Aleksandra Mir

Aleksandra Mir

Camera Austria, Graz, Nov 2004
By Kirsty Bell

In summer 2004, Aleksandra Mir took part in 'Localismos' a residency programm which brought twenty artists (Mexican and foreigners) together to work in the dilapidated historical heart of Mexico City. The organizers, Perros Negros, set up the workshop as a means for artists to engage directly with the materials and craftsmanship of this local area and create works specific to the context as a means of examining globalization 'not as an isolated phenomena, but as a union of localities.'1

Although based in New York City since 1989, Mir, like many artists of her generation, has lately lead a largely peripatetic existence due to the proliferation of international exhibitions and residencies now taking place in all parts of the world. Over the past four years she has lived in London, San Francisco, Sydney and Zurich, as well as Mexico City. For Mir, who has no studio practice as such and works largely on a project to project basis in whatever medium best suits the idea, the issue in these situations is how to produce work that can respond to the unique context without conveying a 'preconceived message'. Her approach can be seen in the light of her academic background in anthropology; with its colonial background, itself a problematic subject that was undergoing a fundamental reevaluation while Mir was a student: 'everyone seemed nervous about what they were doing, trying to figure out the new ethical approach to their subjects ... [the anthropologists] were definitely justifying their practices with very personal reasoning, passion and they were also experimenting with form.'2 Both impassioned reasoning and experimental form are central aspects within Mir's artistic output: an incredibly prolific, varied and personal body of work, all of which she document and explains in great detail on her own website (www.aleksandramir.info). She sets herself in a precarious and contradictory position, attempting at once to engage directly with a community, while representing it to a wider audience as the subject of an artwork in an unpatronising and non-didactic manner.

In the case of her residency in Mexico City, Mir found a performative solution to the problem, deciding to dedicate her month-long stay to taking part in Latin dance classes in order to 'simply use my body language to engage with local people and customs'3, while also attending performances of traditional dance to enrich her knowledge of local cultural tradition. The result was the documentary video Organized Movement—a video diary (2004) designed 'to tell my story of centro historico and Mexico City'. It is a sprawling home-made video diary that covers everything from Mir's attendance at the dance classes and performances, to observations of ubiquitous teen culture, scenes in seedy-looking night clubs and techno festivals, and moments of spontaneous dancing with fellow resident-artists in offices, hotel lobbies or private apartments, backed with a soundtrack of infectious Mexican pop songs. Mir's narrative voice-over adopts the model of old television documentaries for children: a patronizing tone full of sweeping judgments and lofty assessments (whose authority is reinforced by translated German subtitles), which jars with the video's casual, unsophisticated and often banal images. She exploits this discrepancy in moments such as where the narrator's promise of an investigation of 'local customs' cutting straight to a scene of trendy teenage boys playing high-tech games in a video arcade, who could just as well be in London or Tokyo as Mexico City. The documentary is characterized by a light-heartedness and casual quality that sets it apart from the rash of artist-made documentaries examining the quandaries of globalization to be found in many recent large-scale international group shows. Just as in Mir's ongoing photo project 'Hello' (a never-ending daisy chain of snapshots that knits together international celebrities with ordinary people while leaping across generations, cultures and continents), we experience a collapsing of scale where the familiar and the exotic, the local and the global fold together into a celebration of uncircumscribed individuality and human nature: 'I literally go to the opposite end of the world, to the most exotic faraway places I possibly can, only to find the closest things to me when I get there ... I keep coming back to the obvious points again and again.'4 Perhaps it is this willingness to appreciate the familiar within the unknown that allows Mir to occupy her straddling position as both interloper and confidant.

What is clear from Mir's video diary is the central role that building new relationships plays in her experience of Mexico City. Although ostensibly documenting her engagement with local culture, what we are presented with is a kind of 'Day in the Life of an Artist in Residence', with as much behind the scenes tom-foolery as evidence of external fieldwork. The video diary format, as popular with fly-on-the-wall journalists as MTV music celebrities, is uniquely suited to weaving political facts, celebrity propaganda or cultural analysis together with the most quotidian of activities. Mir's video diary does not produce any profound revelations, although it does throw in speculations on the nature of globalization, revolution and urbanization amongst plenty of footage of bad dancing, drunken group singing, miscellaneous banter and hanging around. It is not an expose or critique of the practice of artists in residence, in contrast to, say, Maurizio Cattelan's '6th Caribbean Biennale' (1999), where Cattelan invited a group of artist friends to a Caribbean island for what can only be described as a holiday. Whereas Cattelan exploits the proliferation of biennale exhibitions and questions their purpose in relation to the artists, while incidentally providing an opportunity for artistic discussion, for Mir the focus is the community itself and the often collaborative nature of artistic practice.

Inclusiveness is a recurrent feature of Mir's work and Organized Movement is itself as much about group dynamics as individual encounters. Mir's readiness to present herself uncompromisingly in positions of humiliation or plain silliness does much to dispel notions of artistic ego and places her shoulder to shoulder with her contemporaries. Mir finds the dance classes difficult and humiliating ('Being new in a class and not fitting in must count as one of the most common human experiences of alienation') but any tension is tempered by comic shots of her stumbling or tripping as well as numerous relaxed, impromptu dance numbers performed by herself and her friends on street corners. As Mir explains in the voice-over 'Taking community as a starting point for spontaneous movement ... where everyone is a welcome interpreter and contributor, the best thing happens, new dances are born.' These chaotic dance routines together with countless examples of bad lighting, lack of focus and camera-shake make this an exercise in the unspectacular rather than the glossy power of the moving image. But professionalism is not a condition towards which Mir aspires. Her openness to amateur performance is apparent in her involvement since 1999 with 'M.I.M.E.', described as 'a collective effort to revitalize the art form of Mime', of which she was a founding member. A collaborative spoof together with artist-performers Gavin Russom, Delia Gonzalez, Chris Holstad and Sigrun Hrolfsdottir, 'M.I.M.E.' involved much a lot of monochromatic fancy-dress and face-paint, accessorized with French baguettes and berets, and stated its manifesto as such: 'We never set down any rules for M.I.M.E. but get together when we feel like being mimes and do what we think a mime might want to do at any given moment and situation.' Their public appearances in Times Square, a New York supermarket, public parks and even swimming pools owe more to Marcel Marceau and 'performance in society', than a tradition of performance art, although Bruce McLean's 'Nice Style: the world's first pose band' from the early 1970s, in which a tuxedoed quartet acted out the gestural trappings of the British class system and its attendant bureaucracy, does spring to mind. Elaborately gestural and clearly ridiculous, 'M.I.M.E.'s' impromptu actions inserted into everyday situations are a low budget street theater designed to defy the conventions of cosmopolitan behavior: 'it is great freedom to be M.I.M.E.'

Mir's attraction to performance seems to be down to its directness and accessibility as a means of expression. Her contribution to the High Desert Test Sites Spring Event held in Joshua Tree in 2003 was titled 'I am a Joshua Tree' and involved Mir standing on a rock in the desert, arms and legs crooked in performative approximations of a Joshua Tree. Another attempt through body language to assimilate with her surroundings, perhaps. As with 'M.I.M.E.', this displays a willingness to throw off inhibitions, presenting herself as a laughably amateur performer to break down the distance between herself and her audience.

In Organized Movement, Mir is not only performer, however, but also off-camera director, issuing instructions to the people she is filming: 'Dance like a horse!', 'Can you whistle!', 'Say "localismos"!'. In an effort to instill organization into people's random movements, she directs first a group of models, and later a group of friends, to cross their legs a certain way, put their arms around each other and sway in time with each other (it's called 'synchronized movement'). 'Everything that is alive moves, but not all movement is organized,' she declares in the video's narration and sets out to determine how organization of movement happens. Images of karaoke, group-dancing and political protest appear as examples. Her own attempts at synchronization may be 'organized movement' at the most basic level, but the implication here is that even such lowly beginnings can improve things at least on a superficial level, while possibly bringing about change or adding up to a more powerful means of expression. The potential for political protest or revolutionary movement (as well as new dance crazes) is quietly suggested.

Many of Mir's larger projects are built on the idea of organized movement, taking the form of collaborative operations that are ultimately as much about the activity of bringing diverse groups together with a common goal as the final result itself. Lars Bang Larsen described them as 'social processes that are open for anyone who wishes to give the work meaning.'5 The 1999 project First Woman on the Moon is a case in point. With only a shoe-string budget to work with, Mir convinced fifty volunteers, a steel factory and two municipalities to help her turn an empty stretch of Dutch coastline into a lunar landscape to stage the landing of the first female astronauts several of the girls working on the production dressed up in space age outfits), greeted by a bank of television cameras who had been invited to come and record this faux-historic event. Later that afternoon the moonscape was razed and the beach returned to its usual state. The huge motivating effort involved was short-lived but effective, as the wide spread media coverage showed. In such situations, Mir acts as the catalyst, motivating the diverse groups with an infectious enthusiasm that underlines the seriousness with which she undertakes these ambitious projects. The fact that no one believed that her recent project, Plane Landing, would be possible did not deter her from persevering until it was realized. Mir had the idea of building a life-size model of a passenger plane, in the form of a helium balloon, that could be inserted into various different landscapes (the Swiss Alps, the Manhattan skyline, the California desert) as her 'contribution to the landscape tradition in art.'6 Not only an extraordinary sculptural object, the plane is also a symbol of modern technology and the shrinking world as well as of accidents, tragedy and terrorism.

While on the one hand Mir encourages coordination and consensus to develop from a small scale individual impetus, on the other hand, much of her work contains an implicit criticism of authority. When asked to participate in this year's Whitney Biennial, she decided to hang sixteen small generic No Smoking signs on the gallery walls amongst the other exhibited works. This piece commented particularly on the situation in Mir's home town of New York where, over the past few years, increasingly restrictive civic legislation has been gradually introduced, culminating in a total ban on smoking in public places and bringing with it an erosion of simple individual freedoms. 'It reflects on authority, and acceptance of authority as it is manifested in New York City, the US and all over the world by our generation right now.'7 Of course no one is likely to light up a cigarette in the Whitney Museum, but despite this, many visitors did not notice the signs; an indication of how used we are to being told what to do and what not to do. The piece was taken to its logically absurd conclusion by collector Andy Stillpass who bought it and installed the No Smoking sign on the bottom of his swimming pool. This in turn lead to another long term performative project in which Mir has undertaken to declare each of the world's seas a No Smoking zone. The first ceremony occurred late this summer during another residency, this time on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Speeches were given and Mir, dressed in a long flowing white dress, waded into the water as if in a 19th century colonial baptism, announcing 'I hereby declare the Atlantic Ocean a No Smoking Territory!' Home-made spectacle, humor and fun overlay a critique of not only the authoritarian restriction of personal freedom but also the disintegration of common sense in politics, a situation already approaching crisis point in the current American administration.

Mir's criticism tends to assume a light-hearted diversionary tone, however, not addressing the subject directly or bombastically but channeling her energy into more creatively rewarding alternatives. With Daily News, a self-published tabloid newspaper brought out on September 11th 2002, the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and also Mir's 35th birthday, she wanted to 'reclaim my birthday from the fascism of 9-11 memorialisation' and the 'September 11th industry'8 by providing her own newspaper with an open editorial policy and contents provided by her friends and colleagues. The result, printed on a professional newspaper press the night before, has the authentic quality of a tabloid paper but the front page headline screams 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY!' and its contents are personalized and idiosyncratic with tributes to Aleksandra and critiques on the post-September 11th political situation as well as drawings, photographs, advertisements, interviews, texts and classified ads all submitted by artists and friends. While functioning as both political protest and personal celebration, it works also as an open space for all forms of creativity. Again Mir exploits the rift between professional and amateur, combining a recognizable format and professional means of production with an unedited content. Similarly, when it came to editing her video diary from Mexico City, Mir engaged a professional editing company to produce a slickly cut version full of tricky split screens, speed changes and fade outs, at odds with the decidedly low-budget footage. Highly pro-active and socially aware, Mir is ready to take advantage of whatever resources are available, be it collaboration with other artists, industrial help-in-kind, technical special effects or media spin, to increase the volume, scale and scope of her ambitious and prolific projects.

1 'Localismos', press release, www.localismos.com
2 Aleksandra Mir in an interview with Christopher Bollen, The Believer, San Francisco, December 2003/January 2004, p.82
3 Aleksandra Mir, as narrated in 'Organized Movement—a video diary', 2004.
4 Aleksandra Mir, in: The Believer, op. cit., p. 83
5 Larsen, Lars Bang, Momentum Catalogue, Moss, Momentum—Nordic Festival of Contemporaray Art. 1998.
6 Aleksandra Mir in: The Believer, op. cit., p.80
7 Aleksandra Mir in her website: www.aleksandramir.info
8 Aleksandra Mir, Editorial in Daily News, September 11th, 2002, New York.