Curatorial essay – ASSEMBLY, Arnolfini 2020

“Through both the metaphor of translation and the act itself, I am exploring the very human and increasingly urgent need we have to assemble in a physical way, in a physical space, in these complex times” – Angelica Mesiti

ASSEMBLY opens with a single figure seated before the ‘Michela’. This 19th century machine, resembling a piano keyboard is repurposed as the tool with which a musical score is translated from poet David Malouf’s To Be Written in Another Tongue – a poem in which Malouf longs for words lost to the dead, or never written.

This elegy, yearning for communication, translates into a lilting score that is taken up
by a shifting ensemble of performers. We meet them via a camera that winds through corridors and amphitheatres to find this community of multiple ancestries; new bodies, new voices. The forming assembly twists in and out of sung harmony and cacophony; at times, their communication is not vocal, but physical – a dancer cycling through a sequence of hand signals, repurposed for this artwork from a non-verbal language used in the ‘Nuit Debout’ demonstrations in Paris in 2017 – simple gestures for large crowds struggling to communicate, to pinpoint nuance, to reach consensus.

In its presentation here, ASSEMBLY is accompanied by two other of Mesiti’s video works – Nakh Removed (2015) and Tossed by Waves (2017) – both single channel pieces. The first follows a small group of women, thrashing their heads in slow motion as they perform a ‘Nakh’ (a Berber hair dance, from the Algerian/Tunisian region) – a study of bodies in motion. Like ASSEMBLY, Nakh Removed examines bodies in motion to find a sense of community and togetherness not through uniformity, but echoed and undulating movement that fall in and out of time.

Tossed by Waves, in contrast, focuses on a still monument; the camera panning slowly over graffiti and bouquets against its grey stone; tools of a community-led, unsanctioned approach to marking and memory. This wrestle of state and subject – the communication and experience of mass politics – also underpins ASSEMBLY. The Michela, that unfamiliar keyboard, was developed as a tool for the Italian senate for official parliamentary reporting, to ensure transparency within the democratic process. The spaces of ASSEMBLY are similarly politically charged – furnished in rich tones of scarlet and terracotta, the Senate chambers and parliamentary meeting rooms of Italy and Australia. Built to serve as the homes of representative democracies, in the 21st century it can feel more and more that these political spaces are failing to serve their purpose for increasingly polarised communities (a point underscored here by the gestural language of the Parisian protest movement inhabiting it).

There is an inherent dissonance between these rarified seats of power and the growing populace. The score of ASSEMBLY demonstrates the challenges of democracy, process, and communication on a larger scale. Overlapping sounds, escalating volume, and moments of cacophony eventually distill into clear choral voices that lilt up and down the scale. A choir of young performers, performing gentle tones informed by Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Deep Listening’ techniques serve as a reminder that energy, activity, and expression are useful only so far as we listen to each other as well.

For those of us seated in these stepped circles, our gazes passing over our own assembly here in Arnolfini’s gallery, this is a reminder of both our responsibilities and capacities to effect change; to bring our voices together for our own and each others’ good.