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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Q&A with performance artist Anya Liftig

SHES A GROUCHO MARXIST: Performance artist Anya Liftig will attempt to climb a peanut butter-covered barricade in a free public performance beginning at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 7, at 660 Airline Street in the Old Fourth Ward.
  • Alessandro Vecchi
  • SHE'S A GROUCHO MARXIST: Performance artist Anya Liftig will attempt to climb a peanut butter-covered barricade beginning at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 7, at 660 Airline Street in the Old Fourth Ward. The performance is free and open to the public.
For her latest work I'm a Groucho Marxist, New York-based performance artist Anya Liftig will attempt to climb a barricade covered in peanut butter while blind-folded and bound. You can read more about Liftig and her unusual work in Creative Loafing's feature story this week, but we also wanted to delve into more detail with the artist to get her thoughts on hecklers, her time with Marina Abramović, and the secret superpower of her piercing eyes.

Like a lot of your pieces, your performance in Atlanta will be out in public. You risk getting heckled, and people may shriek they don't get it and so on. Considering all that, why do you perform in public?
I enjoy performing out in the world best. You bring that strangeness of the performing persona and you marry it with the regular world. That to me makes sense as a way to be provocative and a way to live your life. You get hecklers. Even if they're not heckling, oftentimes they ask you over and over again what you're doing. That's part of performing. You make decisions. Do you want to answer, do you not want to answer. For me generally, I don't answer. That's how I stay in my space. When I'm doing it, it's not the right time to explain. I can't be like, "This is not a flash mob. I'm not a mime," to everybody. I can also understand it can be incredibly frustrating if you just want to know. I try to bring along a friend who can get asked the annoying questions. It's a bit of an entry point so it's not just, "Screw you, person who is asking questions." I think there is a place for questions.

My friend and I were doing a performance where we were eating life-sized babies made of chocolate. It was part of a festival, so there was some signage somewhere. But come on. You needed somebody there to explain what was going on. We had someone recording it. When we watched the tape we heard things like... "Is that a baby? Or a sandwich?!?" There were pictures of people who were really grossed out. It was a pretty demented performance.

HELLO, DOLLY: Liftig got her start as a child performing in ballets, musicals and other traditional theatrical productions.
  • bami adedoyin
  • HELLO, DOLLY: Liftig got her start as a child performing in ballets, musicals and other traditional theatrical productions.
You have a background in traditional theater and dance, both of which you were very involved in as a child. How did Hello, Dolly! and The Nutcracker turn into eating babies? Could you talk about that journey?
Yeah. I was in Guys and Dolls, Carousel, Annie, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty. How did that happen? I guess I started to follow the things that were my childhood desires and wishes. Not that I wanted to eat babies. I did want to lick things, to let out a more primitive self. Through learning about process, I tried to access a part of me that's much younger and is really interested in these actions and desires I had as a kid. You grow up and you're not supposed to put everything in your mouth. In performance that can be a means of working. Just meditating on what those desires are and also marrying it with my formal education.

You went to GSU and got your start as a professional artist on the Atlanta art scene. What did you think of Atlanta as a place for art-making?
Atlanta's a great place to make art, particularly to be a young artist and an emerging artist. I went to graduate school at GSU. It was a superb place because I felt really supported by the teachers at Georgia State. I felt like it didn't take that much money to live a decent life compared to other places that I've lived. I felt like the possibilities were really limitless in terms of connecting, like if you wanted to connect with the curator at the contemporary or the head of some organization, it didn't take that much work. There were a lot of start-up galleries, there was just a lot of activity. I felt like when I left Atlanta I had a really good resume. I had a lot of experience: I knew what it was to have a solo show, I knew what it was to have a group show. I got to test the waters and try a lot of different things that a lot of people coming out of art school in different places just had not had the opportunity to do.

But did you think it was necessary to leave Atlanta to progress to the next stage of your career?
It was about something else. My family is from the Northeast. I really missed them. It really wasn't about my career. I thought seriously about staying in Atlanta, but I really wanted to be close to my family.

Do you make enough from your performances to live on now?
I'm a private teacher and tutor for college essays, the ACT, GRE and other standardized tests. It's something I learned how to do in Atlanta, and it has served me very well.

THE ARTIST IS PRESENT: One of Liftigs most well-known pieces was an intervention into the work of Marina Abramović.
  • MOMA webcam via Neda Abghari
  • THE ARTIST IS PRESENT: One of Liftig's most well-known pieces was an intervention into the work of Marina Abramović.
For your piece The Anxiety of Influence you sat across from performance artist Marina Abramović during her own piece The Artist is Present at MoMA for the entire day, dressed as Marina. Obviously you didn't speak to her at the time, but did you ever hear back from her or her people about that day?
I wrote her a note and stopped by the museum a couple days later just to say, "Thank you for putting up with me." I'd spent a lot of time watching her on the Internet and going there to watch her live: I realized she had a hand system for the guards so she could get rid of someone if she wanted to, if somebody fell asleep or if someone was bothering her. I wrote her and told her I appreciated her not throwing me out. I didn't say one way or the other if my performance was a contentious thing or a reverential thing. I just said, "When you finish this, it would be very nice to go out for tea or something if you have time." I got an email back from her assistant saying that she wasn't talking as part of her project but that she felt the same way, she had a lovely time and she would love to talk to me afterwords. At the end of the show, there was a gala ending party and then there was a symposium. At the gala, they had these party favors, a sheet of gold-leaf in the shape of her lips. All these douchebag celebrities were shown at this party pressing gold onto each others' lips. I was just like "Are you kidding?! You're so foolish. What fools." The next day I went to the symposium, and she was talking about how what she did was a gift to all 'the people' and how it was so generous and how she helped all of them because it made them cry. I just felt like, "Shut it. Shut your trap."

THEM THERE EYES: Liftigs eyes proved memorable.
  • 2010 Marco Anelli/Courtesy MoMA
  • THEM THERE EYES: Liftig's eyes proved memorable.
Never meet your idols, as they say.
Yeah. At the end of the symposium, lots of people were going up to her and shaking her hand and saying thank you. So I went up to her and I was trying to talk to her and shake her hand. She kept making eye contact with me and avoiding me, almost running away. I was like, "Anya, you're making way too much of this. She doesn't even know who you are. Give me a break." Eventually there was just me and her and two other people and [MoMA Chief Curator] Klaus Biesenbach in this auditorium. I was trying to talk to her, and she literally ran away from me. I was like, "Uh, okay. I think now you're supposed to take this personally." Eventually I just left, but we ended up on the same escalator. I turned, and she said, "Those eyes. I remember those eyes..." I was like, "Yes, Marina. I'm the girl who sat with you all day." She said, "I know. I remember." I was like, "Well, I just wanted to say thank you, it was a really great experience." She said, "Thank you. Thank you, too, thank you," and then she scurried away, walking backwards, facing me.

It sounds like you may have scared her.
I don't really know. I guess I scared her with my eyes. My piercing eyes.

Anya Liftig will perform "I'm a Groucho Marxist" on Saturday, July 7, at 8:30 p.m. at 660 Airline Street. For more information, visit FLUX Projects.

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