SP.237: The Artist in the World

Experimental Study Group, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Instructor: Graham Ramsay, Bldg 24-604, xt. 8-0481

Spring 2007: Class #3, February 22, 2007

Marilyn Arsem, performance artist

American Foreign Policy II,” Piotrkow Trybunalski , Poland , 2004. Photo by Denis Romanovski.










Marilyn Arsem has been creating live events since 1975, ranging from solo performances, to large scale, site-specific works incorporating installation and performance.   Arsem has presented work at festivals, conferences, alternative spaces, galleries, museums and universities in North and South America, Europe, and Asia.

In many of her recent gallery performances, Arsem has focused on current political issues.   Her site-specific performances, often designed for audiences of a single person, respond to both the history of the site, as well as to the immediate landscape and materiality of the location.   The pieces are designed to implicate the audience directly in the concerns of the work, to create an experience that is both visceral and intellectual.   To accomplish this, she incorporates a broad range of media, and often engages all the senses.

In 2006 she performed at the International Festival ‘In the Context of Art/The Difference,' in Warsaw, Poland; the14 th Performance Art Conference, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; the Acción!06MAD Festival in Madrid, Spain; at “ Là -bas: Peak Performance?” International Festival in Helsinki, Finland; and at Trace Gallery in Cardiff, Wales.   In 2005 she performed at the 1 st International Congress of Performance Art, in Valparaiso, Chile; in Ugnayan '05 4 th Philippine International Performance Art Festival, in Manila, Philippines; the 7 th International Multimedial Art Festival in Odzaci , Serbia; the 13 th Performance Art Konferenz : Die Kunst der Handlung 3: Kooperation , in Berlin, Germany; and Art Action 2005 3 rd International Performance Art Festival in Monza, Italy.   In 2004 she presented work in the FIX04 Biennial of Performance Art, in Belfast, N. Ireland; at the Future of Imagination 2 International Performance Art Event, Singapore; at the In Transit/En Tránsito Primer Festival Internacional de Arte de Performance del Cono Sur de América , in Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina; the Sixth International Art Action Festival Interakcje , Piotrkow Trybunalski , Poland; and the Currency 2004 International Festival of Contemporary Performance, New York City.

Arsem has also participated in national and international exchanges.   In August 2003, she traveled to Poland to participate in a Mobius exchange project with artists from throughout Poland.   In 2002 she participated in "The State of Breath," a residency at the St. Norbert Arts Centre, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, bringing together five international durational performance artists.   In August 2001, she traveled to Croatia to participate in a Mobius exchange project with artists from Zadar , Croatia.   In 1999, she also traveled to Croatia to participate in another Mobius exchange between Boston and Istrian Croatian artists entitled ' Usvajanje slobode /Taking Liberty.'   In 1998/1999 she was part of an exchange between Boston, US and Tainan , Taiwan artists and architects responding to waterfront development in both cities.   In 1996 and 1997 she participated in the Mobius Liquor Amnii project with women artists from Boston and the Republic of Macedonia, creating site-specific installations and performances in both countries.

She has been the recipient of numerous grants, including an LEF Foundation grant in 2004; a Research Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society, 1997; a National Endowment for the Arts Solo Theater Fellowship, 1994; an Artists' Projects: New Forms Initiative Award, 1992, from the New England Foundation for the Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; & a Massachusetts Artists Foundation Fellowship in New Genres, 1991.  

Arsem has also been awarded residencies at the University of Newcastle, Northumbria , UK, 2002; Dartington College of Art, UK, 2002; The MacDowell Colony, 1997, 1992, 1986; and in the Republic of Macedonia at the International Art Colony of Kumanovo , 2000; International Art Colony of Kicevo , 1998, and the International Plastic Art Colony of Strumica , 1997.

Her work has been reviewed in publications in Croatia, Germany, Macedonia and Taiwan; and in the USA and Canada in The New York Times, Parachute, Afterimage, Performing Arts Journal, Text and Performance Quarterly, Women and Performance Journal, P-Form, New Art Examiner, and High Performance.  

Arsem received her BFA from Boston University in 1973.   She is the founder and current member of Mobius, an interdisciplinary collaborative of artists now in its twenty-ninth year.   She is a full-time faculty member of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she heads the Performance Area and is a Graduate Advisor.


Artist Statement

"My work has increasingly moved into more intimate formats, often leading to events created for a single viewer.   From the beginning, I have been concerned with the unique properties of live performance - the possibility of direct interaction between performer and audience; the opportunity to engage the audience's other senses of taste, touch and smell; and the question of how meaning is constructed from the memory of an ephemeral event.

In recent years I have been creating site-specific performance/installations in the United States, Canada, South America, Europe and Asia.   The sites have ranged from a former Cold War missile base in the United States, to a 15th century Turkish bath in Macedonia, to an aluminum factory in Argentina, to the site of the Spanish landing in the Philippines, to a fishing harbor in Taiwan.   I am interested in the layers of history that accumulate in a location, and in particular how people's memories and understanding of history transform over time.

My process in each location has included researching the history of the site, talking with people in the community, and working with materials and images found in the area, in order to create a response in the form of a performance or installation.   Elements of sound and video are often incorporated. Many of these works examine hidden worlds that lie beneath the surface, ones that lurk underground, and those which eventually decay and dissolve back into the earth.

I am particularly interested in implicating the audience directly in the concerns of the work.   I use different strategies to design a very distinct role in the work for the viewer, so that ideally they have an experience that is both visceral and intellectual.

Pieces sited in the landscape often hover at the edge of visibility, blurring the boundaries between art and life.   Because of the almost imperceptible images, and the inevitable intrusions of the real world, the viewers' interpretation of the experience has as much to do with their own projections and concerns as it does with my own.   Documenting the audience's response is often a critical component of the work, revealing the collaboration between artist and audience in the construction of meaning."



Work Samples


“In Kosovo,” Buenos Aires , Argentina . 2004. Photo by Alexander Del Re.



“Dugo,” Manila, Philippines, 2005. Photo by Pepito A. Blasco.



“Undertow,” Valparaiso, Chile, 2005. Photo by Sofia De Grenade.



"From Stillness to Silence,” Madrid Spain, 2006. Photo by Hilario Alvarez.



“American Foreign Policy IV: Fluff and Wonder,” Los Angeles, CA, 2006. Photo by Jamie McMurry.



“Sent,” Helsinki, Finland, 2005. Photo by Inari Virmakoski.



Video sample: Performance piece "Watching, Waiting."



| ©2007 Experimental Study Group, Massachusetts Institute of Technology