Aleksandra Mir

Aleksandra Mir in Moss and Roskilde

Casco Issues, #5, Utrecht, 1999
By Lars Bang Larsen

For AM, alienation isn't a necessary preface to experience. As an anthropology of the bonhomie, frustration, indolence or seduction of everyday life, her body of work is situation bound in the most frivolous sense of the word. For Mir, the art work is an exercise that operates as a playful organism with a large productive appetite for the beholder-participants' competence to enter into the processes of the action or art work. There is a collective construction art work conveyed through a general mobilisation of colloquial desire for the intermingling of the unexpected with the common.

Cinema for the Unemployed—Hollywood Disaster Movies 1970-1997 was a project she developed for Pakkhus, an exhibition produced for the Nordic art Festival Momentum, in the of Moss, Norway. The festival took place in the summer of 1998. Moss is a typical provincial, post-industrial Norwegian town of about 25,000 inhabitants. Together with Atle Gerhardsen and Daniel Birnbaum I was one of the curators of Pakkhus, which involved about 40 artists, mainly presented in an old 19th century warehouse. The employment service of Moss was also involved for Cinema for the Unemployed, for which it provided sponsorship, information material, and printed matter that depicted various administrative disasters (a guy sinking on his desk in a flood of applications).

From May 25-29 during 9am-5pm (week days, working hours!) with free admission for everybody, Aleksandra Mir showed disaster movies in a shut down cinema in the centre of Moss. The disaster movies she presented to the public of Moss were mainstream classics of the genre such as Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), Airport (1974), Avalanche (1978); movies that lead up to the '90s revival with products such as Deep Impact, The Ice Storm or, most notably, Titanic. The blissfully disastrous life of unemployment offered by the project took place in the somewhat carnivalistic ambience of the run-down theatre Amfi. Mainly used in the summer season for school plays and local revues, the black-and-rouge painted and dimly lit Amfi provided a suitably decadent and end-of-the-century aura; a provincially faded Moulin Rouge en miniature. AM had been struck by the idea of how people perceive unemployment differently; as a tragedy for some, and as a break from responsibility for others. Voluntary employment, or acceptance of a temporary or permanent state of unemployment, is normally looked upon either as a sort of late capitalist hedonism or as an infra dig condition for modern wo/man. But more than being an inherent element in the immaterial work of post-Fordism, the mobility of the labour market and the working place—a growing fact for more and more of us—unemployment can provide a break for thought and a chance to spend more some time reorienting. As for Mir's role in the duration of the project, she focused on being a good hostess, and was practically employed by it. Someone had to keep an eye on the practical things—make sure the films were running, organise food and drink and clean up.

Significantly, however, Cinema for the Unemployed exposed the more or less bureaucratic stigma of unemployment in the contexts of the thriving economy and booming labour market of oil-gushing Norway. This was brought to our attention, almost violently, at the sponsorship meeting with the local unemployment office, some three or four months prior to the start of the exhibition. In the otherwise undramatic environment of municipal administration, the grey-bearded head of the department asked with Nordic gravity if we had fully considered the possible outcomes of the project? "What if", he said, "an unemployed person becomes so depressed after having watched disaster movies that he goes home and takes his own life?". The debate that followed emphasised the defiantly optimistic concept of Cinema for the Unemployed, and, at one stage, even touched on a painter's use of live models. Although we assured the administrator that squandering the lives of Moss' potentially alienated citizens with art-induced suicides was not our primary intention, he had inevitably raised a most profound question of art's moral relationship to society. But it was a morality that with all the good will in the world, neither artists nor curators could be accounted for. However real the factual risk, he who had pronounced it would have to ponder it himself, and decide if it was worth taking. In the end, we not only got sponsorship, but the office proudly displayed a Cinema for the Unemployed poster (with a guy crashing out of a window, from the Towering Inferno) on its front glass doors. A victory of poetics over rationale? Hardly, they simply liked the joke.

Interestingly, the project triggered an immediate response from Norway's left-wing paper Klassekampen—'the class struggle'—Klassekampen's interview with Mir was their only coverage of Pakkhus, or Momentum for that matter (which is perhaps a mere coincidence.) In the Klassekampen interview, Mir commented on the essential question of the audience:

"Situations like these are complex, but it doesn't mean that they can't be broken down into agents: viewers of the films, viewers of the show, and viewers of the viewers. Everyone gets their piece of the cake. When working in such a media exposed situation as Momentum, I assume a lot of people to be in the cinema for art fetishistic reasons".

So, who actually came to watch the movies? People wanting to catch a favourite movie, indolent teenagers hanging around, exhibition goers, locals just dropping by, and f course representatives for Moss' unemployed. For some screenings there were only a few spectators, which accentuated the melancholic atmosphere, turning the whole scene into a picture or tableau. Aleksandra mailed me recently about the next incarnation of the project:

"I first thought the project was fully consummated in Norway, but it's now going to take place in Gdansk, Poland this September. Planning has already started to run the project in a radically different demographic setting than Norway: Gdansk has one of Europe's highest unemployment rates. The first meeting with local unemployment officials has already happened and the district director promised to create labour opportunities for ten workers, restoring an old run-down theatre specifically for the project. During the meeting he even quoted from Zorba—the Greek, the last line of which is apparently 'What a beautiful disaster!'."

Perhaps a victory of poetics after all. In sync with previous projects by Mir, Cinema for the Unemployed was a sneaking moral contamination, a complex therapeutic cult. More than aiming for subversion per se, the work was an infiltration of straight society—with all the humour integral to such a diagnosis today.

Because of this disbelief in a clean 'unpolluted' encounter, Mir decided to organise a political campaign at the Roskilde Festival. From its rocking spirit to the tattered landscape of a thousand tents that surrounds the festival area, the Roskilde Festival takes its cue from Woodstock before it, and summons some 100,000 enthusiasts every summer. it has been running straight since 1971, and in that period almost every Danish teenager has been to the festival at least once. Not only due to its promise of four days of abundant sex, drugs, alcohol and music, but also because the event conveniently takes place after all schools and grammar schools have finished their exams. Roskilde presents an opportunity to simultaneously transgress and tolerate the demands of everyday life. In 1996 the festival saw the formation of New ROCK Feminism, a two day performance by a one-woman organisation, supplemented by the act of amassing 1,000 signatures for the campaign Want More Female Bands! In her own words:

"A freeform gig, this action was spontaneously conceived as an investigation into the charges put upon my generation for supposedly being less politically inclined than the preceding ones—in particular, that of the 'radical' sixties into which we were born. I was wondering whether it was because of the imploding walls of our institutional, technological, national and corporate embeddedness, vividly revealing the dependencies by which we are nurtured, and therefore making it seem less possible to contest, or, if it was that the appearance of resistance as we know it, has become a stifled relic itself".

Teetering on an individual responsibility conditioned by the reservation-like anarchy of the Roskilde Festival, people signed the New ROCK Feminism petition with absurdities, with a real or assumed name (Bj–rn Borg, Superman), or changed the agenda with slogans such as "We want more mixed or gay bands", "We want more toilets", or "Women were not build [sic] for rock'n fucking roll. Love, Tom". The project's feminist demands and its slightly awry, regulating presence in the midst of a hundred thousand concert goers made its political vein stand out alive and double.

The action staged a libertarian irony: in New ROCK Feminism, everybody got what they wanted. Those whose signed in good old activist faith had their commitment fulfilled as the democratic process came full circle when Mir handed over the 1,000 signatures to the board of the festival along with a statement of intent, to which the slightly confused president (sic) personally replied that the campaign would of course—together with all the other input ) be taken into account by the bookers when planning next years' festival. Those who messed up the petition were probably just in it for the fun, anyway. Ironically, people would probably have displayed a more disciplined, knee-jerk sense of responsible resistance in the face of the cause's sober funky demand, had they been confronted with it in front of the supermarket, instead of in the chaosmos of the Roskilde Festival.

The intrinsic value of resistance was split up by the action's representation of each signature holder's active involvement and decision in the face of a political demand. The 1,000 signatures weren't something that bespoke the action's accumulation of a unison force, but read rather as the diversification of possible or potential ways of resistance. With New ROCK Feminism, Mir deconstructed, or made complex the monolithic position of those deploring today's lack of political involvement by situating her research in the middle of an institution invented and developed exactly by the generation of radicals.

In contradistinction to raising the dead in a revolutionary imaginary, the aim is to create a sphere for the meeting and interacting of people's voices and opinions, and thereby to provide an opportunity for transgression of the norm. Motivated by by existing conflicts in daily surroundings, Mir's projects anticipate new, unexpected results. They are vivifications of the meaning of interaction between people, as an engagement with contemporary society. Mir's work is committed art for intellectuals, drop-outs or world citizens, and not least for the casual passer-by who wants to localise himself in a privileged contexts, if only for an hour or two.