Harald Starzer: I've got a question to start with: You remember the Russian space station called Mir. I think it's Russian for peace. Your work Gravity (2006) – a rocket made of industrial debris - was brought back to the scrap metal yard after only three days on display. When I first read about it, I wouldn’t have thought of it as being scrapped again, because normally rockets are disarmed, so is this – maybe – a statement about disarmament?
Aleksandra Mir: Well, I didn't really orchestrate or define a way of destroying my work. It was just a natural consequence of the logistics. The rocket was built for a performance event in a theatre space that was available for only five days, and there was nowhere to put it afterwards, nobody was ready to take it anywhere else and so we took it to the scrap yard. So I can't say that the destruction of the work is a statement. It's a consequence, you know. But if you want to read disarmament into it – of course I am fine with that.
I read you hold a Bachelor in Fine Arts?
Yes, a BFA from School of Visual Arts in New York City.
In Europe we have this situation, the Bologna Process [the initiative of European Education Ministers, started in 1999, for introducing common European education standards for the participating 47 countries, such as the Bachelor/Master/PHD-system]. At our institute we are still in the old system, the magisterial system. We are organized in three departments. There is the experimental design, sculpture and the painting class. Do you think it’s a more open system if you just study Fine Arts, or do you think it’s better to have different departments? You said you are not a sculptor.
I started in the illustration department at my school and spent most of my time in the printmaking studio doing etching, silkscreen, lithography and early digital printing. I also took some avant-garde film theory classes, animation, semiotics and a course in opera stage design. Before that, I had done a year of mass media and communication studies in Sweden and that involved an exposure to graphic design, journalism, photography, typography, statistics, things like that. When I first went to art school I was interested in publishing. I planned for a commercial trade in publishing and I never thought I could be an artist. And now I develop monumental sculptures. I really think that in life, what you study and what you end up doing twenty years later can be very, very different. So for me, the obsession with university departments is not so relevant to develop an artist in the end. I think it is more an organizational matter, how the university organizes it’s resources, how people can get funding to develop specializations if that is what they want to do.
But I think as an art student, your obligation to yourself is essentially to be interested in the world at large and to get information from everywhere you can possibly find it. If you study in one department it doesn’t mean that you can’t go to lectures in another department. If you study art at a university it doesn’t mean you can’t go to lectures in biology, anthropology or physics. It doesn’t mean you can’t travel or read your own books or see opera even if you dress like a punk. I think being a student is simply a way of saying, “I am making time in my life to learn from everything around me, and nobody can tell me that I am not allowed to just experiment until I find my own way.” It doesn’t mean that if you study sculpture you are going to be a sculptor. Because eventually, if your are serious, you will develop something that you are passionate about and you will find your own personal way on that journey. If you study sculpture, your passion for form and structure might lead you into the world of food or fast cars, and maybe you will become a pastry chef and make fantastic cakes or a car designer in the end. So you will have some support from your education in sculpture, but I think the idea of a straight linear track is an illusion that stems from administrative constrictions. These processes, the Bologna Process, these are European regulations, these are big political movements, they are bigger than you. So don’t let them limit you. At the end, they don’t really mean much to an artist who will need to find a way through any given frameworks and who has enough curiosity and drive to seek out their own knowledge.
A little bit off-topic, but I also read that you hold a master in Anthropology?
I spent three years in an MFA program in Cultural Anthropology at the New School for Social Research in NYC but I don’t have a degree, I didn’t graduate, I did all the course work, but I didn’t want to pay a fortune to receive my diploma. I had no plans to become an academic; I just loved being in school so I did it as an artist. All my art today developed from there.
I don’t know how much you could follow Jennifer Allen’s lecture, given in German, during the “Sculpture Unlimited” symposium here in Linz, but she referred to three historically different ,memorias’ – oral culture, writing culture and the digital culture of our generation. How do you think as an anthropologist: how does digitalization influence your work?
I use email and the Internet extensively, so the digital realm affects my communications patterns to a large degree. However, I still see my methods as being very traditional. As an anthropologist, you study vernacular culture, and in my work I use culture in the most general sense possible. Not just cool pop culture, like movies and cinema, fashion or advertising but the mundane reality that anthropology looks at, you know... cooking utensils and housing solutions and migration patterns, things like that. Anthropology for me opens up a much bigger playing field than art. Art is very narrow and the engagement with urban cool culture that art school often promotes is very narrow. Anthropology opens up to everything. This chair is interesting, the floorboard is interesting, how you are sitting is interesting, why your hair is long is interesting. So, I use it and there is an oral history tradition in anthropology, and a history of observation, of interviewing and of taking notes and creating records. There are methods of research and documentation that I can also take advantage of as an artist. My art education, which I enjoyed but left after only two years was essentially too narrow. Anthropology made my practice much richer; it put the flesh on the bones.
And the open-mindedness?
It’s not just about being open-minded, but to educate yourself about society, the world. To be in the world, not just the art world, which is what, a village of 30,000 people?
Christian Ohlinger: Is this your personal strategy to combine your works with history and especially things that happen in whichever country you happen to live in?
Yes, I try to comment in a way. I think my art is a comment to what happens to my life and to my surroundings. Not like a journalist who reacts immediately and has to file their story within 24 hours when it is already outdated, but as an artists who gets deeply involved and responds with a process and delivers a result maybe ten years later and that is supposed to remain as a valid record for... ever? Well, that is unlikely of course, but it still is a kind of commentary on the time and place where I live, and on the present, it’s just a very stretched out idea of the present. So in order to do that I try to mark my work with a time and place. I try to position myself in a specific time and place which you can identify, so I do become a commentator of my time and place, yes.
Is it true that you now live in Sicily?
I was living in Sicily for five years until June, but now I...
You live out of the suitcase?
... live out of the suitcase, yes that’s the word.
I’m also interested in your drawings. I like them very much and would like to know how important these drawings are for you. Why are you doing them in black and white – black marker on white paper?
Because the drawings didn’t start as a premeditated art project. It was just a manner I had. I always used the Sharpie, which is an American permanent marker you can find in any stationary shop, to take notes with. People buy it to just write on anything, plastic or rubber or metal, it doesn’t wash away. I like the way the ink flows and the intense blacks. I used to have all these Sharpies sitting around my desk just to take notes with. Then, the very first time I had a studio; it was a very small studio in residency in London where I could literally only fit a desk and a chair, so I didn’t produce anything there. I was just on the telephone or on the computer. And I had this notebook and I was just doodling. I had a practice of doodling with this marker. While on the telephone I was making these unconscious drawings. And one day my friends Mark Leckey and Polly Staple phoned me and said, „We want you to make some Illustrations for a fanzine“, and while we were on the phone I made a first conscious drawing with the same tool, and I never found there was a reason for me to go back to more traditional media, because I didn’t want my drawings to be art historical, you know, using charcoal or anything like that. I didn’t want to bring them into the whole history, or pretension, or assumption of Art. I wanted them to be freed and unburdened by the weight of tradition and I just wanted to make drawings, in the most natural way for my time and place. With the Sharpie already right there on my desk, I could just make a simple connection between an idea and my hand. So drawing for me is a direct extension of writing and larger physical movements, such as walking and even dance.
And what come first, the drawings or the sculptures?
They exist in quite separate parts in my brain. The monumental sculptures are all about making something impossible, to find out about and transcend limitations. While the drawings are an extension of writing, which is a very ordinary practice for me. In traditional art education, drawing is a preparation for painting. It is relegated to being just a study for painting. For me, I never painted. I don’t care about rehearsal. I made a doodle while on the telephone. First I took down a telephone number, and then added a little doodle. I made some verticals, maybe added a face or a flower or a geometric shape, and then suddenly I filled up the paper, so I needed a bigger paper. And then it became bigger and bigger and then I tried to arrive at a place of excellence with this simple medium. In the past ten years, I have spent thousands of hours with it. I have learned all about it. I started using the fading range of greys, I learned how to control a range of 12 grey tones, and how to control the thickness of the line. I made the drawings in big series and monumental in size, I showed them in a museum, I hired 16 assistants and spent 2 months in a gallery drawing live in front of a public so it also became a performance, endurance exercise, a total environment with people and food and music. But it all came out of doodling, it still is just doodling. It is also a way to keep an archive or record of things that I observe. The biggest drawings are still part of an ongoing notebook, and of a writing exercise.
Your drawings are very big, from two meters to...!
Oh, even bigger. These things become an obsession. Some of them are eight meters. C: How many markers do you need for that size? A: I need thousands of markers. I buy them or even get them shipped from Sharpie, they sponsored me for a while.
You made many drawings of planes. Did you do them before Plane Landing (2003–ongoing) – the project involving a huge inflatable sculpture in the shape of an airplane shown in various sites around the world – or after?
I have been into planes for, like, forever. I have drawn planes, sculpted planes, collaged planes, collected books and paraphernalia on planes, made books about planes. I think of the airplane as the one single object that defines the modern era above anything else. For man, to finally make his dreams to fly a reality, to take the mythology of Icarus and his wings of feathers and wax which didn’t hold up to the heat of the sun, to make that actually work on a level of engineering and then create a whole mass aviation culture out of it, only to then have to deal with the threat of terrorism and ash clouds is just humanity at its most visionary, most banal, most complex, most extreme and most ridiculous at once.
Harald Starzer: You said your religion is art?
(laughs) Yeah, my religion is art. It just means I am committed to art. I find religion to be a commitment to believe in something, to stay with it longer than for a moment. I have dedicated myself to a life in art. I have a social life that defines a life in art. I see it almost like a duty to inform myself about what other people are doing in art. So it’s religion in quotation marks. It’s not a contract that I couldn’t break, but right now, and for the past 18 years, it has been a solid commitment and a true love.
In your lecture at the “Sculpture Unlimited”-Symposium you mentioned that you want to show the process behind your work. And then you also said that you want to confuse your audience or your viewers, and you mentioned the factor of bureaucracy. Like how to get Plane Landing to Paris for example (2008). How do you combine these things? And how do you then get your work into galleries?
I don’t think I ever said “confuse”, it’s not the something I am looking for. I think I am quite transparent about my processes, extremely transparent in fact. You can ask me anything and I tell you every detail and I am inviting people backstage and into the process of the work to see it being made while it happens, so there is no mystery. Others might think art needs mystery, but I don’t, because it’s so magical anyway. Even the fact that anybody wants to do it is magical enough to me. I don’t need to add drama or put any mystery on top of it. But what was the second part? How do I get to work in galleries? Some works don’t make it to galleries, some works are taken away and destroyed, some works are sitting in storage for years and some works maybe take on a documentary-reality, maybe there is a photograph or something else that can be shown in a gallery. Sometimes the galleries are invisibly involved in the production, but without exhibiting it, and sometimes there is no gallery. I worked without galleries for many years and now I work with seven galleries depending on the nature of the work. It depends on the work, depends on the process, and depends on where you are in your life and what you want.
Do you include all the bureaucratic work into your documentation?
No, because it would be so boring. I mean, for Plane Landing in Paris we had five hundred pages of correspondence. I don’t have the time, I would have to have another person working on my archive alone, only to follow the processes. If you are an academic and you want to do some research, it’s there – you can find it in a drawer in the gallery somewhere and I will be happy to offer it to any serious researcher. But for me to get involved in producing the documentation, archive it and make it available I can only do so much and I usually only focus my attention on the visual documentation. A project like Plane Landing which takes five months to organize that lasts for five days and has three photographers on the set, easily results in 10.000 photographs that it is my job to organize, edit and post produce. So I don’t have the resources to do much else. It’s very boring to deal with documentation after a project is over, so I don’t really need to show the bureaucracy of it. I have nothing to hide, nothing to show. So, only to know it’s there.
But you show your work in public space, and it’s interesting for us students to know how to cope with bureaucracy.
Well you can ask me the question and I can explain how we do it. Like Plane Landing in Paris, there was one woman hired with the gallery only to produce the project, her job was to communicate with these authorities and getting permission to place the work in certain locations. There’s a system in Paris, because it’s such a popular city for photo shoots, for fashion-shoots and advertising, to submit an application that you want to be in front of the Eiffel Tower, you have to have a permission to shoot in front of the Eiffel Tower or to be in front of this street, or that street...
So, you have to fill out applications. You have to present your proposals. You have to tell them when you will be there. You have to deal with the police. What are the risks? How many people are in your crew? Are you bringing a car? Do you need extra security? How many cameras? How close can the public be? What about daylight? And if it rains? So it’s a lot of organizational work. First you need to find out who is responsible. Then sometimes maybe papers are not enough, you need to phone them. Then you have to go to meetings, you have to present your project. Finally you have to have all the time in the world to do it.
You said you did this as a job before you started doing your own art.
Yeah, well in parallel to being a young artist, who could not support herself on her own work. I worked as an administrator for other people and it was really helpful, because I learned what they do in order make a project look so cool and easy in the end, like it came out of a magical hat. Through this administration job I learned what artist are doing today.
Christian Ohlinger: You often work with a certain view on countries or islands, for example: World Maps, The World from Above or First Woman on the Moon. Is this a personal view of your own life? You always seem to be looking for islands or different parts of the world you would like moving to?
Yes, I think it’s very much the story of my life. I was born in Poland, I moved to Sweden when I was five years old, then moved to America when I was twenty-one and left America for Sicily 15 years later. Now I don’t live anywhere. So geography as a fixed identity has always been very present as something that I have had to confront, a very uncomfortable reality. I am looking for exit strategies from borders, from defined geographies, from defined cultures. And I’m interested in the flow of identity rather than determining a fixed one. Or an island situation where you can be isolated in your own bubble or territory. I am interested in observing how people are made to believe that fixed territories even exist, a concept that makes me very nervous and uncomfortable. I think even before the Internet I had this feeling of the Internet existing in me. The fact that you can enter or exit any place in world at any time and speak to anybody and go anywhere. It used to be a huge ordeal to cross borders. I was born in Communist Poland where the border between east and west was a solid wall. When I was interrailing through Europe as a teenager in the 1980s, it was still an event to cross every border, the controls, the currency change, and the language. First time I went to Paris at 17, nobody spoke English there so it was an event to even buy a cup of coffee. Now you travel completely free on the web, in cyberspace, and you can easily speak to your friends all over the world in English. I see myself as part of a globalizing generation who at once were given the opportunity for free travel and who did all the footwork to communicate across borders. When I was a kid, I used to have pen friends; writing letters to friends I had never met and who lived in Korea, Madagascar and Peru. When I was ten years old, I was putting a lot of work in communication with people in crazy locations like that. We were making huge efforts to decorate our letters with drawings and stickers, sending photos of our homes, families and pets. Then you had to take the letter to the post office, wait in a line, buy a stamp and mail it and it could take three weeks before it arrived. I was so prolific and had so many pen friends that some periods I had a letter every day from somewhere and then I had to instantly write back and then wait for over a month for their reply. So I think I was always very frustrated with this idea that we have to live in one particular country and have the identity of that particular culture. I couldn’t understand that. I saw more of the bigger movements right away through my networks, the influence of pop culture that we all listened to the same music and dressed in the same fashions from America, next to wearing exotic costumes of our cultures on holidays. It still works like that, both ways. Globalization has strengthened local identities as well.
In 1999, for First Woman on the Moon, you created a moonscape on a Dutch beach. Why did you hoist a U.S. flag and not a Polish flag on the highest hill?
It was the biggest question, everybody was asking me this. There was a lot of anger about it. You know, in many places the American flag is considered, by many people, the symbol of imperialism. But it also is just a flag. You can go back looking at it as pure design, as colour and shape and I happen to think that it’s a very beautiful flag. I find the American flag very, very beautiful and I do believe it represents an important experiment of democracy in itself. I lost my Polish citizenship when my family left Communism, I still hold my Swedish passport and then when I became an American citizen during the Bush era a lot of people thought I was mad. But I had lived in the country for 15 years and it was a natural procedure to become naturalized. The judge said to a room full of people from all over the world “For all of its fault and problems, the United States of America is a great experiment in democracy, and as citizens, you and your children are now responsible for contributing to that experiment.” I think those are beautiful words and I am quite honoured by them. He did not give us propaganda, he gave us agency, which I think is also very important in my performances as well, the idea that the public has agency to be in the work on their own term and affect the outcome that way. But most importantly for me when I created the moon landing, I was trying to mimic the original, I wanted to be AUTHENTIC. I was making a comment on the original moon landing, a re-enactment of the original moon landing. Historically, Americans did the original moon landing. Factually, they put an Americans flag there. This is what the world would see on TV. So my motive was to make it look as original as possible. That’s why I used the American flag. And then I can justify it on the basis that when the first time I showed the film next to Neil Armstrong’s moon landing back in New York, I was able to compare them on the aesthetic ground like performances. This was the motive. So it was a reason to be historically correct. Some people said, “Oh, why not the Dutch flag, why not a feminist flag, why not the Polish flag?“ Because no other country has claimed the territory of the moon, and I was trying to re-enact the original event as closely as possible, not making a statement of any cause, but more like making a historical movie in Hollywood on a DIY budget.
Is there a special reason why you used a Dutch beach?
I didn’t choose the Dutch beach, the beach chose me. I was invited to do a project in Holland, which has a long history of land reclamation, of flood protection; it is basically raising land above the sea level and thus creating new spaces to inhabit. It can be read as a form of local colonization that way. Holland also has some of Europe’s widest beaches and it is a relatively relaxed and politically easy place to make art in. We had a very easy way to get the permissions and so on. And the year I was there, 1999 was the thirtieth anniversary of the moon landing which happened in 1969. So it was really logical to follow my motives. It came from the space, then it came from the history, then it became what it became. Some people were saying it was an imperialist gesture, that I claimed Holland in the name of America, but I have to leave it open to interpretation. When I was up there at the top of the mountain and invited the public to join me, they came up and said, “I’m the first German man on the moon, I’m the first black man on the moon, I’m the first gay man on the moon.” So if people have an agency and their own motive, they could immediately take it and it was there for them to take full advantage of the situation. I gave them the opportunity, but it was up to them. Somebody could come up with me to put up the German flag. I didn’t stop anybody. There were children up there dancing with me who I didn’t direct; they were carried away by excitement. So everything was possible, anything could happen. I didn’t dictate other people’s reaction or behaviour and we where on earth in a public open space, so everybody had a free access and a chance to exit. The physical experience of the moon was exclusively reserved for 12 white men, you would not be able to be there or to make a comment. But you could come to this beach in Holland and make a comment if you wanted. Some people did that. They took their own citizenship as an art public responsibly and activated it.
Do you believe the first moon landing actually happened?
I do, but I am very aware of the conspiracy theories around it and I first showed the film in the US it was in the context of conspiracy theory, which is but an angle of the work. But you know I sent my tape to Neil Armstrong and he replied in an email very positively. So I know that Neil Armstrong exists and I don’t think he’s lying. I do believe he was there and that it happened.
Harald Starzer: You talked about precarious situations. Do you think a precarious lifestyle is an advantage for an artist? You also mentioned Damien Hirst’s shark in your talk. He is an artist who is in a more comfortable situation than most others. Or do you think it’s an inspiration for you to live out of the suitcase?
Would you prefer to be settled and I don’t know...
I would prefer to be really rich and settled and live in a castle and have a huge workshop and many assistants and administrators and people working with me, a farm with animals and a huge garden with fresh exotic fruit, monkeys in the backyard, breakfast in bed every morning, and fly around the world first class.
Do you think you would be different then?
If I would be different? Of course I would be different.
And your work?
Yeah, I think, probably… I don’t think struggle benefits an artist, though. I think it’s very hard to have a life as an artist, and if there is any support out there I celebrate it. I don’t believe that you have to suffer to make good art like some people say that you have to have really difficult economic circumstances to make art. I think it’s important to have some basic support and basic needs taken care of before you have the luxury to be a thinker and I think pretty much everybody in the western world who goes to art school today has this security, even if many students have to take jobs or loans on the side, the chance to an education is there. So it’s not really a question for someone like you, or me, you know. But I also think that up to a certain age you have to prove that you want to take risks. Otherwise I don’t think you can contribute anything to this field. It can be economical risks, but it can be all other kinds of risks. I think you have to prove your commitment to something like art. So like in a relationship you have to live through some difficulties, right? Otherwise you have not really proven your commitment. So, I think that’s important. It doesn’t mean I believe in artists struggling and suffering for long extended periods of time, because fragile human beings some day break, and we have many examples of people who go crazy, or get sick or die prematurely because of that pressure. After their deaths they are then celebrated for their genius. It’s not fame I am looking for either. I simply want to be able to work.
For centuries it was normal that artists become famous only after their deaths. It’s a rather new development that artists can get famous when they are still alive.
Yeah, of course. Well, I can only speak for myself and for my friends. I am always hoping that my friends are somehow being looked after, because I would like them to be working in health and for a very long time and at least with an average degree of happiness without too much sacrifice or trauma. I think the people I am surrounded by have proven they are very committed and I take a lot of strength from my peers in that. But there are such individual stories. Each one has a different background, a different psychological make-up, and a different capacity to function. Some people function better under pressure, some people function less. Some people drop out or break, if they cannot finance there basic needs. Some people come up with masterpieces. It really is different with everybody. I notice that it get’s harder with age, to live a renegade lifestyle when you get older. Because you... It’s not just about comfort; it’s also about habits I think. It get’s harder to break up from established habits and routines and you want to go and come home to the same place eventually. When you are younger you are not so bothered by travelling light and relationships changing all the time. That’s just an observation I made, because I am over forty now. But I am living the opposite of what I am telling you. So I don’t know.