How Alexandra Pirici telegraphs big ideas through small gestures

Elvia Wilk

The artist and choreographer is preparing to show one of her signature performative environments in Buenos Aires

The choreographer and artist Alexandra Pirici likens her work to a transmission whose precise message may or may not be received. Trained as a dancer, she often works with groups of performers to create enactments based on repetitive movements, or speech and sound abstracted from references in nature, history, and popular culture. At the 2013 Venice Biennale, her performers embodied artworks from previous biennales; at Manifesta 10 in 2014, performers made living additions to public monuments in St. Petersburg, bringing cultural heritage to life. For Aggregate, which debuted at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein in 2017, the audience mingled with a swarm of performers, who spontaneously chose from a roster of rehearsed enactments; any performer could initiate a movement that others might choose to follow. The reference points for these enactments ranged from the leap of an antelope to Michelangelo’s David to a Depeche Mode song lyric. In works such as this, a complex tension mounts among the individual performers, their group dynamic, and audience behavior over several hours of interaction.

As the Bucharest-born artist prepares to take her unique working method to Buenos Aires for ‘Hopscotch (Rayuela)’, part of Art Basel Cities Week (September 6-12, 2018), Pirici discusses the complexity of the audience-performer relationship, the impulse to communicate, and the assumptions too many people make about performance.

Alexandra Pirici. Photo by: Andrei Dinu

Elvia Wilk: 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?

Alexandra Pirici: 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 different art-historical lineages. The works that 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 like ongoing action, performative exhibition, or performative environment, as with Aggregate.

Alexandra Pirici, Aggregate, 2017, exhibition view, performative environment shown at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Photo by: Joseph Devitt Tremblay.

You’re highly attuned to the spaces where these actions transpire. Aggregate first took place in a vacant gallery, other works have been oriented around public monuments, and at the recent Public Art Munich, you and the artist Jonas Lund staged a piece on the Allianz Arena soccer stadium. To what extent do you adapt your pieces to the contexts in which they’re shown?

My initial idea of how to inhabit the exhibition space in Berlin was to go against the white cube as this modern terra nullius space. So having the room already occupied and full of bodies was an important part of that first iteration, and we had more than 80 performers. In a space that is not an empty gallery, I may not have the same intention to fill it. But regardless of the space and number of performers, I’ll continue to work with the content and the dynamics of multiplication, replication, and amplification that we worked with the first time in Berlin.

One thing I try to speak about whenever I get the chance is that the performers of the first iteration will get dividends from future iterations. Their work continues to be remunerated after the initial exhibition, as they are essentially given equity in the work as a model of redistribution.

Alexandra Pirici, Aggregate, 2017, performed at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Photo by: Adrian Parvulescu.

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, and also many 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 that should be known. For instance, we reference the Mona Lisa, as well as the Lisa Mona 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 some other references come up from the encounter with the context, I am open to including them as well.

Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus, An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale, 2013, enactment of Maurizio Cattelan’s The Ninth Hour, 1999. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You’ve often mentioned another reference point for that work: the NASA Voyager  Golden Record, a 1977 initiative to send into outer space two discs engraved with 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 the Voyager, the claim was that the record’s 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 were often referring 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.

Alexandra Pirici, Co-natural, 2018, exhibition view at the New Museum, New York. Photo by: Julieta Cervantes.

There’s a futility in the one-way gesture, but there’s also a huge amount of generosity. You can still hope to reach someone – an audience member or an alien – even knowing that the transmission might be garbled by the time it gets there. Some of your other works mediate that transmission with technology. Why?

I don’t have an exclusive interest in working with live, biological bodies; I’m also interested in thinking of a body that is distributed between multiple agencies, on different material support and in different ways. For my recent exhibition at the New Museum in New York, ‘Co-natural’ (2018), I made the decision to have a holographic performer in addition to live performers. In Signals, which was shown at the Berlin Biennale in 2016 and also at Kunsthaus Zürich in 2017, I had performers in motion capture suits and the audience interacting with a content-ranking algorithm whose metrics (or parameters) and implicit politics were visible in the exhibition space.

Alexandra Pirici, Signals, 2016, ongoing action, content-ranking algorithm, installation view at the 9th Berlin Biennale. Photo by: Timo Ohler.

Speaking of politics, I’m curious about the role of the individual among the collective in your work. Is there a trade-off between being a collaborator in an 80-person group and maintaining one’s sense of individuality?

A lot of my political interests are reflected in the work, including the place of the individual within the collective. What we kept discussing in the group while making Aggregate is that every individual has a lot of power and agency within the performative exhibition, but this only functions in relation to the other performers. There is a series of instructions that I give to the performers, and then they have the freedom to negotiate how and what they perform within the set of rules. For instance, one rule is that there should be only three enactments proliferating through the group at the same time, but of course sometimes five or six happen. One performer can make a proposal, and it might influence the whole group – and other times it might not multiply. I like the unpredictability.

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 enjoyed joining in. The instruction that I give to the performers is that they should acknowledge the audience, acknowledge these other bodies in 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, ‘Co-natural’, 2018, exhibition view at the New Museum, New York. Photo by: Julieta Cervantes.

Read on about Pirici and the artists of ‘Hopscotch (Rayuela)’, or click here to learn more about Art Basel's engagement with Buenos Aires through the Art Basel Cities initiative.