Marina Abramović: 512

It was night now in my mind, I was alone in the semi-dark­ness of the booth and I was think­ing, pro­tected from outer tor­ments. The most favourable con­di­tions for think­ing, the mo­ments when thought can let it­self nat­u­rally fol­low its course, are pre­cisely mo­ments when, hav­ing tem­porar­ily given up fight­ing a seem­ingly in­ex­haustible re­al­ity, the ten­sion be­gin­ning to loosen lit­tle by lit­tle, all the ten­sion ac­cu­mu­lated in pro­tect­ing your­self against the threat of in­jury — and I had my share of mi­nor in­juries — and that, alone in an en­closed space, alone and fol­low­ing the course of your thoughts in a state of grow­ing be­lief, you move pro­gres­sively from the strug­gle of liv­ing to the de­spair of be­ing. 1.

Wednesday 6th August 2014, 8.30am. I’m get­ting dressed, as if for work, wor­ry­ing about what might beap­pro­pri­ate. I’m go­ing to see Marina Abramović in 512 Hours, her du­ra­tional per­for­mance at the Serpentine Gallery. She is there every day, 10am-6pm, her only ma­te­ri­als be­ing her­self, the au­di­ence, and a se­lec­tion of props which she may or may not use. In this re­spect 512 Hours has par­al­lels with her Rhythm 0 per­for­mance,where she stood by a table cov­ered with ob­jects and told the crowd to do as they pleased: one event fa­mously ended with a loaded gun held to her head. Wishing that Abramović had spec­i­fied a uni­form, I de­cide upon a plain white T-shirt, black trousers and pumps, with no make-up — if I do in­ter­act with Marina then I want my ap­pear­ance to pro­vide as lit­tle stim­u­la­tion as pos­si­ble.

512 Hours aims to in­duce a state of mind­ful­ness — to­tal im­mer­sion in the pre­sent time and space. I’m am­biva­lent: I dream of this but I think it’s im­pos­si­ble, agree­ing with Jenny Diski that its cur­rent pop­u­lar­ity is un­der­stand­able in a so­ci­ety dom­i­nated by smart­phones and so­cial me­dia, but that it serves as a mech­a­nism of con­trol, dis­cour­ag­ing in­di­vid­u­als from learn­ing from the past or plan­ning for the fu­ture.2

Seemingly for­ever, I’ve been trapped in a Western malaise of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, with my mind al­ways wan­der­ing away from de­tails in friends’ con­ver­sa­tions or plot twists in films. It came to a head when I was 25, watch­ing a friend’s band, only to find my head could­n’t leave my dis­mal data en­try job, and I de­cided to see a ther­a­pist. Every week I would pry deeper into child­hood alien­ation and de­tach­ment, ag­o­nised each time she said my fifty min­utes were up. I re­call the sec­ond ses­sion best, when I left with my mind clear for what felt like the first time. Within min­utes, how­ever, the clam­our­ing voices re­turned, scream­ing about money, love, fit­ness, work, clothes, diet, sex, fam­ily, health, drag­ging me away from what I cared about most, writ­ing, leav­ing me ter­ri­fied that I would­n’t leave some worth­while work be­fore I died, and I wanted to die soon.

These con­cerns in­fused them­selves through­out my body, mak­ing me des­per­ate to break out of it un­til I re­solved to shift from male to fe­male. It started build­ing as soon as I re­alised my gen­der dys­pho­ria, aged ten, and be­came para­noid about who would find out, my shoul­ders al­ways hunched. Twenty years later, in Charing Cross Hospital af­ter my sex re­as­sign­ment surgery, a fel­low pa­tient aban­doned her at­tempts to mas­sage them be­cause my brain would­n’t al­low it. I thought back to the first trans­sex­ual woman I re­ally knew, a per­for­mance artist called Pia who did a striptease to Laurie Anderson’s O Superman. She told me that once I be­came com­fort­able in my body, the fa­mil­iar and un­bear­able im­per­a­tive to do every­thing now would dis­si­pate.

My mind bore so many marks of tran­si­tion — the fear of ha­rass­ment, mock­ery, vi­o­lence, re­jec­tion — and my body lan­guage changed to fend off in­tru­sive ques­tions and abu­sive com­ments. My frame it­self had be­come scarred by the op­er­a­tion, though all have faded, two years af­ter my week on the ward. Now, I leave Lancaster Gate tube, try­ing not to get im­pa­tient as the pedes­trian light stays red for ages, be­com­ing an­noyed with the tourists who block me from jab­bing the WAIT but­ton, even though I know I’ll have to queue out­side the Serpentine.

I have sound­tracks for when I want to calm or slow my­self. During my sec­ond night in hos­pi­tal, af­ter I came off the mor­phine and could­n’t sleep, wracked with pain yet hap­pier to stay alive, I put on the fi­nal track of Königsforst by Gas, a ten-minute loop of a sin­gle melody, soft scratch­ing and two bass notes, one ris­ing, one falling, pro­vid­ing respite if not rest. Now I lis­ten to Anglepoised by Fridge, built around a pul­sat­ing bassline that varies just slightly, the drum line sub­tly shift­ing as syn­the­sized sounds shim­mer over the top, invit­ing me to fall into its groove rather than or­der­ing me to march to its rhythm.

The track suits the oth­er­worldly feel to Hyde Park, with the beau­ti­ful foun­tains and mar­ble basins in the Italian gar­dens. I love the view from the bridge over the river, every branch hang­ing in the right place, the swans and geese so care­lessly at ease. Recently, I worked nearby at St. Mary’s Hospital: Marina Abramović ar­rived just be­fore my con­tract ex­pired, which al­ready feels like an eter­nity ago. In the same seat in the same room, three days a week, with noth­ing to do and nowhere to go,I had so lit­tle mo­ti­va­tion that one lunchtime I came here and won­dered who would no­tice if I spent the whole af­ter­noon in the gallery. I would pre­tend I’d been at a meet­ing if any­one asked, but I never quite dared.

In the line at the Serpentine, I find my friend Alexandra Lazar, a Serbian artist. I tell her I’m try­ing to free­lance, speak­ing about a piece on trans­gen­der peo­ple and rad­i­cal fem­i­nism, ab­surdly long at 8500 words that I sent to my ed­i­tor at 1am, for which I’m ex­pect­ing am­biva­lence from trans peo­ple, anger from jour­nal­ists and death threats from ex­trem­ists. Alexandra talks about how Serbia is try­ing to adopt the ne­olib­eral eco­nom­ics which the European Union im­poses on new mem­bers, and how this man­i­fests in the hideous Belgrade on the Water’ cul­tural scheme with a blue Chinese bridge dumped over the river, ru­in­ing the sul­phur yel­low house style of the city.

We reach the en­trance. A woman, dressed in black, tells us to put our pos­ses­sions in a locker, and ad­vises go­ing to the toi­let now as once we leave, we won’t be al­lowed back with­out queu­ing. In the bath­room, I get an email: my ar­ti­cle is on­line. I put the link on Twitter and Facebook, take a deep breath and step in­side.

Alexandra has en­tered al­ready, and I’m wor­ried that I’ve lost her. I lock up my phone, purse and keys, try­ing to let go of the dread I feel when­ever I’m with­out them. I think about how I never dare do any­thing spon­ta­neously, and then, ten­ta­tively, start to ask my­self if I’ll be able to give up fight­ing this seem­ingly in­ex­haustible re­al­ity, even tem­porar­ily, and fol­low the course of my thoughts.

I thought there was no talk­ing, but Marina Abramović sits, whis­per­ing to an in­vig­i­la­tor. I read the text out­lin­ing the con­cept and put on head­phones, won­der­ing if she’s dic­tat­ing a sound­track, but there is no sound. I try an­other pair, re­al­is­ing then that they can­cel noise. It re­minds me that I’ve al­ways had mu­sic on, when­ever I’m alone in pub­lic, us­ing it dur­ing the year-long Real Life Experience of living as a woman”, be­fore hor­mone treat­ment to drown out the abuse from strangers, but well be­fore that to si­lence the con­stant chat­ter­ing in­side my­self.

I en­ter the gallery, its walls are blank and peo­ple are sat on chairs around a podium, some star­ing ahead, oth­ers down. The in­vig­i­la­tor leads me silently to a seat, ges­tur­ing at me to close my eyes. I do so for some time, then I de­cide to join a few other peo­ple on the planks of wood in the cen­tre, ex­pos­ing my­self to the gaze of the au­di­ence, and the po­ten­tial hu­mil­i­a­tion this brings. Are my flies done up? What if I slip? Or if I start sneez­ing or cough­ing?

I re­mem­ber all the times I’ve re­lin­quished con­trol of my body: in fetish clubs, or in pri­vate with a mas­ter or mis­tress, no longer pro­tect­ing my­self from the threat of in­jury but wil­fully sub­mit­ting to it. They tell me what to wear, mak­ing de­mands of my dress and de­port­ment like the Gender Identity Clinics used to be­fore peo­ple chal­lenged the cru­elty of this. We then en­ter some oth­er­worldly en­vi­ron­ment where my pun­ish­ment for some un­spec­i­fied trans­gres­sion will be en­acted, and they take me on a chain, ty­ing and blind­fold­ing me be­fore smash­ing the ten­sion out of me, lit­tle by lit­tle. I have no way of know­ing when the at­tacks will start or stop, or even who is de­liv­er­ing them, let alone halt­ing them; briefly savour­ing those mo­ments when they flit from bru­tal­ity to ten­der­ness be­fore the beat­ings re­sume, and it’s in­cred­i­bly lib­er­at­ing.

Growing up in a small town, with noth­ing to do and nowhere to go, I could al­ways dis­cern the hour and minute with an un­canny de­gree of ac­cu­racy, but un­der their su­per­vi­sion, this abil­ity leaves me. Time, so op­pres­sive when I was wait­ing for the Clinic to pre­scribe hor­mones or set a date for surgery, be­comes erotic du­ra­tion: be­ing left so help­less is one of my favourite feel­ings, per­haps the only time that the voices re­alise there’s no point in ha­rass­ing me, and when I’m fi­nally un­bound, they never tell me how long it’s been, and I never want to ask.

I step into one of two rooms filled with camp beds and sheets. The in­vig­i­la­tor in­vites me to lie down, pro­vid­ing the pub­lic space to nap that I’ve al­ways craved: the tyranny of the nine-to-five has never let me rest, re­mind­ing me that hu­mans are the only an­i­mals to sleep in one block. I wel­come her of­fer. Horizontal, I wish that I could tran­scribe every thought di­rectly from my brain, but ac­cept that some will re­main as oth­ers van­ish, try­ing to trust my­self to keep the most im­por­tant. In an age where every­thing is recorded and broad­cast, there’s some­thing free­ing about this, es­pe­cially as writ­ers are now prac­ti­cally obliged to be on Twitter, wor­ry­ing about how to shape every brain­wave into a brand that stands out from the in­ces­sant noise. Then I re­alise that the very process of writ­ing tram­mels my thoughts, and that a piece like this can only ever be an ap­prox­i­ma­tion. I’ve read trans­la­tions of Surrealist automatic writ­ing’ where they tried to record a stream of con­scious­ness with as lit­tle me­di­a­tion as pos­si­ble, but the re­sults were al­ways dull and aim­less, be­ing far bet­ter when they struc­tured things, es­pe­cially when they talked about sex.

I get up and sit back down. Marina Abramović sits next to me, tak­ing her time to breathe. When I think about tran­si­tion, or my life as a trans­sex­ual jour­nal­ist, I see that film of her, in­hal­ing and then hurl­ing her­self into a wall. She closes her eyes, and I want to take her hand, know­ing that talk­ing is for­bid­den but cer­tain that we can still com­mu­ni­cate. I want her to know that the pain that makes her throw her­self into a wall, or put her­self in a po­si­tion where peo­ple hold loaded guns to her head, that’s my pain too, I’ve known it all my life, and her sharp­ness in ex­press­ing it makes me feel braver.

Somehow, it feels more beau­ti­ful to leave her alone, and I go to the foyer to chart my re­flec­tions. Alexandra has left at more or less the same time, and the mo­ment is bro­ken: we can­not re­turn. Outside, nor­mal life rushes to­wards us: I have an email about tem­po­rary pub­lic sec­tor jobs, but just as I think about how I never want to go back to that, I bump into Lizzie, my old man­ager at NHS London, who let me go home when I got my date for surgery and was go­ing crazy about how soon it sud­denly seemed. Then, hav­ing tried so hard to sus­pend any con­sid­er­a­tion of it, I re­mem­ber my ar­ti­cle: I check Twitter on my phone. It’s gone vi­ral. How can so many peo­ple pos­si­bly have read so many words while we were in the gallery? Amazed, I tell Alexandra that my whole life has been build­ing up to this mo­ment — when I chal­lenge forty years of radical’ trans­pho­bia head-on and peo­ple fi­nally lis­ten. She hugs me, buys me a cup of camomile tea in the café, and tells me to re­lax


Juliet Jacques is a writer, film­maker, broad­caster, and aca­d­e­mic. She has pub­lished two books, most re­cently Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015). Her short fic­tion, es­says, and jour­nal­ism have ap­peared in nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, and her short films have fea­tured in gal­leries and fes­ti­vals across the world. She hosts the pod­cast Suite (212), which looks at the arts in their so­cial, cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal, and his­tor­i­cal con­texts.