In a 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective exhibit featuring the work of Marina Abramović, the renowned performance artist sat in a chair from March 14 to May 31, a total of 736 hours and 30 minutes. Although the piece was entitled “The Artist Is Present,” the idea of the “present” artist depended entirely on the mirrored presence of an audience. The 1,500 attendees played a crucial function in the work by sitting across from Abramović and staring silently back at her.
“Without the audience, the work doesn’t exist,” Abramović commented. “The Artist Is Present” was thus formed not only by Abramović’s presence but by the interaction of the audience. Their presence was necessary for the formation of the work. Some people cried—causing Abramović to cry—while everyone vied for privileged time and space with the artist. Audience members who cried facing Abramović were captured on film, prompting the creation of an entire Tumblr dedicated to the phenomenon and appropriately titled Marina Abramović Made Me Cry. In this way, art begat more art, not all of which necessitated the presence of Abramović.
It may be difficult to understand why a person would cry merely by staring at another person, or why anyone would wait hours in line just to sit across from a person in a chair. However, “The Artist Is Present” was not all that different from seeing an artist perform their music live. We want to experience the music we love in person so we can capture the night as a keepsake, a memory to relish for years. We may find ourselves across from a different kind of performance artist, crying at the mere sight of them or the sound of their songs.
On the night of the final performance of Childish Gambino, Donald Glover left the stage early in his set to take selfies with fans at the front of the crowd. He took phones from people and posed for pictures while video cameras projected him onto the large displays flanking both sides of the stage. Layers of screens mediated the experience between audience and artist. When face-to-face with the artists we admire, many of us choose to take a selfie—the opportunity to be present is negotiated through the desire to preserve.
Given that Glover’s personal life has become increasingly private in recent years, taking selfies with fans grants them a feeling of access. Still, it isn’t exactly access to an authentic moment with the artist. By interrupting the music to allow phones to capture him, Glover comments on the show in real-time, drawing explicit attention to the screens as a mediating force in experiencing his presence.
Glover’s supposed last performance as Gambino was at this year’s Austin City Limits, an annual music festival in Texas. Whereas many attendees may have paid to see him specifically, most were there to see several other artists as well. Music festivals may contradict the experience of carving out specific time and space for a one-on-one moment with an artist. This manifestation of the live show, which has sustained popularity throughout the last two decades, may be our most pronounced display of the social media generation’s stereotypes. We want people to entertain us, and we want people to think we are interesting, but we cannot help feeling a bit bored by it all.
During a technicolor portion of the show, a woman behind me confessed, “I feel like I would enjoy this if I were high.” This comment suggested that she was not high enough to enjoy it now, yet here she was watching it anyway. While Glover took selfies with fans, I stood far back in the crowd without the slightest chance of Glover approaching my friends and me. Near me, a person loudly guffawed: “What the fuck is this?” The artist was not performing for us. Thus, we were not close enough to enjoy this moment of seemingly uninhibited access. From a distance, it seemed ridiculous to use precious performance time taking selfies with a select few. But even the disinterest and discontent were somewhat insincere, mired in jealousy and a wish to be made happier than we feel.
In music, as in art, the various meanings we draw from a work depend on our reactions—and projections—onto the objects where we place our attention and affection. We often attach a sense of ownership to the music that makes us feel like we belong somewhere. “This is my song,” we say, and we mean it. When we show our friends, we take pride in sharing music we claim to have a stake in. The artist is present in the work, yes, but so are we.
Perhaps no artist has capitalized on this notion better than Donald Glover as Childish Gambino. On his Because the Internet tour in 2014, attendees were encouraged to download an app so we could interact with a large screen onstage throughout the show. App users could send comments to the screen like a Twitter thread (“Gambino can get it”) or draw pictures (often penises) over the comments. During Gambino’s performance, the screen returned to ask the audience how we were feeling, and we cast our respective votes through the app.
Through each of these interactive experiences, Glover seemed to be asking audiences to consider what we are doing with the Internet and our phones. Are they pulse-checkers, places to connect, or merely platforms to troll? Are we together in the room, or are we only standing alone in proximity to other bodies, facing forward to receive Gambino’s performance? Did our connection to each other—including Gambino—end there?
If Austin City Limits was his last performance, Glover-as-Gambino treated the night as the culmination of his engagement with the audience as actors in his theater. Whereas most fans revel at the moment an artist seems to look directly at them, Gambino spent much of the performance facing the cameras, giving the appearance of looking everyone in the eye all at once. In breaking the fourth wall, Gambino not only acknowledged the cameras but caused the entire audience to feel like we were making eye contact with someone who was not looking at us.
Near the end of the show, Gambino had the cameras follow him backstage. He and a sound technician appeared to argue over whether the audience cared enough to hear an encore. Gambino responded by facing the camera and placing his hand to his ear, listening for the crowd’s cheers. There was not a moment of the performance where he was offscreen, providing a continuous feed of the artist who once shared unfiltered blog posts and tweets before ghosting the Internet. By listening for the inevitable noise that would draw him back to the audience, he acted as if an arbitrary approval metric—the level of volume the crowd could make—would determine the outcome, a live adaption of a social media feed.
During the encore, Glover closed the night—and possibly his career as Gambino—with “Redbone,” a song that appropriates the political language of the Black Lives Matter movement to warn listeners to “stay woke.” As he sang, he placed his body in the crowd, moving through a sea of mostly white fans while the cameras tried to keep up with him.
Gambino eventually found his way back out of the crowd and began to sprint away from the cameras, looking back as if to see if they were still following him. He dropped to the ground and began to stumble and crawl as if the cameras were gaining on him, and he would not escape in time. When he finally made it to the stage, collapsing, the cameras were still there, capturing both the moment and, apparently, him.
How is one to read the warning to “stay woke” in light of this performance? The artist acted out a moment of moving through a mostly white crowd, who had just unironically sung, “Get your money Black man,” during the politically charged “This Is America.” The artist also acted out a failed escape from cameras he had trained to follow him. It was all an act, as we say, but everything spoke back to the relationship between audience, artist, and the screens that bind us. Without our presence, as Abramović would argue, the work would not exist. The actor is present, and we will say we were, too.