Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) recently showcased the work of Greek-Armenian artist Aikaterini Gegisian, one of the participating artists of the Golden Lion winning Armenian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015). Entitled ‘Shifting Geographies’, the survey encompassed the premiere of ‘My Pink City’, the artist’s first feature length-piece, followed by a series of earlier video works and audiovisual collages. Gegisian’s visual vocabulary engages with notions of intercultural diversities, heritage, geopolitical circumstances as well as societal and gender identity. Infused with autobiographical references, her work unravels representations of Soviet Armenia, Turkey and Greece alongside other diverse geographical environments.
KP: How did the narrative of your first feature-length piece, ‘My Pink City’, engage with your chosen locus of Armenia’s capital Yerevan and the emerging ideological context?
AG: My engagement with Yerevan began in 2006 when I visited Armenia for the first time, invited by Maria Tsantsanoglou and the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki to participate at the 5th Gyumri Biennale. As a diasporic Armenian with no direct links to the country, I was fascinated by the Soviet architecture of Yerevan and begun to question how a city that is architecturally constructed as a Soviet space could become a place of identification for diverse Armenian diasporic imaginations. The quest in deciding to make a feature film about the city was the one of transforming a space that was not part of any personal narrative into a place of belonging (and that’s why the city is MY Pink City). This movement from being displaced to being placed became one of the central structural motifs in the film, as it traverses both the public and private spaces of the city and its past representations in Soviet Armenian documentary archives. ‘My Pink City’ following the moving image traditions of the city and essay films constructs a portrait of the city focusing on the narrative of the post-Soviet transition in order to question how urban and cinematic space is socially produced. The film is densely layered and narrated from a feminist viewpoint, to reveal not only the transformation of urban space but also the gender divisions in the experience of the city. The moment of ideological transition from a communist to neoliberal model is crucial in revealing the parallels in the construction of urban space in both Soviet and capitalist modernities.
KP: How is this related to your previous body of work also featured within the programme of ‘Shifting Geographies’?
AG: ‘My Pink City’ epitomises my moving image practice, bringing together a series of thematic and formal concerns of my past video works. Starting with the narratives of subjective dislocation and the mapping of collective memories, my short films, video installations and video collages encompass reflections on shifting geographies, on place and belonging, on gender identities and intercultural flows. The moving image works not only approach a series of different geographical spaces but they are also confronted with a camera always on the move, a camera that drifts from urban to filmic space, from emblematic landscapes to mental and memorial spaces, from the space of the body to outer space. The layering of diverse geographies and mental states in my early works is slowly transformed into an amassing of different cinematic registers in my current films. Layering location footage, with archival and popular films, sound libraries and recorded voice-overs, my most recent films construct reality as a movement across space, where gaps between images, sounds and texts morph into moments of refuge. From the early single-screen videos to the recent multi-layered sonic and visual collages, I have been exploring the relationship between cinematic and diasporic consciousness.
KP: What does this programme entail?
AG: Organised by Middleborough Institute of Modern Art, ‘Shifting Geographies’ is a survey of my moving image output, covering a period of 14 years of video production from 2002 to the present day. It comprises three cinematic ‘moments’ taking place from May 2016 to the end of the year, each focusing on distinct aspects of my moving image practice. The programme was inaugurated on 12 May 2016 with the premiere of ‘My Pink City’, my first feature-length piece, which is presented in the museum auditorium until 5 June 2016. ‘Shifting Geographies’ resumes from 1 to 23 October, 2016 and then again from 1 to 23 December, 2016 and unfolds with presentations of my early videos and recent audiovisual collages.
KP: As described in the mima accompanying literature, your work and techniques combine elements from the essay film practice to generate an environment of ‘surreal imagination’. How do you define this?
AG: Miguel Amado, senior curator at mima and curator of the ‘Shifting Geographies’ programme describes ‘My Pink City’ as a kaleidoscopic mix of references that produces a ‘surreal imagination’. The film signals my first engagement with the essay film. I was drawn to the form because it offers a platform for working with heterogeneous material but most importantly allows the mixing of different cinematic techniques. In ‘My Pink City’ I approach the essay form as a way of thinking through diverse representational systems and aesthetic regimes. Thus, in the many layers of the film, one of the many journeys occurring is the movement through a series of cinematic techniques, ranging from documentary to taxonomical systems, and from narrative to a surrealist imagination. The film starts off with employing observational techniques in an attempt to describe and map out the spaces of the city, while slowly the narrative of the woman that sells fruit in the street is mingled in with domestic scenes. Progressively the film leaves behind the documentary approach and by revisiting images already used in the film begins to build up a memorial space. In this continuous layering and mixing of images, ideas and techniques the film finally ‘disintegrates’ into a surreal imagination that expresses its failure to control and measure both the space of the city and its own topography.
KP: To what extent do you envisage to stimulate and inspire the local audience by showcasing your work at the mima? What is the impact you expect your work to achieve?
AG: The ‘Shifting Geographies’ programme is an opportunity to present my work for the first time to an art audience and the artistic community of the North East of England. This is a community that is growing by the date through the input of a range of originations and, in the case of Middleborough, through the work of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and Teesside University. This is also an opportunity to present my work to the local student population and build up student engagement with a series of social concerns. As I have already mentioned, one of the thematic threads in the ‘Shifting Geographies’ programme is the exploration of diverse locations and collective memories, an attention to issues of dislocation and an address to what could be described as a diasporic consciousness. Such concerns are timely not only because of the refugee crisis in Europe and the UK referendum for exiting the European Community but also specifically poignant for the local context of Middleborough as one of the places in the UK with the larger concentration of refugees. At a moment when xenophobic attitudes seem to amplify, I feel that the programme provides alternative narratives and viewpoints that could function as moments of identification for diverse audiences. This is concurrent with the ambition of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art to become a ‘useful’ museum that responds to ‘current urgencies’.