The Performance Artist12 min read
On the first day, she sits there wearing a black dress that is neither provocative nor sexless. Yet visitors who flock in from the cold January streets and ascend to the atrium on MoMA’s second floor are mesmerized, for the entire space is awash in a video installation depicting various interactions between machines and flesh. The footage flashes across the walls and sweeps over the woman sitting in the chair. Some images are recognizable: beams of light illuminating eyes during exams, prostheses being fitted to amputees, a dental hygienist cleaning teeth, a kitchen cook working a meat grinder. Other clips are strange: a small device crawling up a person’s spine, thumping sharply as it goes; people sprouting electrodes; a man strapped face-down and gripping handlebars while the lower half of the table slides back and forth, stretching his torso. The bizarre imagery quickly infects the ordinary scenes until everything “seems an invasion of humans by the things they have wrought.” Or so writes the Times critic in an article that splashes across the Sunday Arts & Leisure section. The performance artist is the talented Anna Pashkin Bearfoot, the critic raptures, who charged onto the scene last year with a week-long piece where, while nude, she built a robot amid a jungle of potted plants. The current installation is slated to last a full month.
The second day the crowd swells, despite a nasty frozen mix that pelts Manhattan. Today, a real machine squats eight feet from Anna, and to her right. What is that? and I don’t know are repeated many times before the crowd engages its collective intelligence:
“I think it’s one of those downloading machines.”
“Are you sure?”
“To transfer human consciousness into a computer?”
“I’m not sure.”
“That would explain the shots of the meat grinder. Lose the meat.”
“Yes, it is a downloading machine. I saw it in Scientific American.”
“But she’s not sick.”
“We don’t know that.”
“They would never let her, surely, if she’s healthy.”
“No law against it.”
“I bet she’s going to.”
“Why else would it be here?”
“She’s going to use it.”
“She’s going to download herself here? At MoMA?”
The art critic zips out a new article. On the third day, the line to get in stretches to Sixth Avenue. Today Anna is speaking, still dressed in plain New York black. Every fifteen minutes she says the same thing:
“By my words you will know me. I am my true self and no other. I shed the inessential. I shed woman. I shed race. I shed age. I shed status.”
On the fourth day, Anna sits in the same spot wearing a hospital gown. The line to get in curls around West 54th. The drama outside the museum overshadows the exhibit itself. Police keep a careful eye on dozens of protestors lined up across West 53rd, shouting slogans like, “It’s a lie. She will die.” And, “Only God grants eternal life.”
The daytime talk shows focus on ethics, rules and regulations. Can a medical procedure even be performed at an art museum? Would visitors be required to don surgical masks? All the guest medical experts condemn the Lazarus Project for creating such a circus. By the end of the day, a MoMA spokesperson assures the public that the actual procedure will not be part of the live performance. The statement only serves to inflame interest, since it constitutes official confirmation that the artist is indeed going to download her consciousness into a computer. The nighttime talk show hosts eagerly point out the careful wording of the statement leaves open the possibility of a video installation of the procedure.
No one is disappointed. On the fifth day visitors ascend to the atrium to find Anna Pashkin Bearfoot is not sitting in her place. The downloading machine has been rolled to the central position. The video shows a montage of the artist’s life. There are home videos of her as a toddler on a tricycle, and again at a birthday party, taller than the other girls though she tries to compensate with a slouch. Then footage of her as an adolescent, dancing and singing in her mother’s living room, long dark hair swinging across her face like a curtain in a breeze. This scene gives way to a young woman of about nineteen, playing keyboards in a band in a club, barely visible in the low light, yet her looming presence is unmistakable. Then a bright scene of her painting a huge canvas stretched across the floor in her studio, her arms swinging gracefully one moment, and then staccato the next, with a surprising intensity. Then at last, brief flashes of her now-famous performance piece with the robot. Her breasts sway as she fits a mechanical arm and tests it. Then Anna on her knees before the completed robot. It is only roughly human, like a toy. It works its mechanical jaw yet produces no sound, and pumps its arms ineffectually. Then Anna is on a talk show, saying, The robot piece affected me personally, yet I cannot explain how. I only know I’m not done with this yet.
Visitors wander thoughtfully from this installation to find one of the adjoining exhibition rooms is guarded by security. No one under twenty-one is admitted. Every half-hour a fresh crowd files in, excited and nervous, while the previous visitors, shaken and pale, exit from another door. The art critic from the Times, we learn in the paper, had witnessed the downloading live. Anna doesn’t want to dwell too much on her private thoughts and motives for undergoing the procedure, the article states. Instead, she’d like viewers to contemplate their own mortality as flesh, and to invite an internal dialogue between reality, reason, and their own religious and cultural belief systems.
“Some people are convinced they are witnessing my death,” she is quoted as saying. “It’s a legitimate point of view, and perhaps the more beautiful image—a celebration of the ephemeral in the face of manipulation by technology. I’m sure it will be an unforgettable moment.” It is. Nearly a hundred people have undergone this procedure, but hers is the one that catches and holds the world’s attention. The prime time news analysts discuss the phenomenon. Why her? She is receiving three times the attention as the first one to download. An answer forms. She is not terminally ill, elderly, or oozing money. She is doing this as art, which is intriguing and distasteful all at the same time. We must find out what kind of a person she is, so we may analyze her and come to some understanding why she would do this.
After a week of record-breaking attendance, international attention and endless replays of all available footage of Anna Pashkin Bearfoot’s life, the exhibit changes yet again. The multi-media show is completely gone, replaced by a single forty-two-inch video screen hooked up to a laptop computer on a stand in front of it. On the big screen is Anna Pashkin Bearfoot.
“By my words you will know me,” she says to the crowded atrium. Her words are also broadcast to the street outside, and podcast around the world. “I am my true self and no other.”
The crowd reacts in the ensuing silence. “This is fake.”
“The Turing test results prove it’s the same person.”
“Not with her. This could be staged.”
“Did you see the footage of the download? It’s her.”
The day-time talk show hosts throw out their regularly scheduled programming to make sure everyone understands the Turing test evaluates whether a human interviewer can tell the difference between a machine’s answers and a human’s answers to the same set of questions. Experts in artificial intelligence flood the channels to discuss the variations to the Turing methodology, and the extensive tests performed on downloaded consciousness to date. Arguments appear to erupt, but the stilted dialogue is obviously rehearsed.
“Turing tests measure intelligence. A key component we have not tested is whether the downloaded mind is capable of unintelligent human behavior. That would be essential to its humanity.”
“No, the crucial thing is whether the downloaded mind exhibits intelligent behavior that is not human. If it does, then it’s not really human.”
“But what if it is more intelligent than us? That’s not a failure of the procedure, but a sign of evolution to the transhuman.”
“Yet studies done to date find the downloaded person interacts as he or she would when they were in a body. Nothing more nor less. Study after study.”
In the meantime, the Anna Pashkin Bearfoot on the video screen invites viewers of the exhibit to type questions to her, which she answers verbally. The transcription of these conversations begins to accumulate on the wall of a nearby exhibit room. People come to watch or participate in the live interrogation, and then go to read prior conversations in the exhibit room. She never refuses to answer a question, no matter how personal.
Q: When did you experience the most sadness in your life?
A: When I was twenty, and broke up with my boyfriend at the time. Funny, I should have said it was when my mother died, but she had been in a great deal of pain for so long that her death was a relief. It was the boyfriend. I was so young and unsure of myself. Things had turned bad between us. We were never happy anymore when we were together. I was the one who broke it off, but it really hurt, and I felt so sad for months.
The questions and answers quickly mount into the hundreds. The conversations win over the populace. Former skeptics embrace downloading, and make provisions for it in their wills. Church attendance, which had been on the decline for more than a decade, plummets.
It is the end of the second week, with still two weeks to go. The game changes. Rather, the game begins.
“By my words you will know me,” she says from the screen, her face aglow. “I lay myself bare and offer my memories. I invite you in turn to manipulate these. Change anything. Change my choices. Change my life events. Simulation software will project how that change would have altered me as a person.”
The crowd, which has been expecting to participate in the now-famous conversations, falls silent. For a long time, no one moves. Then a young man, stylishly scruffy in the manner of a New School intellectual, approaches the keypad and begins browsing the menu on the little screen. Others edge forward to read over his shoulder. By this time, thanks to the media, the crowd is familiar with the highlights of Anna Pashkin Bearfoot’s life: born of a single mother, taken to art early, first in the form of music, then painting, then performance. She had three significant relationships but never married. Her mother died several months prior to Anna’s recognition for her robot-building performance.
“Look at this,” says the young man, scanning the options. “She was beaten by her mother’s live-in boyfriend.”
The crowd drinks this in, even as memory sequences ripple across the screen. Some flinch and turn away.
The young man clears his throat. “One of the options for choice is to have her sexually abused.”
The crowd murmurs, a mixture of condemnation, puzzlement and interest.
The young man makes his selection. The crowd flows forward. The rape sequences are blurred, and show little since they are from Anna’s point of view. The projection software leaps forward at a rapid pace, showing a more deeply traumatized child producing even more intense music and art, and then following a bout of drug abuse and rehab—
“She’s incredible,” the crowd concludes in one longing breath. Even the people who didn’t usually come to art museums—and Anna Pashkin Bearfoot’s performance had drawn many of those—could detect the difference. The art critic nearly falls flat on the floor in his excitement.
“Let me try,” says an older woman standing three-deep in the crowd. The game fever has begun. Anna is abused more, much more, given various disabilities. Others treat her kindly, erase past traumas, boost her intelligence. The effects are sometimes at odds with prior results. Similar traumas applied at slightly different time periods produce genius, or early suicide, or a career as a florist. One change results in her studying engineering for two years, although she does not graduate but follows a lover to Mumbai and becomes a dressmaker. Often she becomes an artist of varying degrees, sometimes staying with music as her chosen career, sometimes remaining a painter, sometimes taking up glass blowing, photography or sculpture. The art critic opines that “the heart of the artist remains constant in the face of circumstance.”
As with the questions, each alteration in Anna Pashkin Bearfoot’s life is posted in the adjoining exhibit hall, along with a brief summary of the projected life resulting from each change, and samples of any artwork these alternate selves produced. The exhibit is “a study of how small changes can propel a person onto a different life path, as if countless parallel universes are a probability away, waiting to be activated,” writes the critic. The alternative lives accumulate through the remainder of the week, and into the next. The performance piece has been a smash success.
On the last day of the installation, visitors gather in the atrium to find the interactive game removed. There is Anna on the large screen, and in front of the screen, the crude robot she made in her performance piece last year. The Anna on the large screen is a frozen frame. She regards her audience, her mouth hinting at amusement. Then the screen winks off.
The robot suddenly works its jaw, but it is a crude robot and cannot speak. It holds up an arm, containing a thick charcoal pencil in its clamp of a hand. The robot spins to the left and rolls on its skates-for-feet toward an easel where a pad of paper is mounted. It writes slowly in a child-like scrawl: I AM ANNA. BY MY WORDS. The rest is left unwritten.
The crowd, after an initial stunned silence, murmurs to itself, seeking understanding:
“Is that really her?”
“It could be a stunt.”
“She wants us to believe it’s her.”
“It can’t speak. She can’t speak.”
“She can only show us it’s her.”
Meanwhile, the robot has traded the charcoal stick for a cordless electric hacksaw suitable for cutting metal or bones. The robot tries to sit down but falls over backward instead. Laboriously, it uses its arms to right itself into a sitting position on the floor, legs straight out in front. The saw whizzes to life. The robot applies the vibrating blade to its left upper leg.
“Isn’t anybody going to stop her?” The voice has to strain over the noise.
No one bothers to answer. Everyone watches as the saw makes its progress, its whir commanding attention, so sharp that some cushion their teeth with their tongues. Several minutes later the leg rolls away with a clunk. The saw falls silent.
“This is a real statement.”
“She can’t feel any of it. This is art.”
“It’s her. Only Anna would do this.”
The robot does not teeter, but appears solidly balanced on its metal rump. It turns the saw back on, and starts on the upper right leg. Again the noise of saw on metal shushes the audience. A few minutes more, and another clunk as the limb falls away. The saw is silent again. The crowd analyzes:
“What man makes, he can destroy.”
“This is about the limitations of the machine.”
The robot brings the blade up to its neck.
“My god. What’s she doing now?”
“Shut up, lady.”
“It’s not like that. She’s immortal now.”
“The chip that runs her would be in the ribcage in any case.”
The saw hums to life. A few minutes more, and the head falls to the floor, making one and a half rolls before coming to rest on its left cheek. The saw falls silent. Some clapping starts, but immediately stops.
“She’s still moving.”
The robot, poised, calm and purposeful despite the lack of its head, positions the saw at its chest.
The noise of the saw drowns out the comments. The blade chitters across the surface, unable to find purchase. The robot tips the device and seeks to drive the upper teeth into itself. Sparks arc, miniature fireworks. The saw whines as if in argument. At last, the robot lowers the saw, turns it off. There is some damage on the surface of the chest, exposing the robot’s electrical system. A clamp-hand reaches into the breach with a staccato motion. The arm jerks suddenly and the robot collapses backward to the floor. There are “ohs” and a couple of shouts. A tiny object skitters toward the crowd, but stops two feet from the ropes. People bend to peer at it. The object is metallic and flat.
“It’s her chip.”
“It looks so vulnerable.”
There is silence. Then someone starts to clap and everyone joins in. There are shouts of “Brava!” amid less cultured whooping.
“Just look at the wreckage. Unbelievable.”
“This has got to be the best thing I’ve seen in a long time.”
“Yeah, it was great. Come on. Let’s go see the Pettibons.”