Marni Kotak interview: ‘I wanted to have my son’s birth as a performance’
US artist Marni Kotak talks about her performance of everyday events in real life as way to raise awareness of self-destructive emotions that ruin women’s lives and often go unnoticed
CoolCar Cut: Ajax’s Third Birthday Party performance by Marni Kotak
Microscope Gallery, Brooklyn
2-5pm, 25 October 2014
by NATASHA KURCHANOVA
Marni Kotak is no stranger to controversy. In 2005, when she started reenacting events from her own life, some of her performances, such as Doll House, in which she and her friend would act out a rape scene while playing with Barbie dolls, were bound to make her audience uncomfortable. The following year, a setting for her graduating performance in Brooklyn College was locked up and dismantled by city officials along with the works of her fellow students, as part of a complaint about offensive content in their senior thesis. Her decision three years ago to give birth to her child as a performance in a gallery was perhaps her most contentious public act, inviting charges of narcissism, child exploitation and even pornography. People who attack Kotak, however, rarely – if ever – see her perform. There is strength and intimacy in her act, as it separates itself from public discourse and exposes her vulnerability, which is her humanity. The artist has kindly agreed to speak with Studio International on occasion of her son’s third birthday party, part of an ongoing series of performances recording the process of his growing up.
Natasha Kurchanova: On your website, you say that in your performances you attempt to “convey the authentic experience of your life as it is being lived, engaging with audience members who become active participants in the performances”. By making most private events of your life public – such as the birth of your son, your grandfather’s funeral, or the loss of your virginity – you are making your life into a precious thing, a work of art. You call this a “found performance”, meaning that any everyday action can be a performance. My first question is: What does “authentic” mean to you? Is it supposed to be authentic to you, to the viewers, or how is it “authentic”?
Marni Kotak: I’ve been doing performances about my life for more than 15 years. When I started, I was very much aware of the fact that when we are doing anything in public, we end up performing, whether we intend it or not. For example, right now, we are in a performance of sorts: I invited you here; you are interviewing me; I am answering your questions … So, I went through a period when I began doubting what I was doing because I was staging performances about my life, but they did not seem real somehow. I was thinking: ‘Who am I really and what have I been putting forward as myself? Is it the real me?’ Then, I tried not to perform. Instead, I would document whatever I would do and let it be the performance. So, that’s how it all started – about 10 years ago.
In 2005, I began doing reenactments of events in my life. Then, I decided to stop the reenactments and present events that are really going on in my life at the moment. So, a short answer to your question would be that “authentic” means that the performance has to have an actual context in my real life. The viewers are invited to participate and share in this experience that I am going through, because it is really happening – it is not a show.
NK: My second question is about how it all began, and you have partially answered it. When did you start making art, and was it performance from the very beginning or were you working in different media? I know you went to Bard College as an undergraduate, studied fine arts at the School of Visual Arts, and finally became a master of fine arts in Brooklyn College in 2006.
MK: Actually, at Bard, I first studied linguistics and then ended up studying sculpture and installation. As an art student, I took classes with [the US installation artist] Judy Pfaff, who was absolutely amazing. When I came to New York, I started performing my installations and then I realised I was doing performance, rather than installation art. So, that’s how it happened.
NK: In your early performances, you were re-enacting scenes from your childhood and adolescence. Then you changed this practice rather abruptly to perform events in real time. The early performances appeared to be therapeutic to some extent, as if you wanted to cure something within yourself by re-enacting a memory.
MK: Yes, those performances were cathartic for me; they definitely carried emotional charge. I began to call these attempts to re-enact past events from my life “Found Performances”, the phrase I now use to refer to all my performance work. With these re-enactments, my goal was to create an authentic experience, to go back into the emotional experience of the original event and relive it in a way, but the event itself was not really happening, because it was staged. A lot of these cathartic experiences were painful, but many were fun and lighthearted. It was important to me to present different kinds of experiences, not only painful ones. Historically, performance artists often focused on shocking acts, but it I did not want to do this.
NK: When you stopped re-enacting your past experiences, you made your body the subject of your art, and your performance became more sexually oriented. Your past experiences were very sexually charged and their re-enactments as well – as, for example, in Hot Water Bags or How to French Kiss – but it seems to me that after you decided to perform in present time, your body extended to your immediate environment, your home and your house. Perhaps, your piece Welcome to MyHouse can be seen as the epitome of this trend?
MK: Yes, this performance was actually a turning point. I did not think about that. My house is the place where my life exists, it’s my home base. When I do my performances, I think a lot about spaces I am in – it is very important. For a lot of performance artists, it is all about the action, but for me the space is paramount, because I need to create an environment in which to live and to perform. If it is my house, then I have to create it to reflect the kind of life I would like to have, my body, my experience, my consciousness, my vision of how I would like to be in this world. I prefer to arrange things in a place my way rather than move somewhere and take it the way it is, without changing anything.
NK: In connection with the created environment, I wanted to ask you about your MFA thesis performance, Third Grade, which was so controversial that it was shut down by the city. Was it first mounted at the Brooklyn War Memorial and then taken down and reconstructed in a different place?
MK: Yes, that was a group show – our graduating class MFA thesis exhibition. There was a complaint that some of the works were not family-friendly because they had sexual content. My piece had a rat in it, which also offended some people. I was completely shocked when I learned that it had been shut down; I could not believe it. Further events became even dicier because, as part of the City University of New York, Brooklyn College had an opportunity to defend us, but chose not to. We refused to take the work down, and the college sent trucks to remove it. They damaged a lot of work in the process – including my installation and other large works. They brought garbage bags filled with remnants of our work to Brooklyn College and put them in a storage room. Because we sued the college as well as the City of New York, the work was material evidence, and we were not allowed to see it or take it back. We were allowed to go into the space one at a time and we had to be accompanied by a security guard. When we remounted the show [in Dumbo], I added this detail in my piece. I had a security guard stand at the door to the room in which my installation was located and have him let in only one person at a time to see it.
NK: Yes, I saw a video of this installation/performance on Vimeo. I liked it a lot. My next question is about your relationship to feminism. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
MK:Yes, I do. I actually spoke at the Feminist Art Project Day of Panels at the College Art Association in Chicago last year. The panel was dedicated to mothering in art. We talked about how, historically, being a mother was not associated with the feminist movement and how this attitude is beginning to change. Now, many women artists incorporate their children into their work. I presented a paper called Mamafesto: A Child is a Work of Art.
NK: So, who among women artists influenced you?
MK: Carolee Schneemann was very influential from the point of view of performance art. Also, Linda Montano and Marina Abramović were important influences.
NK: Now, let’s turn to your most famous performance, The Birth of Baby X. It took place on 25 October 2011, at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, as part of a month-long exhibition. How did it come about? Did you want to give birth in a gallery from the time you knew you were pregnant?
MK: Yes, I wanted to have the birth as a performance, and I was looking for a suitable place. I considered several locations. Then one day when I was talking to Microscope Gallery about my exhibition that was scheduled for October, and mentioned my wish to give birth as performance in a gallery, Elle Burchill, one of the directors, suggested that I do it there. I agreed right away; I told her that I was serious about my plans and she had to mean what she said. Elle stood firm, so I gave birth at Microscope. It was a perfect place for it because, at that time, the gallery was still in its old location. It was very small for a gallery, but perfect for that show. It was intimate, which was nice. I set it up as my ideal place to give birth as a work of art; and I spent a lot of time in that space before the actual birth.
NK: Tell me a little more about the birth. Were you ready to have your son when you did? Did everything go smoothly?
MK: I was so ready to have him when I did; I was happy that he was born on his actual due date and not later, which is frequently the case with first pregnancies. My biggest fear was that I was not going to have him in time and then I would have to have a caesarean section, or something of the sort. It was a healthy and normal birth.
NK: Why did you name your son Ajax?
MK: Actually, my husband insisted on this name. The name had to have an “x” in it, because of “Baby X,” so one day he came up with an idea of Ajax for a name, and he persuaded me to accept it. We went back and forth about it for six months, because I was not sure I wanted to name my son Ajax – I was thinking that it would begin with an x – but in the end he convinced me, and now I love this name.
NK: In one of the videos I watched, it looks as if Colgate-Palmolive is sponsoring your child as a work of art? Is it a spoof?
MK: It was an April Fool’s joke. During Ajax’s first year, I did a video of him and us on every major holiday and that was the one I did on April Fool’s Day. I received a lot of calls about this video, because people did not get the joke; they did not know what to think, because there are artists who play the media as part of their art. But this is not what I do.
NK: Speaking about the media, tell me about your website Livesystems – what is it about?
MK: This was my earliest project about my life. It dates to the late 1990s-early 2000s, the time of the internet boom, which happened before 9/11. I then conceived of my life as a business online and envisioned this business to be a great success. I worked as an internet marketing executive at the time, and truly believed in the endless creative possibilities of the internet. After the internet crash, I learned more about the way the business world works – also the world changed a lot – and this project came to an end. The original project was very much of its time. Now, it’s pretty much inactive. I archived it – it is now in the collection of the new museum Rhizome ArtBase. As it is part of my life, it sometimes cycles back into my present work, as it did with Welcome to MyHouse where I covered myself with the logos of all the products I used to cook the meal. I am interested in how corporations are considered to be people, and how the business component of my work fits into my larger practice, but I am still sorting out how I can maintain the real v the spectacle in this context.
NK: I loved CoolCar Cut, the performance a few days ago of Ajax’s third birthday at Microscope. It was very engaging. I was watching your son, a very sweet boy, who looked very happy running around with a working video camera around his neck and participating in all the activities arranged in his honour. I thought: “At some point, he is going to object to being a subject and an object of a performance. At some point, he is going to refuse to wear the camera.”
MK: I am ready for this to happen. Actually, on that day, he did not want to wear his camera all the time. He wanted to take it off after he had his hair cut. He did not want to have it on, and we took it off. It was a little disappointing for me, because I wanted to capture him blowing out the candles, as part of an ongoing project to track his development from his point of view, Raising Baby X: Little Brother. His third birthday is a big milestone in it. But I realise that, even at this age, Ajax has his own wishes and desires. I consider this work to be a collaborative project with my son. At this point, I am collaborating with a three-year-old, so I really do now know what’s going to happen. Raising Baby X is a bigger project, which encompasses the whole process of raising him and can take a lot of different forms over time. Part of me thinks that, when he grows up, he may get more into it. He may go through stages when he may refuse to have anything to do with it, and then go back. I consider it to be part of the process. Obviously, I cannot force him to wear the camera if he does not want to do it.
NK: You realise that your performances are controversial and that many people criticise you for what you do, calling you narcissistic because, despite your intentions, your performances focus people’s attention on your persona. What would you say to your detractors?
MK: If I wanted to do things to get attention, there are much easier ways to do it. I am making sacrifices and taking risks for things that are important to me. Obviously, I would not be doing it if I was did not believe in what I do on a bigger level.
NK: Thank you for your time, Marni, and for your willingness to speak to Studio International.