I am probably not the first to wonder, while absentmindedly staring at my screen and waiting for WeTransfer to send a batch of files I’ve uploaded, about the artworks that sometimes appear on the website of the file-sharing service. Why, instead of a full-screen ad for Amazon or Nike or some other corporation, am I now looking at (to take the most recent example) a soft-focus photograph of underwater foliage, bathed in a hazy green light? Well, apparently WeTransfer has always really cared about artists. In 2017 the company’s then editor-in-chief Rob Alderson explained that the ‘founders of WeTransfer are both creative blokes and so it felt natural to them to use the platform to showcase and promote great creative work’. From its launch 12 years ago WeTransfer has given away a third of its background images to artists – and now it even has a dedicated editorial website, named WePresent, which commissions and exhibits creative projects.
Allow me to be a little sceptical about the altruism of WeTransfer’s latest commission, a ‘never-before-seen digital manifestation’ of Marina Abramovic’s tried-and-tested method of preparation for the gruelling feats of endurance for which she is famous. Booking an appearance by the performance artist, who has made an art of celebrity as much as anything else, cannot have come cheap. Although this isn’t new material; the series of exercises that make up the ‘Abramovic Method’ have been, per the Marina Abramovic Institute’s website, ‘developed over decades of research’, and the artist has been sharing them in exhibitions and lectures for a number of years.
Now, though, you can participate from the comfort of your own home. But don’t get too comfortable. Abramovic states in the introductory video on the website: ‘To be a performance artist, it’s a very difficult task.’ And so ‘I developed different exercises to help myself – generating big willpower, concentration, crossing physical and mental limits and so on. Later on I understood that these exercises can serve not just me but anybody else, with any profession, in the world.’ The artist intones her words slowly and deliberately, her gaze directly meeting the camera. She is sitting at a table, her hands clasped and resting on its wooden surface – a tableau that is closely framed by the custom video-player which WeTransfer has designed for the occasion, a jaunty polygon with a wide base and a narrow peak. The video plays in black and white (with some red-filter accents), adding to the seriousness of the occasion.
In the videos that follow, the artist talks us through the four exercises selected for this presentation: drinking water; counting rice; slow-motion walking; and mutual gazing. I’m relatively game – at first. If all I need to do to achieve Abramovic’s astronomic level of success are these four simple tasks, then why not give them a go? The first exercise starts off straightforwardly. We are instructed to sip a glass of water (not too full, not too empty) as slowly as possible, taking note of the sensations that occur throughout: the coolness of the glass against our hands and lips, the water passing down our throats. This is fairly standard mindfulness stuff. Then comes the kicker: you must repeat this exercise every day for a minimum of 15 minutes, and a maximum of one hour. I’m not sure I’ve cleared enough time in my schedule.
In her introduction to the second exercise – after noting that risotto rice mixed with black lentils is best, because the grains are big and clear and don’t break – Abramovic makes a crucial point. ‘Now, when we have mixed the rice and lentils, we have to make the most important decision: what we’re going to do, and how much of this amount of rice and lentils we’re going to count.’ She explains that the pile on the table in front of her, in her experience, would take between six and eight hours to count. There will be boredom, there will be anger, and eventually, if you break through the wall, there will be acceptance of the situation you find yourself in. But quitting is not an option. ‘If you decide to do everything, then you do everything. This is like literally the question of life and death. If you count and give up in the middle of the way, that’s the same with life. If you can’t count the rice and lentils you decide to [count], then your decisions in life – you have the same approach. Just not good enough.’
I have often thought about what motivates artists such as Abramovic in their undertakings – to, for example, spend 12 days in a gallery without eating or speaking (The House with the Ocean View; 2002) or trek for 90 days across the Great Wall of China in order to meet up with an ex (The Great Wall Walk; 1988). Surely this is about more than just the fulfilment of a set of parameters? Abramovic is right that all kinds of people take on all kinds of challenging tasks, often voluntarily: just witness the trend for ultramarathons, races covering distances greater than 26.2 miles. But there must always, I imagine, be a reason, however unrelatable to others – however rooted in obsession or ambition or perhaps simply desire. I just can’t muster up any reason to sit at a table for several hours and count a pile of grains and pulses – or, for that matter, to walk as slowly as I possibly can for an hour straight, or to look at a zoomed-in video of Abramovic’s eyes indefinitely. However, maybe when I’m next waiting for a really big file to send on WeTransfer this could be a good way to pass the time?
The Abramovic Method by Marina Abramovic is online.