Bodies at work are disciplined bodies, normalised under the structure of various organisational contexts; these are bodies made docile, with prescribed movements and postures that fall within parameters of physical conformity. Placed in confined spaces and reduced to time broken down in standardised, repetitive instalments, the working body follows a ritual of its own, performing the work, while routinely reperforming itself.
Acknowledging dramatic shifts in the contemporary understanding of labour and the body is Romanian artist Alexandra Pirici, whose recent project, Monument to Work, is designed as an act of remembrance, a performative attempt to recontextualise the corporeal disposition of working bodies, in order to rethink the very concept of work and explore existing possibilities for its memorialisation.
Elena Stanciu: Please tell me about the Monument to Work project. What led you to consider working bodies as your subject matter?
Alexandra Pirici: I have a background in choreography and dance, so I mostly make performative works; the body has always been my medium of choice, in relation with other mediums or as part of different technological entanglements. The process started with the invitation of the Public Art Agency in Sweden and curator Lisa Rosendhal to look at the ongoing transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society and its effects on the human subject. Starting with the labouring body on the factory floor and the conveyor belt, I wanted to hint at how this labour is transformed today, when we speak of immaterial production, and how it could transform in the future.
The intention was to commemorate the working body, to make an immaterial archive of these movements, but also, to distort them, to transform the hard and repetitive movements of the Taylorist factory into a slower-paced, meditative, pleasurable flow, with different dynamics; a group that spreads to include others and comes back to itself, and which can function as a self-regulating organism.
ES: What interests you about monuments? I find it interesting how the project points to the contradiction of a monument, historically a static structure, symbol of resistance, combined with a fluid process such as work, which renders the body itself fluid. Is work contradictory?
AP: Calling it a “monument” was playing with this contradiction, but also trying to redefine the concept, and what a memorial can be. Since 2011, I started to work in the public space with enactments or embodiments, a practice that then extended into the museum and the gallery space as well, in relation to other types of “monumentality” and immutability. These actions were choreographical and sculptural additions to public monuments, attempts to rewrite their history and reassign meaning by placing them in tension with the human scale, flexible material.
I like to think of memory as being in movement, so it can never be fixed, it is always transformed. The performer's relation with the “original movement” is also interesting: I met factory workers from the SKF in Gothenburg and filmed some of their movements, but then I performed my own selection, and I am now passing this on to other performers; the movements flow further and further away from their initiators. I like the ritual aspect of it and this ongoing process of abstraction and re-actualising meaning in relation to the concept of memorial.
ES: You interviewed factory workers regarding their movements and relationship with their work. Was it something that surprised you in the manner they reflected on their bodies and experiences?
AP: With some I had long discussions about universal basic income, automation, and the future of unions and labour. Sweden also has a great history of union work and welfare and you could see that – in the working conditions, for both traditional factory workers and for performers and artists. In a sense, it was a privileged place to start.
Regarding their relationship to physical labour, they were all happy to get rid of that. For everybody it was hard, painful, and numbing, and they had no nostalgia about it. The only thing they regretted was the collective time, the fact that they were brought together by work, in this physical space, and they shared this experience. That is something that I wanted to keep.
ES: What is your take on art-making as a work process? Is the body of the performance artist a body at work? Can we speak of pre-set patterns of movement and disposition that sort of permeate every performance act? What would you say the relation with (freedom of) creativity is, in this case?
AP: This makes me think of Mladen Stilinović’ Artist at Work, of translating and converting the performance into an object.
No, I don’t think one can speak of mannerism with regards to performance, which is probably something better observed in contemporary dance. I don’t think it’s usually the movement training that produces the “manner” or the pre-set, but how one thinks about movement and dance conceptually. You can use the same skills and movement for very different ends, it’s all a matter of usership.
An extract from the series Artist at Work, 1978 by Mladen StilinoviCć.
ES: Our Western world steps into immaterial production, but we depend on such labour, carried out in other societies (production lines in South-Asian countries, for instance, a remote place and remote time). What is your take on this interplay of the working body and social space and time?
AP: While we can speak about post-industry in Western, rather affluent societies, we still see dire working conditions for human labourers in factories where the working human body is still cheaper than automated replacements. While some jobs will require human intervention, I would say rethinking our relationship to work is one of the big socio-economic and political challenges of the very near future, at a global level. I hoped Monument to Work could trigger some of these questions and contribute to the debate.
ES: Is your art political? Can art today not be political?
AP: There are different levels of engagement in art, and it’s more helpful to understand as “political” anything that helps imagine or re-imagine existing dynamics and value systems that need change.
I am more interested in politics on the level of aesthetics, structure, and display rather than content. Live works have the potential to perform some change in well-established dynamics within the art market: like online works, they are harder to collect, harder to own, and harder to speculate on. That is perhaps the first layer on which I would define my work as political.
Monument to Work has been acquired by the Public Art Agency of Sweden and it will be reinstalled during the coming three years.
Words: Elena Stanciu