Senator Wendy Davis, Marina Abramovic, and the Art of the Filibuster

The Texas Senate met on the last day of the Special Session Tuesday night in order to discuss SB5 which would greatly limit the accessibility of clinics authorized to perform abortions throughout the State. To give you a metric, it is estimated that under the law only 5 of 42 existing clinics would be legal. And all of those clinics are in urban centers leaving, literally, thousands of women across Texas without access to this medical procedure. More importantly, it would be the most stringent abortion regulation to pass at a state level, affecting the most number of people.

In an effort to stop the Bill from passing, Senator Wendy Davis (Fort Worth) undertook a filibuster – but what is a filibuster exactly? A filibuster is an uninterrupted speech that takes up a lot of time in order to keep a bill, motion, etc. from coming to a vote.  There are rules for a filibuster. You cannot take a break of any kind (food, bathroom, etc). You cannot lean, rest or be provided relief during your speech. Your speech must be “germane” to the content of the bill, that is, “on topic.”

While senatorial colleagues cannot assist in a filibuster, when the filibuster is challenged by opponents, supportive senators can spur on discussion by asserting parliamentary inquiries or asserting points of order related to the filibuster procedures in order to further delay the vote on the objectionable bill. That is exactly what Senator Davis’ supporters did in order to give her relief from the 13-hour filibuster needed to have SB5 squashed.

Tuesday night I watched the filibuster taking place at the Capitol, wondering how the outcome of such a staged political act could profoundly affect the future of women’s health rights in my beloved state. While watching, I couldn’t help but think about Senator Davis’ unknown kinship with the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic.

Abramovic, believed to be one of the seminal developers of performance art, is known for the physical intensity and mental focus needed to perform her oftentimes doggedly difficult pieces. In past works, Abramovic has lain in a circle of fire, played knife games with her own hands, and thrown herself violently against objects and people. In 2010, Abramovic performed  “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where she sat in a gallery, allowing museum-goers to sit across a table from her for an unspecific amount of time just so they could look at one another. No talking. No touching. Only gazing. According to the constructs of the piece, Marina had to sit in her chair all day – without getting up for bathroom breaks or food – from March 14th to May 31st – a total of 736 hours.

Although Senator Davis did not have to endure a 736-hour filibuster Tuesday night, she did have to stand and talk with focus and clarity before the Texas Senate, protestors in the Capitol building, and the rest of the country who, like me, watched via live feed for 13 hours starting at 11:00 am Tuesday.

But aside from a ridiculous ability to avoid peeing on themselves, how are Senator Davis and Marina Abramovic connected, and what can we learn from their inspiring “stubbornness”?

1. Both Davis and Abramovic have a unique ability to use their body as both an instrument of power and a place for respite – simultaneously. Engaging in physically draining activities that rely on sustained focus (a filibuster or a performance art piece) means that both Davis and Abramovic know how to pace themselves. From how they stand, sit, or “look” at people around them, both women must know their bodies and their tolerance to spectacle, stillness and boredom. In thinking specifically about Davis, I could not help but wonder how she prepared for the 13-hour speech before her. She must have had some topics memorized with others left to chance. She must have had a way to stand where she looked alert and yet felt at rest. She must have had a way for her train of thoughts to be both focused and relaxed.  Without these paradoxes balanced, she could never have  sustained the duration and succeeded.  In the same way, we all have this battle as we sit at our desks. At one moment we are undividedly focused, and the next moment we are distracted, making the time from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm more like a roller coaster than a slow, deliberate jog. Understanding how to move seamlessly through time, pacing energy and enjoying banality could transform many projects from Herculean to feasible as both Davis and Abramovic illustrate. (For specific information about how Marina Abramovic “trains” for her pieces, check out her documentary “The Artist is Present.”)

2. Davis and Abramovic both understand that in order to complete a task, one that is “all about you,” you still need a team.  Senator Davis knew that in order to succeed she needed to rely on her own mental and physical preparations as well as the assistance  from her colleagues on the floor. Since she was never going to be able to talk non-stop for 13 hours; she needed a personal plan but also a group of supporters who could interject on her behalf to allow her to rest, gather her thoughts, and keep the ball rolling. Most importantly, she needed people committed to seeing her succeed despite their own ambition. For a filibuster or performance art piece to work, the burden lay on the performer and, in this case, to the extent that a Senator were to take the floor over from Davis, she would lose ground and the filibuster altogether. A handful of Senators Tuesday night were not dissimilar to the lighting technicians, videographers, photographers, coordinators and security staff who assist Abramovic in her work. They provided resources and were flexible. Moreover, they were all about Davis and her cause, not themselves. Although I can think of many amazing things that I could accomplish if I had a team of people who were “all about me,” I wonder: Am I able to be on the other side? When is the last time I have been “all about” someone else when working on a project? And so, when thinking of the Senators, I am reminded that not being in the spotlight is oftentimes more important than being the lead actress. The filibuster is a great example. Davis had three strikes against her – two for speaking off topic and one for relief received from a back brace – and those three strikes might have thrown out her filibuster. However, her colleagues kept debate moving. In the end, it was not Davis who finished the filibuster but her colleagues on the floor and the shouts of protesters. They kept the filibuster alive.

If Davis and Abramovic have shown us anything, it’s that edurance and willpower can be forces of nature – for good. Davis’ ability to overcome the limitations of her mind and body – what some would dare call her ability to move to a place of rational transcendence – has changed the lives of women in our state. Abramovic’s focus can transport audiences to an alternate space where possibilities are opened and authenticity is fierce. And so, although Rick Perry has already called for a second special session starting July 1st to continue debate on the abortion issue, today I am thankful for Senator Davis, Marina Abramovic and a process that works toward teamwork, wisdom, and bravery.

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