A conversation with Alexandra Pirici about rethinking the public memory and monuments

September 29, 2020
Author Valentinas Klimašauskas

Valentinas Klimašauskas talks to Alexandra Pirici in the context of Pulse, Pirici’s enlivenment of the Ninth Fort Monument in Kaunas, 3-4 October 2020.

Valentinas Klimašauskas: I’d like to start with a seemingly simple question: where does the idea to enliven monuments, or to add ‘sculptural additions’, as you call them, come from?

Alexandra Pirici: Actually, this is the very first time I have used the word ‘enlivenment’ in relation to a monument, because this monument, or the relationship that I am interested in establishing with it, is quite different to others. In all my previous works, which are described as interventions on, or ‘sculptural additions’ to, public monuments, there is some form of critical positioning towards the scope of the monument. Of course, some of these monuments were more problematic than others, some of their purposes more obvious, and others more ambiguous; but in general, I approached all other monuments with a rather critical eye. Besides the difference and tension between scales and ‘materials’ (human bodies/human scale and stone or bronze/ grandiose, monumental scale) that I am interested in, all the other monuments I’ve worked with had a different purpose: either uncritically glorifying specific individuals or political systems, like monarchies or imperial rule, or some form of problematic depiction or simplification of history. The ‘sculptural addition’ comes as a sculptural gesture that is also meant to produce a détournement in the meaning and significance/signification of the monument, to change something through additions.

I have also carried out works that do not refer to already-existing monuments, but become memorials themselves, on an unmonumental scale, without the need to fill a space or put something high-up on a pedestal. They try to perform an appropriation of the concept of the ‘monument’ (as in the case of the ‘Monument to Work’, which is a performative memorial made of moving human bodies and live presence, or ‘Tilted Arc’, a transformation of a public sculpture by Richard Serra into an arc of live presence, opening and closing, negotiating the public space with passers-by).

In the case of the Monument to the Victims of Nazism in Kaunas, my approach was, of course, quite different to the other existing monuments (as I mentioned in my proposal text, and as you also note in yours). I was not interested in a critical positioning towards the scope of the monument, but in trying to support it in its task, while of course also acknowledging, by using again the human scale and body in relation to the monumental scale and concrete, that perhaps other forms of public memory and commemoration are also possible, which need not be ‘set in stone’, so to speak. So I want to support this monument, and this time the word ‘enlivenment’ felt like a better description of the action with and around it (though I haven’t used it in relation to other monuments).

The word itself is also the title of a book by Andreas Weber: Enlivenment: Towards a Poetics for the Anthropocene, which makes the case that in order to change our politics, economics and thinking, we need to change our prevailing assumptions inherited from the Enlightenment about the nature of matter and reality. So it is a word that looks back to a history of understanding everything in terms of a particular ‘modernity’ which we need to rethink and reimagine.

It would also be nice to have this reference for the sculptural, performative work that I hope we can manage to perform on and in collaboration with Alfonsas Ambraziūnas’ concrete monument.

VK: From the moment I learned about your projects, I dreamt of inviting you to the Baltic countries, for I think we have exceptionally problematic relationships with public monuments, and which you, as a person who comes from the same (post-)Soviet bloc, would understand very well. However, it appeared very quickly, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement and other movements, that the so-called Western world also has problems dealing with some controversial historical monuments, which are connected with nationalism, colonialism, racism, and traumatic history in general. As you carry out projects internationally, can you comment on whether this division in that context is still valid? Or do we have to revisit global history again, and accordingly rethink how we build, how we experience, and how we enliven monuments?

AP: I would say that the division of context is still valid, but not for the simplified reasons that many people want to believe or make others believe in (smiling). Things are more complex and complicated, and I don’t think we have time to explore this topic here, unfortunately.

But to say one thing: the Soviet bloc, and the history of other spaces associated with it, also had many very strong progressive moments and intentions (which were also expressed through very beautiful and strong monumental forms) that have been obliterated and written out of history by so-called ‘advanced’ or victorious capitalist world-view, which only now seems to be revealed as exploitative, murderous and racist, producing trauma after trauma in some Western contexts, although, of course, this is not news for many other spaces and people.

To be honest, from now on, I hope we won’t need to just enliven future monuments, no matter how interesting or considerate the monument, or perform additions to them. I think we simply need to rethink how we understand public memory and memorials: in connection with life and human life. I don’t see the point in putting any more solid, fixed objects on pedestals, regardless of their politics or content. I’m interested in the politics of dynamics and materials, and also in the economy that the monuments enable. A true change in the artistic and political approach to monumentality would need a less superficial, more in-depth effort than changing the content but keeping the same form or scale or dynamics. And right now, I feel that thinking about memory, memorials and history, together with a live presence and people, affords a more interesting and truly political change in the very process of producing memory, history and a different economic system.

Kaunas Ninth Fort Monument. Alfonsas Vincentas Ambraziūnas. Photo: Lukas Mykolaitis

VK: One of the most interesting features of Ambraziūnas’ monument, to me personally, is its ability to transcend some kind of solidarity: really massive, up to 32-metres-high, deconstructed concrete giants still have the ability to unite what’s human (faces, figures, construction, etc), and what’s beyond human, what’s non-human (the atrocities it refers to, size, materials, etc). Also, your proposal of ‘enlivenment’ has this ambiguity of the human and non-human exploration of the relationship between the sculptural object and the subject. The question sounds paradoxical, but it’s still a really interesting paradox: how (or if) is it possible to transcend what is human while using human bodies? Or maybe it’s not a real task; maybe the task is to transcend the solidarity between what may be considered human and non-human?

AP: I’m not sure I find the word ‘transcendence’ too helpful here. It also reminds me of that Johnny Depp movie (smiling), where, again, the main character is ‘uploaded’ into a computer (although actually Transcendence is probably one of the first big, expensive products of the cultural industries that promotes this rather simplistic, transhumanist idea of putting ‘consciousness’ on to a USB). I don’t think we need to transcend the human; transcendence is also rather coded as a dualistic term, it still looks to this separation between a ‘superior’, ‘spiritual’ order and an inferior, material one, to a mind-body dualism, to older idealisms and materialisms, all inherited assumptions about the nature of reality and the world, that I believe we need to let go of. The word ‘enlivenment’, I think, would refer to an inescapable connection between the human and the aliveness of the world and of matter, so connecting the human with the non-human shouldn’t be read as ‘leaving the human behind’. (I feel ‘post-humanism’ is often misunderstood in this way, and perhaps it’s just not a great word for expressing the complexity of what it could express.) The human is also a continuous project; it’s not a determinate object or subject, so it is never out of the question, and it does not need to be transcended; on the contrary, it needs a quite grounded re-thinking, in relation to everything else, because we are already, always, part and parcel of everything we make and have made, touched, lived in, lived off, breathed in, expanded into space and time, constructed as an abstraction or ‘mental model’, or designed or automated into machines. We are already implicated in everything, and always will be; we can only choose not to acknowledge, understand or trace back the connections. So we are already many, even within our biological bodies. We can live better together with the non-human only by the expansion of the sensibility and the (sensible) intelligence of the human: because we are also inescapably embodied as such, and our extensions will always be conditioned by ‘us’. So I don’t really see the paradox there … or that is maybe what you meant or hinted at?

VK: Maybe (smiling). I’ll try to formulate my question in another way. By ‘transcending’, I meant its simple non-metaphysical meaning, ‘going beyond the range or limits’, and what really fascinates me, for example, in dance or performance, is how professionally trained or choreographed bodies are able to articulate what untrained bodies are not capable of, how bodies become means of communication for something else. So talking about the monument, I think I may see how human bodies, their representations, transcend themselves by becoming deconstructed concrete giants, while at the same time embodying solidarity between what it meant to be human (it was built in 1984, I guess ‘non-humanism’ in this country existed as a moral category to define Nazism) and non-human (the concrete, the prints of wooden planks that were used to shape it, moss, etc). However, this concept of ‘solidarity’ is still a very human concept; so for me this human and non-human division is still present, and there is the paradox I was talking about, maybe it’s just a paradox for me; some things simultaneously are and aren’t what they seem to be. Or maybe it’s just a language problem, which is now also being used and shaped by non-human agents, by artificial intelligence. As a nonnative English speaker, I am quite often edited by AI language editors.

However, I feel this is a chance to ask something I have always wanted to ask you, and which is related to language. At Skulptur Projekte Munster 2017, you presented your work Leaking Territories. In one part, performers act like a human search engine, and answer random questions formulated by visitors. I’d love to ask you how you made it, but maybe instead I’ll ask if it was first of all about knowing how to choreograph language, how to shape a sentence to look like an answer, or …?

AP: The performers have a lot of freedom in the human-Google search engine part within Leaking Territories, so what they do is improvise with certain rules, rather than follow a precise choreography, although ‘choreographing language’ is definitely part of the work at large. But in that part of the work, although we have some specific ways of formulating ‘search results’, and there are also instructions and guidelines for how to think about answers, including how to profile the audience and offer customised information, or how to deliver personal memories in relation to the searches, their input is crucial.

VK: To continue from what you were saying about the importance of live presence that it may open up even more political layers my next question is about the importance of live presence, maybe even being together in contemporary art projects. What do you think are the reasons for this specific need in our times of radically advanced technologies and global unrest?

AP: If we speak about live presence in the visual arts, the second performance turn, as Claire Bishop called it, I think, has already been ‘a thing’ in the visual arts for some years. I don’t think it is necessarily because people are excited to see other people in general, but perhaps it also affords new forms, dynamics and temporalities in the exhibition space or within the framework of an exhibition (where, traditionally, you wouldn’t expect this medium). The interest in live presence also has more reasons, some better, some worse, and although I agree we are living through a time of massive and insidious alienation (although even ‘alienation’ is a more complicated word …), I also don’t think live presence should be celebrated in itself in just any context. Just because it can afford or enable something, it doesn’t mean it necessarily produces that, it is not always used for progressive ends (smiling), so it is always important how, why, under what conditions, for what purposes. And in general, I think a need for live presence might also have less to do with ‘live presence’ per se, and more to do with the quality of encounters and the spaces for encounters that we have access to and which are created for us. Live presence in the arts might be more about a poetic space of encounter, being with ourselves and others, that we do not find somewhere else.

It’s also important to insist, I think, on the fact that the medium of performance and live presence can speak about something other than itself and the quality of being alive. So many different works do different things, and sometimes I feel it’s still hard to discuss particular works beyond the fact that they are ‘live’. In the end, it is all a matter of imagination and politics, however visible or invisible, and of nurturing the medium, so that it doesn’t (still) feel like a novelty itself. I feel that only then will we be able to pay more attention to the pecularities of each work, and the many different things that different works do, when working with live presence.

Alexandra Pirici . Photo from personal archive

Alexandra Pirici is an artist with a background in dance and choreography, who works undisciplined across different mediums. Her works have been exhibited at the decennial art exhibition Skulptur Projekte Munster 2017, in the Romanian pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, Tate Modern London, the New Museum, New York, Art Basel, Messeplatz, the 9th Berlin Biennale, Manifesta 10, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Museum Ludwig Cologne, the Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, the HAU Theatre Berlin, the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, the Chicago Architecture Biennale, and many others.

Alexandra Pirici works in museum contexts, theatrical frameworks and public spaces. She choreographs ongoing actions, performative monuments and performative environments that fuse dance, sculpture, the spoken word and music. Her works deal with monumentality and the history of specific places and institutions, in order to playfully tackle and transform existing hierarchies. They also reflect on the history and function of gestures in art and popular culture, and on questions of the body, its presence, absence or image, and the politics of capture. Her performative artworks are part of private and public collections as live actions.

Kuratorius Valentinas Klimašauskas. Photo: Visvaldas Morkevičius

Valentinas Klimašauskas is a curator and writer. Together with Joao Laia, he is co-curating the 14th Baltic Triennial at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius (2021). With Inga Lāce, he curated ‘Saules Suns’, a solo exhibition by Daiga Grantina, for the Latvian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2019). He is the author of ‘Oh, My Darling & Other Rants’ (The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt, 2018), ‘Polygon’ (Six Chairs Books, 2018), and ‘B’ (Torpedo Press, 2014).