As Sydney-born, Paris-based artist Angelica Mesiti prepares to show her three-channel video work Assembly in the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, she talks about emotional responses, music as a salve and the vital need for connection. “Dissonance is a word that was really important to this work. Basically, the work is using music as a metaphor. It travels through dissonance, through harmony, through polyphony, through cacophony.”

By Kate Holden.

Angelica Mesiti emergent in Venice

Angelica Mesiti
Angelica Mesiti
Credit: Josh Raymond

“I used to have a lot of anxiety with my work,” says Angelica Mesiti, leaning closer over the din of an exhibition bump-in at Sydney’s Carriageworks. “I had this idea that serious art was conceptual and cerebral, and if you were appealing to emotional responses that was somehow lesser. I used to think it would be denigrated to ‘women’s art’ and not taken seriously.”

From an artist who cut her teeth in the DIY gender-ludic, sometime-drag-performing collective The Kingpins, and the punk-defiant residence-cum-gallery-cum-provocateur project the Imperial Slacks collective of millennium Surry Hills, this is a startling admission. Mesiti, with her patrician Italian-heritage face and tall, elegant presence, readily admits her past uncertainties in the evolution of a career that is about to reach an apogee – representing Australia in next month’s Biennale di Venezia with the immensely exciting video installation work Assembly. Fellow Slacker alumnus Shaun Gladwell had the honour 10 years ago. But past hesitations make for present satisfactions. “Now, I really feel like the aesthetic and emotional experience of a work are just as important and even, perhaps, more so,” she says. “If you can shortcut that connection with an audience through an emotional response, then you’re already speaking to someone.”

Communication, “speaking to someone” through art, is both the effect and the ongoing preoccupation of Mesiti’s work. Mostly, in nice counterpoint to her articulate discussion of the concept, with her films she evokes variations on the practice of non-verbal communication and its persistent agency to bond people across lines of nationality, ideology and ableness. Previous works such as Citizens Band (2010-12), which presented video of four individuals across Paris and Australia reprising cultural music in new environments, or The Calling (2014), which showed the transmission of traditional whistle language in Turkey, the Canary Islands and Greece, explored the way people communicate heritage, lineage and emotion in a fluctuating world. Cameroonian woman Geraldine Zongo intently beats a Paris swimming pool in rhythms learnt across the Mediterranean; throat-singer Bukhchuluun Ganburged busks in Newtown. Mesiti brings up the emotion of homesickness, or memory; the emotion of human loveliness; the succour of music as a universal language. Her works are beautiful, interesting and poignant. They are also, for someone who spends much time in isolation with her laptops and video-editing software, attentively collaborative.

Communal practice with Imperial Slacks gave her respect for the hive mind and the potential of co-operation. “I haven’t been alone,” she says, instantly, when asked about the pressure of a big commission such as the Venice Biennale, put together in just 12 months. “I have really strong creative relationships, with Juliana [Engberg] the curator [of Australia’s Biennale project], and Bridget Ikin, the producer I’ve worked with on the last five projects, and her company Felix Media. And my partner, he’s also an artist: he’s the first person I test ideas with. I’ve always felt supported by these collaborators. Also, there’s Bonnie Elliott, the cinematographer I’ve worked with since 2009. We have a language,” she says with nice choice of term, “that we’ve developed together through lots of experience.”

The people who appear in her works are not mere props either. The assembling of Assembly is in a way part of its art. Nearly 40 other individuals – performers, crew, production assistants, brainstormers – were involved, and their input shaped and reshaped Mesiti’s ambitions for the piece. There’s a paradox, of course, in heading a shared project. “As an artist, sometimes you feel a bit like you have to get people to let you in; then you still have to say what you have to say, without being duplicitous.” She gazes away, trying to summarise her instincts. “It’s finding a way to work together but staying authentic to your intentions.” It is her name on the banner, but she is no lone hero-artist. She doesn’t even have a studio, just three laptops and a mess of cables in her Paris lounge room. The work is manifest in connections between ideas, and people.

“My process is basically: I’ll begin with a concept or a question or an experiment, such as: ‘Can this machine turn text into music? I think it could. I’ll propose a project that can do it, and then I’ll figure out how to do it.’ Then it’s a lot of research and it’s me talking to people; then I usually start looking for performers who can also respond into that concept, inhabit the work to fill out that idea. Then we rehearse, and I go back and keep moulding it once performers are attached, because that shapes it too. It’s a constant to-ing and fro-ing between being by myself and massaging the idea, and then going back to people and figuring out how it all fits together.”

The machine in question is the marvellous “Michela” stenography device, invented in the 19th century and still used to transcribe records for the Italian senate. Mesiti found one in a Rome flea market and was entranced. “Played” like a keyboard, its concentration of syllables into graphics and numbers was inspired by musical notation – an evolution Mesiti neatly reversed by applying a David Malouf poem concerning translation, “Poem To Be Written in Another Tongue”, and having its text converted, through a coding process, to a musical score by composer Max Lyandvert. This was performed by an eclectic ensemble of musicians from various traditions, co-ordinating and at times improvising with their various instruments. There is also an element of dance, of expression through body rather than sound.

In Venice, the score is laid over a three-channel video work installed, within the Denton Corker Marshall-designed Australian pavilion, in a sort of intimate arena. “It’s a kind of a gathering space,” Mesiti explains. “The idea of ‘assembly’ is carried through the moving image on-screen to the experience for the viewer inside the work as well.” She can’t say much more about the final work before the opening.

Does she hope the audience, cosily nestled, all observing the same screens, the same music in their ears, will take a collective experience from Assembly?

“I’ve constructed the work with that intention, to generate a temporary communal experience. It’s an idea of this coming together, coming out of isolation. But at the same time, I want it to be an autonomous space. I want people to decide for themselves where they will stand, and how they will experience the piece. I never want my work to feel overly prescribed.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about assemblings, historically, from early human history to now, and that’s informed the arrangement of the installation,” she continues. “I focused on the circle. I’ve tried to think about how it’s been used in Western and non-Western civilisation, and how different gatherings have formed, whether it was gathering around the campfire for storytelling and ritual purpose, or music exchange, dance; there’s something around this gathering in a circular formation that seems to be across cultures.”

When the opportunity to apply for the Biennale project first came, in 2017, the world felt in crisis. The Michela machine, Mesiti points out, has recorded the democratic process for more than a hundred years: could it now evoke some healing to the damage?

“The work is positive,” she says, “and it’s also difficult. It’s not an easy work, this one. The score is like a 20th-century avant-garde classical score: there’s a very cacophonous sequence in it. It’s not all happy-happy-joy-joy,” she says, with a snort of laughter.

But it is a piece that celebrates the potential of rupture, and the rapture of release to follow. “Dissonance is a word that was really important to this work,” Mesiti explains. “Basically, the work is using music as a metaphor. It travels through dissonance, through harmony, through polyphony, through cacophony.”

She looked at rupture and revolution in oppressive regimes and cultural evolution: overthrows, political protests, Marcel Duchamp’s “readymade” artworks and John Cage’s 4’33” composition of silence. Violence is an efficient rupture, tempting to some at the moment. But art, she recalls, can revolutionise without destruction. It can be an expansion; a salve.

Considering musicians for the score, Mesiti came across Lebanese zaffe wedding drummers, whose explosive energy helps shift the cacophony required for crisis and rupture ecstatically into “that moment we emerge into a new, settled space”. The dynamic of the work forms an emotional arc, and is, according to Juliana Engberg, transformative and generative: a statement of solidarity and human values in a time of political and climate emergency.

“What I wanted to acknowledge in the work is that the experiment in living together means that there need to be ‘rupturous’ moments in order to arrive at the right place. It’s not always going to be simple and easy; it’s complex, and we need to make space for failure and repair; and reimagining things when they’re perhaps not quite right yet. Out of crisis can emerge new direction. That’s my positive stance. But the work acknowledges that dissonance is part of living together. It doesn’t mean we’ve failed completely. It just means we’re not there yet.”

We chat about how people commune on their devices while standing silently beside each other in public. She works alone after the collaboration is finished: loves the cocoon. She isn’t sure whether that communal experience, the ecstasy she captured in her work Rapture, filmed on young people’s faces at the Big Day Out, or the vigour of a huge political rally, is more powerful now for its rarity. “Maybe. I think we have such a different relationship to physical experiences now, don’t we? I can’t help thinking about these student demonstrations [the school strikes for climate change action] that have been taking place recently. They’re immensely moving.”

Mesiti moved to Paris years ago. “We’re really close to the Place de la République, which is the epicentre of all demonstrations, and the French do love to physicalise their democratic rights. Over the years I’ve been living there I’m constantly moved by being in that environment, among so many people who are feeling something strongly enough that they’re taking to the streets and assembling together. That’s something I want to contemplate at the moment.”

And to make visible a polyphonic attitude, to coalesce desire in real bodies moving together: in Assembly’s choreographed sequence featuring dancer Deborah Brown and filmed in Canberra’s Old Parliament House, Mesiti uses a vocabulary of “respectful listening” reaction gestures taken from Occupy rallies, where certain signs non-disruptively indicate, for example, “agree”, “can’t accept that” or “getting repetitive”. Raised imperfectly bilingual in an Italian-heritage home, now imperfect in French during her daily life, Mesiti cherishes the ability for a body or voice to communicate without inhibition.

There’s something she loves in the idea of cohesion in the present moment, a humble appreciation of the ephemeral equilibrium possible in art. “With a musical performance, that’s the culmination of hours of rehearsal, of musicians coming from different places to be here on that night, and the work that’s gone into it; the audience has arrived too: that is a unique moment. It’s passing and fleeting and it’s over in an hour-and-a-half.” She smiles. “It’s some kind of act of faith, in experience or… I don’t know,” she shakes her head.

“I think music is a kind of equalising thing. You don’t need any art-historical education or knowledge to feel something with music, or to connect with a subject. I’ve always aimed to make work that is accessible. I want my work to be understood by a wide range of people. But at the same time, I want it to speak across different levels.” The ultimate collaboration is with her audience, the public. “Right now, I’m making my best effort to communicate what I feel the experience will be with the work, but honestly it’s not until the public is standing inside that the work’s going to be complete and I’ll really understand it. I’ve done the work. I’ll let the work do its thing now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 27, 2019 as "Emergent in Venice".

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