Birthday Girl: A Biography of Marina Abramović

Until she was 10 years old, performance artist Marina Abramović believed her parents when they told her that her birthday was November 29th, “Republic Day” in her native Yugoslavia. They moved the date from the actual November 30th to link her birth with the fortunes of her country, which both her parents fought to make free during World War II. Years later, she met her long-time life and artistic partner Ulay on her birthday, only to find that November 30th was his birthday, too. “Now, rather than a date to be ignored as a depressing annual reminder of lost time and inevitable oblivion,” James Westcott writes in When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography, the first biography of the artist, “November 30 quickly became a cosmic guarantee of a shared destiny and a symbiotic union.” Just as her birthdate took on “cosmic” significance, Abramović’s flirtations with death and suffering take on greater meaning through her performance art. Westcott guides us through the maze of meaning Abramović weaves and helps us come through to the other side where death oddly gives birth to a whole new kind of life on this earth, if not necessarily the next.

For everyone who fell under Abramović’s spell (either in person or from a distance) during her recent MoMA exhibition, The Artist Is Present, Westcott’s biography will give you words to explain the feelings you experienced. Westcott recalls the first time he saw Marina in action performing The House with the Ocean View in 2002. “Eye contact” in that performance became “Abramović’s nourishment and the audience’s addiction.” Although the audience asks something of her, Marina “gives nothing in return, exuding pure empathy.” Instead, “she and the public gaze at each other, the sense of guardianship is mutual,” Westcott concludes. The vulnerability Abramović portrays becomes a strange kind of strength—the strength of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Abramović suffers to make us contemplate our own suffering, it seems. We want to protect her at the same time that she is protecting us from being overwhelmed our own hidden pains. Her conquering of anguish allows us to conquer by proxy.

Westcott takes his title from Abramović’s elaborate instructions for her funeral, but it also serves as the central dynamic of her art—she dies so that we (and she) may live. “For Abramović,” Westcott explains, “performance was most importantly a means of initiating herself—again and again—into a sharpened state of consciousness.” Performance pieces based on pain “served as rehearsals for death—and in the meantime made her feel much more alive.” For anyone who sees the art of Abramović, Ulay, or Chris Burden as sadistic spectacle, Westcott’s insights into Abramović’s art and performance art in general will make you a convert to the cause, which is always about life, but sometimes gets there through death.

After documenting for the first time Abramović’s upbringing in Yugoslavia, Westcott outlines her early solo career before giving a multifaceted picture of the Abramović/Ulay collaboration. Never falling into Freuding tropes, Westcott illustrates how each stage of Abramović’s life shaped her life and art without reducing it to “this led to that” connections. Marina remains an independent woman throughout, influenced but never a passive recipient of her environment.

Sometimes the “he said, she said” double-sided coverage of the Abramović/Ulay years falls into Rashomon territory. However, the complexity of that relationship—lovers, collaborators, and competitors simultaneously—could hardly result in anything less. “I could not even breathe from love,” Marina says in her “train wreck English” of her life with Ulay. Westcott captures the breathlessness of that special relationship and illustrates beautifully how it fed their performance art, which culminated in The Lovers, the 1988 performance piece in which the two artists began walking at opposite ends of The Great Wall of China—only to meet in the middle and conclude both their emotional and artistic relationships. Just as the two artists set themselves on an inevitable collision course, you feel as if Westcott set you off to crash into the depths of their experience. From that final meeting/parting, we see Marina grow in every way, blossoming into the international figure she has become while promoting not only her art, but performance art itself.

Westcott writes with the insight of an insider. After seeing that 2002 performance of The House with the Ocean View, Abramović soon drew her into her circle of friends and associates. The author even participated in one of Abramović’s performance art “boot camps” for aspiring performance artists. Knowing that Westcott once stood naked in a forest blindfolded in search of the heightened experiences Abramović promises allows him to step inside Abramović’s performance art in a way that a “purely objective” biographer (as if such a thing could exist) never could. When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography speaks with the passion and honesty of its subject and will reaffirm your faith in art as a matter of life or death.

[Many thanks to MIT Press for providing me with a review copy of James Westcott’s When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography.]

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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