Georgia Sagri is otherwise occupied

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Georgia Sagri, "Diana Speaks with Animals Again," 2012, C-print. Courtesy of the artist, Central Fine, Miami and Melas Papadopoulos Gallery, Athens.

In the prelude to his book The Triumph of Anti-Art, Thomas McEvilley held up the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, founder of the School of Cynics, as a prototypical conceptual and performance artist who strove to break down the barriers separating philosophy and life. Through numerous absurdist gestures and lifestyle choices, passed down to us as fragmentary anecdotes (such as the one that has him giving an entire public speech in the form of laughter), Diogenes performed his philosophy daily in an effort to “[reverse] all familiar values” and “[lay] bare a dimension of hidden possibilities which he thought might constitute personal freedom.” According to legend, Diogenes even lived inside of a large jar in the Athenian marketplace and ate onions and figs that he picked himself.

The Greek–born artist Georgia Sagri—an early participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement who was cited by Time magazine as playing an influential role in shaping its philosophy—often mentions Diogenes when discussing her own work. “He represented a rupture of the academy, of the official language of thought,” she reflected in a recent phone interview I conducted with her. “To him, there was no inside or outside—he simply lived everywhere. And the Cynics didn’t just talk, they activated their philosophy. This territory of thought was abandoned in favor of the dominant rational discourse of Plato and Aristotle, whose dialectic we still live with today.”

Georgia Sagri, "Working the no work/Travaillez je ne travaille pas/Δουλεύοντας τη μη δουλειά," Whitney Biennial 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Melas Papadopoulos, Athens. Copyright Georgia Sagri. Photo: Paula Court

Sagri’s own feral practice—which encompasses performative events, video works, texts, and various forms of object-making—can be seen as a continuation of these ideas, albeit tuned to a much more complex world. The first time I encountered her work was at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, in which she was an exhibiting artist. Taking over a room on the fifth floor of the Whitney for the duration of the biennial, Sagri set about creating a living “book” centered around the theme of “working the no work” (Travailler Je ne travaille pas). The project, which took some inspiration from the May 1968 student protests in France, focused on the contemporary condition of labor in the capitalist marketplace and included a set/installation that Sagri had constructed along with various actions that took place in it. The book was never intended to be published, but rather consisted of everything that took place in the space.

The session that I saw was a sustained exercise in upending roles and expectations. An audience gathered, expecting a performance. Sagri however, refused the archetypal roles of performer/audience and instead insisted on having a participatory discussion with everyone in the room. Looking to her for guidance, audience members would ask her questions regarding her intentions; she gave them evasive answers, refusing to position herself as the maestro. It was a performance of no performance, a book of no book, and some soon left out of frustration. Others stayed and engaged in stimulating dialogue about forms of resistance, work/labor roles, and the false luxuries of capitalism.

Georgia Sagri, "Working the no work/Travaillez je ne travaille pas/Δουλεύοντας τη μη δουλειά," Whitney Biennial 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Melas Papadopoulos, Athens. Copyright Georgia Sagri. Photo: Paula Court

Rejecting the standard roles and options on offer and choosing instead to probe the underlying spaces of possibility and inquiry is a central tenet of Sagri’s practice. Through performative actions as well as object-making, she marauds across media and ideology in an act of discursive insurgency: “Western culture always sets up dualities; with political issues like abortion or gay marriage, you have to be either for or against, and that only leads to a divided society. There are other ways to deal with these issues. I want to corrupt, to find new ways to communicate, new terminology. My terrain is the in-between spaces of momentary human interaction. Let’s go beyond the choices that are given to us, let’s generate other questions.”

Georgia Sagri’s Performance at the Whitney Biennial 2012, VernissageTV

One strategy that looms large in Sagri’s work is the occupation of co-opted space. Another performance that she did at the Whitney involved Sagri acting out various human motions sampled from the Internet, such as preening or running in place. These motions could have come from video games or instructional films or animated event simulations. Sagri also samples her own noises, such as a yelp or a cough repeated over and over, to make a rhythmic soundtrack. The result is something like a deejay mix or assemblage in which Sagri is both sampler and source, subject and object, player and game piece, as she mixes these emblems of cyber-alienation and automation and fashions them into something compelling and whole.

“There are no master actions,” Sagri remarks. “They come from places and networks that you don’t even know, affecting all of our lives. I mimic these images because I want to understand them, and how else can I do that if not through my body? You must participate in something to understand its effects. You must experience models of oppression for yourself—then you can empower yourself by doing it your own way.”

Georgia Sagri, "Different Faces," 2009-12, scratch ink on poster, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Central Fine, Miami.

A recent exhibition at Central Fine in Miami continued to build on these ideas and strategies. In reference to Sagri’s heritage, the show was titled Diana Very Dog (abbreviated as DVD). According to Sagri, Diana—Roman goddess of animals and the hunt—is the symbolic arc that ties the show together. She represents a return to nature and a pre-Platonic state, much like that advocated by Diogenes, as well as the ability to communicate with all beings in their own languages. The show included photographs of a naked Sagri roaming the streets of Athens, crouching in front of buildings and walking between cars, looking like a jaguar in an urban jungle. In one image, she walks next to some Greek graffiti that roughly translates to “When government power gets out of control, society looks through a keyhole.”

The show also featured a set of Greek protest posters that Sagri had collected and covered with scratch-off coating like that found on lottery tickets. She used her own fingernails to scratch a haunting portrait—“of monsters, bureaucrats, rioters, youth, etc.”—into the coating of each poster. Rounding out the exhibition were a video of Sagri drawing a dog while simultaneously barking like one, and a large printout of a love letter she wrote in which “I” and “you” are constantly blended and confused.

Georgia Sagri, "Diana Very Dog," 2013, exhibition view. Courtesy of the artist, Central Fine, Miami and Formalist Sidewalk Poetry Club, Miami

The DVD exhibition seemed to sift through the ruins of Greek culture, both ancient and contemporary, in search of points of activation, places where energy could be found again. It also sought, as Sagri always does, to transgress the boundaries that divide one medium from another, and one dialectical position from another; thus, posters become drawings and subjects become objects. “I am trying to find routes where I feel more connected, where I am more comfortable expressing my thoughts. Here, Diana is very dog—there is a movement of the senses, dogs are humans and humans are dogs, and you do not need to choose. All is everything.”

As part of the exhibition, Sagri presented another performance event in which she probed and exposed the effects of media saturation on contemporary human behavior. As in the Whitney performance, she engaged in repetitive actions and sampled her own sounds. This time, there was an added element of obsessive self-observation, as she used her computer’s camera to look at a projection of herself even as she performed her actions.

Georgia Sagri, “Diana Very Dog,” 2013, exhibition view. Courtesy of the artist, Central Fine, Miami and Formalist Sidewalk Poetry Club, Miami

“This is the schizo condition of society,” Sagri explained. “We can’t do something without already knowing how it looks—we are constantly externalized, not embodied. We visualize so much while seeing nothing; we talk so much while saying nothing. It makes me think of Oedipus, who was only able to see after his eyes were put out.” As a finishing touch, Sagri encouraged the audience to document the performance with their cell phones, portions of which she will edit together to make another piece.

As one of many people who found great inspiration in the Occupy movement, I am deeply struck by how closely Sagri’s practice mirrors the Occupy philosophy of a leaderless movement that refuses to protest through established channels but rather attempts to model new ways of exercising agency in a day-to-day life that has been hopelessly corrupted by corporate and political interests. While the movement was active, it did feel as though we had finally found a new way to poke holes in a rotten, entrenched system; for a while, people showed up to camps and felt more embodied, more connected, and more alive than they had in a long time. For a while, the spaces in between the dominant discourse were getting some play. It is interesting and significant to me that an artist may have played a large role in shaping this occurrence.

Part of my motivation for doing this profile of Sagri was my own curiosity about what had become of the movement: Where had the spirit of occupation gone? What are the original instigators doing now? What are their thoughts going forward? I had witnessed friends getting arrested and my own local camp getting fenced in and locked up in the brutal coordinated national crackdown of November 2011. I had watched the intoxicating protest energy of Occupy dissipate and scatter into fringe groups in the face of its physical dismantling. I wondered if the powers that be had, in fact, succeeded in crushing this important movement?

After speaking with Sagri and thinking about her work at length, I realized that it is a mistake to think in terms of success or failure, or to try to identify Occupy with some players more than others. Both of these sentiments run counter to the philosophy we are discussing here, and by the same token, the fate of the movement over the last two years is only discouraging if one subscribes to Occupy as another dominant system, no different from the one it’s attempting to shift. The real point of Occupy, after all, was to occupy oneself and one’s own actions, to keep seeking ways out of the status quo, and to find solidarity in community, in momentary interactions, and in history. Sagri perhaps said it best: “I don’t and I never affiliated with Occupy as a brand, work, or obligation but only as a self-empowerment and a movement, a social effort. I was an artist before and after Occupy and that’s more important to me.”

Georgia Sagri’s new project, an examination of disaster news reporting titled Williamsburg, is featured in “EXPO 1: New York,” a group show on view at MoMA P.S. 1 through September 2. Performances are scheduled for July 21, August 4, and August 14.

Carol Cheh is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles. She is the founder of Another Righteous Transfer!, a blog that explores LA’s performance art scene, and Word is a Virus, a monthly Art21 column exploring the intersection between the visual and literary arts. Her writing has appeared in LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, and East of Borneo, among other outlets. In January 2012, she organized #OccupyArt21, a two-week guest stint on the Art21 blog in which 10 artists contributed written works addressing the Occupy LA movement. Her curatorial projects have also included You Don’t Bring Me Flowers: An Evening of Re-Performances (PØST, 2010) and Signals: A Video Showcase (Orange County Museum of Art, 2008). Portions of this article were changed on July 8, 2013.