Lessons from the Cleaning the House workshop

Recently I was lucky enough to be in the right place, at precisely the right time, to be invited to go on Marina Abramovic’s famous Cleaning The House workshop in preparation for performing for her upcoming exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm early next year. I began the process at the audition on a rainy October day, with uncertainty and a distinct feeling of suspicion.

The first thing we did was explain to Lynsey, Marina’s assistant, who we were and what we do. Seems fine. Then we were asked to walk slowly across the room. Very slowly. It was surprisingly hard. Next we performed a ‘mutual gaze’ rather like Marina did during The Artist Is Present at the MoMA a few years ago. We are so very naïve to things, before we experience them. During the mutual gaze, I realised: firstly, when you stare at someone’s face for a long time, everything becomes one colour – you lose the normal sensation of sight; and secondly, that sitting still and moving slowly is incredibly difficult and incredibly painful.

I was invited to go back to the 6-hour recall audition. I swayed from definitely ‘no’ to absolutely ‘yes’ and back and forth again multiple times before I walked into the audition hall. I was still ‘deciding’ on the bus there, as well as in the queue for the museum to open. I decided I would go because I could always leave if I decided it wasn’t for me. I think this uncertainty was because (another realisation) I am really very anxious about discomfort. I’m scared to be outside of my comfort zone, to feel pain, to be alone with my mind. In the end, I actually quite enjoyed the call-back audition. And so I was invited to go on the 5-day training workshop in preparation for performing. I said no.

I didn’t want to rearrange the classes I had to teach that week. I didn’t want to do long, durational exercises and be away from my home and not eat. I was convinced of it all being very self-conscious and irritating and difficult. And then I changed my mind.

I was encouraged by friends and family. They had a ‘why wouldn’t you?’ attitude, and suggested if anything made you feel this uncertainty, it was good for investigating yourself and your mind.

And so I found myself on a boat to a tiny island in the Stockholm archipelago with 29 other nervous people to ‘clean the house’.

We began by handing in our phones, eating a light broth, asking some final questions and then closing our mouths and going to bed. We weren’t going to speak or eat for five days. Every morning, we were woken by a gong – mostly I think everyone slept kind of awfully. We assembled in a courtyard and walked down to the beach, where we took our pyjamas off and walked into the freezing sea. We took showers and dressed and had tea while we waited for our first exercise. Through the days, we did classic Abramovic training – mutual gazing, blindfolded explorations of the house we stayed in – as well as the surrounding forest, mindfully eating seven almonds or slowly drinking almond milk, counting rice and lentils, staring at primary colours, walking backwards with a mirror, slow walking. It went on, a feeling endless nowness, for five days. Almost everyday, I thought to myself: I’ve had enough. I will finish this exercise and then I will quit. But I never did, and neither did anyone else. It was a really amazing experience – in equal parts the worst, most frustrating and horrible and the most amazing, enlightening and tranquil. 

These are the things I learned.

1. You’re going to be ok.

It may not feel like it at the time, but pretty much everything will be ok. You will not suffer in anything forever – even if you die. Worrying about suffering is completely pointless and it is a fact that you are stronger and more capable than you think you are. Trust that you are. 

2. You are truly yourself without your phone and without your voice.

How we communicate with each other when we have our usual tools taken away is with more understanding, a greater and gentler appreciation of the power of touch. It is such a gift to be silent with a group of people.

3. Close your eyes.

When we use our senses in unison, they inhibit each other. When we take just one away, we see things with our whole body in a completely new way. It only took a couple of hours to learn that walking in the forest in the black of night or with a blindfold is just as safe as walking through the forest in bright daylight – we just have to use our bodies differently, to shift the focus from our eyes to our bodies. In a way, we become lazy with our senses and we stop thinking and listening to the outside – we go on autopilot.

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