The guests at MOCA's annual galas are patrons high in the economic hierarchy: politicians, heirs, celebrities, moguls, entrepreneurs who've made bank. Tickets cost an arm and a leg — they ranged from $2,500 to $10,000 at this year's gala on Nov. 12 — and the draw is always that some particularly famous artist “directs” the event, a deal made sweeter by the appearance of a token celebrity or two. Two years ago, Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli directed and Lady Gaga performed “Speechless,” but this year, the token celebrity, Debbie Harry, was less tantalizing to many in L.A.'s arts community than the director: Marina Abramovic.

The New York-based Serbian artist just closed her Museum of Modern Art retrospective, “The Artist is Present,” where she appeared in person, sitting for hours in a long red dress and locking eyes with visitors who endured winding lines to sit across from her. For her gala performance, she planned again to subject guests to unnerving intimacy and she needed help to do so.

At her gala, most of the table centerpieces would be rotating human heads that would lock eyes with guests as they circled. Naked bodies positioned beneath life-sized skeletons would rotate around six additional tables, and a chorus of volunteers would also be needed to dress the guests in white lab coats and shout out Abramovic's artist's manifesto at the appropriate time. She held auditions that attracted a number of admiring artists, dancers and actors. Prospective performers were warned that gala guests could try to poke or feed them, they would be expected to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and would be paid with $150 and a year-long MOCA membership. That was just the beginning of the controversy, which was hashed out and argued over at a reflective public forum on Saturday.

Dancer Sara Wookey, who participated in the November 7 auditions, wrote to her mentor Yvonne Rainer, a filmmaker, choreographer and dancer who studied with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham before breaking out to pursue a freer version of dance that celebrated the “everyday body.” Rainer composed a letter to MOCA's director, Jeffrey Deitch, expressing her frustration about poor compensation and potential exploitation of artists. She forwarded the letter to a few friends for their feedback and a snowball effect ensued. Soon, the letter had been “leaked” online. Bloggers responded, the L.A. Times weighed in and Deitch invited Rainer to attend the auditions to see for herself.

Saturday's public forum on the MOCA gala

Saturday's public forum on the MOCA gala

“Yvonne Rainer's letter was a performative act,” said theorist, professor and sometimes-performer Matias Viegener on Saturday, at the start of the public forum, which dealt with Abramovic's gala, Rainer's response and the potential implications. Viegener co-organized the forum, held at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition (LACE), with cultural critic Jennifer Doyle and artist-curator Dino Dinco. By “performative act,” Viegener meant that Rainer wasn't merely criticizing. By taking a stance, she was participating, or intervening, in Abramovic's performance and he hoped that the forum could function similarly.

The strange thing about the MOCA Gala controversy is that the majority of the people talking about it weren't there, a fact that is itself controversial. For the most part, the approximately 750 guests haven't spoken up, and opinions of actual performers, who were not named in the gala program, have been overshadowed by Rainer's letter. The forum started by attempting to remedy that. Around a dozen gala participants who were there described their experiences.

Artist Marjan Vayghan helped guests into white lab coats as they arrived (Abramovic requested all guests wear them) and recalled that some reacted viscerally to the prospect of covering themselves up. Artist Honey McMoney, who also helped with the lab coats, noted it became increasingly difficult to tell guests apart from the waiters, volunteers and performers. “The nature of the power structure started to crumble in a really delightful way,” he said.

Carrie McILwain, an artist who co-runs the alt space Raid Projects, performed as a turning head and found her presence made some guests visibly uncomfortable. “One woman, I felt like she couldn't eat in front of me,” said McILwain.

Artist Blaine O'Neill also performed as a head, and spent the night rotating around a table that included Eli Broad, Mayor Villarogosa, and a number of collectors. “The only person who gave me more than five minutes [of eye-contact] was the mayor,” said O'Neill. “But that was a pretty fun experience — to stare down the mayor.”

The way they described it, the performers had more power than guests did in their roles at the gala. But that didn't mean they weren't exploited.

Artist Adam Vuiitton also attended the gala, but as a protester, not a performer, and he brought with him a sign showing a guillotine. Since performing artists appeared “beheaded on the tables of the ultra-rich,” it seemed a relevant metaphor. Another of the protesters with him had decided, at one point, to break in to the gala, dodged past security and made it far enough to yell to the guests that, one day, their heads would be on the tables. Guards escorted her out, but took no further measures. Then, said Vuiitton, the protesters went out for a beer and talked about starting an artists' union.

That issue — wages and economics — became a major one as the forum continued. Artists work for free and for less than $150 all the time, either for the experience or the principle, but does that make it excusable? And what does it mean that artists were the engine driving an event they could not afford to attend? Certainly, rarefied events generate important revenue for a place like MOCA. But they still alienate, as Doyle, the critic, noted. “Someone like me begins to feel already always unwelcome” in the space of the museum, she said.

Something else had been unwelcome at the museum, too. Abramovic initially wanted both male and female bodies to circle around those on those six special tables, but only women appeared. When MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch slipped in near the end of the forum, someone posed the question to him: why no naked men? “That was my request to Marina Abramovic,” said Deitch, citing the discomfort the conventional businessman feels when confronted with male nudity. “We subjected people to a lot of things,” he continued, but said when you push something out to the edge you have to be careful not to go over.

Marjan Vayghan reacted, and her words, which closed the forum, reflected the conflictedness that had coursed through the whole discussion. She thanked Deitch for even attending, acknowledged how difficult his job must be and that she had found her participation in Abramovic's performance powerful. But why was it the female body that was still always subject to display? Why were we stuck in these old molds of acceptability and unacceptability? And was it really true that the guests, who had democratized by donning the lab coats, couldn't have pushed themselves just a little bit further and accepted another kind of democratization, too?

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