Our current Writer in Residence is freelance journalist/reporter, radio producer and writer, Melissa Chemam. Melissa writes for many publications such as The Public Art Review, Transfuge Magazine, Le Figaro, Le Monde, Skin Deep, The Bristol Cable, Bristol 24/7, CIRCA Art Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement and Public Pressure. Melissa also published Massive Attack: A Bristol Story, in 2019. Below, Melissa shares her feelings on Angelica Mesiti’s ASSEMBLY in the sixth blog she has written for us.
When I first entered the room showing Angelica Mesiti’s ASSEMBLY, I was about to celebrate my birthday, and my best friend had come to Bristol to visit me for the first time in years. I felt complete, supported, and included in this beautiful community, coming into a room full of familiar and welcoming people! We went to the exhibition opening, the first following ‘Still I Rise’, excited by this new phase for the Arnolfini, finding a crowd that seemed electric and matched my energy.
The title itself of Angelica’s film sounded so timely and relevant to me, and I had read excellent reviews about the Venice Biennale of 2019. Actually, the whole message of ASSEMBLY was at the core of my preoccupations at the beginning of the year, as Brexit was finally enforced and divisions dominated the headlines.
So we went in the room and let ourselves get carried away…
ASSEMBLY is a three-channel video installed within an architectural setting inspired by the historical shape of the community circle and amphitheatre, mixing choreography, music, film and performance. Italian-Australian artist Angelica Mesiti, based in Paris where she teaches at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, created it, inspired by different social events, including social gathering with revolutionary ideas in mind, as Paris is known for.
The piece was also inspired by an Italian machine: the Michela, a 19th century stenographic instrument which was modelled on a piano keyboard and used in the Italian Senate for official parliamentary reporting. Mesiti wondered: “What if we could translate a text via this machine and transform it into a musical score, by which an ensemble of musicians could participate in the performance of this score?”
Filmed in the Senate chambers of Italy and Australia, the three screens of ASSEMBLY travel through, first, empty corridors, then meeting rooms and amphitheatres. Later on, performers, representing the “multitude of ancestries that constitute cosmopolitan Australia”, gather, disassemble and re-unite, demonstrating the strength and creativity of a plural community…
To me, the promise was more than delivered. I loved the installation. The electrical feeling that mounts with the different instruments, and especially the percussion, is palpable and intoxicating, in the healthiest possible way… And I went back many times to immerse myself in the room, with friends, alone, with strangers.
For 25 minutes, the screens take us into a journey, showing us different characters starting to perform, dance, then create what looks like some natural choreography. Instrumentalists first join in: a violinist, a clarinettist, etc. Then drummers carrying illuminated percussions storm the main room of the Senates in a sort of collective, shamanistic, exulting ritual… While young female singers create a choir outdoors. All transforming an original cacophony into a form of harmony through the practice of collective efforts to “assemble”.
Angelica has been inspired by real collective events, such as the “Nuit Debout” movement, a series of socialist protests, which stormed France in 2017. Her film generates a cathartic, curative artistic experiment that can have a direct effect on the viewers. It would actually be interesting to ask the visitors of the Arnolfini how they felt before and after the show.
What is extraordinary with her installation is that the time we spend in the room with her moving images, music and other witnesses of the experience actually makes us become an “assembly” too, a group taking part in a proper magical ritual.
Unlike the night of this opening, most of the key moments I had spent in Bristol until 2019, I experienced them on my own as a reporter but also as a foreigner. Now that I live here, I do struggle sometimes with the new – post-Brexit – social and political climate. When I first came in 2015, I only met artists who welcomed me with open arms… Now, I can see and hear some mitigated responses to my move, and general disbelief at my work: why did I come here? How did I feel legitimate to write about Bristol? Why do I even want to stay?
British people tend to quickly forget how far they went into the world, and how extensively they wrote about other people’s cultures and history. Sometimes rewriting these histories entirely or actively changing the course of other nations’ histories. A few times for the very worse. But “others” are rarely permitted to write or comment on British history, and if they do, how dare they use the English language?
Moreover, I see how deeply divided the country itself has become, and I fear it might not recover from these wounds before too long. These day, we’re even highly discouraged to “assemble” just for health reasons…
As Brexit finally happened in late January, every day in the news we can read a new tale of a person feeling like a “second class citizen” in the UK, another being deported for being born on another territory, and many others feeling isolated and not considered.
I’m personally extremely sensitive to that narrative. I’ve seen these divisions emerge before. I’ve written about hundreds of displaced people, newcomers, strangers and “others”. Here and in so many other places. And I’ve always been keenly aware that a lack of “assembly” is damageable.
Yet all my favourite people here came from somewhere else, Jamaica or Italy, Barcelona or Galicia, Germany or even just from the North of England… And they all have this magical ability to connect people, through music, literature, cinema, art, or simply through genuine kindness.
Angelica Mesiti is herself a woman of different lands, tri-cultural and well-travelled. When I met her at the Arnolfini gallery in December, we found a lot of similar experiences, a common passion for history of art, films, Paris, the contemporary art world, political circles, feminist thinkers, anonymous heroes… She’s for instance made a film on the metro line 2, “my” line, and the famous musician named Mohammed, who plays with his tiny keyboard and sings on that line almost every day.
We also shared a vast amount of observations on the current feminine struggle in these worlds. She genuinely seems to have this ability to connect with people, and through her film to connect people.
I personally wish I could try to do that through art films as well, I’ve tried for years and maybe one day will complete these projects. Until then, I’ve used words and my work in radio to try and connect people, create links between different people from different places, cultures, tongues, ages and worldviews.
I have no doubt that we need these bonds, links, bridges and connections more than ever. No doubt that democracy, a system of government that is “ruled by the people” – from the original meaning of the word in Greek – is in urgent need of more “assembly”, in every possible way.
What some of us might need may indeed simply be to re-assemble with the ones we consider as the closest to us, our long-lost friends, our family, our neighbours… Before they can actually assemble with strangers…
But in the end, the stranger, the outsider, the alien, the other, the female if you’re a man, the young if you’re older, is always and only just another version of yourself, a mirror of where you are in life, and an occasion to embrace the entirety of yourself – through the experience of connection…
Doing so by bringing in music, dancing and sound, singing and joy into previously empty rooms or corridors or streets – just like ASSEMBLY does, like Angelica did with her film, seems like the perfect way to me…