Tom Nys: Space travel, as well as plane travel, seems to be an interest of yours for a long time. Can you recall when and how that started? And when did you consider it worthwhile to integrate it in your art?
Aleksandra Mir: Global events in popular culture, such as the moon landing, the development of a mass aviation culture, the future of the space program, etc, have massive influence on how we live and perceive ourselves in the world. To contribute to these grand narratives as an artist means that I can attempt to formally mimic their orchestration, play and make believe, but in a scale of David vs. Goliath, also reveal my vulnerability and incompetence, speaking for all those narratives in the backwater of utopia that typically remain untold.
You apparently don’t seem to limit this preoccupation merely to the machines as such, but you clearly aim at several levels. I was wondering about the process of research you put into the kind of work where you deal with for instance the space topic? How far will you delve into such themes?
Research is a big part for what I do, but I would say it is rather broad, general and follows an organic trail, not specialist in any way. If I am to speak on a subject, I typically gather up the pop cultural references available to me to map out the parameters of what anyone out there would know, mix them up with my personal memories and talk to people who are naturally available to me and who then lead me on to others. NASA for example is very approachable. They even sent me original vintage prints in the post. I made direct contact with both Neil Armstrong and Arthur C. Clarke to show them my work, to connect my narratives with theirs and they both replied with good humor. Neil Armstrong even wrote emails.
Evidently an important aspect to a love for rockets and airplanes is the fact that it has become attached to a rather essentialist gender stereotype, in essence that it is typically a boys thing. In your work, you have always dealt with this in a playful but also intelligent way. Can you please elaborate on this?
First Woman on the Moon was originally conceived in 1999 for the 30th anniversary of the original moon landing, in order to beat JFK to his goal of ‘Putting a man on the moon and bringing him back safely to earth before the end of the decade’ (the 60s). I wanted to put a woman on the moon before the end of the millennium, knowing very well this wasn’t going to happen. My woman only climbed a sand dune on a beach in Holland, but everyone who was there joined in on the fantasy for a day. Likewise, the ambitious construction of a space rocket out of mere junk, entitled Gravity and that in effect is going nowhere, is a metaphoric comment on what holds us back, rather than articulating any real intention to go.
My work is often described as ‘feminist’ but I personally know it is more complicated than that. The content of my projects almost always pulls in the opposite direction, showing frailty, vulnerability and pathetic incompetence towards the status quo. I guess ambivalence is always part of a good artwork, in terms of not working in direct alliance with a simple and direct political purpose, and it leaves room for others to explore the parameters of what is possible. As a public artwork it obviously leaves itself open to the public’s projections and uses of it. The final conclusions of the work have to remain open and that is where it differs from traditional activism and is akin towards carnival.
Curiously enough, this far I haven’t read too many references of a rocket to a phallic symbol…
I only get this phallus question in art schools, which means it is either too academic for me, or too juvenile. Sure you can see penises in everything. But then what? Symbolism only goes so far. Two people had sex for you to even exist. Let’s move on.
Someone who would have learned about your First Woman on the Moon project in The Netherlands would have possibly expected a video that would look like an actual, albeit a fake, registration of a moon landing. Instead you opted to film the process of creating the whole enterprise on the beach of Wijk aan Zee, including the work forces, passers-by, and the general response of people and of the media. Could you explain why (from the point of view of your general modus operandi)?
This project was made on a zero budget but thanks to an enormous amount of goodwill and enthusiasm from over 50 people, 2 municipalities, the police, machine parks, hotels and catering service, sponsors, friends, families and children. In a situation like this I have very little directional control, and the only way to deal with that is to say ‘it is all inclusive’ I claim the totality of all random events under my umbrella as my artwork, I sign on everyone’s else’s motivations and make space for them. To follow it all with a camera and attend to the documentation, making sure it exists and circulates is probably the most authoritative role that I have in the end.
Though you don’t hold a degree in anthropology, you did study it and I must say that it clearly has had a huge impact on your body of work. Not only because of your use of the vernacular and of folkloristic images, objects and media but also because of the way in which you approach certain rituals, objects and cultural tropes. Do you agree on this?
I never had much faith in the romantic notion of genius or my inner and emotional life even being relevant enough for it to find expression on canvas or carved out in stone. Who cares about my inner turmoil or personal bias? They are as intense, sincere or corrupt as the next guy’s. What is interesting are the broad strokes of culture and history, and how one as an artist can channel that. This is what I am working towards. I grew up in a multicultural household so the relativist perspective and a critical view on culture was already a given, both as a complication and a blessing.
I then spent three years in an MFA program in Cultural Anthropology at the New School for Social Research in NYC. The objective was to learn to speak a language about culture that I was previously lacking, to take an as objective stance towards it as feasibly possible, to understand it in historical terms, in terms of power and to meet other people who were studying the same problems but from a vast range of perspectives. I studied with lawyers, journalists, philosophers, aid workers and historians which expanded the limited scope of the art world as I knew it from school and openings.
Entering anthropology of course immediately put you in touch with the crisis of representation, the disciplines colonial past and biases. But at least they were openly dealt with and discussed, made into subjects and theoretical problems of themselves. This next to the tradition and practice of field work which is what I most cherish and what I took away. I did all of that but I don’t have a degree. I didn’t want to pay a fortune to receive my diploma and I had no plans to become an academic. I just loved being in this environment so I did it as an artist.
Your works of art invariably have a certain sociopolitical layer and I dare say a function. Do you know where the origin lies of your social awareness? I believe you once mentioned your upbringing in Sweden as an influence…?
Gonzo Circus has always taken pride in their printed format even in this digital age. As an artist, you have always used printed media extensively and you seem to have a keen eye for graphic design as well. Could you tell me a bit more about this? You have published a lot yourself in different formats; I wonder whether you love books for more than their content alone? How does your personal library look like?
I had imagined myself working in publishing since I was a kid selling newspapers door to door and making my own fanzines. It was not an intellectual ambition, mostly tactile and pragmatic. Following an interest in mass media and popular belief I then first studied journalism, illustration and graphic design before I made a decision to make art. Today, I produce my own printed matter, books, posters, catalogues, invitation cards for every project or exhibition I do.
My personal library is quite trimmed down to my essentials. I have moved a lot and decided against storing or shipping books around. I didn’t bring my student library from New York and after 5 years living in Palermo, Sicily in donated 90% of the art library I had built there to a local gallery (Francesco Pantaleone Arte Contemporanea) who makes it available to the public. I put a personal ex-libris in every book so you can find and read my 2009 Venice Biennale catalogue there.
I would like you to discuss a specific collage you made for your New Designs show in 2005. George Bush can be seen on it as a small fetus floating into space. The NASA logo is included in a lower corner. I guess one should interpret this image as a critique of the former Bush administration’s stance on abortion and reproductive rights. After all, a free floating fetus in space, detached from a mother, is a mythic image employed by Christian antiabortionists. But would it fit in your other space related series as well and in what way?
Well, this show is the show that defeats all others. Like I said, I never do politically explicit work but I decided for once to do just that, to see what would happen. The poster of Bush as a featus in space, asking you to choose, mixes an election propaganda aesthetic with that of the abortion debate. It is a complete DADA response of course but that is how absurd the debate seemed to me in 2005. I was born in 1967 in a communist Poland which had granted abortion rights (since then reversed) before American feminism had even won it for itself. I didn’t fight for my liberties, I took them for granted and to see them being questioned or reversed was just not acceptable.
When I lived in Manhattan throughout the 90’s and well into the new millennium I would very often come across anti abortion protests and I became quite interest in their propaganda. They used blown up medical images with lots of blood and flesh to shame and scare people. It was very effective as this B-movie imagery seen in on broad daylight was quite in-your-face for a daily office worker who was on a rush to lunch and was made to feel sick. I was wondering why the opposition did not have any images or propaganda tools equally powerful to that, and I started thinking of what it would look like if they did, and so I designed my own.
My conclusion was if you were going to create propaganda that argues against the romantic notion of motherhood by modern and rational means you have to use a visual language that reflects just that. My very clean Helvetica set KEEP ABORTION LEGAL poster mixes pink and baby blue colors to mock their sentimental symbolic meaning. The sentence also instills a sense of history at a time when victories long won and arguments long legislated were risking being overthrown by a religious Presidency and a movement using a Medieval/ Halloween aesthetic. I was almost more offended by their aesthetic, than their point. Of course having less abortions is a shared goal and of benefit for everyone, but then the focus has to be on sex education or on supporting parents who are struggling to even make the choice. The Pro Life movement has no such agenda so it is symbolic at best and hysterical at worst.
But I was also quite disappointed to see how the pro-choice movements rational did not manage to undermine the pro-lifers hysteria, at least not in visual terms. You can’t be rational with a hysteric but maybe you can have a laugh at him.
I think the humor in my propaganda did a certain job in that regard. Was it effective as Politics, effective as Art? I think it failed both ways. It was too ambivalent to serve the activist camps and too political to be open ended. I give the design away for free on my web site to anyone who wants to use it but apart from a small feminist art collective in Vienna who printed it on some coffee mugs they mainly shared between themselves, I never had anyone from the pro-choice US camp contact me. And although I have had enthusiastic response from some bold US curators with ideas to put the designs on handbags or painting murals in their museum, they all eventually backed off out of fear of polarizing their community and losing their funding. To come up close against that fear factor and the project’s breaking point, has been very interesting in all.