The Luminato Festival in Toronto has earned a goodly part of its youthful reputation by stretching the more comfortable boundaries of artistic experience. In MAI-Prototype, an installation mounted (and running daily) in the city's trendy Trinity-Bellwoods Park, it is taking that mandate to new heights, or perhaps widths.
MAI is the merciful acronym for the Marina Abramovic Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, a facility now being built in Hudson, New York. The Serbian-born artist is dedicated to the creation of what she calls long-duration art. Experiences less constrained by the artificial limits of time, she believes, may be more memorable and emotionally deep.
Her Toronto prototype – the Hudson venue will have a more developed version – consists of a cluster of several interconnected pod-like tents, bright red on the outside, stark white on the inside. Every half hour, a set of four participants move silently through it. The entire experience lasts just under two hours.
For my session, there is an unfilled fourth slot, so an unlucky Luminato volunteer is seconded.
Inside the first pod, we all don white lab coats and a pair of silver, calf-high shoes, like the insoles of ski boots, and sign waivers promising not to quit before the program's appointed end. Then we're given white earphones that we connect to an iPod containing the voice of our high priestess, Abramovic herself, issuing instructions. It comes in 10 languages.
In the next tent, we stand and watch a video of Abramovic talk us through a yogic breathing and relaxation routine. Maybe it's my deep breathing, because my iPod suddenly stops working. I hear nothing, not even in Tagalog.
By now we have moved on to the next tent. We sit on wooden boxes staring dumbly for a few minutes at cylinders of water. Each has a faucet and a different coloured rock or crystal at the bottom of the tank. I'm pretty sure I should be hearing something, because one by one, my fellow travellers rise, approach one of the tanks, pour a glass of water and, returning to their block, start to sip. Beginning to feel a little like Harpo Marx, I mimic their actions.
We sit. We sip. We stare. Eventually, we put out glasses down and move on.
Now the fun begins. We climb onto high wooden chairs and stare for 25 minutes at each other. More accurately, I get to stare at the Luminato volunteer, a pleasant-looking young man. I conclude, based only on the shape of his face, that he is of Dutch origin. How's that for artistic insight? He stares back. Our eyes lock, then wander, then lock again. I find the space between his eyebrows and stare at that.
In her video intro, Abramovic had said she hoped the experience would engender an awareness of time, space, luminosity, emptiness and void. The last two seem somewhat redundant, but now I want to add a sixth: pointlessness.
Eventually, a bell rings and we shuffle into pod number five, where some sort of glass-encased Tesla electric coil is merrily zapping. I choose one of eight fluorescent light bulbs standing in a rack and hold it up to the glass. Bingo, it lights up. This must be luminosity.
Hey, my iPod is working again, but out of sync with everyone else's. So a minute or so ahead of the others, I stumble into the next tent, and lie down on a long table with a stone pillow. Outside, I can hear a violinist, laughing children, and a low-flying helicopter. I start to drift off into slumberland. A bell rings in my headphones, so I slowly rise and make my way to the final tent: a small desk, a wooden block for a chair, pen and paper. I am to record my impressions, which will be posted on social media. I write a paragraph, acknowledging boredom and confusion. Maybe that was the point, after all.
Then I am freed. I exit the tents into the late afternoon sunlight. A little girl is being guided over a low tightrope tied between two trees. Now, that looks like fun.