“When you perform, you have a knife, and it’s your blood. When you’re acting, it’s ketchup, and you don’t cut yourself.” –Marina Abramović
When I was an art history student, I found myself drawn to the margins, especially to the darker performances of artists like Chris Burden:
and Marina Abramović and Ulay:
Maybe it was my working class background, but it thrilled me to think that actions could be art. It didn’t have to be some highbrow object behind a velvet rope. Or maybe it’s because so much performance art is about violation of the body, and as an epileptic, I live each day with the risk of my boundaries being violated. How many times have I awoken from a seizure to a stranger’s hand petting my scalp or rifling through my private things (understandably) for an ID or medical alert?
As I wrote last year for the Writer’s Life Project:Blog Hop, my writing process often drives me to performative actions: getting tattoos, learning the art of forgery, taking a lie detector, submitting to hypnosis, and so on. All of these actions arose from the writing process, and yet, they were also sincere.
From my post in last year’s Blog Hop:
You could call them performative in the sense that they spring from the art, but they are also sincere and true. I believe my writing process is like a nucleus attracting matter to my ideas. I never thought of memoir as just writing about my life. On the contrary, I think my writing incants my life into being.
I have had a hard time articulating exactly what I mean by my process being “performative” and “sincere” at the same time. Last night, I was watching “The Artist is Present,” and Marina Abramović has an expression that states it so perfectly. As I quoted at top:
“When you perform, you have a knife, and it’s your blood. When you’re acting, it’s ketchup, and you don’t cut yourself.”
When I went out into the Salt Flats last year and performed Ezekiel, it wasn’t “acting”:
Closed Captions available on the video. Click the CC button. Description: In this video, I wear a long purple skirt with a flower embroidered on the front panel, a white shirt, denim jacket, and black cat-eye glasses. I am walking on the salt when I find an olive green bicycle, which I lift up and push on the salt back and forth with mountains in the distance behind me. I find a brick, circle it, and then ram it to pieces. On the clay brick is drawn the 1860 city plat for Salt Lake City. I eat scrolls, bite one of my wisdom teeth, and eat grapes, while my husband reads from Ezekiel with some added text I wrote. Closed captions coming soon.
Let me tell you what it was like out there that day: white, radiant hot. So hot the camera shut down every 15 minutes or so, and we would have to retreat to the shade of the rest area. I was still on Depakote for my epilepsy and bipolar. In fact, it was still pretty early in being on the medication. My hair was falling out. Sunlight felt like lit matches poked into my pupils. My skin appeared dry and rugged.
All day on that medication, I experienced intense de-realization, like I had peeled apart the layers of celluloid film and crawled inside. Everything around me was unreal and one dimensional, but also so real I was inside it. I felt like I had slipped into another dimension or even another time in history. Images around me moved in jump-cuts. It felt reminiscent of a seizure aura, even though the medication was supposed to suppress seizures. If you know the story of Ezekiel, you know that he may have suffered such episodes as well. Some people think he might have even been epileptic.
My femurs felt so heavy, as if molten lead had been poured into them where my marrow should be. You see my plodding gait in the video? That isn’t how I normally walk, but it’s how I naturally felt like walking out there on the salt. And watching it now, it perfectly expresses how I felt on Depakote, too. Leaden legs. Put upon by God. I don’t even necessarily believe in God, but I still felt it. It was very real.
I became Ezekiel out there on the flats. I didn’t act him. I became him.
I ate those scrolls even though they tasted bitter and dead and pulpy. Bits of paper got caught in my teeth. You would think paper would dissolve on contact with saliva, but it doesn’t. It takes a whole lot of mastication to cut through the cellulose fibers. Digesting paper is even worse. I didn’t want to eat the scrolls, but I felt that I must. I felt that all my work had led me to that moment. An overwhelming compulsion took over me.
And just like eating the scrolls did for Ezekiel, it transformed me. It opened up a channel to some kind of power inside me, and it forever changed the direction of my book. I can do this, I thought afterward. I can be my own prophet.
I can do magic. I can resurrect dry bones.
None of this ketchup nonsense. I am out for my own blood.