Aleksandra Mir

How To Do Something With Nothing - Interview

By Silvia Sgualdini
UOVO, Turin, December 2006

Silvia Sgualdini: You are a Swedish citizen, born in Poland, and have been based in New York since 1989. How do you see yourself in relation to American cultural identity? What brought you to New York, and now to Palermo?

Aleksandra Mir: I grew up in 70s Sweden, possibly the most realized version of any country's dream of itself. We were “the model state”, perfectly balanced between the free market and socialist economies, politically neutral and with a world conscience that seemed to reach outer space. Part of the socialist program was to indoctrinate us with anti-American propaganda, while the free market allowed us to indulge in the imports of its popular culture, all very regulated though. At the time there were only two channels on Swedish state television and they only showed Disney films once a year, at Christmas. The most popular Saturday night family show was Barnjournalen (the Children's journal), where kids explained world news and complex foreign policies to other kids. At six years of age we knew that the US was evil. We also knew we wanted to have more of Donald Duck, Disco and Levi's. 

1980s privatization of Sweden dispersed the dilemma and then Swedes could watch anything at anytime and shop without any guilt complex attached. I always felt that by virtue of our consumption, we were Americans already. But that is more a figure of speech, since “identity” is a construct that can be projected upon us or manipulated by the individual in question, to serve his or her quest for a good life at any time. So I wear all my national identities like second-hand clothes: loose old T-shirts, baggy jeans and borrowed sneakers. They all kind of fit, but not really.

I came to New York “on the fly”. An extended InterRail trip through Europe in the winter of 1989 brought me into a Virgin Megastore in London to buy a CD and I walked out with a £99 ticket to the US. I arrived there the next day and crashed with people I had met on the plane. That week I also got into art school, a long-time dream of mine. We hit it off, New York and I, so I stayed for 15 years. But last year, I felt it was time to move on. It was purely a lifestyle choice. I am turning 40 next year, and I don't feel like I need the urban intensity anymore. I have enough of that in me to keep me going. I wanted a calmer surrounding, more time for friends, a healthier diet and access to beautiful nature. I had visited Palermo for 24 hours on a holiday and decided to come back here and make it my home. Being culturally flexible makes moving easy, and I still travel a lot all over the place with my art, so this change isn't even that dramatic.

How did these experiences inform your work?

Well, I would say that in general we take culture as a given, as an essence to simply replicate like a genetic code. Growing up as an immigrant and having to navigate a relativist terrain gave me the ability to see culture as opaque, as material to be manipulated by and to manipulate in return, almost like physical clay. It is a very short step from that to making art. So, I would say multiculturalism is the underpinning for a lot of my work.

Your work is characterized by an urgent interest in understanding and setting into play the conventions of everyday life. You often operate by creating resonance between an ordinary situation or a specific location and larger historical, political or cultural events. A brilliant example of this is the ongoing project Hello, a chain of photographic images that creates a circular connection between individuals who have met in a diverse web of circumstances and others related to them. Can you talk about this project in relation to your overall mode of working?

Generally, I really just take on whatever seems to be in my face that day. I don't have to search for subjects. They are always there – in the morning paper, on the bus, in people's homes, on the streets, in conversations, on TV. I once came across this postcard stand where there was a stack of postcards of Princess Di who had just passed away. Then I saw another stack of Mother Teresa who had died a week later. And in the middle, there was another postcard of the two of them meeting - something both obvious and improbable. Glamorous Diana had to bend over on her stiletto heels to shake hands with the hunched and tiny nun. This seemed very funny to me, and it started a long process of very intense exploration of human relationships and photography. Drawing on personal friends and family resources, as well as on public libraries and commercial image banks, I started building these very complex photo chains of encounters between people from all walks of life. The longest one became 333 images long and was displayed at the Curve Gallery at the Barbican in London in 2001, on an 80-meter long wall. In total, I've made seven versions in as many cities around the world - all locally grounded, but sprawling globally.

What would you say is the scope of Hello?

The scope is always all encompassing. Everything goes. I mean, I am only feeding popular culture back to itself. So what is world news on my TV today, gets processed, skewed, inverted and immediately fed back to the public in a way that questions and reveals the mechanism by which that thing was made news in the first place.

You have a strong interest in publishing and you have produced a number of printed works and contributed to fanzines. In particular, you have recently presented Living & Loving #3—The Biography of Mitchell Wright, the third biography in the ongoing series Living & Loving at White Columns in New York. This series of publications documents the life of ordinary individuals, who are peripheral to the art world, through interviews and family photographs. They are all people you came into contact with, such as D. C., a security guard working at an art college, and Zoe Stillpass, the daughter of prominent collectors, and now a fine art graduate student, who worked as your assistant. How did this project first come about?

In 2002, my friend Polly Staple, who edits and produces the series with me, was working as a curator at Cubitt, the artist-run space in London. When I spent a summer in town, we decided to collaborate on a publishing project. I had already met and interviewed our first subject, D. C., in his capacity as a security guard at the CCAC (California Collage of Art and Craft) in San Francisco. I never planned out the biographies in the way that I can now go back and retrospectively theorize them. Working conceptually seems to imply that one sits around and tries to resolve some kind of a priori mathematical problem. But having a good idea is more like being in a car crash for me. It happens and then you just have to deal with it because the consequences are too powerful to be ignored. 

In the case of Living & Loving # 1—The Biography of D. C., I was in San Francisco to work on a show and I stayed in a guest apartment on the CCAC campus. It was my first night ever in California, and I was a bit disoriented. I had the lights on, and I was watching TV. Suddenly, late at night, someone started banging on my door and, I thought, breaking into the apartment. I got really scared, and called for security. It turned out that the school had forgotten to mention to anyone that I was staying there, so it was security trying to get in, and thinking that I was a burglar. I mean, this is just too insane, but these kinds of things happen to me all the time. So the next day I had to file a report, and the head of security happened to be an ex-punk, ex-marine whose name was D. C. All this tension and these absurd paradoxes revealed a really thin line between safety and abuse. And Donald was more than happy to talk about his own life in relation to that. I made arrangements for a long formal interview with him that was recorded. 

Then Polly came into the picture as a producer, and we turned it all into a publication. Polly raised the funding from public sources and we printed 5000 copies that were given away for free, back to the public. The format proved really productive. It intersects with traditional portraiture, journalistic reportage, celebrity culture and everyman's desire to see himself in the mass media. We continue working on the series but we are only able to put a new issue out every two years or so.

What interested you about the people you chose?

Their capacity to reflect upon their own complicated lives in relation to their youth.

What do you find important in sharing the biography of an ordinary person with the public?

It is interesting for formal reasons, to circumvent the classic celebrity subject and feed a story about “everyman”, someone who lives as close to the ground as the reader, back to the public. I like the circulation. And I like how, when the ordinary is given proper attention and respect, the most extraordinary things reveal themselves. I had also made the observation that celebrity culture itself was changing. From previously inaccessible and sheltered demi-gods, celebrities are now striving very hard to be as “normal” as possible, but having a few added privileges on top. What today separates “us” from “them” is only a very thin polished surface that is never strong enough to conceal the fact that they are just regular people to begin with, so they are constantly embarrassing themselves both ways. This goes for the Royalty of our times as much as for Hollywood. The celebrity game is completely lost on me. Basically, I find the stars of our times extremely boring and I prefer following the escapades of any regular guy or girl through their everyday lives.

In 2005, you produced a set of large marker drawings outlining the map of the US, in which you created a subversion of meaning by contrasting patriotic or popular sayings with commercial anthems. Could you tell me how The Church of Sharpie developed?

I started drawing seriously in 2003, as a way to take a break from my big, public, socially complex projects. I needed something simple to do – something that was just between the medium and me and didn't involve any external processes. Before I knew it, I had 16 students working with me on these gigantic maps, and I had to provide lunches, think of supplying toilet paper, create schedules and payroll and develop a democratic system around music in the studio and everyone's contribution on the floor. The collective experience was so extremely intense during the six weeks that the project lasted that we started referring to it as an idiots’ cult, The Church of Sharpie. It basically became an insider’s joke on the rise of American evangelism under President Bush. It is a very timely moment to be dumbing down patriotism. Again, I am simply feeding slogans back to where they came from. With English as a second language, it is quite natural for me to make mistakes or sound uneducated. And why wouldn't one want to do that? Proper illiteracy can go a very long way. Some people even make it to be President.

I once read that on the occasion of the American Bicentennial in 1976, every state commissioned a quilt, prompting a resurgence of the tradition of the patchwork quilt in relation to national identity. The patchwork quilt stands as a symbol for community as well as the quintessential form of folk art, and your collective drawings immediately brought this to mind. Was that a reference for your work?

Not originally. The maps are not formal collaborations. I am the sole initiator, author and owner of them. The students worked as my assistants and I gave them particular tasks each day, mostly to fill in my outlines with various shades of gray and in varying patterns. Having said that, I am all for a transparent work model and I made it very evident that a team of people were working on this together with me, so I encouraged their individual strokes and personalities very much. This created an open situation where they were able to joke around with my authority and theoretically push some classic buttons of resistance. One guy who was filling in a large field of black said that he had written curses, such as “Death to the Dealer”, into the drawing. Someone else started organizing a smaller group around him during work on a particularly complex series of drawings, and he became the “Supervisor of Middle Tones”. For the last drawing, I said, OK, I will give you FREEDOM. I will create this quilt and you can draw any motif inside of a personal square. 

This, of course, is a completely insipid mind fuck to any critical and creative mind, but it does, in some ways, reflect both on how today, many curators and collectors think of artists as content providers for pre-conceived slots to be filled, and how many artists are so happy to fill them that they become zombies or eager to please wankers in the process. I definitely had moments like that and they represent my weakest work. For a moment, I wanted to try to be in the role of an insipid ruler or organizer. As in letting the voters believe that they are actually voting, while controlling the voting machine, effectively producing this grand performance act with millions of people in it. Imagine if we had looked at the 2000 US election as art? In my studio, for the first hour, nobody knew what to do with their freedom in the square, but they still wanted to draw, with my direction, and in a collective space that had become a really wonderful place to be. A place where jokes and music would flow freely and everyone was treated the same, where you got fed and paid at the end of the day, an environment which they had become so accustomed to and that they didn't want to leave.

So I had to work on easing them into the new model of the quilt, and they eventually filled in the squares with individual, but relatively lame doodles, very true to form though, as quilt patterns go. One dissident said he would draw penises in his square, and I said OK, as long as they are in a pattern, which he did – a penis quilt pattern. In the end we were all very happy with the result.

Some of your projects are extremely ambitious in terms of the number of people involved, the necessary expertise and the coordination required, often calling for industrial design and engineering experts. Gravity, a 20-meter high rocket built out of junk from scrap-yards around Britain, was produced by the Arts Catalyst, an art organization that promotes connections between art and science through project-specific commissions, and presented at the Roundhouse in London in September. Could you describe the process through which the commission was initiated and realised?

Art Catalyst contacted me about a year ago and I presented my idea, which they decided to produce for me. They raised the funding from the Arts Council and the Henry Moore Foundation, started the search for material sources and also put the team of people together. I counted over 30 people working on it: Commissioners, Industrial Designers, Welders, Engineers, Lorry Drivers, Riggers, lighting and backstage crew. We spent five months looking for materials. I went as far as Sheffield to find old rusty cylindrical tanks, and then developed the technical drawings together with the experts who figured out how it could all fit together, what the method of construction should be and made sure it would live up to all the Health and Safety regulations. 

The total production budget was £42,000. It took two days to build it up in public view, so there was, in effect, a live rocket factory to be watched. The rocket then stood erect for three days only, after which it was dismantled in another two days. Some parts on loan were returned to where they came from, and for the remaining four tons of steel, we got £224 back at the scrap-yard. No added value for having been art, rather quite the opposite. So that's basically monumental sculpture as ephemera.

Here one can find a strong similarity with Plane Landing, a helium inflated airplane sculpture suspended in a permanent state of landing, which you created for a commission at Compton Verney in 2003. This project took over two years to realize, branching into the fields of science, aeronautics and engineering. However, rather than being a permanent intervention in the landscape, it was conceived to tour to other cliché settings. How do you feel about this mode of working, the tension between the ephemerality and the grandness of the enterprise? Also, how do you consider the contrast between the moment in which the project stands complete and the period of gestation and production as well as the very conditions of these processes (economical, social, technical)? What is the relationship between these different phases?

This is a very natural way for me to be working. I am not really pushing any avant-garde boundaries here, just working within a set of contemporary circumstances that then defines this kind of outcome. One aspect of having public funding, for example, is that you have to give the money back to the public. This usually means either giving the artwork away, destroying or out-buying it. 

During the second day of the rocket, there was a small lobby group of people who were upset that we were going to trash this really beautiful sculpture and there were attempts to “Save the Rocket”. It got quite emotional and I was really torn myself for it had turned out to be absolutely wondrous. Well, in reality, it would have cost anyone interested in “saving” it £100,000. First you would have to pay back the grant money to the public foundations, then cover transport, storage of 7.5 tons of material and, in fact, rebuild it from scratch since it was structurally designed for the Roundhouse and would collapse on itself if it were just put up anywhere else. I am not Richard Serra. I don't have that kind of backing or sense of entitlement and I don't ascribe that to being a failure, it's just how it is, who I am and how my art turns out as a consequence of all those parameters I am dealing with right now. It is my TRUTH. 

I followed it to the scrap-yard to give it some sort of ceremonial farewell, and I did feel a deep sense of loss for about a day. But trying to think through all options, there really weren't any. So I’d rather move on and make something new with all the expertise I came in contact with on this project, and up the ante even more next time. The circumstances were very similar with First Woman on the Moon, a project I did seven years ago. I spent five months, had all of this goodwill support and cleared red tape to dig up an entire beach in Holland, but only on the condition that things were returned “back to normal” the next day. I mean, here you create a revolution and then you have to bring things back to “normal” – it was crazy. But it was the only way it could work.

How do you create credibility for these maverick enterprises?

I never thought about this. I just tried to do what I wanted to do. Half of the time, it doesn't work so it is always amazing when it does. For a decade, I did it for no money at all. I was told I was a “difficult artist”, and developed these things on my own with nothing to offer collaborators but some kind of shared fantasy. Then things started getting noticed, and more people began gravitating around the work, and now everyone who gets involved with me seems to draw some benefits for themselves from it, be it financial or spiritual. I have no idea if this kind of energy will last. I can't guarantee it, and I certainly can't teach it. Students like to know the code. There isn't one.

Space travel seems to return as a central theme in your practice. There is a strong connection between the Cold War space race and the utopian and experimental architecture of the 1960s through the use of advanced technological systems as well as new social structures. It seems that utopian architecture operated as means to bring the dimension of living in space back to earth, giving it a domestic familiarity that is available to everyone. Does your project First Woman on the Moon pick up on any of these issues?

Of course the utopias of the 60s are fundamental in everything I do, because this is the decade in which I was born, and I am very much trying to make sense out of my own life and my time. But I am not particularly involved with grand architecture. I have a huge problem with it being such a permanent expression of one person’s ego or a particular philosophy that by virtue of its permanence always becomes dogma. Then it has to be inhabited by masses of defenseless citizens for decades or even centuries. No matter how utopian a project is to begin with, it seems that the materiality of architecture always outlasts its own ideals. Most utopian experiments have failed, or appear as unwanted failures sooner or later. So if anything, I am interested in that defeat.

I think it is extremely interesting that you are mentioning the idea of failure in this context.

I think of failure and success in art in two parallel ways. 1. The concern with the successful realization of my fantasies in the pragmatic world that we live in. This is where I am really concerned with success, since if I believed it couldn't be done, I wouldn't even get up in the morning or start anything. Right? Well, even with the best intentions, skills and support, projects do get cancelled halfway and this can be extremely painful and disappointing if it happens due to, for example, a lack of money, a taboo, failed communication or even my own incompetence in being able to handle or foresee a situation. Then again, with experimental work, this is just the way it is and you have to appreciate those failures as signs of a work’s limitations. I would say that my ratio of successfully realized projects against those originally initiated is about 50%. 2. The question of content. In the case of the rocket, while I worked very hard on getting this sculpture realized, what I was effectively saying through the means of its being, through its trashy found materials and its title, Gravity, is that here is a rocket that is going nowhere. This is a reflection on every big scheme that doesn't work, or doesn't work for most people. It is saying that there are numerous narratives in the backwater of utopia that also need to be told, the unjust processes inside of a community, the body's process of ageing, the environmental price we have to pay for industrialization. So in the case of the rocket, you can say it was a very successful way of talking about futility.

Your projects call into question the conventions of artistic production and dissemination. How do you relate your position to interventionist critical practices in the 90s and the way in which they questioned cultural production within the artistic field and its institutions as the product of narrative discourses and social relations?

Well, I have a very hard time with the school of “institutional critique”, for as much as it bravely investigated and questioned the institution, it also stayed (and died?) there. I am simply not sure whether the noise and the energy were worth it. I see it much more worthwhile to tackle subject matter that concerns society at large. I have had dramatic and upsetting experiences with certain museums where I had work cancelled or prematurely censored, if you will. But I am well aware of the fact that these instances reflect not so much the bureaucracy or daily workings of a museum, as for example the generally growing paranoia in the US regarding subversive practices, the limited freedom of expression in general. Art institutions can at best support, preserve and disseminate an artist’s work, and I am grateful they exist. Museums are inherently slow in reacting, but eventually they have to – often when the energy or the stigma of a particular work is already gone.

Although I am always ready to put up a fight for myself, I don't necessarily see it as my job to change institutions or make my struggle with them a public event, let alone art. I would rather deal with what is in the news that day. 

As a young female artist, you start out tragically with all odds against you, and everyone needs to know that so that they can help you. But when I did create the moon landing, I didn't first direct myself towards art history and the male quest in land art; I wanted to take on world history and JFK. First Woman on The Moon was produced on a zero budget in 1999. Directly afterwards, I returned to New York and worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office for a year. Now, seven years later, the work has entered the collections of both the Guggenheim Museum and Tate Modern. It is official art history and I am not a receptionist anymore. That’s really nice.

The beginning of the new millennium is largely seen as a time of political, social and environmental crises, dominated by an aggressive American foreign policy. In contrast to this, one of the aspects of your work that very much attracted and fascinated me is an underlying sense of optimism in the creation of productive situations. Do you feel there is a specific political attitude to your work?

The world is always burning. So back to 1970s Sweden. There was a trend among young feminists, well informed of the state of affairs at the time, who declared that they didn't want to bring children into a world of war, ruthless capitalism and destruction of the natural environment. But it didn't stop anyone from fucking, and many babies were born nevertheless. It seems to me that optimism is built into the human constitution so that we can move on, regardless of any crisis or dilemma. I am just following that instinct.