Conversation with Georgia Sagri, Part I: Background and Artistic Practice

Shortly before the opening of Manifesta 11, we felt very honored that Georgia Sagri – a visual artist born 1979 who works and lives between Athens and New York – accepted our invitation to discuss her work with students of art history at the University of Zurich. In the first part of this interview, Georgia Sagri talks about her educational background and discusses important aspects in her artistic practice, as well as the relevance of the Internet and other new media such as blogs and QR codes.

The conversation with Georgia Sagri took place at the Institute of Art History, University of Zurich on May 26th 2016. The following first part of the interview was conducted by Tania Di Brita.

 While I was preparing this interview and reading your biography, it seemed to me that your education is very broad, reaching from music and experimental theatre to fine arts and philosophy. How do these different backgrounds resonate in your artworks? Which aspects of these diverse fields do you preferably use? Are they each employed individually or do they all merge together in your artistic practice?
I started with music when I was very young, about five years old, and especially played the cello. When I began to work with visual arts around the age of 24 or 25, I first focused on performance art, but soon I realized that it is not only performance. In my artistic practice there are various extensions in media, such as text, video, sculpture and drawing. So I began to produce interdisciplinary pieces – by decision. I have a long practice in music and I was always investigating the aspect of variation regarding score and notation through music, and how they are influencing performance. This is very important regarding how I understand contemporary issues of performance practice. Therefore it is not an event-based practice but a variation-based practice. With the understanding of musical variation, notation and score, you are able to compose a piece while it is taking place. So the very first part of my education, which was music, developed into a crucial tool for my later visual artwork practice. […] I would not consider my work on the parameter of performance art. My work is visual art, I am a visual artist. When I was developing a stronger interest in visual art, I had to make clear for myself what I did not like about music: this was me being a tool regarding the score. So I was only a player of the score. Within the visual arts, you create and activate a unique language. This is the central aspect of visual arts. You are basically making, participating and communicating the score or language, which can be inspiring to others – not only passively by following this language, but also by feeling empowered to create their own language. I am not an artist who is ‹making followers›. My work wants to strengthen others, other objects and individuality. My aim is to create a language that is strong enough by itself and that can empower others.

Let us talk about a recent solo exhibition of yours here in Switzerland. The exhibition was called Mona Lisa Effect and took place at the Kunsthalle Basel in 2014. Here again you showed your ability to mix different media channels and put them together into one entire piece. The exhibition has so many different and interesting details to look into, we could spend the whole interview only talking about this show. Could you pick some important aspects, such as the ‹Mona Lisa Effect› itself, the overall print and the performance you did?

Mona Lisa Effect, video installation at the entrance to the exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel, 2014, Photo: Gina Folly

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Mona Lisa Effect, video installation at the entrance to the exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel, 2014, Photo: Gina Folly

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Mona Lisa Effect, printed suit in the exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel, 2014, Photo: Gina Folly

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The starting point of the exhibition was a video shown on a screen at the entrance stairs. It was already revealing all the details of the exhibition before you entered the space. The title of the exhibition is therefore very important: Mona Lisa Effect. The essential thing is the gaze of the Mona Lisa. Wherever you are, she is looking at you, it is a panoptical sort of control. In the exhibition, I was trying to dismantle this control of the all-round gaze. I was allowing the viewer to not feel obliged, from the start, to watch the exhibition. The video is in a way a source of information for the viewer to see the exhibition before they enter it, in order to be informed on what it is about and what they are going to see. So the video was the first break of the ‹Mona Lisa Effect›, because the viewer did not get the information within the exhibition, but before. The video was also helping me during the performance I did in a separate room, because its sound was part of the performance. It gave me the rhythm for the four scripted parts. It was the most scripted performance I have ever done, since it had a very particular timing and sometimes was in synchronization with the video. The viewer did not know about that. The video was my cue, for being in the tempo and in the particular tune. I performed there for two months, for the whole duration of the exhibition and it was always happening unannounced. I performed four to five hours a day. Sometimes the public could see the performance and sometimes they missed it. Every piece is giving away certain information and needs a background in order to exist. There is always something before, something to make it appear. For example, the garment [a one-pieced suit printed with a picture of the artist’s body dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans shorts] is there because there were posters installed throughout the city of Basel, which depicted that subject [the artist wearing a white t-shirt and jeans shorts in front of paintings]. I would like to emphasize that the printed suit was a sculpture and not a costume. So a similar figure like the one printed on the suit existed in the city. The public space, on the other hand, was represented within the exhibition by the pattern of a brick wall, usually to be seen out on the streets, now inside the space to activate the movement of the performance, which is also in public. And as a kind of ‹poster›, the movements that I made wearing the printed suit are imprinted on that public wall inside the exhibition space. The whole performance is like this game we play as children, called hide and seek.
 The moment of ‹hide and seek› with the printed figure on the suit is again about playing with the ‹outside› and ‹inside› referred to by the brick wall.

What about the fact that you also integrated other artists in your exhibition? It is a quite surprising thing to do for a solo exhibition. Why did you ask other artists to join the exhibition? Can you also tell us something about the QR codes you used, which are a state-of-the-art virtual tool, and break with the traditional idea of an art institution that contains art only within its own walls?
I wanted to disrupt the format of the classical ‹solo› exhibition by integrating more artists. I basically tried to break apart the singularity or the mastering of one artist in the exhibition, which is again an aspect that the title Mona Lisa Effect is bringing onto the surface. I commissioned or selected works that sustained and matched the context of the exhibition. […] It was important that all the different elements of the exhibition were interrelated but could still carry a certain autonomy in their appearance and their presence. In the gallery there were labels with QR codes of works by other artists that the viewers could scan with their mobile phones, download and take with them. The artworks could then become the own thing of the visitors, could be used or heard from wherever they were, independently from the art space. To allow different perspectives in an exhibition is very important to me: different ways to experience space, different ways of connections and contexts. A central notion was the aspect of movement. It is very important to me how information moves, how its distribution takes place, and what kind of effects this has on society as well as on the individual being.

Conversation with Georgia Sagri at the University of Zurich, May 2016

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When searching for you on the Internet, one of the first hits on Google is your blog. I suppose it has an important role for the community and there is a lot of traffic on it. One can find there a selection of your artworks. There are many images, but more importantly, there are also rich and complex texts contextualizing your pieces. What is the purpose and the idea behind your blog? Can it be understood as a kind of archive of your artistic career?
You have to understand that in 2016, if an artist was only represented by his or her galleries, it would be a very old-fashioned idea of representation. Basically I do not think that an artist must or needs to be represented only by a gallery nowadays. […] Although I work with galleries, the reason for the blog is that I still want to carry my own intellect and I do not want to give it up, neither my content nor my context. Independency – not only as an artist, but as a person and in all my practice – is essential for me. Only being represented by galleries would not be my way of working. It has to do with ideological, political, sociological and also economical parameters. […] The reason for this blog is to make the distinction that although I am working with galleries, I have my own way to do my sort of representation or contextualization. In addition, there is a particular way that galleries represent the work of artists. It is a way fixated on things. I do not only ‹do› things, my practice has evolved in many other ways of ‹doing›; which is programming, making a blog, designing posters, making flyers and writing texts. Sometimes I even write press releases and some other times I am writing catalogue texts, like for example, for this Manifesta 11. Especially when you want your work to be represented in the way that you think, you need to take care of it and this is what the blog is about. The blog is also easy to work with, especially when you travel a lot and move frequently. It is simple to access. Why should I carry a portfolio or my hard drive with me, when I can show my blog instead? Another important aspect of the blog is that it carries the timing that I decide to give it. I do not have any pressure to represent my work. It gives me the chance to reflect on my work over time and write about an earlier piece or exhibition whenever I have time and feel ready to reflect on it.

It seems to me that new media and notions of cross media›,linking and networking are significant aspects in your artistic practice as well as on your blog. Spreading and sharing around the globe seems crucial to you, not only within the exhibition space but also outside of it. Can you explain this practice better? How important do you personally consider the tools of new media and Internet nowadays?
I would like to make a clear note on the word ‹networking› you used before. I am not really in this generation of artist – ‹networking artists›. We can talk about other words. The word I like to use in order to express this kind of linkage is ‹coexistence›. That’s it. Accepting another as different and not trying to influence others to be the same as you. So in order to build an exhibition with a sense of coexistence that is activating something. I give you an example: the wall is the wall, the video is the video and the performance is another individual piece. All of this is influencing one another by their coexistence, because they are different from each other. That’s much more important to me than networking. They have of course a relationship together, because they are on the same plateau. For example, if there is a war in Syria it affects us a lot. Even if we are talking right now in Zurich and we are safe, even if we have protection and the bombs are not exploding in front of us – in a way they are in front of our yard, because we coexist. It influences us. How it influences us, and how much we allow to be influenced by it, this is a matter of coexistence and a certain awareness. It is different to each of us, but at the same time it is influencing all of us. This is a very important part of my work!

Image 1 – 3 courtesy of the artist and Kunsthalle Basel, Photo: Gina Folly.

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