Alex Martinis Roe and Staging the Collective - Art Collector

  Alex Martinis Roe, Their desire rang through the halls and into the tower, high definition video still, 2014-2015. Commissioned by Casco - Office for Art, Design and Theory (Utrecht) and presented as part of If I Can't Dance I Don't Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution (Amsterdam), Performance Days, and supported by Gender Studies (Utrecht University) and the Graduiertenschüle für die Künste und Wissenschaften and Einstein Stiftung (Berlin).
Courtesy: the artist

By Joel Mu

The first time I heard of your work was via a story recalling a situation where people could sit in a circle and listen to audio about women. The curator telling the story was describing The Practice of Doing, which was originally commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art for New13. In that work, you introduce The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective. How were you introduced to collective’s activities?

I first read about their political practices in a text written by one of their members, Luisa Muraro, in the library while I was still at art school. I was immediately enthralled and took some of these relational practices into my own art practice. Nearly a decade later I decided that since their writings had become really important to the way I approach my artistic work, that it would be enriching and quite powerful to actually make work about them and via a process of engaging in their practices directly with them. I was involved in some events at Archive Books in Berlin and I noticed that they had a collection of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective’s journal Via dogana, which is very rare, so I knew they must know the Collective personally, so I asked if Archive could make an introduction for me, which they did. Since 2012 I have made several visits and established relationships with some of the people there through participating in their activities and doing oral history interviews, which has really been a very special way to learn about the project and to get involved with it myself.

Alex Martinis Roe, A story from Circolo della rosa, high definition video still of a photograph by P.H. Vanda-Vergna courtesy of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective Archive, 2014. Supported by Viafarini (Milan), the Samstag Program (Adelaide), and Graduiertenschüle für die Künste und Wissenschaften (Berlin). Courtesy: the artist

You recently travelled to Milan to shoot a film, entitled A story from Circolo della rosa. At many points in the film, archive material is presented in tandem with the image of a researcher, a hand, for instance, that also operates the camera, flicking through a book, sheets of paper and black-and-white photographs. What role did you take in this film?

I was the director and also one of its protagonists. I wanted to situate the story I tell in that film within my own journey of discovery. It was important to me that rather than cutting video of the women as they are now, that I used my own body and voice to bring together material traces and spaces, which I could use to construct a parable. In that way, the story was always double: a story of the unusual political relationship of entrustment between two women in the collective, as well as the story of my own relationship of entrustment with the collective and the story itself.

Alex Martinis Roe, It was an unusual way of doing politics, there were friendships, loves, gossip, tears, flowers..., high definition video still, Supported by the Samstag Program (Adelaide) and Graduiertenschüle für die Künste und Wissenschaften (Berlin). Courtesy: the artist

The title It was an unusual way of doing politics there were friendships, loves, gossip, tears, flowers... refers to another film in your current series, which revisits a week-long meeting in 1972. When you showed me this film, I noted how you were interested in the architectural setting; shots of empty buildings, interiors and exteriors, a detail of a wall clock, and then how you edited these atmospheric scenes with partly-scripted live action, depicting gatherings of people either in social situations or workshop scenarios. How do you use architecture in your work? Is it a site of potential staging?

That’s a nice way of putting it. I often feel both sad and inspired when I travel to these places where important things have happened in the past. It is a really embodied sense of history to make these journeys and to immerse myself in the spaces that were the settings for stories that have filled my imagination. I feel sad that often these spaces display no trace of the wonderful and tremendous things that have happened in them and that often these spaces that were once the autonomous sites of the women’s movement have been taken over by capitalist enterprises. But then at the same time I feel utterly inspired, knowing that so many unlikely spaces have been used in these ways! Indeed I think that often my generation must walk around the cities of the west and think that they have always been this way, that consumer capitalism is all there is or could be, simply because we do not know enough of these stories. Taking these spaces as protagonists of history feels like a good way to inspire others to imagine how they might repurpose the spaces they visit, not only as an affirmation of the histories they may have hosted, but also in dialogue with them, creating a continuity – a transfer of desire and knowledge from one generation to another.

Alex Martinis Roe, Our Future Network, with contributions from Cécile Bally, Deborah Ligorio, Carolina Soares, Valerie Terwei and Lea von Wintzingerode, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, standard definition video still, 2015. Supported by Graduiertenschüle für die Künste und Wissenschaften and Einstein Stiftung (Berlin). Courtesy: the artist

I think the technique you are developing with oral history is very interesting. Recently at The Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), you presented Our Future Network via what seemed to be a kind of collectivist meeting or workshop. What led you to this point and how will the film, which you’re currently making, differ from the public presentation at the HKW?

The event at the HKW was a way to publicly share the experiences and inventions of a group I led in a workshop in my studio between March and June this year. The workshop involved practical experimentation with a number of historical collective feminist practices, which we did at the same time as digesting ideas and methods from a particular strand of contemporary feminist theory, so that what came out of our experiments was a series of hybrid, new practices that respond to our urgencies here and now as a group.

The event at the HKW was set up spatially in a similar way to the workshops, but so as to accommodate many more people. That way it immediately had the atmosphere of a meeting, rather than a presentation. Although, when preparing this event, I felt it was really important that in the short space of time we had, it didn’t attempt to recreate the intimate space of trust that we built over three months in the workshop. I also didn’t want to try and represent what we had done together by staging the event as a kind of re-enactment. Instead what we did was to collectively write a scripted conversation about our experiences and ideas, which was punctuated and contextualised by intermittent introductions (like short performance-lectures) by me on the material we dealt with in the workshop. The format of the scripted conversation is quite unusual, but it was very honest, and as a considered performance it flowed in and out of the performance-based contributions that each member of the group devised, as a way of extending our conversation into more concrete propositions.

The event was filmed by a robotic camera according to a pre-prepared shot list that used framing as a way to extend what we were saying and doing. This was fed live to a second audience in the foyer outside the event space. This video is now material that I may use some of in the film I am currently making called Our Future Network. However, unlike the event the film isn't about communicating what happened during the workshop. The workshop was research which feeds into the film, without being its subject. The film presents five new feminist collective practices which have been developed out of a collective digestion of a series of existing, historical practices. Each of these practices is one chapter of the film, which in some ways will function as an instructional video, or as a series of propositions to be contemplated.

Alex Martinis Roe, (as yet untitled), high definition video still, 2015. Supported by Cross Art Projects (Sydney) and Graduiertenschüle für die Künste und Wissenschaften and Einstein Stiftung (Berlin). Courtesy: the artist

To finish the six-part series, a film is planned in Barcelona and you are currently cutting a film you recently shot in Sydney. How does the story of the Lorraine House fit in?

'Lorraine' is a house in Redfern in Sydney where a number of feminist filmmakers lived. They even had a fully set up cutting room, where films like For Love or Money were put together. The film I shot in Sydney traces threads of connection between the feminist filmmaking scene (as a way of reflecting on my own artform) and the milieu around General Philosophy at Sydney University. When researching these connections, I was trying to find a way to describe the mechanics of what I call the political practice of alliance in Sydney at the time. By that I mean the way that activists from different sectors collaborated, sharing their strengths with one another so as to form a greater force in each area. There are such incredible examples of this, like the Green Bans movement and the way that the Builders Labourers' Federation supported the Philosophy Strike at Sydney University in 1973.

Through interviewing a number of people involved in these different groups and initiatives, I found that it was not within any one of the domains of political struggle that the political practice of alliance came about, but that it was rather the informal spaces where people from different groups met, which really shaped this generation its social movement. And by far the most important of these was the squatting and group housing movement. I found this discovery fascinating: that this kind of radical political collaboration came about, I would say, in large part because of widespread experimentation with the rearrangement of domestic space. It is testament to the fact that reorganising the most intimate spaces and relations in our lives is of the utmost political urgency, because activism upon the enduring violence of the dominant structuring of private and public is activism that unseats other unjust power structures. The Lorraine house was, and perhaps still is, a largely self-determined space. It was one of the many houses where this transdisciplinary, feminist, green, anti-racist and trans-class movement was organised.

The place of the story of Lorraine and the Sydney milieu in the film series is that at that time in Sydney, theory, including feminist theory, that came out of the attempted revolution in 1968 in Europe was being translated during a massive social movement. What came out of that is that the practical politics of alliance demanded a crucial expansion of that imported thinking. The concepts and methods that have come out of that have become so important now, internationally, in a time when we must address the interwoven character of our social, mental and environmental issues. One strand of the genealogy of what I hope is a burgeoning international movement is in the Sydney history, as well as in the political practices of the groups in Italy, France, the Netherlands and Barcelona, the inter-connections between which I explore in the other films.

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