Microsoft’s Satan problem
The company caught hell over Marina Abramović, a supposed devil worshipper
To promote the HoloLens 2, a mixed reality headset, Microsoft profiled world-famous Serbian artist Marina Abramović’s new virtual reality work, The Life. Don’t look for the original—it’s disappeared. Watching a copy, I find her explaining that, in the virtual reality product, she is herself available for purchase. “Here, you can actually have the artist’s presence in your collection.”
If it seemed a weird way to market a self-portrait, you’d forget this is Marina Abramović, the great outrage artist of our time.
After the video was released on Friday — Good Friday — her right-wing critics noticed the reappearance of the artist they’d accused of being a Satanist. By Monday, Microsoft had removed all evidence of the profile.
And I’m left thinking over an art project called The Life, realizing it was only just starting.
If you think it’s a good idea to “cancel” a Satanist artist, i.e. remove them from decent middle-class media, then Marina Abramović might already be working on you. ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ she asks.
Some of your favorite artists might be called Satanists. There’s Little Richard (“I was directed and commanded by another power…the power of the Devil”), the Rolling Stones (as in “Sympathy For the Devil”), Jimmy Page, David Bowie, Patti Smith.
Kurt Cobain — obsessed with visuals of Satan — thought over religion and decided that “that Satan was stronger.”
But Satanism has for centuries been the religion of artists. After the star turn the Prince of Darkness takes in in Milton’s Paradise Lost, to be ‘satanic’ started to look a lot more fun. God was stuffy and boring, but Satan was poetry. The great Romantic poets, led by Byron and Shelley, went on to be called the ‘Satanic School’ for a reason.
None of it had much to do with the Bible. But in Western culture, ‘Satan’ became a figure in which artists saw human values that ‘religion’ had repressed—imagination, inspiration, sex and freedom.
“The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, and to elevate the mind.” In a 2010 interview, Marina Abramović lays out her goals, and it exists side-by-side with the satanic imagery she often favors.
Her work isn’t all bizarre. I love her “A Minute of Silence,” a tender probing of relationships, intimacy and distance, across time and media.
But she has a sizable backlog of gross, lurid visions involving witch-like imagery, use of fire, pig’s blood, etc. And that, for some reason, was more interesting to her right-wing fans.
In the 2016 hack of John Podesta’s email, as published by WikiLeaks, there was an email by Abramović inviting him to a dinner event of ‘Spirit Cooking’. This seemed to implicate a range of references to her past work, but also to diabolical rituals in satanist practice.
The thrilling idea spread like hellfire in right-wing politics: Hillary Clinton’s staff could be implied to all be blood-sipping Satanists. Even InfoWars was convinced, and the idea became inescapable on right-wing social media.
It was clear all along that she was not actually a Satanist. “Having known Marina for fourteen years now, and having written a biography, I don’t think she’s ever actually worshipped anything,” wrote James Westcott in 2017. He explains that “Spirit Cooking” was a darkly comic dinner party where Abramović played the part of a diabolical host.
But it was politics, and the great lurid American paranoia — as in in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown” — that our “elite” are a coven of Satanists.
“I’m definitely not a Satanist,” Abramović told the BBC. But it became an election issue, and it was, admittedly, weird to see goth role-playing games by the avant garde art world co-existing with American presidential politics.
But even in The Life there is a Satanic scenario. As goggle-wearing admirers stand in a circle, a woman in a red dress materializes, as if a spirit coming out of some other dimension.
It might be thought a modern recasting of the old idea of a coven of worshippers calling a demonic being into this world.
It was also the set-up for a deeper investigation of the great global concerns of humanity now: the promise of immortality that seems to be offered, not by religion, but technology.
I’m transcribing her voiceover.
The Life is dealing with what is going to stay after I am not there anymore. And I can’t face myself. And that’s a frightening experience, really like you’re facing your own ghost. There’s always this great idea of immortality, once you die the work will never die because the work of art can continue. In performance the piece is only the memory of the audience, and nowhere else. Here I am kept forever.
It seems a timely work. This is a time when movie stars are being digitally re-created, and a hologram of Whitney Houston goes on tour. What is personhood? What is a real person vs. an artificial one?
Or maybe even reality is just a kind of computer program.
Microsoft must’ve thought it was all a great idea — for a minute. Then the attacks started. “What the hell are they doing?” asked Mike Cernovich, the right-wing provocateur. News spread on social media that Abramović and “spirit cooking” could fuel another cycle of fake outrage.
After posting the video to their YouTube channel, it seems to have quickly gotten 900 “likes” and 25,000 “dislikes,” before comments were disabled, and the video was taken down.
Then, like an eerie digital resurrection, a copy of the video made by her accusers floated around right-wing Twitter — showing, on Monday night, a million views.
She got the reaction that any outrage artist could possibly hope for. A Satanic truth: your enemies can do all your work for you.