A converation between Alicia Frankovich and Ellen Blumenstein

EB: Alicia, you work mostly as a performer, although you did your B.A. in sculpture. The connection is not very difficult to establish, but still, I perceive the relation between objects and/or sculptural elements and your interventions one of the crucial concerns in your work. Maybe we could start with the 16mm film where you smash a watermelon to pieces. There is this heavy vegetable that probably weighs five kilograms or more. A static camera films you in your studio lifting the melon over your head and destroying it successively by smashing it onto a simple white office table again and again. The action ends when there is nothing left to destruct. What I found very intense watching the film was, of course, the physical labour involved and your exhaustion that became visible quite early on. Even more, though, I was struck by the shift in my perception once the action started. In the course of watching, my attention pretty quickly shifted from your physical exercise to the violence of the act of destruction. While the melon was still intact, my associations to it were very neutral, ranging from its weight, to its taste, etc. As soon as the first splits in the watermelon skin appeared, however, I was reminded of human flesh which was bursting from the inside. From that moment on, a cruel flavour adhered to your operation and the relation between you and the melon came to the fore. Although it was just an inanimate object, I involuntarily squinched up my face – and was totally aware of it at the same time. I then contemplated the mechanism, which made me load the situation emotionally. I somehow suspect that it might not be possible to create an artistic situation and relate to it as a viewer without experiencing it sensually. As if only through an affect I can establish a connection to what I watch there and take a position towards it. Would you agree? Did you hear of other people’s experiences when watching the piece? Was any of that intended? Was there a set-up or frame for you in the beginning with which you wanted to explore a specific question or thesis?

AF: Yes I wanted an analysis of the body in 3 parts. The first, the physical likeness of the watermelon to the body, then the desire one might have to consume the melon as well as to enjoy looking at it, and thirdly I was interested in my body’s impact on the melon. I wanted the obliterated fruit to overpower the walls in a stunning way. There is a repulsion and a desire to look. It is as hard for me as the average viewer. The work is new so I haven’t shown it yet, though I have shown some curators and friends. One curator said it made her think of Martha Rosler, I am presuming the Semiotics of the Kitchen. Some find it more offensive than others some transposed by the negation of the object and others reading it in a lighter or more humorous way questioning what negativity might even be. Slapstick has been mentioned. But like you say it is intense and hard to not react physically. The effort taken to destroy such an object is one that people have remarked on. I didn’t really think that it would be so visually shocking, but I wanted to remain transparent about how the watermelon came to that state in the series of frames of the analyses of the destroyed state of the melon on the table, walls and floor. The work is very much tied to the domestic, and the body and watermelon are in stark contrast to the rigidity of the architecture in which the action takes place, both in the structure of the room and with the table as an object. These geometries are then also reiterated within the rectangle of the cinematic lens itself. The watermelon was 11 kilos and full of juice, which flooded the floorboards and walls.

I would also say that the idea of me being a performer is changing every day. I am working a lot with film now and other surrogates for my body including dancers, actors and moving objects.

EB: The situation becomes more complex when you start merging the positions and roles within the well-defined space of ‘exhibiting’. Today, we are used to at least distinguishing the artist, the curator, the artwork, and the space/institution. For your solo exhibition at Artspace in Auckland (2009), you staged a performance in which you merged the artist and the artwork: you were not only performer who performed an action, which could then – through your enactment – be the artwork. But you and the action were the same; ‘The artist as an artwork.’ You didn’t masturbate like Vito Acconci did in his time, you didn’t have to appear naked (very popular among the feminists), you didn’t dance or cover yourself with meat. You were the object which was brought into the exhibition space at the opening by friends and handed over to the audience. Again, I would suggest that the important issue here is the relations and social conventions in the art world. Could you first tell me a bit both about the performance itself and its realisation, please? And then maybe comment on my observations and to which extent you would agree or disagree?

AF: Well, I presented myself to the audience as what I called a ‘sculptural problem.’ I arrived at the opening in a taxi to a full capacity crowd of Artspace opening goers and as you said was handed over to them by friends. I thought of the piece as in a way being devoid of ‘work’. You only had the components of the gallery, the space itself, the audience, the curator and very literally, the body of the artist. I certainly played ‘myself’ or perhaps one of my sculptures as opposed to undertaking representational actions. You are right it was a kind of revolt of the conventions of an opening, or of the expectations of an ‘exhibition’. One person remarked that it was amusing in the sense of the behavioural idea of how the artist might need to interact with the audience at the opening. Another said that it was like sculpture that gave something back. Labour was an issue -with spectators questioning the social (and artistic) responsibility that they were faced with. At the same time this became empowering for people, and we were all in it together. The pieta – the mother and child became a relevant comparison, as well as the formal ceremony of the wedding or funeral, as well as of course the art opening, and the rock concert. People proceeded to carry me around and around the gallery somewhat in the manner of a stirred cauldron, until I asked them after 40 minutes to take me out the back. I received a text afterwards from an artist friend saying ‘Hey thanks for that.’ Another man looked at me at a bar and said ‘Congratulations,’ which is perhaps a ridiculous response.

EB: I would like to stay with this exhibition and project for a bit longer. You filmed the whole action and later asked different people to ‘present’ the video on monitors in the exhibition space: they were sitting on chairs and holding the monitors on their lap for a couple of hours. I don’t remember exactly if it was people from the audience or volunteers – in any case, it was again the body in relation to the space (and the art) which was under observation here, just on a different level. The artist as a subject (you) disappears in favour of or is replaced by the artwork. Again, though, you introduce a living body to the situation and by that interrupt the convention of the visitor being alone and ‘un-observed’ with the artwork in an exhibition space. I would say that you suspend this convention to focus the space and the modes of presentation. To bother the comparison to performance in the 1960s again, I’d say that you don’t only interrupt the perception of this space and the relation between artwork and space, but you rather study the social relations of it. It is the audience itself that is addressed, and people have to respond or behave somehow. During the opening, members of the audience had to hold or carry you, or take the risk of dropping you on the floor – which I believed didn’t happen, did it? Later, the visitors had to deal with an individual on a chair if s/he wanted to see the video work. I am not quite sure if I got hold of possible differences in your approach and historic performance in a productive way, however. Help me: is it useful for yourself to relate your work to other performative practices? Do you see yourself in any genealogy – are there any role models?

AF: After the performance of ‘presenting’ the sculptural problem, I produced an expanded form of this work. I wanted to retain the idea of being presented or confronted with a real human being, something like the experience of holding the body. I guess if you are using live bodies you have to look from the sixties onwards. I have tried to look at a lot of people. Bruce Nauman, and of course the works and especially the power dynamics used by Marina Abramovic, Valie Export and others and to look into the idea of sustaining live pieces then Tino Sehgal must be the most seminal figure, though there are other examples that come to mind Pawel Althamer, and even Piero Manzoni’s live sculptures (which he even signed). Then also to attitudes in taking over space, perhaps along the lines of Martin Creed. Then also I have also very much been influenced by the New Zealand artist Julian Dashper. But I don’t think there are any direct genealogies, I try to look at everyone. I would not only point to art in terms of the lineage in my work, but also to sport. Though I don’t like to focus too much attention on my childhood training as a gymnast, I can say that there is a strong language, a vocabulary that I learned in relation to my body performing on or dealing with the apparatus as a stable structure in which to work with and to release from.

EB: In two other projects, you thematise another social relation: That between the artist and the curator, or gallerist. For your show at Artspace, you made a performance with Emma Bugden, the director of the institution, who had to pull you up on a block and tackle you until you both were physically entirely exhausted. For a performance at an Italian gallery Le Case d’Arte you constructed a bike with two sets of pedals and put it on the floor. The gallerist Pasquale Leccese and you were pedalling ‘against’ each other till the bike broke and you couldn’t continue. Could you tell me about what your ideas were beforehand, and describe these actions from your experience again? Was there a sense of intimacy between you and your ‘opponent’ in the action that built up or became visible? How did the audience react? Was it difficult for anyone to witness this? Did anyone feel embarrassed, or tense? I imagine I might have felt a bit like an intruder...

AF: The piece with curator Emma Bugden A Plane for Behavers – Performance One (2009), marked the beginning of the project, one week before the opening of the ‘exhibition’. I was thinking of all the components of an exhibition experience. The entry of the gallery, the stairs, the door, the gallery space itself, the audience, the artist and the curator. I wanted to put a strain on or in a way highlight these conventional relations that we are familiar with accepting. The piece was a one hour duration in which we invited visitors to ‘drop by’ any time between 3.00pm and 4.00pm. The viewers were stopped at the door by gallery staff and told to wait 5 minutes for admission. Emma, then seen holding the end of a piece of rope, opened the door and asked the viewer if they were here to see Alicia Frankovich’s piece. On the other end of the rope was my harnessed body, which was suspended in the middle of the gallery attached by a block and tackle drilled into a cavity in the ceiling. Emma became increasingly more exhausted as the hour progressed with some 12 suspensions. Some criticised the level of pressure put on the curator, but my own part was equally as taxing though in a different way and perhaps less visibly; the harness pulled on my arteries and cut of some blood flow making me week and light-headed. In the 5-minute intervals between lifts, Emma and I drank plastic cups full of water together in silence in the middle of the room, delivered by gallery staff while the audience watched. The audience came in and out of the room, and many sat around the periphery of the white cube, with us in the middle. Once, inside, they were privy to the lifting of my body and saw the reactions of the new visitors upon entry. Nobody could leave until Emma began a new lift, opening the door letting people in and out.

Regarding SEMPRE MENO, SEMPRE PEGGIO, SEMPRE PIÙ (2008) – the bike piece – I really conceptualise from the conception of the title itself, which means less and less worse and worse, more and more. I was using this idea in connection with the destruction of the art object – foremost there is a kind of Duchamp reference with the bike, as well as a critique of the power relations between the gallerist and the artist (similar ideas-wise to the pieces I have made with curators like A Plane for Behavers – Performance One and Lungeing Chambon (2009) with the curator Hannah Mathews). I mean with SEMPRE MENO... it was a nice atmosphere and I love Milan. So I suppose there was already a certain level of trust on my part. The floor was of course traditional Milanese marble and the bike made some quite chaotic sounds when the frame kept hitting the tiles. The people gathered around and even sang, and at times cheered to build more momentum in the mode of a theatre. At the time it didn’t feel like an intimate situation, but more like a sports competition or battle of some sort. It felt like a happening. Some people viewed from the window outside. It was the kind of piece where you could ‘get it’ from staying a brief amount of time or you could hang out in the space and see the entire duration which built to a kind of crescendo. Pasqulae definitely has a certain sensibility, the right attitude to undertake such a piece. He was able to understand the power relations / dynamic and the argument / negotiation that was taking place. But as we were on a different register (on the ground) from the standing audience, it was easier for us to avoid the audience in some way. I liked to think of it as a kind of dialogue, a conversation, placing pressure even on the other party (the gallerist)... I think perhaps the video looks more intense than the piece itself for the witnesses, as the camera looks directly down onto the floor at the 2 bodies. But then again I might be wrong. To me, collectively thinking about the performances that I have undertaken, though I think the idea of the artist using their body is a very interesting one, I can see a sense of vulnerability especially with the young woman’s body that can be somehow diverted when replaced by other performing bodies, and that is something that I am working on more now. Though I think when using video and film I remain a strong participant in the work, and my presence is still very much felt.

EB: Both the remark on your background in sports and something you said earlier on about the exhibition situation, “we were all in it together,” remind me of my own experiences in team sport. I played basketball throughout my teenage years, and we all took it very seriously; basketball was an important reference for my social interaction at that time. There is a sense of intimacy and trust that is generated through joint physical effort on the level of mere sensual experience. But the bodily sensation which you experience is through the mind as well. I would agree with the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty who claims that corporeity is the site of perception, that which binds the body and the mind, and is a necessary prerequisite for an intellectual experience – or thought – too. With regard to the performances where you are physically in the space, I perceive your corporeal presence as the essential factor that enables a collective experience going beyond an intellectual recognition. This goes specifically for you presenting yourself as ‘a sculptural problem’, but I think it works both in the case of cycling against the gallerist, and destroying a watermelon, too, just on different levels. Both times, you lay out a plane – to reference your exhibition title “A Plane for Behavers” – on which a physical effort is undertaken to pursue a cognitive interest. I also find the term ‘behavers’ in the title quite useful, because it addresses you and the curator as performer, but suggests the audience as active members in the situation as well. Not only does everybody ‘react’ in one way or the other but each one has to ‘behave’ – which is a much more direct and active verb than the former. I would even argue that the mechanism stays the same when you replace your own person by someone else’s body as you suggested is happening more in your current and upcoming projects.

AB: I find your reference to Merleau-Ponty provides an illuminating way of thinking about this work. In my work, I am aware of my body as not only something to be perceived in, say, the mode of a sculpture, but also as a body which is perceiving. This is the underlying interest for me in using the (at times live) active body; there is a constant exchange between the participant (the viewer) and the participant (the work). The audience doesn’t have time to cognitively think about their reactions or response, they aren’t viewing as detached from their physical engagement with the work. I am encouraging the breaking down of the gap between the work and the affect on the body, how they can experience or perceive it. The aesthetic experience is influencing their body rather than a mental decision. The planes that you mention are like measurements that the body can use as a reference point - things that we interact with and compare ourselves to. I am thinking about a work where I introduce a small group of moshers into an audience who is set up for another art encounter. So the moshers arrive unannounced, like I did in Auckland in the taxi. The bodies charge throughout the space like robbers undertaking their movements, and the audience are forced to situate themselves somehow amongst it.
EB: A second aspect in Merleau-Ponty’s work I find productive is the relation he establishes between corporeity and space. As opposed to the convention of perceiving the body as a part of the space, he conceptualises space as a consequence of our original corporeal anchorage in the world. Again, space is not an intellectual concept here, but is fundamentally rooted in the body and the sensual. In an upcoming project for the theatrical context of HAU 3 (Hebbel Theatre) here in Berlin, you play with the annulations of our movement and behaviour in space. Does that deal with or refer to the body–space relation I described above?
AF: In Auckland the audience carried me around and around in loops, and at the HAU3 I seek to envelop the audience and participants into one group; in Genet Piece, the dancer loops the room and arrives back near the beginning again, and in Body and Melon, I circle the table as if to cover all ground. You are right that these circular loops are preoccupations of mine, where I make bodies carry out motions based on and reiterated by other loops, such as those used in machines and film, the idea time and cycles of time, then to dance movements and twists and perhaps extending to connect with life cycles and habitual routines. I am interested in the physical and psychological connection/ control that architecture and space has on our subjectivity, our perception. My piece at the HAU will have an orchestra inverted lying horizontally, spread out on the stage playing instruments with the physical interruption of the floor restraining full movement. I might say that if the audience sees an orchestra lying down on the stage, they might then have to consider how they are sitting normally on their seats. Where the musicians play the instruments on top of their bodies, the altered physical state of the musician might make one see the body as a real active body of flesh and blood, as opposed to merely a musician who plays as normal. The function of these bodies as playing music becomes secondary to their live ‘being’. I was at the theatre last night and I felt that for my piece to work well, the audience would have to be on a similar or the same level to the performers, so that it can be more personal, and the connection can be almost one on one. I want to rope off most of the audience seats except for the first row on ground level and from that row I will place chairs around the stage like a kind of arena so people can be roughly on the same level as the performers, and the connection between the subjects and objects will be clear. It will either work like this or a medley of chairs mingled amongst the performers on stage. I like the speed with which a physical and spatial overhaul - even of a most subtle gesture - can throw a viewer into a certain realm in which they can behave outside of convention - for some moments in a parallel state within the exhibition or stage context. There are such underlying formalities and social codes that we adhere to; to change or invert them, I hope, is to allow a site for questioning; to change our modes of perceiving and being perceived. The stage is comparable to a world stage, as is the behaviour on or within it.

EB: Another thing I am curious about is the role of the camera in your work. You already mentioned the effect of increased intensity of the bicycle performance through the lens and focus of the camera. With the watermelon piece, there is no previous live performance that would be documented and made into a video piece – but it is conceived as a 16mm film. The camera is assigned the position of the mute witness; no interaction is needed or intended. The corporeal experience of the viewer is very strong again, but s/he can’t ‘behave’ towards it, just avert his/her eyes. When you say that you are interested in working more with film and video, and one of your recent productions was the transfer of still images into motion via the movement of a dancer in front of a camera, what purpose does the camera serve you? What role does control play?

AF: I play with an oscillation between different styles. You could separate the work in terms of an analytical post-mortem style use of the camera, bird’s eye view in the case of SEMPRE MENO... to a more partial use, which appears to come from the perspective of a bystander. The camera can be a silent witness, but recently I have been exploring a more cinematic technique. I’ve just finished shooting a new film with a male dancer in a domestic room/studio like space. The camera has a crisp sense of clarity and focus and then a sense of loss of focus. Then, there are mid shots of the dancers sense movement, then close ups of his moving ‘body’. It almost has the quality of documentary exploration- the camera quite literally undertaking a study of his body. The lens comes very close to Martin’s (the dancer’s) subjectivity. While he executes a series of rehearsed movements you are tied to his sensations through his face, and his consciousness. Similarly, in a work I made recently called Genet Piece (2010), where I ask a male actor to do a dance taken from a scene from Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950). The dance is rather banal yet is a fantasy. You can feel my direction and control over the actor’s male body. I left some of my spoken instructions to the actor in the audio track, giving the camera technique and a sense of amateurism and rendering the machine of the camera more fallible. There are also sounds from the movements on the floorboards that enter into the film, thus allowing us to come closer to the body of the actor, sensing that we are close to him, that we are private witnesses. In these ways, I try to remain a powerful bodily participant even when behind the lens.