How Maria Sideri’s work and research confronts the archive as a space of action rather than accumulation

An essay by Christian Oxenius

(Above) Portrait of Valentine de Saint Point Agence de presse Meurisse, Bibliothèque nationale de France. (Below) Album Reutlinger de portraits divers, vol. 42, photographie positive, Valentine de Saint, Date: between 1875 and 1917, National Library of France (BnF)

In a text until recently largely forgotten by critics and historians one of the fathers of Futurism Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, with a light-hearted tone be it undeniably imbued with sexist and misogynist remarks, describes in under two hundred pages the art of seduction, for the ideal futurist. The short pamphlet “Come si seducono le donne” [How to seduce women, translation by the author][1] serves as a mirror to glimpse at the evolution of one of the main characters behind the futurist movement who, just a few years prior in the Futurist Manifesto (point 9) had clearly stated a “scorn for woman”. While certainly women are still considered “secondary” the text also leaves room for a “new feminine” to emerge like in the following passage:

Consider a woman like a sister of the sea, of the wind, of the clouds, of electrical batteries, of tigers, of sheep, of geese, of carpets, of sails […] They think, desire, work; they too prepare the new intellectual progress of humanity.

“Come si seducono le donne” F. T. Marinetti, p. 144 (Translation by the author)

Although there are no documents to historically prove this, it is likely that the shift is also a consequence of the emergence within the French and later international Futurism of a figure which will have a great influence on the movement with her unconventional life and positions: Valentine de Saint Point. Born in Lyon in 1875, de Saint Point was a descendant of a notable bourgeois family who since early years moved in literary circles eventually rising to international fame with her “Manifesto of the Futurist Woman” and “Futurist Manifesto of Lust”.

Maria Sideri, Vibrant Matter/La Métachorie, performance, 2014, Arts Admin, London. Photograph: Manuel Vason

Valentine, as Maria Sideri affectionately and intimately referred to De Saint Point throughout our recent conversation, who over the years has been described as an artist, activist, journalist, art critic and perhaps spy, is more than just an inspiration and reference to Sideri’s work and approach to artistic practice. And no doubt, the complexity of the character makes it easy to believe that, once one engages and dives into her life, it can easily become a life’s work to narrate her oeuvre. In Sideri’s case though, what becomes clear throughout our conversation is that Valentine is not the mere object of a research, she has become over years of research a life companion, confidant and inspiration. What began as a breadcrumb trail of documents spread in archives in France, Italy and Egypt guided not only the research but life itself of Sideri who, in this journey developed a practice based an idea of the archive that moves away from a patriarchal vision of a space of power, becoming instead a lived substance, a medium itself which she weaves into a rich and multifaceted texture.

While in Sideri’s early works such as the Vibrant Matter — The Métachorie, presented as a performance and installation among others during the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale in 2013 the influence of de Saint Point is still very direct and obvious. Their relationship starts to complexify through her series “It comes in waves”, formally part of the same body of work. The three-part publication (2014–2015) unfolds a dialogue between Sideri and Valentine over “their” understanding of feminism, desire, lust, performance/dance among others which, observing the overall practice of Sideri can almost be considered her own manifesto be it written in dialogic form. Through these short pamphlets containing fictional dialogues between Sideri and the French intellectual, historical documents and texts commissioned for the occasion to other researchers and poets we come in touch with a radical view of feminism that moves away from a mere political opposition to patriarchy in an attempt to break free of a sterile dichotomy; we are guided, at hand of historical accounts, through the Arab liberation fight against the colonial rule in Syria and Egypt and the parallel women emancipation movements in the region.

Moving forward to a more recent work of Sideri to understand how these influences and approaches form the basis of her current practice unfolding at the touching point between anthropological research and performative practice. Invited by In Situ (http://in-situ.info/), a European platform for artistic creations in public space active since 2003, to participate in the series “Artistic Acupuncture Missions” a project coordinated by Lieux Publics Sideri was given the opportunity to develop a project in Marseilles between 2018 and late 2019. Titled “Assemblages” her contribution to Acupuncture develops in the tradition of flaneurism to reflect on the space of women in public space in Marseille. She does so not only using her own perspective but gathering a dense network of individuals and associations dealing on a daily basis with these issues to multiply the lenses through which she’s observing the city. These external helpers and contributors include women’s collectives, sociologists, students, social workers and public officials.

Maria Sideri, Assemblages, part of the Act Project, Artistic Acupuncture Missions, 2019–2020, research and participative project in collaboration with Lieux Publics and École Supérieure du Désigne de l’École Diderot, DSAA, Marseille. Photo: Adrien Zammit

The project brings her to confront structural elements such as urban design, often determined exclusively by a male gaze, social networks that come to facilitate or hinder the feeling of a shared and inclusive space and city policies that, in the name of safety and/or public decor exacerbate the creation of zones of exclusion. Her intervention, which she defines as an Assemblages, is composed by three phases and aims ultimately at the staging of a performative representation of all the difficulties as well as the proposed strategies to render the space of the Southern French city more inclusive.

The first phase aims at the gathering of data about strategies through which women navigate the city in their daily lives. In the second these information are re-assembled into a utopic representation of the city with the help of a graphic designer and turned into light-boxes used to illuminate dark and unsafe street spaces. The third and final phase brought together all the participating women in an attempt to draft a manifesto of women in public space. This would however not only take the form of a written document but also of a public performance taking place in the very spaces identified by the participants as an act of reclaiming the streets by the same women who feel excluded or intimidated. Due to the limitation imposed by the Covid19 pandemic the project could not be realised in full with parts of it being shifted online and others changed from their original format to find a way to maintain their presence in the physical space of the city.

At first seemingly distant from the world of Valentine, this project I believe makes clear that the intimate relationship developed between Sideri and de Saint Point makes follow her strategies and interests much more than her historical figure as such. The ghost of Valentine is present as a reassuring figure to turn to in order to gain the courage to tackle through her practice the issues Sideri feels are still holding women and feminist struggle back in regard to self-realisation, decolonisation and emancipation, much in the same way that de Saint Point did in France, Syria or Egypt almost a century ago.

Maria Sideri, Vibrant Matter/La Métachorie, photo: Ana Matos, Artsadmin, London.

Maria Sideri is SNF ARTWORKS Fellow (2018). ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Our aim is to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr

Christian Oxenius is a German-Italian independent curator, author and researcher living between Athens and Istanbul. His academic background in sociology and urban studies led him to pursue a PhD at the University of Liverpool on biennials as institutional model, during the course of which he established collaborations with Athens, Liverpool and Istanbul Biennial; during this period, he developed a particular interest in artists’ communities and storytelling. His research into experimental writing on art has resulted in a number of exhibitions and publications of international relevance.

[1] Originally published in 1917 and recently republished by Rizzoli, Italy.

Essays, texts and interviews about contemporary Greek artists and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship Program. www.art-works.gr

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