Angelica Mesiti: Private Space, Public Performance

The Australian artist creates a poignant illustration of displacement in her video installation, Citizens Band.

Australian video artist Angelica Mesiti examined the conflict between private space and public performance in Citizens Band, an installation comprised of four projected videos at the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusettes, 24 October 2014 — 4 January 2015. Four projected videos comprised the exhibition; each showed a musician performing in a public or semi-public space. All of the performers were displaced. They performed works from their homeland in their adopted countries; Cameroon, Algeria, Mongolia and Sudan. They migrated to large cities like Paris, Sydney and Brisbane.

The installation took part in five segments. The first four were individual performances played consecutively. The videos were projected onto four screens on each of the four walls. The first video began on the room’s west wall. The following video projections rotated clockwise around the room.

In the first video, we saw a woman standing in a swimming pool. She created “music” by slapping the water she stood in. The differences in how she slapped the water—direct, to the side, deep or shallow–all create different “notes”. In the second video, a man stood in a crowded subway station playing a keyboard and singing. In the third video, a man sat on a street corner playing what looked like a morin khuur, a traditional Mongolian stringed instrument. He sang elongated, deeply resonating notes as he played. In the final montage—a man sat in the driver’s seat of a cab and whistled.

Mesiti concealed from the viewer almost any specific information. We couldn’t know who the performers were or where they came from. The artist created two motifs that run throughout the exhibition loop. The sense of isolation escalated through each vignette.

In the first, Mesiti created a surreal quality of a single figure in a vast swimming pool. The absence of an audience or fellow swimmers seemed to contradict the performance space—which clearly looked like a municipal pool. In the next video, the performer sang and played his keyboard in the center of a crowded subway. Most of the bystanders were oblivious not only to the performer but also to the camera man recording the video. This created a stronger sense of isolation, as the performer was ignored.

In the third video, the musician was passed by people a few times and ignored. This event took place at night and the music—which consisted of elongated base notes—was melancholy. In the final video, Mesiti removed the performer from the world. Also set at night, the image of the whistler in the cab image created a sense of longing.

The final episode stood out because it was the only one that seemed genuine. In all of the others, the sounds did not match completely with the imagery. In the first—the percussionist was able to make a strangely metallic sound with just flesh and water. In the second—the music seemed far more ornate than the number of notes being played. In the third, the singer had an almost robotic hollowness to his voice. This sense of artificiality added to the narrative of isolation Mesiti constructed. As a result, the viewer read a vague sense of both longing and cultural assertion in the four works.

The performance loop ended with streaks of colors that swirled around the viewer and flowed from one screen to the next. This was the strongest element of the installation, evoking the last 20 minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2012: A Space Odyssey (1968). At first, it seemed very disjointed.

Mesiti’s ending began to resonate with the entire screening. The swirling colors around the audience created a sense of voyeurism. Mesiti made the audience far more aware of their being separated from the images in a far more intense way, creating that sense of isolation. Thus, with a little imagination—the audience could empathize with the displacement of the “musicians”.

Splash image from © Citizens Band (2012) by Angelica Mesiti.

Four channel video installation. High definition video, 16:9, PAL, surround sound, duration: 21mins 25secs