern as to what would be in the room when I wasn’t there. The solution is that I will record a text at the end of each day that will be played in the gallery for viewers the next morning before I arrive. But I will be there most of the time. When we were setting the time, the Museum suggested fewer hours, but even four hours per day didn’t seem like enough.

JB: It’s hardly worth taking the train into town!

MA: But six hours seemed sufficiently long enough.

JB: And 100 days seems like a long time. I expect some metaphors will fall away.

MA: I’m expecting to have a total collapse somewhere in the middle of that time and some major change will occur. That is my fear, anyway. Or maybe my hope. But I don’t know what it will be or when. I do, however, have a notion of what I might do the first day.

JB: Do you want to give a hint?

MA: I think that the first day will simply be spent trying to understand what six hours really is; what it really feels like, with full attention, and no distractions or diversions…

Marilyn Arsem is performing at Rapid Pulse on SUN 07 JUNE at 5pm in the Electrode Window Gallery

Phillips, Àine. Performance Art in Ireland: A History. Bristol: Intellect, Ltd, 2015
photos by Daniel S DeLuca, Marcin Polak, He Chengyao, Ana Rita Rodrigues
Jeffery Byrd is a performance artist who has presented work all over the globe. His writing has appeared most recently in Performance Research. He is a Professor and Head of the Department of Art at the University of Northern Iowa.
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