Cross-Pollinating Environments: An Interview with Alexandra Pirici

Becoming Other
Lynn Margulis

The practice of the Romanian performer, choreographer, and artist Alexandra Pirici deals with interconnections and association on different levels. In her performances, objects, sculptures, and technologies are translated into bodies; gestures and shapes oscillate between the human and non-human. Earlier work referred to works by other artists. “An immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale” for example, which she created in collaboration with Manuel Pelmus for the Romanian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013, was a danced re-enactment of Joseph Beuys’ “Strassenbahnhaltestelle. A Monument to the Future.” In 2014, in the Swiss city of Biel, she had a chain of people recreate “Tilted Arc,” the steel sculpture of the same name by Richard Serra, which had been removed from the Federal Plaza in New York. Her more recent work is not only looking for connections and adjustments with new technologies, such as the algorithms of search engines and holograms; rather, Pirici continues to explore landscapes as the interface between culture and nature, looking for entanglements and alliances with ecologies and environments of non-human origin. In 2020 she produced “Future Ground: a movement-lecture on nurturing different sensibilities and collaborations with land” for the Center for Art and Media ZKM Karlsruhe, a POV-video she shot and narrated while walking through a forest near Bucharest. For V/A, Edith Arnold spoke to Pirici about the artist’s quest for these new forms of experiencing, knowing and becoming, and the relations they might be able to establish – at the beginning of our current thematic focus “Alliance.”

Interview by Edith Arnold
Images Provided by the Artist

EDITH ARNOLD (EA) Embodiment is an important concept in your performance. Animals, plants, Monet paintings, historical sculptures, even the Google search engine are embodied. What does embodying Alexandra Pirici entail?

ALEXANDRA PIRICI (AP) I experience things in my own subjective way, of course. I guess everything feels very ambiguous at the moment. I enjoy being part of the art world. There is joy and reward in that, and there are interesting and meaningful encounters. But I’m also frustrated with it, and I am appalled by its overall shortcomings. It is a small mirror of the world at large and reflects the same unjust economic dynamics and the same toxic politics.

Alexandra Pirici – Aggregate, Art Basel 2019. Photo by Andrei Dinu.

EA What perspective on this world do you gain from living in Bucharest?

AP It’s my hometown, and for a long time I thought living here – while working internationally – kept me grounded in a more complex reality. A reality that is more connected to the struggles and everyday life of different groups of people, communities, and the Eastern-European assemblages we still call “countries” or “nation-states.” I also still have family and friends here, but I must say I have a very difficult relationship with the city, altogether, and I keep thinking of leaving.

I definitely think we need to establish alliances beyond the human world.

EA What other relationships are important in your professional life? Who would you consider to be an ally?

AP I have a strong relationship and partnership with set- and costume-designer Andrei Dinu – we are a bit like a symbiotic organism. I also feel very close to other people in the art world: I have a very meaningful friendship and artistic exchange with Raluca Voinea, who was the curator of the Romanian Pavilion in Venice in 2013. There are other independent female curators like Britta Peters, the Artistic Director of Urbane Künste Ruhr, Joanna Warsza and Cecilia Alemani, and also many male-identifying friends or professional collaborators, of course. I also try to develop strong relationships and alliances with a lot of the performers I collaborate with. But I definitely think we need to establish alliances beyond the human world.

EA What do you mean by that?

AP Although we need to re-learn how to think of ourselves as a society, it is also important to relate differently to other animals and plants, to think very seriously about how we can continue to live together and how we depend on much more than the human world. We can all agree that we are in a very difficult moment: the global situation is dire, not only because of the pandemic but also because of the climate breakdown and obscene inequality. Even a few decades earlier one might have had a different horizon. Now we are – or at least I hope that most people are – very much aware of the lack of a better future. We know that everything will get worse and we seem to be unable to change fast and radical enough. At the same time, one needs something to hold on to and to find joy in. For me, art is one of those things. But “art” is a quite abstract and elusive concept and its world is a complicated world.

EA Could art be part of a solution for all these challenges we face today?

AP I see art as pointing to possibilities for doing things differently. I think it helps us to become sensitive to the world, to refine our sensitivity to pleasure as well as our and our concepts of “beauty” and “value.” It can also help our imagination – although I think we hear a lot about the necessity to imagine another world and, on a certain level, this imagination already exists. We know how things should look like and what should be done, to a certain extent. Most of us just don’t have the resources, the autonomy, or the political and economic power to make that change. We know that monocultures and industrial agriculture are not sustainable, but it’s very difficult to change that individually and produce food differently on a larger scale.

Alexandra Pirici – Tilted Arc. Photo: Le Mouvement, Biel/Bienne.

EA What can we do as individuals then? There is this image of you on instagram planting a seed while performing a tai chi move.

AP I think it’s important to bring and think together the symbolic and the concrete. In a sense, that image and that gesture were a symbolic representation of that conviction. Beyond the artistic-symbolic work addressing our relationship with non-humans, I think we also need concrete knowledge, which is not to say that the work is not also very material and concrete: the knowledge of how seeds work and become plants, how they collaborate with air, water, and other beings. Nowadays a lot of people have no idea where a tomato comes from and how it was grown. We have been increasingly alienated from that which nurtures and sustains us, and we came to have this really abstract relationship with many things around us. So we need to relearn how to place seeds in the ground as much as we need another kind of culture.

For a very long time the neo-Darwinist and erroneous concept of evolution that is all about competition and survival of the fittest was artificially projected onto the human world, producing the worst outcomes.

EA In a recent discussion you mentioned the work of Lynn Margulis, the American Biologist and “scientific rebel”…

AP She isn’t really a “scientific rebel,” she’s a decorated scientist. Her work has received proper recognition within the scientific community for a number of years, but, indeed, she would need more attention beyond those circles, considering how important her work is for rethinking our understanding of nature and evolution, and therefore for rebuilding our societies on that basis. For a very long time the neo-Darwinist and erroneous concept of evolution that is all about competition and survival of the fittest was artificially projected onto the human world, producing the worst outcomes. It was a perfect fit for the fiction of a homo economicus, the idea that all of us have only our own selfish and “individual” interest in mind, and that we’re out here to simply maximize profits and minimize investments. Lynn Margulis’s “Serial endosymbiotic Theory” (SET), which is now widely accepted by her peers, basically introduced us to the reality that a large part of evolution happened through symbiosis, that is, the coming together and living together of multiple organisms, merging to become “one.”

EA How has her theory influenced your own work?

AP Of course, my work is inspired by many things, but in relation to Lynn Margulis and symbiogenesis, I can say that I was already interested in multiplicity and porosity when it comes to bodies and identities, so her work was a great discovery. And there is also a sense of strangeness, of the queerness of nature that she manages to convey so well: such an enormous diversity that some humans have been reducing to fit their fictional, simple categories. To some extent, this sense of “becoming other” is what I’ve been trying to cultivate through my practice of embodiment all along.

EA How does this sense of “becoming other” relate to the use of technology in your work? In “Co-Natural” (2018 at New Museum in New York) and “Human Landscape” (2019 at Urbane Künste Ruhr) you had a holographic presence perform next to live performers.

AP Technically it’s not a hologram but a Pepper’s Ghost, a 19th-century technology and illusion. When it’s being used today, mostly to resurrect dead celebrities and extend their “live” performance beyond their biological life, everybody refers to it as a “hologram,” so I also call it that. But the “hologram” is actually a projection on a glass at a 45-degree angle, that enables this ghostly presence to take shape in the room. I am very much interested in working with live performers, but I’m also interested in the very concept of “the body,” where it begins and ends today, and how it is shaped and extended by technology.

Alexandra Pirici – Human Landscape. Photo: Henning Rogge.

EA And what are the spaces, locations, and environments you prefer to work in?

AP Even though I’m still very fond of museums and art institutions, I also enjoy working in non-conventional spaces. I think that we need to make art and culture part of other environments, re-embedding them in actual non-human nature rather than just trying to bring a stylized version of non-human „nature“ into the white cube. I’d love to think more about a re-emergence of “land art,” for example, but on different terms. It is something I’ve already done, I believe, with some projects in the public space, but I’d be interested in pursuing this more. We need to cross-pollinate, to move in between, and start thinking nature and culture together again.

Becoming Other
Lynn Margulis