Alexandra Pirici to swarm Messeplatz with a throng of performers for Art Basel 2019

Elvia Wilk

A Buckminster Fuller-inspired stage will host one of the Romanian artist and choreographer’s signature ongoing actions

This June, the artist and choreographer Alexandra Pirici will show a new installation of her work Aggregate (2017-2019) on Basel’s iconic Messeplatz for Art Basel 2019. In this performative environment – which debuted at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein in 2017 – the audience mingles with a swarm of performers, who spontaneously pick from a list of rehearsed enactments. At any given time, any performer can initiate a movement that others might choose to follow. The reference points for these actions can range from the leap of an antelope to Camille Claudel’s Sakuntala (c.1886), Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504), or a Depeche Mode song lyric. In works such as this, a complex tension mounts among the individual performers and the audience’s behavior over several hours of interaction.

Pirici likens Aggregate to a re-mediation, an abstracted transmission where the dynamics of communication become more important than the message itself. Trained as a dancer, the artist often works with groups of performers to create new forms, actions, and sound material based on references to nature, history and art history, and popular culture. At the 2013 Venice Biennale, her collaborators embodied artworks from previous biennales; at Manifesta 10 in 2014, they made living additions to public monuments in Saint Petersburg, creating new meanings for cultural heritage. For her work Leaking Territories at Skulptur Projekte Münster in 2017, live bodies re-mediated personal and global political events and objects and imagined new ones (including a human Google search engine). In 2018, Pirici brought Aggregate to Buenos Aires for Hopscotch (Rayuela), as part of Art Basel Cities Week.

As the Bucharest-born artist prepares to install the work in Basel, she discusses the complexity of the audience-performer relationship, the impulse to communicate, and the assumptions too many people make about performance.

For the Art Basel 2019 Messeplatz project, you’ll be showing a new installation of Aggregate, a work first shown at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein in Berlin in 2017. This time, more than 60 performers will again complete a series of actions for the duration of the fair, in a specially designed structure on Messeplatz. Could you explain how the site and the new context will affect the work? How will the performers’ actions evolve across each day?

The invitation to show Aggregate on Messeplatz during Art Basel came with the question of how to balance the public nature of the work with the need for a space that enables a different regime of attention and value. We decided this could be provided by an autonomous structure built on Messeplatz, a pavilion that would host the work and allow it to exist both surrounded by the fair and the fair’s dynamic but also in a sort of intelligent tension with it. This will enable the small-scale societal model and the careful, slowly evolving and abstract togetherness in Aggregate to come to life again and proliferate as much as possible, for now.

The performative environment draws on a series of references to nature, culture, and life on Earth that may be worth remembering and passing on, such as a time capsule or the Nasa Golden Record that was sent into space [in 1977]. However, the references are differently embodied by the human performers, so they sometimes hybridize and transform completely, becoming unrecognizable and abstract. Therefore, although important, the references are only starting points for other forms, rhythms, and meanings that the live environment produces.

The initial selection of references for the first installation of Aggregate at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein was made together with curator of the show, Raluca Voinea, and I sometimes add or change some of them, depending on the local context. For example, in the Buenos Aires installation, after consulting with the performers and testing it, I included a cumbia dance. But in general, the content and structure remain the same, though the structure allows a very organic, ever-changing dynamic and ever-changing form. The performers select from this large pool of available references what they want to embody and there is an ongoing negotiation between the individual and the collective on how a proposal is replicated and amplified into a group action – or how it remains a singular act. There are rules that allow everything to remain structured, such as an algorithmic framework that I set, but there is a lot of freedom within it. In this sense, the performers’ actions and what they make within the live environment are always evolving, always changing. Even when some forms or actions repeat, they repeat in different combinations and contexts, so they produce something different each time. 

Alexandra Pirici, Aggregate, 2017. Exhibition view at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Photo by Alexandra Pirici.
Alexandra Pirici, Aggregate, 2017. Exhibition view at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Photo by Alexandra Pirici.

The Messeplatz structure, which incorporates three interconnected domes, was designed by Andrei Dinu. How did you collaborate with him to develop the concept? Where did you draw inspiration for the forms, and how will the design affect the performers’ behaviors? Is this the first time you’ve created a fixed architecture as a set?

I have collaborated with Dinu on many works and he was also the lighting designer of Aggregate at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. He also attended the installation in Buenos Aires, so he knows the work well and has seen it in different situations. He designed the pavilion for Art Basel considering both the specifics of the work and the new context. He describes his design as ‘influenced by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and medical isolation spaces. Built from a pneumatic structure, the shape is defined by soft, organic lines creating a contrast with the geometric, grid-like environment around Messeplatz. Conceived as an assemblage, the smaller spaces emerge from the bigger form, hinting at the process of viral replication or multiplication from Aggregate.’

I don’t know yet how the new architecture will affect the behavior of the performers. There shouldn’t be any significant change. I am curious, however, about how we will manage sound and a very large number of visitors, and also about how the daylight filtered through the semi-transparent membrane of the structure will affect the performers, as previous installation spaces were mostly lit with artificial light. And yes, this is the first time we have built a set as the hosting architecture for a work.

When making a work like Aggregate, how do you begin? With your own movement, the movement of a group, a set of references on paper? How do you transmit the references and movements to the performers, and how do you rehearse?

The beginning depends on the work. In the case of Aggregate, after conceptualizing the work, I started with the references and translated them into movements or sculptural actions, imagining them formally with live bodies. And, yes, this is something that I mostly do myself, prior to rehearsals. There is no improvisation where I ask performers to find form themselves, from scratch. Of course, with images and enactments that need a larger group, I have to test different possibilities with the performers, but it’s always directed.

Do you think of these works as performance art?

I think the term ‘performance’is too broadly applied to a lot of different practices with their own specific interests, connections, and art-historical lineages. The works I make have different characteristics from, say, the performance turn of the 1960s and 1970s – that is, the artist is not necessarily present and part of the performative action, they don’t have a beginning or end in a narrative sense, and they don’t take an anti-institutional stance. So I try to avoid an association with that. I prefer terms such as ‘ongoing action,’performative exhibition,’ or‘performative environment,’ as with Aggregate.

When you present Aggregate in different cultural contexts, how do you account for the fact that people may have a different sphere of references?

In principle, because Aggregate is an already-made work, all of the references will carry over from installation to installation. We use a lot of animal and plant-life references, as well as many references from art and literature. There was an effort to make the archive of references inclusive, and to also try to circulate bits and pieces of cultural heritage that are not well known but should be known. For instance, we reference the Mona Lisa, as well as the Lisa Mona [1950] by Cuban painter Wifredo Lam. We replicated an excerpt from a Bollywood dance, we used hand signals from the Occupy movement, we embodied the DNA editing tool CRISPR, we sang an excerpt from a Romanian song by Maria Tănase, we spoke some poetry excerpts from Forough Farrokhzad, Simone Yoyotte, and Pablo Neruda. There is also a short intercession where the performers call out one another’s names. If other references come up from the encounter with the context, I am open to including them as well.

Alexandra Pirici, Aggregate, 2017. Exhibition view at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Photo by Alexandra Pirici (left) and Adrian Parvulescu (right).
Alexandra Pirici, Aggregate, 2017. Exhibition view at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Photo by Alexandra Pirici (left) and Adrian Parvulescu (right).

You often mention Nasa Voyager’s Golden Record as a reference point for the work – the 1977 initiative to send into outer space two discs engraved with the information deemed most important and representative of the human species. The hope was that an extraterrestrial might find them and know how to interpret them. How does Aggregate relate to this idea of a universal heritage?

No actual material from the Golden Record project appears in the piece, but it is an important conceptual reference. With Voyager, the claim was that the records’ content was more or less objective, that they had made a selection of what was most significant and positive about humans to transmit outside Earth. Our initiative was to create a subjective archive. While making Aggregate, we often referred to the exhibition space as an ark or a spaceship carrying an archive, a time capsule, and we discussed a lot of science-fiction references, too.

There’s something very poetic in the desire to communicate without waiting for an answer. The Golden Record is, first, a one-way transmission. It could be found or not, and it could be interpreted in any way, so there’s no expectation of intelligibility. I like something about that idea. By trying to embody an archive – literally having human bodies trying to convey the information we chose – I was also interested in the total hybridization of reference points. A list of the references we used was available to the audience, but the process of abstraction, where something completely different emerges, is also important. I accepted the fact that not all references would come across.

Most of your work is not participatory, in that the audience is not required to become part of what happens. Is the audience-performer relationship one of symbiosis or conflict?

I think it’s both. It’s up to the audience to position itself. I’m not a fan of participatory works when they imply a forced interaction, or when the work depends entirely on audience participation. There is nothing in Aggregate that literally invites participation, but some people feel free to join in. There’s one part that’s an enactment of an eel colony on the ocean floor – it’s a simple waving movement that is performed in groups. Some people from the audience have enjoyed joining in. The instruction that I give to the performers is that they should acknowledge the audience, acknowledge these other bodies in the space, and make it clear that they are welcome there. But from that point on, it depends on the performers and the audience and what they feel comfortable with. The proposal leaves room for both situations.

Top image: Alexandra Pirici, Aggregate, 2017. Exhibition view at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Photo by Adrian Parvulescu.