Angelica Mesiti

A crisp artificial sheen settles on the contours of Angelica Mesiti’s face as she gazes at her laptop screen in a windowless room strewn with cables. As Australia’s representative at the 58th Biennale di Venezia, Mesiti is in the thick of editing her work 'ASSEMBLY', an installation that engages with sound, music, performance, choreography and the moving image to create formal and conceptual dualities of dissonance and harmony, cohesion and dissolution. In Issue 46, the Paris-based artist took some time out to chat to Artist Profile in her temporary studio at the University of NSW just a few months before Venice.

In your Masters dissertation from 2010, you spoke about how you feel most ‘at home’ with the moving image. When did you fall in love with this medium?
Like most things in life, I just fell into it. During my undergraduate study at what was then the College of Fine Arts (now UNSW Art and Design) I connected with time-based media because it encompassed some areas that I already had experience in – the performing arts.

There were so many areas to explore. I experimented a lot with sound-making and performance using 8-mm and 16-mm film and video. I’m not afraid of technology, I adapted really well to analogue and digital editing techniques and the technical side of making. I didn’t necessarily fall in love with the medium as much as I just started to hone a language that carried me forward.

You worked in the film industry for a while?
Yeah, I worked at Metro Screen in Paddington, which was an independent and community-based media organisation. There I developed my technical and craft skills. Then I worked as an assistant on feature films – including an early short film with Warwick Thornton. But I always saw myself as a visual artist more than a filmmaker – I don’t consider myself a storyteller.

As the daughter of two first-generation Australians born to Italian migrant parents, you grew up amid mixed dialogues. Was this plurality of language a formative influence on your exploration of non-linguistic forms of communication?
Only on reflection. These questions are interesting because I tend to only look forward; I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. I guess there are things that are fascinating to me that I continue to be drawn to, and that’s what’s leading my choices in how I’m developing my language.

I grew up in a multi-lingual, multi-generational household. Sometimes I would act as a translator with grandparents and extended family. I didn’t speak Italian very well, and my grandfather didn’t speak English very well, but he was with us while I was growing up until he passed away. So, I realised that there’s a lot of non-verbal communication that goes on when you don’t share a fluent common language. I think that’s a really common experience, particularly first, second or third generation people living between cultures or living with multiple cultures. You develop an extended way of understanding, transmitting and receiving information that doesn’t rely solely on the verbal mode.

I’m interested in how this idea of non-verbal modes of communication filters into the spectrum of sound that pervades your oeuvre, especially in works like The Colour of Saying (2015).
In sound design you talk a lot about dynamic range, which is the spectrum from silence to the loudest point in a score or soundtrack. I’m interested in oral dynamic range. After making The Calling (2013-14) – a moving image work about three communities that use a form of whistle language – I was thinking about language that didn’t allow the verbal.

The Colour of Saying explores this end of the sound spectrum across three parts. As silence is a big component of our aural landscape, immediately I was led towards sign language. Then I looked at gestural methods that only use the hands, such as the choreographic shorthand used by dancers – which I knew from my dance background. I was also thinking about the simplest form of music that can be made using the body, which took me to clapping, and that’s how that third element of The Colour of Saying came about. I was driven by an exploration of the spectrum of sounds that exist around certain aspects of communications or music.

You just mentioned your background in dance. After high school you received a scholarship to study contemporary dance in London at the Laban Centre – did this shape you as an artist?
Before art school, I was on a trajectory towards pursuing a career in dance. But I drifted from that idea after my scholarship.

My dance background gave me training in a lot of ways: an awareness and ability to read music, experience in choreography and an understanding and familiarity around working with music. Being quite attuned to my body also allowed me a confidence to attempt performances in the visual arts.

You were a founding member of the all-female performance group The Kingpins, with whom you worked collaboratively for around eight years (until 2009), and in your solo practice you engage dancers, musicians, cinematographers, producers, sound designers etc. How important is collaboration for you, when creating works that speak of collective experience?
Parts of my practice are highly collaborative; yet other parts are not – I’ve just spent the last fourteen weeks on my own in a windowless room editing!

I’ve always worked in a collaborative way. With dance training I was never alone, and then the Kingpins was a truly collaborative endeavour. I’d also been involved in the artist-run space Imperial Slacks, with other artists who believed strongly in collaboration, community and the pooling of energies and ideas – getting away from what we saw as the old-fashioned idea of a single author. We believed it to be an outmoded way of making art, belonging to an avant-garde that doesn’t exist anymore. I think as a woman, there’s a gendered way to making work that’s very collaborative. The idea of the male artist toiling alone in their atelier is an old-fashioned, romantic idea; I don’t ascribe to that and I’ve never worked that way. I’m interested in exchange. I’m interested in being exposed to people, ideas, cultures and ways of being in the world that are dissimilar to my experience.

I guess the idea of collaboration is important to me because I like making work in a more democratic way.

In the past you’ve referenced the constructed scenarios of the Situationist International. Although you work from ‘real’ events and the live moment, you do indeed construct situations. Tell me about the role intervention plays in your practice.
With any form of documentation, you’re changing it simply by recording it. The idea of an ‘authentic recording’ doesn’t apply.

What I’ve done in certain work is approach an activity or performer or situation by putting it within my own frame. That frame might be the location that we’re watching it unfold in, or it could be contrasting it with other performers or situations that make us draw new meanings out of what we’re seeing. Sometimes I’m asking people to do things familiar to them differently, somewhere foreign to them or in an unusual way. An example of this is in Mother Tongue (2017) – there’s a scene where Rami, an acrobat, does a series of handstands on tables inside a council chamber. That’s highly interventionist.

You’re representing Australia at the 58th Venice Biennale, selected from more than seventy applications received by the Australia Council. How was the application process?
I find the process of writing a proposal really fruitful. It’s an intense phase of research, development and testing ideas, and I enjoy writing and imagining what a work might be. For my Venice proposal, I drew on ideas that I’d been dragging around in my notebooks for some time and hadn’t found the right moment for them. I saw how they could be relevant in this context, so I started to develop them.

Your exhibition for the Australian Pavilion will be a multi-screen installation titled ASSEMBLY. Can you tell me more about it?
I’m exploring ideas that have come up in other works, but in more depth. In my 2012 work Citizens Band, I was interested in this ensemble of musicians that came together from a range of backgrounds, their individual voices creating a new form of music. There’s politics within that. So I’ve taken that as my lead – the idea of a multitude of voices coming together to create a space that can be dissonant, polyphonic, not always harmonious. There are moments of cacophony where it’s a complete wash of noise. These are formal descriptions of the elements of music, but they’re also conceptual, the politics of the work. It’s about multiple identities in place of a single identity.

Is there a more positive overtone here, as opposed to the hostility plaguing today’s politics?
It is definitely an optimistic work. But it’s also realistic – I explore dissonance as well. It’s a very atmospheric installation about the coming together, or the need to assemble, in formal and informal ways.

The human need to assemble?
Yes, but also in the political field. What I’ve tried to do is look at the principles and ideals of democracy through music, metaphor, performance and different voices from different backgrounds, both trained and traditional.

So the installation uses democracy as a prism to look at identity, which is interesting given the moving image is an inherently democratic medium …
Definitely. Back in the Imperial Slacks days, we had a video project called ‘Serial 7s’ where we’d make multiple copies on VHS; we were really attracted to this easily-distributed material. With the moving image, I use conventional editing techniques that are familiar from movies, and I like the fact that I’m engaging with a language that’s globally understood. You don’t need any kind of education to watch movies. I’m not afraid of my work being accessible. I want it to be understood by a broad range of people from many different backgrounds.

Tell me about your experience working with Juliana Engberg, who is curating your Venice exhibition.
It’s been amazing, I’ve loved every second of it. Juliana and I have always had easy conversational relationship. We’ve known each other since 2012 when I was first in a show at ACCA [Australian Centre for Contemporary Art]. We also worked together when Juliana was the director of the Sydney Biennale, and recently I did a project for her when she was based in Denmark. So we’ve developed a strong way of working together.

Juliana has given me absolute freedom to conceive of and construct ASSEMBLY. I spent six to eight months researching and developing the concepts, before moving onto a phase of looking for performers, locations, rehearsals – all of that. And then I have a really long post-production period; about three months. Juliana has been there as a sounding board to help test out ideas, and to give encouragement. I jokingly say, ‘I call up and get a bit of a pep talk from the coach’. It’s been a really nice combination of support and freedom.

You’re back in Sydney to make ASSEMBLY, but you’re usually based in Paris. What’s it been like working in your home country?
Working with French crews is good because I’m exposed to different methods and approaches, but I love making work here in Australia because I have strong relationships with people who I work with, like Bonnie Elliot – the cinematographer who shot ASSEMBLY. It’s really cosy making work with her, more straightforward.

Venice is an amazing opportunity to make a more ambitious work.
I’ve approached it as this once in a lifetime opportunity, but I’m trying not to get overwhelmed or have any expectation. I’ve just tried to be ambitious and challenge myself, thinking about an audience that’s truly international. A great outcome for me would be if the work got the opportunity to be seen again, elsewhere.

You mentioned wanting ASSEMBLY to speak to a broad spectrum of people. How will it engage the audience?
I’m hoping to construct an environment where the audience is asked to participate in the work. It’s not a passive environment – even though it’s moving image, sound and music-based. The architectural arrangement asks the audience to be engaged in a more physical way. Relating to the title, ASSEMBLY, I’m aiming to generate a physical coming together of people in the experience of the work. I’m curious to see how this plays out.

There seems to be a robust sense of humanity in this work, and your practice in general.
Humans are pretty creative when it comes to finding ways to survive, or elements of themselves to survive, and extraordinary things can emerge from that will. That’s really what excites me, when I encounter something like that. Occasionally you encounter something that’s seemingly insignificant, humble or small; something that can be overlooked. But something about it catches your attention – its conviction to exist. It can be very moving, touching, inspiring.

Angelica Mesiti | ASSEMBLY
Australian Pavilion, 58th Biennale di Venezia
11 May to 24 November 2019
Venice, Italy


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