What Marina Abramovic’s art has in common with my design approach

I went to Marina Abramovic’s show at the Serpentine Gallery last year, and like most of the other visitors, I was profoundly moved. She is pushing what art can be – she is making art out of interactions.

In this Ted Talk she explains principles behind her work.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 13.55.14Image from Ted Talks

On immateriality
“…thinking about immateriality, performance is time-based art. It’s not like a painting. You have the painting on the wall, the next day it’s there. Performance, if you are missing it, you only have the memory, or the story of somebody else telling you, but you actually missed the whole thing. So you have to be there. And in my point, if you talk about immaterial art, music is the highest — absolutely highest art of all, because it’s the most immaterial. And then after this is performance, and then everything else. That’s my subjective way.”

This resonates with me in my design work (though I wouldn’t say that immaterial design is higher than any other kind of design). I rejected physical design because I felt guilty about contributing to an extremely materialistic culture and damaging the environment by doing so. I explore what non-physical design can be. This is something that informs other service designers’ interest in the discipline – can design processes be used to create the intangible? And how can the intangible be made tangible?

Additionally, she makes the link with music. My dad is a musician, so I grew up with music around me. I had thought about how intangible the creation of music is. Making up a tune seems so elusive to me. Creating music in your mind is similar to designing a space or product in your mind. Playing music to feel it out is similar to drawing/making to design – a sort of prototyping. Writing musical notation is like drawing up a blueprint. For me, though, musical notation is much further away from music itself, than a blueprint is from a design. Notation is visual – music isn’t. Blueprints and product designs are both visual – there’s only a jump from 2D to 3D. Musical notation being turned into music feels like a really big jump to me. How can eyes see sound?

Reflecting on this, I wonder if my early exposure to musical creation processes subconsciously encouraged me to experiment with designing the non-physical. I grew up with a creator of music – if music can be visually communicated, what can’t be? Perhaps I’m just post-rationalising the link.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 13.56.36Image from Ted Talks

On personal level change
“We are always doing things we like in our life. And this is why you’re not changing. You do things in life — it’s just nothing happens if you always do things the same way.” [Alright, Abramovic! A little accusatory.] “But my method is to do things I’m afraid of, the things I fear, the things I don’t know, to go to territory that nobody’s ever been.

“And then also to include the failure. I think failure is important because if you go, if you experiment, you can fail. If you don’t go into that area and you don’t fail, you are actually repeating yourself over and over again. And I think that human beings right now need a change, and the only change to be made is a personal level change. You have to make the change on yourself. Because the only way to change consciousness and to change the world around us, is to start with yourself. It’s so easy to criticize how it’s different, the things in the world and they’re not right, and the governments are corrupted and there’s hunger in the world and there’s wars — the killing. But what we do on the personal level — what is our contribution to this whole thing?”

Is it normal to always do things the same way, or is it normal to do things you’re afraid of in order to grow? Personally I experiment a great deal, and I know I’ve changed and grown so much. I’m pretty open about failure. I don’t even know if I have a comfort zone because I’m forever trying out things I don’t know about. I do experience fear of the unknown, but it doesn’t stop me. Experiments can go wrong – and that’s ok, life is a learning experience.

Failure and permission to fail is something we talk about a lot in government innovation and in entrepreneurial start-up circles. For me it’s a pleasure to see the discourse reflected in the art world, too.

I’m with her that change starts by changing yourself. By changing yourself, you change your relationships with people around you. You can’t change others, but you can change the relationships you have with them – and this does have the potential to change them, if they want to change themselves.

Something that inspired a paradigm shift in me about a year ago was the thought that we can change our own beliefs. If a belief isn’t working out for me, if it’s somehow leading to unhappiness, it’s within my power to question it and change it. My behaviours, reactions and feelings often stem from my beliefs. One powerful belief I have is that I change the world – and so does everyone else – whether it’s conscious change or not. For people that feel powerless, I spend some time speaking with them about this concept.

Anelli_IMG_1321_1Image from Serpentine Gallery website

On technology
“…there is nothing wrong with technology, our approach to technology is wrong. We are losing the time we have for ourselves.”

I feel this too. I refuse to be owned by my smartphone. I turn off updates. I keep it on silent. When other people get in contact with me, I don’t feel that I should respond immediately regardless of who they are or what I’m doing. That would be ineffective prioritisation, and I’d never be able to pay attention to what I’m doing in the moment, if I had to drop everything no matter who was contacting me. Instead, I make time to communicate using technology, rather than being constantly ‘on call’.

I also have a rule that I stick to: no emails after dinner. This focuses my time so that I’m more productive during the day, and I have time to wind down before bed. On top of this, I make regular appointments with myself to do non-tech activities – replacing behaviours with more positive behaviours is easier than trying to cut out a behaviour with no alternative.

I have truly thought about my relationship with technology, and these rules are working for me at the moment. I am surprised at the lack of self awareness other people seem to have sometimes around tech – constant phone checking is surely linked with perhaps unnecessary anxiety. I hope that we are collectively going to improve our relationship with technology over the next few years – can we control our obsessions? Can we take the power back – do our phones own us, or do we own our phones?

Well, that was a satisfying reflection! Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Would love to hear about your reaction to Abramovic’s talk; please do comment.

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