The Power of Proximity

Marilyn Arsem

Marzo, 2022


The pandemic has been a long two years and not easy for performance artists. The return to live work has been slow. Many artists took on the challenge of creating live-streaming performances for the internet, but I don't want to forget what is possible in the context of a live setting.

Here is what I look forward to being able to freely and safely do again:


I look forward to the ritual of going to a performance. It is as much a social event as it is an art event, where a temporary community forms around a unique experience.


I look forward to the intimacy of performance art venues, where the audience and performer exist on the same scale and are together on the same plane, in close physical proximity with one another.


I look forward to sharing the physical atmosphere of the venue. The performer and viewers are similarly impacted by the temperature of the space, the dust floating in the air, the odors of bodies in the room and smells wafting in from outside. We hear not just the performance, but also the systems of the building, people breathing, stomachs rumbling, as well as sounds further away from outdoors. 


Together we ingest it all, absorbing everything through our ears and eyes and mouth and nose and skin, becoming a part of each other and the place. It is one reason we feel bonded as a group. And it explains why, when we attempt to describe the event to someone who was absent, words often fail us, and we resort to saying, "You just had to be there..."


When I make performances, I seek to activate all the senses, creating not just visual images but employing materials with texture and weight, ones that make sounds, and have smell and taste. I use everyday objects that can elicit personal associations and memories and dreams, adding private layers of meaning for the viewer.


I value being able to include the audience in my work. In a live context, I can look directly in their eyes, I can touch them, I can give them something to hold, I can ask for assistance. Since the work is my own creation, I can adjust my actions in response to what we are experiencing together. I can change what I am doing whenever I need to, even as I am performing.


I make work in which I pose questions or problems to examine, rather than designing a performance with a predetermined ending. I want to be able to shape my actions in response to what I discover. It forces me to pay attention to the immediate conditions of the location, including the individuals in the audience. I work to attune my actions and my energy to the spirit of the moment. While I have set the parameters of the event, I integrate what the environment and the audience is bringing to it. In essence, we are creating the experience together.


I rarely repeat performances, but instead create new ones in response to a particular place and point in time. I look forward to being able to make new live work that intimately engages the viewers, such as I did in these recent works:


In Greensleeves and Cardamom in Sweden in 2012, I played a small hand-cranked music box against a person's brow, so that their skull amplified the music inside their head. I also gave them cardamom seeds to eat, to experience their menthol-like aromatics pervade their nasal cavity. It was a performance inside their heads.


In The Cure, in Poland in 2013 I lay in a hospital bed in a forest, with my eyes closed and holding out my hand. When I felt someone take my hand, I whispered to them to lean closer, asking them to tell me about the future. 


In Disintegration in Finland in 2015, I sat at a table in a public square inviting individuals to sit with me. As we drank tea together, I asked them to talk about disintegration in their lives, about things falling apart - big or small, good or bad. As the day progressed, I slowly demolished all the materials on the table.


In Spring Arrives So Slowly in Canada in 2015, people joined me walking extremely slowly along a railroad track, while we had a conversation about getting through the dark days of winter, the dark periods of our lives. I gave them bulbs to plant that would bloom in the spring.


On Day 94 of 100 Ways to Consider Time in the USA in 2015-2016, I spent six hours blindfolded, inhaling people's scent and smelling their hands. I wrote down what I knew of them from what I detected - that they smoked cigarettes, or used almond hand lotion, or had recently eaten Indian food. 


In in the USA in 2019, I zested a mountain of fresh lemons as I listed all the new things that I might do in my life, always starting with, "Maybe I should..." The fragrance of the lemons quickly filled the room and began to permeate other parts of the building.


In The Remains of Memory I and II in Canada and the USA in 2019, audience members helped me assemble a jigsaw puzzle of a photo from my past, as they randomly chose a day in their life to remember. They reconstructed, as best they could, the events of that particular day from their past. We were all surprised by how much we really could remember.


In As Vidas Que Raramente Notamos (The Lives We Rarely Notice) in Brazil in 2019, I shared magnifying glasses with the audience, as we got down on the ground to examine the world under our feet. We placed streamers to mark the lives we had found.



1 & 2 Greensleeves and Cardamom
audience of one performance by Marilyn Arsem
Magasinsgatan 3 Gallery
Live Action Sweden #7
Göteborg, Sweden
May 26, 2012
Screenshots from video by Chuyia Chia
3 & 4
The Cure
six-hour durational performance
at the 3rd International Sokolowsko Festival of Ephemeral Art
Sokolowsko, Poland
July 30, 2013
Photo by Marcin Polak
5 & 6
seven-hour durational performance
Streetlevel, Performance Art in Public Space
Helsinki, Finland
August 8, 2015
photo by Antti Ahonen
7 & 8
  Spring Arrives So Slowly                  
six-hour durational performance by Marilyn Arsem
Viva! Art Action
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
October 10, 2015
Photo by Caroline Boileau
9 100 Ways to Consider Time
100 6-hour durational performances by Marilyn Arsem in 100 days, from November 9, 2015 – February 19, 2016
Day 94: Smells
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
February 13, 2016
Photo by Vela Oma
10 still. here
durational performance by Marilyn Arsem
as part of IN>TIME 19
at the Defibrillator Gallery located at Zhou B Art Center
Chicago, Illinois, USA
February 10, 2019
photo by Jeffery Byrd
The Remains of Memory I
interactive performance
Queer City Cinema's 'Performatorium Festival of Queer Performance 7: Bad (Ass) Bodies'
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
September 20, 2019
Screenshot from video by Adrienne Adams
The Remains of Memory II
interactive performance
Salt Lake City Performance Art Festival
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
October 4&5, 2019
Photo by Winston Inoway
13 & 14
As Vidas Que Raramente Notamos (The Lives We Rarely Notice)
interactive performance by Marilyn Arsem in Passeio Público,
as part of Performance Art Week curated by Fernando Ribeiro of p.ARTE,
at the 14th Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporaneá de Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil.
November 23, 2019
photo by Fernando Ribeiro


About The Artist

Performance artist Marilyn Arsem (1951) has been creating and performing live events for more than forty years and has presented her work in thirty countries around the globe. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, she also teaches performance art workshops internationally. Many of her works are durational in nature, minimal in actions and materials, and have been created in response to specific sites, and their history, use or politics. In 1975 Arsem established an artist collaborative for experimentation, now known as Mobius Artists Group. From 1987 to 2014 Arsem taught performance art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A book on her work, Responding to Site: The Performance Work of Marilyn Arsem, edited by Jennie Klein and Natalie Loveless, was published in 2020 by Intellect Books of the UK. Further information can be found on her website at

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