“Love For Being Itself”: Marina Abramović, Di Fara Pizza and Chatroulette
On the final day of Marina Abramović’s performance at MoMA, “The Artist Is Present,” somebody tossed a manuscript from an upper balcony. Its pages peeled apart in falling, fluttering to the floor like so much confetti. One Memorial Day attendee called the sight beautiful. Inspection of a fallen page revealed font too small for ready understanding. Maybe the pages didn’t want to be understood, the spectacle of their descent their raison d’etre. While gathering them up, a guard asked the crowd to please not read the words. Nothing to see here, folks, he might have added. It was The Artist we were meant to feast our eyes on: New York City to the exhibition’s gathered United States.
Sitting opposite the temporal stream of her fifteen hundred plus guests, Serbian-born Abramović appeared massive, her red, white, and blue robes (a color per month) augmenting the size of her body. Her breathing was plainly visible, a single braid lying across her left shoulder, her posture canting to the right. Like a Central Park mime or a guard at Buckingham Palace, she held her place with seeming Zen, blinking and blinking and blinking again, face waxy with moisturizing balm. And what could we, the gathered, possibly have had to show her; what energies might we have silently transmitted?
“I wonder what she’s thinking,” a viewer mused.
“She’s writing a book,” went the earnest reply.
However true, it spoke to something: as art, only books carry the kind of monumental silence and stillness that a woman (Artist) seated in the center of the room, day after day, for months on end, brings to bear. As the program notes relayed, Abramović’s quadrant was a space where “nothing, and possibly everything” happened.
Art, it could be said, is true to everyone and faithful to no one: two thousand years ago a statue of a Roman soldier signified to its viewer a set of meanings (an ideal of manhood, the thrill of weaponry, the power of the state) that today have been reconfigured for most onlookers (a model physique, a quaint notion of violence, the ruin of empire in time). Ozymandias, and all that.
To create art is one thing; to confuse yourself with art — as only a human being after all — another: confusion at its most turbulent. And that is exactly the sort of confusion “The Artist Is Present” tempted. In this age of the watching eye, Marina Abramović invited us to share the mantle of her artistry in the most open and transparent manner possible.
Was that, in the end, truly to share at all? What would repeat sitter, Paco Blancas, say? How about “the streaker” who pulled her dress over her head before being immediately escorted from the premises by security? What of that critic who rained his pages from the upper balcony? Gathered there, what did we expect to receive? Or was it just a beautiful sort of relinquishing that her presence solicited, willingly surrendered by those who sat?
I was standing on the perimeter. Notepad in hand, like many others with notepads in hand. Or sketchpads. Or cameras. Something was happening there, and I was determined to know it by its name. Over the course of my three brief visits, one in March, one in April, and once more, on the show’s last day (“The Artist Is Leaving” they might have called it), I wrestled with the question of what to write, and how I would relate it to my passion for fiction.
Would I include an “I” in my essay, or go for more straight reportage; set ink on the Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Wolfe side of the line? And if I did include an I, would that “I” be me, purely mine and mine alone? Or a quality of self I owe in part to Marina Abramović having been present before me?
Considering these questions, I caught a train out to Midwood, Brooklyn, home of Di Fara Pizza. People bring their cameras, and notepads, to Di Fara too. As has been well documented, the guys know pizza. Their works of culinary genius are born in the most open and transparent manner possible. In fact, as I approached, with maybe something like a twinkle of anticipation in my eye, owner Domenico DeMarco, in apron and striped, short-sleeved button-down glanced out the sliding window at the front of the store. As if I were about to sit with him.
Or stand, as it happens. With a number of other patrons. The worn brass bulk of the cash register sports a set of ‘I Like The Pope’ stickers and a statuette of the white-robed Virgin Mary in prayer. A guy in ball-cap and apron took orders at random, as a star athlete signs autographs (who do I make it out to?), the three-tiered double ovens emitting their formative heat off to his left.
The interior walls wear the character of years, making no effort to hide their age and grit. Alongside the many, many mounted newspaper clippings heralding Di Fara Pizza’s pitch-perfect textures and flavors, a sign advises: “A group of 10 to 30 in the store can result in a delay, even of an hour or two. Yes, it may be frustrating, but perhaps the anticipation can enhance your appetite.”
Watching your pizza take shape comes with the ticket price (or if you can stand not having a slice, you’re free to stand and watch without paying a cent). Father, daughter, and sons perform — with support from others — behind a counter allowing full view of their preparations. Red tins of Salerno tomatoes are stacked behind the wooden balustrade lining the upper wall. Canisters of Vantia Olive Oil sit side-by-side above the flat expanse where dough is kneaded and spun.
It’s more often than not Dom DeMarco himself who dribbles the oil from a thin copper watering can, cuts shoots of home-grown basil with quick, sure strokes, and sprinkles the shredded parmesan before a pie in its box is released. Spinning the cheese grater, working the dough, rotating pies from counter to oven, oven to counter, then sectioning a finished pie, too hot yet for a patron to taste, into eight slices: these same motions DeMarco, his children and employees, have been practicing for decades on end, a version of perfect stillness — their perpetual motion notwithstanding. All toward the end of that most mythic phenomenon: the cross-generational, family-owned business.
Greatness is this: one grown man (like me, say) looking into the eyes of another, eyes that anywhere else would be guarded with un-recognition, to find shared ground, openness, wonder, the fact of Di Fara Pizza and an awaiting meal. Community. We arrive in Midwood, streaming desire, faces in a continuum. Most walk away ready to describe the experience in tones of amazement: you, too, should have the good fortune of knowing what I have known.
If knowing Di Fara Pizza is generally chalked up to good fortune, knowing Chatroulette, and what it holds in store, is more fraught. The very fires of hell, a more strictly religious guy than me might say. Some kind of fun, the shameless and sporting. An outlet, the isolated and lonely. The truth our parents hide, the young and wondering. Criminal behavior, the bearers of civic standards. Life, the tech-savvy, before hitting ‘Next.’
It is difficult to offer any single experience as representative of the Chatroulette universe, and yet that is all that Chatroulette is made of: once-in-a-lifetime meetings — here, then gone. Existentialism for dummies. These virtual interactions, cued by a mysterious algorithm — the genius of a Russian youth — take place in the blink of an eye: snap-snap-snap. The Artist is you, the space you and your webcam inhabit the context, the parade of strangers your fellow sitters. Think Reality TV confessional, the uncensored version: instead of London or Boston or San Francisco, the destination locale is your head. The narrative is post-modern in the extreme. There is someone, a person or people, on the other side, strangers in strange lands: do we need fiction no longer to help us visualize the other?
Perhaps it is no surprise, given the tempo at which most interactions occur and the freedom of apparent anonymity (and apparent safety of being a virtual being, not an accountable one, not a known entity) that many choose to let their genitals do the talking. These are the early days of the site, so a lot will change: already there is a ‘report’ button, which holds out at least the possibility of some future of regulation and pursuant shaming.
At present, though, Chatroulette is the revolution in cross-section, the anti-Facebook, a subversion of social-networking tribes, an altar to the god of chance (who may, it turns out, be nothing but a masturbating dude… not that there aren’t women out there, too). The thumbs up, the raised middle finger, the two-pronged peace symbol serve as pidgin language for some emerging universal consciousness; while this may have been the case for years, it is only now that anybody with internet access and a webcam can see that it is so.
Nouveau Edward Hopper, in close up: no more or less obscene than consuming a solitary fast-food meal separated from a city street by only a pane of glass. These are the molten edges around the plates of community, always the stuff of artistic obsession, where any given interaction can be creepy or thrilling, vacuous or revelatory, brutish or sweet.
On Chatroulette, not only do you see a stranger, you also see yourself. I am an image, you might think, and that is all: what vanity drove me to gather these herring fish words in my net? What good are they? Why not cut loose my shame, slip out of everyday masks?
In contrast, for those who decide, however reluctantly, to keep their clothes on — how much more clothed clothed people look in contrast to the others — naming is all. Pleasure lies in finding words to describe the succession of images, of people, of signifiers.
Unlike Marina Abramović’s recent performance (the mantle of artist so nearly tangible!), the launching pad for these stray reflections on the sunny enterprise of Di Fara pizza pies and Chatroulette’s shadow world, literary fiction — that which aspires to Literature with a capital ‘L’ — is prefaced on absence. That the author is not there with you, and yet is, is exactly the fact of authorship.
Writers create a bridge that, once crossed, reveals the far to be near, the other to be self. Say Hemingway, and it is as if he is there, sitting opposite you. An idea of him persists, rooted in the continued life of his fiction. Say Tolstoy. Say Woolf.
In Charles Baxter’s short story, “Reincarnation” from the collection Believers, a tenuous community takes hold between three couples in a rural backyard one summer evening. The couples trade stories, over drink, as their faces recede in darkness. This continues in leisure until one of those present rejects the bond the gathered have carved out.
Before that happens though, the topic of incarnation is discussed, a notion of unearned love: “Whitman’s poetry is about love you don’t have to earn. It’s about love that you have or that you don’t have or that you just get or you give but not the kind that you did something to earn… It’s love for being itself.”
Call it adoration. In the search, perhaps, of love for being itself, a belief that such a feeling should exist on earth — a person should receive love just for being! — we seek out The Artist and deliver to her that love as we conceive of it in ourselves. Everyone should be so fortunate.
– Jeff Price is a freelance writer and editor.
Photos courtesy of VividRadicalMemory and UntitledBlog.