Angelica Mesiti and I meet in a café blaring thumping music, which at times makes it difficult to hear. We eat identical toasted sandwiches. Less than two minutes away, at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Mesiti’s affecting multi- channel video work, The Colour of Saying, is playing across three custom-designed screens in relative silence. It is a mostly-quiet study in community, memory and gestural languages, punctuated only by the clapping of hands on one screen, and the rustle of a signing, high-school aged choir on another.
Mesiti lives and works in Paris. The following conversation, an edit of a much longer, one-hour dialogue, sees the artist discuss this significant commission in more detail and explain her shift in practice from the contemptuous to the sincere.
LAURA BANNISTER Can we talk about the origins of your video practice? You studied fine arts at COFA (now UNSW Arts & Design). Were you experimenting with film at university?
ANGELICA MESITI I studied time-based art at art school, which [covered] experimental film, performance, multimedia and video. At the time it was a major. Your options were photography, sculpture, painting or time-based art. We worked a lot with 16mm film and 8mm film, and with analogue video. I did a lot of sound projects and started collaborating with friends on performance projects. I became involved with The Kingpins (an all- female performance collaborative which emerged out of Sydney’s drag scene) for 10 years. It was very consuming, and I didn’t make a lot of solo work in that period. I was working part time, teaching editing and working as a freelance editor. Eventually I got work as an assistant to film editors for TV, short films and feature films.
A turning point was when I assisted on the short film Nana (2007) by Warwick Thornton, who directed Samson and Delilah (2009). He was doing it as a study, leading up to the big film. Through that, I became more involved in the world of feature filmmaking. I saw how that world operated, the language of editing and of storytelling through images with a modern, narrative approach. I’d come from such an experimental contemporary art background and I wanted to try my hand at something more cinematic. At the same time, [I knew] I wasn’t a storyteller.
BANNISTER But you’re not really constructing stories, are you? You’re reframing activities that already exist.
MESITI [My work] sits somewhere between documentary and something more constructed.
BANNISTER I don’t think there’d be many Australian galleries where you could have this much space for your works. It feels cinematic. They have room to breathe.
MESITI Anna Schwartz and I have been working together for three years. We’d been talking about the show for a while, and it was meant to happen a lot earlier, but it kept getting pushed back because of [various] commitments. I knew I wanted to take the projections off the walls— turn them into large, freestanding screens—and make it a sculptural experience, so the viewer could roam around them. The setup really came from the content of the work. In The Colour of Saying, the performers are situated in a white architectural space. And as viewers, we’re in the white cube of the gallery. I wanted to encourage a relationship between the viewer’s physical experience and what they observed on screen.
BANNISTER I wouldn’t call it ‘interactive,’ but your audience has the ability to move behind and around the work. They can see the contours of their bodies on the back of the screens.
MESITI It wasn’t exactly an intended outcome, but we knew that that would happen because of where the projectors are positioned. I was really excited the first time I saw people inside the space, as the only illumination comes from the screens. When you see people against the screen, they appear like a silhouette. I like that their scale is quite similar to the scale of the figures onscreen.
BANNISTER Have you been able to observe many people coming through the gallery?
MESITI Occasionally, when I pop in. I’ve seen a few people and I’ve just kind of spied! [laughs] But it’s been nice to see how they choose to navigate around the work.
BANNISTER What about group shows, where you occupy less space? Is that a weird thing to do—to survey audiences looking at your films or moving right past them? I’m thinking of the big biennales you’ve done in Istanbul [Mom, am I Barbarian? 13th Istanbul Biennal] and the United Arab Emirates [Sharjah Biennale 11] or even at The Jewish Museum in New York [Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video, 2014].
MESITI No, not at all! I like seeing how people connect. Often, in the development stages, I’ll design the layout of a show to prompt a certain type of engagement. In this show [at Anna Schwartz] for instance, I arranged the live screens at a certain distance and angle, so you can’t see every screen properly from one fixed position. You have to move around.
BANNISTER You’re not trying to manipulate the viewer’s response, but through the interior architecture of the gallery, you’re setting parameters for how they’ll engage with it.
MESITI Yeah. You can put certain things in place to direct experience, but it doesn’t always work how you hope.
BANNISTER In this three-channel video installation, The Colour of Saying, the Swedish students are signing Serenade to Music, and the edits are visible. There are fade-outs. We realise something is set up— the white space and framing give that away too—but it’s otherwise fairly discreet.
MESITI I want my involvement to be as invisible as possible. Editing is where you obviously construct a ‘story’ in a lot of ways. What I can do as an artist, and not someone in feature films or television, is allow the pace of things to be completely different. We can move slowly. Linger on images or moments for a lot longer, because that temporal aspect, that timeframe, allows for it. I edit in a very conventional way, using a similar editing language to that of movies or TV. Audiences are accustomed to it. They’ve internalised it already, before they’ve seen my work.
BANNISTER You’re adopting those commercial conventions deliberately.
MESITI Yes, it’s deliberate. I don’t want you to be aware of the editing and I don’t want you to be thinking about the cinematography. I want you to think about what you’re seeing onscreen. Maybe it’s unusual for contemporary video art to mimic existing conventions and formats, but I think it’s becoming less and less unusual. The boundary between cinema and video art is a porous one: both filmmakers and artists are increasingly adopting techniques from the other discipline.
BANNISTER On another screen, there’s a rendition of Swan Lake [with two seated dancers listening to Tchaikovsky’s score via headphones and performing with their hands]. How did you meet Rolf and Jette, the two people you filmed?
MESITI I developed this work through a project I did with the Lilith Performance Studio in Malmö, Sweden. They invite artists there to develop and produce live works. We were in contact and I sent a proposal for this work I wanted to make. They set about finding the kind of participants I needed. Rolf is 84 and German. He has lived in Sweden most of his life. Jette is Danish. It took a little while [for them to understand the purpose of the filming] … We talked a lot about how a dancer’s ‘body memory,’ what choreographies are held by their muscle memory. It’s another kind of knowledge that I find very interesting. I was also interested in working with dancers who no longer had the physical capacity to perform this choreography, but were able to perform it in another way. These older dancers had both performed Swan Lake on stage. It was another way for them to relive these experiences with the bodies they have.
BANNISTER You talk about being more experimental with your earlier works. What do you mean by that?
MESITI It was a lot of long takes and shaky hand-held camera work—much more of a ‘video’ aesthetic. That was driven by the technology as well. We were embracing small digital video cameras that had just become available on the market, and Apple had just released Final Cut Pro. There was a period, around 2000, where there was this real sense of video being a democratised medium. When a transition like that is happening, like in any moment of change, there’s a period where you try to find everything this technology can do, and what its limitations are. [But] I got to a point where the experimentation was almost the content itself. I wanted to go beyond the formal aspects of the work into focusing on its contents. What was on the screen, not how it was screened.
BANNISTER There’s an old Scanlines interview with you from 2011, where you’re sharing early influences with interviewer John Gillies. You make a point about reality TV in the 90s and 2000s—or even the faux documentary—as a real driving aesthetic, with its contrived urgency borrowed from news reportage. Can you give me more on an insight into your thinking at the time?
MESITI You have really different concerns as an artist when you’re fresh out of art school to when you’re in your mid-30s and you’ve done a lot more work. I had 10 years working with The Kingpins and we’d produced a lot of work, a lot of work in a certain way. I got to a point where I wanted to make something emotional. I was really, really scared of doing that—it was so far away from what we’d been doing and what I was seeing being produced by my peers, but at the same time, I felt unaffected by the way I’d been working … I got tired of everything being so … sardonic or distanced. It felt empty after a while. Maybe I matured or got tired of [being] cynical.
BANNISTER Which is funny, because you’d assume it would work the opposite way. You become more cynical as you get older.
MESITI Maybe that’s still going to happen again! [laughs] There were formal differences too. The work I’d been making previously was on handheld Prosumer model cameras. It was fixed lens, very flat images, with everything in the frame exposed … [I moved to techniques] that would create more depth of field, focusing on one element while the others fell away. For the first time I looked to explore beauty, something I’d been working against for so long. We’d been exploring the grotesque.
BANNISTER It’s a surface-level reading, but does this exhibition point to the limitations of verbal languages?
MESITI Not being an academic or a writer, the spoken and written word is not really my domain. I’m a visual artist, and I learn things about the world mainly through visual observations. Verbal communication can be limited. We speak with our body in a much more instinctive and perhaps effective way.
BANNISTER You know, there’s an essay on Artforum’s digital archive on Pasolini … It reminds you that his turn from literature to cinema was motivated by a desire to use a nonverbal language that had a more direct connection to the world he wanted to describe. It also enabled him to reach a transnational audience. Can you empathise with that?
MESITI Absolutely. I deliberately don’t work with spoken language, instead using music and gestural methods, because I don’t want to exclude anyone. Whatever language you speak, you will be able to engage on some level.
BANNISTER You’ve lived in Paris for many years now. How does the city impact your practice?
MESITI I don’t think it’s the city itself, but the clusters and neighbourhoods of people. It’s a much denser city. You have many people living in close proximity, a lot of diversity in small spaces. That creates a complex social setting.
BANNISTER Is routine important to you? You mentioned, before our interview, that you have a big apartment in the 10th arrondissement.
MESITI I work at home. My husband [a photographer] has a studio, but everything for me is really confined to a laptop and headphones. It’s not very glamorous at all! I spend a lot of time researching online, at the library, watching things. And a lot of time in correspondence.