Since 2003 Sarah Pierce (born Connecticut, USA, 1968, lives in Dublin) has used an umbrella term – The Metropolitan Complex – to describe her art practice. Despite its institutional resonance, this title does not signify an organisation. Instead, it covers various discursive working methods, involving papers, interviews, archives, talks and exhibitions. Pierce characterises The Metropolitan Complex as “a way to play with the hang-ups (read 'complex' in the Freudian sense) that surround cultural work.” Her project demonstrates a broad understanding of cultural work, one that is articulated through both institutional and personal patterns of organisation, and which includes the incidental and coincidental. The processes of research and presentation that the artist undertakes are designed to highlight the potential for dissent and self-determination within such structures. One of the artist's emphases is on a “shared neuroses of place”, whether a specific locality or a wider set of circumstances that frame interaction, and central to her activity is the consideration of forms of gathering, both historical examples and discussions that she initiates and transcribes. Another arena for Pierce's exploration of privacy and openness is the archive, both personal and institutional, and the artist refers to the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills as a model for the “interdisciplinary aspects of intellectualism, and the practice of keeping a file, or set of files, that contains all the ideas or materials that compel one's research”. Mills advocated generating the archive, not through a static ordering, but through a constant reassessment and rearrangement of elements, where spontaneous proximity leads to unpredictable connections.
Pierce's project The Meaning of Greatness (2006) demonstrates her approach to both the gathering and the archive. Through the recreation of artworks and the presentation of archival artifacts, the artist considers the influence of Eva Hesse, the incidental similarities between the lives of Hesse and Pierce's own mother, and the significance of periods of student protest in both the US and in Yugoslavia – Pierce conducted research into the Student Cultural Centre archive in Belgrade. Such projects explore the slippages between individual work and the institutional context, providing a telling assessment of how the structures through which people gather and organise are connected to political gestures in art.
As part of Nought to Sixty Pierce has undertaken a period of research in the ICA's own archive, focussing on two seminal events in the organisation's history – the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form (1969) and the conference The State of British Art, A Debate (1978). Each event connects to debates around art-making and organisation: Pierce presents both the practical remnants of institutional organisation, including redundant plinths and vitrines and archival documents; and the broader concerns of political organisation, protest and teaching, through interviews and documentation, and video of a closed workshop in which participants acted out gestures and recited quotes from bystanders at various political demonstrations.