Marina Abramović, “The Staring Woman at MoMA”
LEARNING ABOUT HER
At some point I saw her face on the internet, maybe on Emily Gould’s blog, and didn’t comprehend what she was doing. I may have weakly thought something like “she isn’t doing anything, keep scrolling down” while subconsciously processing some sentence fragments near her face. I remember wanting a little to “get away from it,” feeling that at that moment in my life I didn’t want to learn about another person, as I idly “scrolled down,” to other things, for maybe one second before closing the tab to look at Gmail or Twitter. One or two days later, in an inattentive moment, not feeling like I was thinking anything, maybe while standing in a bathtub during a shower, I seemed to gradually comprehend what I had seen, “realizing” that for an amount of time I had been thinking something like “someone is staring at people at MoMA, seems like a good excuse to stare at people,” then thought things like “I would like to stare at people in that context, with them also staring at me, I would examine why each face is attractive or not attractive to me, sometimes I could relax and think about my own things.” I imagined the woman as 23, born in Vermont or Maine, “quirky,” maybe still in art school, despite being aware—having seen her face and, vaguely, her name—that she was probably German or Russian and something like 44. I forgot about her for maybe one week, then read that some people were crying when she stared at them and thought something like “there is no way I would cry,” then felt that I probably would cry. I would feel “really nervous” and maybe cry “simply” from that. Or I might become aware, to a more intense degree than average, of the “pointlessness” of myself/existence, sitting there, sort of inadvertently focusing on things like “no romantic prospects” or [a specific instance of “not getting what I want”], due to “hiding,” maybe reflexively, from the stressful situation (of being stared at for “no specific concrete reason” by 40-60 people standing in line, probably 1000+ people via the “live feed,” and an “expert” “staring woman”) by focusing on my “private things,” my thoughts/memories/feelings, and start crying. Then I felt certain that I wouldn’t cry. I would grin uncontrollably until my face felt tired or I saw that she wasn’t reciprocating, then probably display a “very awkward facial expression” for an amount of time, eventually forcing that into a “mildly awkward facial expression,” ending with 3-6 seconds of a “depressed/neutral facial expression” before standing robotically and walking toward the exit, moving my eyeballs in a noticeably incremental manner, grinning at whomever I came with or probably [anyone].
I forgot about her again, I’m not sure for how long, until someone Gmail chatted me that I should go stare at her for “mad hits,” because every person’s face was being posted on a Flickr account. A few days later I saw Bjork’s face, from that Flickr account, I think, on Hipster Runoff. Bjork had a “vaguely confused facial expression” that, in combination with what I know about her—I’ve seen the Lars Von Trier movie she’s in, the thing on YouTube where she “lies” about how TVs function, one of her music videos—seemed to mostly convey, to me, something like “no one can know what I‘m thinking right now, no one, not even me anymore, because now I’m focused on this instead of what I’m thinking” in a humorous, slightly scary manner. She seemed to also be grinning “nervously,” a little, in a way that made her existence seem precarious. The facial expression of “the staring woman,” in the same Hipster Runoff post, made me feel that if an explosion/fire destroyed MoMA layers of rubble would be removed, or a thick smoke would disperse, revealing her “still sitting there,” with the same facial expression and posture as before the explosion/fire, undamaged except for the end of her braid being slightly burnt, smoke rising from it vertically.
It seems almost “impossible” for me to think about any aspect of her without imagining parodic or absurd scenarios, for example when I imagine what she does on weekday afternoons I almost automatically see her “on the moon,” in the distance, either “flying” in a manner like she’s on an invisible “moving walkway” 20-40 feet above the ground or jumping very far distances, like Ang Lee’s Hulk, except moving much slower and in more of an arc while in the air. I honestly “have problems” non-sarcastically imagining her earnestly buttering a piece of toast or driving a car or even standing in a kitchen. When I looked at her face again, for this essay, I imagined her as an “accidentally ‘not shadowy, but lit’” figure running scarily from one side of the screen to the other in the background of a deleted scene in Harry Potter (deleted because it was causing “crew members” to have reoccurring nightmares after seeing it), mostly due to her “imposing” figure and golem-like outfit though, not her face, I think. At other times I’ve felt that she belongs in a Werner Herzog movie, sitting somewhere, not saying anything, perhaps not even ever “in frame.” I’ve also felt that she originally existed in the computer game Diablo II, as an NPC, or “non-player character”—something to click on for non-essential, “story-line”-related information—who somehow “made it” into “concrete reality,” where she has apparently “very successfully” advanced through [various obstacles] to secure a highly-bloggable art project at MoMA.
FIRST ATTEMPT TO GO STARE AT HER
There were 4-6 people in my room or at a bar ~2:30 AM. Someone said something about MoMA. Within 5-10 seconds everyone seemed committed to going to MoMA the next day and I think 1:30 PM was mentioned. Then someone said something about Coney Island and everyone seemed committed to going to Coney Island the next day at 11:30 AM. Thomas who had seemed excited about MoMA now seemed excited about Coney Island. The next day I woke ~6:00 PM and learned that Thomas had woke ~4:30 PM. This was around when I read that some people who stared at “the staring woman” were crying.
SECOND ATTEMPT TO GO STARE AT HER
Maybe one week later I woke ~8:30 PM on a Saturday. I went to NYU’s library and “worked on things” until ~1:15 AM. I left the library, bought bananas and a cucumber, walked toward my apartment. Thomas texted something like “come to [a bar], [a person] just bought a lot of [a word for cocaine].” After doing things in the bar, someone’s apartment, another bar, a grocery store, White Castle (briefly, not eating anything), and my apartment it was ~6:00 AM and Thomas and I were each alone in our rooms, ~4 blocks from each other. I was stomachdown on my bed listening to music via earphones/iTunes. We were emailing each other. After ~8 emails I said something about MoMA. Thomas seemed immediately committed and excited. I said I was going to “work hard” a few hours, that we could meet ~10:00 AM. Between 6:00 AM and 11:00 AM we emailed ~80 emails, below are some of those emails.
Me, 8:08 AM
how’re you feeling
i’m feeling pretty jacked up still
i’m down for this…
how’re you feeling
[subplot omitted from this essay]
Thomas, 8:11 AM
bafflingly, feeling pretty fucking legit
[subplot omitted from this essay]
Me, 8:52 AM
we’re gonna stare this ‘bitch ass ho’ ‘down’ bro…they’re going to replace her with us
next week [a mutual acquaintance] will be staring at us in the moma
Thomas, 9:00 AM
i intend to ‘reduce’ this granny perf art bow legged breeze ‘to tears’
intend to ‘shut’ momma mutton chops ‘down’
Me, 9:00 AM
someone told me they waited 2.5 hours to sit w/ the staring bro
bring some kind of reading material maybe
Me, 9:01 AM
gonna check if she’s ‘even’ doing her shit today
we could go canoeing or some shit if she isn’t
just not gonna check
we can ‘wing it’ in midtown
midtown up in this bitch
not really sure where moma is actually
Thomas, 9:03 AM
jesus fucking christ. that’s her ‘edge.’ that’s how she does it. that’s how she fucking does it, bro. [5 sentences elaborating on the previous 3 re “2.5 hour line”]
Thomas, 9:07 AM
can you imagine this beezle? ‘gets up’ every morning and ‘goes to work.’ ‘goes home’ and brushes her fucking teeth and then returns ‘first thing’ in the morning to fucking stare at countless fucking bitches…kind of ‘mind boggling,’ bro…
Me, 9:08 AM
she’s already defeating you bro…
bro…she sits there
we all stare at countless bitches every day bro
god damn this beezle mcschnozzle bro
Thomas, 9:15 AM
i don’t, bro. i do not. i try and limit bitches faces gazed directly into to like 2.6 / day.
Thomas, 9:53 AM
bro, what if this betty fucking ‘breaks you?’ am i the kind of bro that’s going to have what it takes to ‘pick up the pieces?’ the kind of bro to not directly address it afterwards and be ‘generally supportive’ without any direct referent? i don’t know, bro. this, i do not know.
Me, 9:54 AM
bro…no chance of that happening
i’m ready for this ho-bag
Thomas, 10:00 AM
wear something ‘zany.’ wear something that’ll ‘throw her off.’
Me, 10:06 AM
jesus bro…want to stare into her eyes now
should i wear my blazer
Thomas, 10:10 AM
please, leave the ‘blazer’ at home
please do not wear the blazer
Me, 10.11 AM
when r u comin bro
just sitting here naked
Thomas, 10:22 AM
jesus christ me too
I don’t know what Thomas did from 10:22 AM to 10:45 AM. He didn’t respond to texts or emails. I typed a medium-long email (“im going to the moma today to stare at that woman. there’s a woman…who stares at ppl.”) to Shannon while waiting for him to “reappear.” Later he said he had been watching “30 Rock,” masturbating, and “taking” drugs from 6:00 AM to 11:00 AM. I wasn’t sure to what degree he was “joking.” I had “licked” ~20 milligrams of “tiny ‘addy’ balls” that had fallen out of 1-3 broken capsules and typed ~4000 words of nonfiction in Microsoft Word during this time. Here is a Gmail chat from 10:45 AM to 10:47 AM.
Me: when the fuck are you leaving bro
Thomas: sorry bro
Me: im doing fucking leg stretches for something to do
Thomas: in my room
Me: wtf are you doing bro
leave your room
Thomas: still naked bro
still fucking naked
going to get up
Me: wtf are you doing
Thomas: and put clothes on
i swear to god
Me: do it now
Me: i’m losing my powers
Thomas: ‘doing it’
eat more balls
bring me lots of balls
going to need lots of balls bro
Me: get the fuck out of your bed now
We met ~11:10 AM and walked to the L train. I was sweating a little. We got off at Bedford to “eat some raw shit” at Rockin’ Raw. I wanted a raw almond shake. Rockin’ Raw was closed. Thomas said something about MoMA being crowded on Sundays. We said 2-4 short sentences in the next 5-10 seconds and then seemed 100% committed to not going to MoMA. We walked to Verb and sat drinking iced coffee. I “observed” Thomas pouring ~5 ounces of whiskey from a peanut butter jar, or something, into his iced coffee and either said “jesus” or “damn” while grinning or laughed a little. Thomas had no money, a near “maxed-out” credit card, no job. We walked to East River Park and sat looking at Manhattan. We walked to a pizza place. Thomas’ credit card was declined. We walked to my apartment. We walked to Bedford and sold books on the sidewalk until ~7:30 PM.
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She assumed it was jewelry. Every year he gets her a charm for her gold chain or a pair of dangly earrings.
Fall if you will, but rise you must.
You may lose what would have been the joy of the experience had you not been so focused on some fabricated idea or unrealistic expectation you had of how it was going to turn out.
This is Hugh Dancy. This is his face. That face alone is reason enough to watch TV.