It’s not often that an artwork results in crazed political conspiracy theories that spread like wildfire across D.C. gossip networks and newspaper headlines. But that’s exactly what happened last month, when Wikileaks released an email sent by performance art star Marina Abramović to liberal lobbyist Tony Podesta—brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
The email, which referenced Abramović’s 1996 performance piece Spirit Cooking, set off a false conspiracy theory concocted by the alt-right. It grossly misrepresented the email, distorted Abramović’s work, and drew the unsupported conclusion that Abramović, the brothers Podesta, and even Hillary Clinton were in cahoots as Satan-worshipping occultists. The initial craze over Abramović contributed to, and emerged from the same emails leak as, the larger conspiracy known as Pizzagate.
So how were Abramović and her work brought into this fake-news, election-cycle quagmire? And what about Spirit Cooking provoked alt-right outlets, such as InfoWars and Drudge Report, to post headlines like: “Spirit Cooking: Clinton Campaign Manager Practices Bizarre Occult Ritual” and “Wiki Wiccan: Podesta Practices Occult Magic”?
To get to the bottom of it, the leaked email from Abramović to Podesta is a good place to start. Sent on June, 28, 2015, it read:
I’m so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you would be able to let me know if your brother’s joining?
All my love, Marina
First of all, Tony Podesta is not only a D.C. liberal politico but also an avid art collector and longtime supporter of Abramović’s work. The Spirit Cooking dinner to which the artist was referring was in fact a prize given to six high-level supporters of her 2013 Kickstarter campaign, raising funds to support a new performance art institute she was building in upstate New York. On the Marina Abramović Institute Kickstarter page, the thank you gift for a $10,000 donation was billed as “A dinner night with Marina during which she will teach you and other backers at this level how to cook a series of traditional soups. The night will end with the making of a golden ball, a recipe given to Marina in a Tibetan monastery.”
It seems innocent enough: a dinner prepared by a controversial but influential artist whose work has been honored by prominent institutions the world over with large-scale exhibitions, honorary degrees, and more. (Her 2010 mid-career retrospective at MoMA, “The Artist is Present,” was one of the most popular shows the museum has ever mounted.) But members of the alt-right community decided to focus on selective facts about the performance, and in turn make massive “logical” (if that word even applies) jumps.
The ensuing bogus conclusions were inspired in large part by fairly buried documentation of a previously rather unknown 1996 Abramović performance and book of the same name. Unknown, not because Abramović had anything to hide, but because, in the grand scheme of her daring oeuvre, it wasn’t the strongest or by any means the most shocking piece she created. In it, a bespectacled, calm Abramović wrote absurdist phrases that resemble discombobulated, dark self-help mantras on the walls of an entire gallery in pigs blood. Several of the phrases read:
“Fresh morning urine. Sprinkle over nightmare dreams.”
“With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain.”
“Mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk. Drink on earthquake nights.”
“Sitting on a copper chair. Comb your hair with a clear quartz crystal brush, until your memory is released.”
Yes, the phrases resemble incantations or recipes for storybook potions. And true, they make little sense. But that’s precisely Abramović’s point. Across her career, she’s tapped into and simultaneously questioned the influence of ritual and religion, highlighting both their potency and, occasionally, their absurdity. Spirit Cooking isn’t a ritual meant to conjure spirits or worship devils—it’s a comment on humanity’s reliance on ritual to organize and legitimize our lives and contain our bodies. According to Abramović, as she stated in a recent talk at London’s Royal Festival Hall, it’s poetry.
But members of the alt-right community clearly didn’t care about the work itself. They wanted to read the comment on ritual as an earnest attempt to make dark magic. Then, because Tony Podesta forwarded Abramović’s email to his brother John, one of the most powerful liberal voices in Washington and Clinton’s right-hand, suddenly the whole lot—thanks to fake news proliferation across Facebook and Reddit—were being called out as occultists.
This bolstered other conspiracy theories incited by the John Podesta email leak—namely, Pizzagate, the twisted and false idea that Clinton, Podesta, and other D.C. residents, like restaurateur James Alefantis, were involved in a child pornography ring run out of Alefantis’s pizza joint and music venue, Comet Ping Pong. (The reasoning behind that similarly bogus accusation, which led to a shooting at Comet Ping Pong earlier this month, has been analyzed in depth here.) It is impossible to know if Pizzagate would have been created without right-wing blogs pushing the satanic Spirit Cooking lie. But it stands to reason that a climate of conspiracy fostered by the misinformation about Spirit Cooking exacerbated and fueled Pizzagate.
Art can be and often is—at its best—powerful and political. It comments on our time and spotlights social and cultural realities so that we can look at them from new perspectives. But the total and wilful misinterpretation of Abramović’s email and her 1996 performance Spirit Cooking in order to tar political opponents doesn’t do any service to art, even if it is making headlines. In fact, it undermines and antagonizes exactly what Abramović’s work, and that of many artists who came before her, is trying to accomplish: Open minds and inspire productive conversation—the opposite of spreading incriminating rumors and lies.