Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Intermission is over

This morning I woke up to some great news and holiday wishes for 2011 from the wonderful Lia&Dan Perjovschi. The news was that they have opened a new artist studio/ archive in Sibiu and the message - which I extend to all my readers - sounded something like:

"Have a great New Year, full of brilliant ideas, great projects and plentiful budgets. May all your plans come to fulfillment. Peace love understanding. And fuck the crisis!"

And with that, I'm back !

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Instead of nothing, a preview

Have you heard of the principle "the economy of effort"? It comes from design theory and states that design and production time should be in proportion to the value it produces in the quality of the final product serving the users' needs. Lately I've been hard pressed to apply my efforts to this blog, in that I have a lot of urgent topics I would like to address, but not enough time to render them to my readers in the quality that I would like. The work of an art history graduate student is mostly directed toward the assimilation of theory, rather than responding to art and culture as it unfolds in the world beyond the pages of the book. For a scholar in training of modernism and contemporary art, a balance between the life of the mind, the expectations of one's professors and being involved current art happenings is a sort of utopia: we all aspire to achieve it, but in the end we fall back to resolving the pressures of academia foremost. I would like this blog to offer a space of resistance towards the latter, and that is why I decided to devote this entry to introduce you to three recent art events which will constitute larger themes in the unfolding map that I am piecing together with my readers.

Last Saturday and Sunday, the wonderful artists of the Bureau of Melodramatic Research (Irina Gheorghe and Alina Popa), staged an intervention in the Carol Park in Bucharest. Entitled Cry-Baby (a throw back to John Water's 1990 film), the event proposed a training in good manners for the general public in the capital. What was the rationale behind this intervention? According to the artists, it started with the observation that the global crisis of capitalism is discoursively translated into an official rhetoric of optimism. Finally overshadowed by negative feelings, the transnational ode to joy gives way to panic and a sort of emotional collapse. The artists link economic and poltical depression with the nervous kind, catalyzed by doctrinal public lamentations. And even if the EU forbade the tradition of mourners in Eastern public space, generalized teary outbursts cannot be subjected to jurisprudence anymore. At the same time, there is a new category of official mourning, a new code of good manners, of the emo-political kind. This code is made popular by officials of all kinds, from presidents to corporations, generating compassion to justify economical interests. On the other hand, if we consider depression as a deactivation of desire, it can constitute a key breach in the social nervous system, an unsolvable equilibrium in the miracle of self-sufficient capitalism. Following this circuit of emotionality, The Bureau of Melodramatic Research conceptualizes crying as a form of resistance and a way to manipulate consensus at the same time. Thus, the Bureau proposes a new guide of good manners, the "cry-baby guide." Using onion as a catalyst of emotions in public space, it seeks to destroy the monopoly of sentimental outbursts in public space. Cry-baby suggests reflexive-crying as a form of anti-crying, a protest which begins with organic tear-gases.

Switching gears, the great team of Club ElectroPutere in Craiova, have just had a very successful double-opening, as part of a larger project, Romanian Cultural Resolution, an analysis of contemporary cultural discourse through art in light of the post-Communist condition in Romania, in which constant references to the unresolved past coexist with Utopian projections of a democratic future. The exhibit "An Image Instead of a Title," seeks to engender an archive where, images rather than texts anchor cultural and political narratives: The 'Gospel of St. John' is transcribed on copy-sheets in preparation of a difficult exam in the work of Ciprian Muresan; Cristi Rusu zooms in the Venetian street sign 'Calle della morte' (Street of Death) until his hands start shaking and the frame loses focus; Miklos Onucsan re-tells the history of rust methodically from its origins to the present, as a layer of decrepitude in the absence of the rusting object; finally, the colors of the Romanian flag materialize the interdiction to look and speak for Serge Spitzer, led into exile by the ideological brutality of the dictatorship.

Club ElectroPutere juxtaposes this opening with another provocative exhibition, "Figurative Painting in Romania between 1970 and 2010." Another national painting retrospective may seem banal to the uninformed viewer, until he or she is forced to construct a shared narrative connecting works produced before the Revolution, in its immediate aftermath, and during the dramatic opening of Romanian artists towards international trends in the last 10 years. Artists like Ioana Batranu, Sorin Campan, Constantin Flondor or Gheorghe Ilea contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the period before 1989. Their works are marked by a rejection of both the official painting style of the regime, and of new cultural trends imported from the West after the fall of the dictatorship. I should also mention that in most cases, these paintings have never been viewed by an audience bigger than the artists' close friends and a handful of scholars. Thus, they are inserted and produced in a yet uncharted history of Romanian modern art. Together with this group, the exhibition features Adrian Ghenie, Victor Man, Gili Mocanu and Serban Savu, which began their careers in the period of opening at the end of the 1990s. Thus, their works are oftentimes concerned with socio-cultural transition, keeping alive the ambiguities of recent history - as in the case of Victor Man whose' work "The place I'm coming from" can be seen as a polysemic question.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for these kind of investigations, which will be expanded in longer interviews with the protagonists over the course of the next weeks. Until then, academia beacons my return to the page.

Image credit: Bureau of Melodramatic Research, "Cry-Baby," intervention in Carol Park, Bucharest (above), opening of "An Image instead of a Title" + "Figurative Painting in Romania 1970-2010" at Club ElectroPutere, Craiova (below), October 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Between failure and affect: social movements and 1989

In modern art history we talk a lot about success and failure. We cringe at the thought that an art movement has failed to effect change in its own context, and has thus failed. But then, what are we to do with celebrated works of art that were never seen or even discredited in their time? What is the value of avant-garde movements that have historically been eradicated by the total art of totalitarianism? And closer to home, what can we imagine to be the role of neo-avant-gardes today in Romania, when the post-revolutionary social, political and economic order is severely tested?

Just recently, in the past year or so, there has been a resurgence of full blown protests in these distinct but interconnected spheres in the country. The failure of the democratic, free market economy is starting to become more poignant : the Parliament is up to receive another no-confidence vote just next week, while the Social Democrats have come up with 100 more or less idiotic solutions for a "Fair Romania, Social Romania." No matter. Most state employees are either abandoning the sinking ship or taking the Palace of Parliament and the Government building by storm protests. My own parents who have lived most their adult lives under a dictatorship, and did not leave, are seriously considering jobs in Western Europe just a couple of years before retirement. What promises and responsibilities did we inherit from the 1989 Revolution?

Remember Timisoara? After 45 years of dictatorship, the people of this city formed the nucleus of the Romanian Revolution, which by December 22nd 1989 had spread all over the country, and in the capital, Bucharest. Unlike other Eastern European societies where the overthrow of former regimes was peaceful for the most part, the Romanian revolution unfolded into thousands of casualties ( figures vary from 2000 to 10.000). In the aftermath, the newly appointed legal system – still run by the nomenclature, should have brought those responsible for the December massacre and for the 45 years of oppression to trial. They failed to do so, chosing to simply execute the dictator and declare the country was now free of communism. Thus, the injustices of December 1989 and of the Communist past remain to this day a running sore on the Romanian community. During the events of December 1989, the National Salvation Front was formed and made its appearance on national television. The most prominent speaker, Ion Illiescu, a former high official of the Romanian Communist Party would later become president of the country. Despite the group’s efforts to deny its connection with the previous communist party, it soon became obvious to many Romanians that the party’s anti-communism was an old and painfully familiar type of propaganda.

In response to the surge of neo-communism, worker and student associations held meetings in Timisoara to adopt the Proclamation of Timisoara , which stated: “ For the victory of the Revolution, in Timisoara, together with the Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Serbs and members of other ethnic groups died, who for centuries lived peacefully in our city. We want to live in a country where tolerance and mutual respect are the only principles that will rule the future Europe Home.” Of significance was the proposal that “ an electoral law that forbids former communist activists and former Secret Police officers for the first three consecutive elections from standing for election on any electoral list and the inclusion of a special paragraph in the law forbidding former communist activists to run for President.” These circumstances prepared the ground for the University Square Protests (also called the Golaniad), which lasted for 6 months. On April 22nd 1990 a mass protest began in this place in Bucharest. The protesters declared themselves to be peaceful, multicultural, anti-communist and anti-neo-communist.

President Iliescu called those in University square golani (thugs), a label rapidly appropriated by the demonstrators who, in addition to calling themselves golani, baptized the space they occupied in University Square Golania (Thug Land). This was a particularly bad choice of words for Ililescu because only 4 months earlier dictator Ceausescu had referred to the protesters who initiated the 1989 Revolutions as hooligans. The University Square protest was in many ways a cultural event where artistic expression in the form of slogans and songs served the political goals of the protesters. Their signs exclaimed for example: “Yesterday hooligans, today thugs!” “Today in the capital, tomorrow in the whole country!” “We do not go home, the dead won’t let us” and “We will die but we will be free.” With the same principles in mind, songs were composed with the purpose of building continuity with the 1989 Revolution and of overthrowing the National Salvation Front (which would later be reconstituted in the Social Democratic Party). Most of the songs and slogans accused the present government of the same crimes as the 1989 revolution had the former dictatorial government. The accusations were articulated in lyrics: “ God, come God/ to see what’s left of humans/ There are nights long and sad/ And you don’t even care about those who are not / Those who accuse you from there, from their graves” The University square movement even adopted its of anthem, “Anthem of the Golani” whose lyrics were sung from the University balcony with the crowd joining in from below: “ Better Hoodlum that traitor/ Better Golan than dictator/ Better Hooligan than activist/ Better dead than communist” Music served as a vehicle for sustained social and political challenge in the University square events, giving the events a sense of spectacle while also framing the protesters’ social and political identities, in their protest against the government. President Ion Iliescu effectively repressed the large scale protest by calling on the miners ‘s union to restore order and democracy in Bucharest. Hundreds of people died and thousands were injured by the club-armed miners.

Even though it was brutally repressed, and thus it could be considered a failure, The University Square movement had a significant impact on politics and culture. Most of its affect stems precisely from its failure, which engrained the limits of control in the fragile post 1989 socio-cultural-political climate. The University Square protest, however marked the formation of a civil society, in particular the birth of several politically active groups such as the Civic Alliance, the Student League and the Group for Social Dialogue, organizations promoting resistance to undemocratic rule and corruption in Romania through trust networks; the founding members had taken part in the protest. Demonstrations, although continued to take place in the University Square from 1990 to 2004. Also this bloody protest continues to receive yearly coverage in newspapers and magazines such as Revista 22 under the title We must not forget.

I would like to suggest that the powerful identity of the University Square survives to this day, and this episode could constitute a major learning tool in a country where the generations of my grandparents and my parents had to rediscover social equality, while my own generation had to grasp its implications. I argue that the affect of social movements does not have to end with the movement itself; I believe the latter can have long-term political implications, as its symbolic and social force can be sustained by other means.

So today, even if its the Social Democrats (for more or less self-serving reasons) telling us to not sit quietly in our benches and upset the political order, I cannot but sympathize with those who do, for reasons that may seem illegal, exaggerated or unjustified. Because I haven't forgotten how they used to beat the Hooligans in University Square into quietly going back to work. I am a proud hooligan who will not be quiet.

Image credit: Zone free of Neo-communism/ University Square Protests in 1990, Bucharest, Romania

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960: A review in absentia

If there is one piece of material that any self-respecting Art Library should own it is without a doubt Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960, a source book of the most important unofficial developments and counter-cultural models in Romanian society during the Cold War period of severe repression and the first years of transition immediately after it. The material suggests "Art" moves beyond the definitions of visual production, and includes exponents in diverse fields such as: literature, theater, dance & choreography, music, film, architecture and visual arts, in some cases from an interdisciplinary angle. Published by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art and Culture in 1997, the book covers the largely undocumented period between 1960 and 1996 in the country, and to my knowledge it is the only collective effort that pieces together the fragmented and conflicted history of the Romanian neo-avantgarde, some of whose representatives are currently internationally acclaimed artists, such as: Ana Lupas, Paul Neagu, Ion Grigorescu, Andrei Cadere, Teodor Graur, Lia & Dan Perjovschi and Geta Bratescu to name just a few.

One would think that a book of this magnitude would be widely printed around the world (especially since it's in both Romanian and English), but the reality is that in Europe you can only find a copy at the ICCA in Bucharest, the former Soros Center (open freely to the general public) and in the U.S. at the MOMA library (if you can afford the 12 $ ticket for students and 20 $ for the general public) or at the National Gallery of Art Library (finally, for free).

It seems fitting then that on the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a chance visit to the ICCA in Bucharest introduced me to a book about experiments in building socio-cultural-political alternatives in a time of great duress, and in the period immediately following the dictatorship. The beginning of the book places Romanian Experimental Arts in the larger Eastern European context and offers an overview of the developments in the country since the 1950's. The authors portray the difficult situations of the artists, who had to split their lives between official work for the Union of Fine Art and the Communist Party and their personal artistic interests. In Romania, artists lived within the fluctuations of repression, relaxing censorship and its consequent tightening during the70s and 80s. This was particularly the case starting with 1971, when Ceausescu's so-called 'ideological theses' were published. This situation reflected a real split in the artists' identity: the public or official style on the one hand and the personal, hidden style of their own work on the other.

Unlike other Soviet Bloc countries where artists collectives were active (such as NSK in Slovenia or Collective Actions in Russia), the book presents the insularity of Romanian artists and the scarcity of groups with a specific aesthetic; this was due to extreme surveillance – informers for the Secret Police numbered one out of six Romanians at the time. This engendered an analytic quality of Romanian art: the artists used their own situation as the subject of their work, creating actions in seemingly impossible circumstances and inserting them into everyday life. These specific types of tactics and strategies have yet to be fully understood contemporary art theory, and this book is the first example to offer original material in this respect.

The predicaments of Romanian artists are eloquently presented through the 1970s work of Paul Neagu, who placed several art objects in black boxes, thus making them inaccessible to the viewer. The boxes contained small objects of variable forms, which could only be touched, forcing the audience to create their own mental images of what was inside. Neagu’s work is an allegory of his milieu, expressing what could not be seen or talked about: art outside censorship; moreover, the black boxes suggested the condition of Romanian art in general, which was confined to back rooms, so as to remain unnoticed or secretly enacted in discrete actions merged into everyday life.

Another important contribution of “Experiment since 1960” is the documentation and analysis of video art and experimental film, a completely neglected chapter in Romanian contemporary art. In these chapters, the art historian Calin Dan argues that cultural experiments are intimately bound to technological ones, characterizing the experiments in new media as the aesthetics of poverty, which resulted from a dramatically oppressive reality. Dan goes on to suggest that experimental film and video art (which was basically recording actions and happenings) were the markers of underground culture, not only because they were non-conformist ways of expressions, but because they were the only documents of the underground milieu. A hallmark moment in this uncharted history is Ion Grigorescu’s “Dialogue with Ceausescu” (1978) in which the artist plays two opposing roles, one as himself and the other wearing a mask with the face of the dictator. The two men talk about the people’s welfare in the communist society orchestrated by Ceausescu. Grigorescu confronts the dictator with the declining material and social prosperity of the people. The film has no sound and the subtitles running over the picture are almost illegible, suggesting a line of self-reflection and questioning in complete contradiction with the political structure and socio-cultural restrictions of the 70s.

I hope my presentation of just a few chapters of “Experiment since 1960” stirs your appetite for more exploration. For any scholar seriously engaged in contemporary art practices and/or this geographic region, this book is paramount. But the value of “Experiment” or moreover the elision of its value due to its limited availability points to a larger problem.

In my earlier posts I mentioned the scarcity of documentation and archives on Romanian modern and contemporary art (and the same is true for most countries in the former Soviet Union). By returning to this urgency, I want to emphasize the correlation between erasing or neglecting cultural history and destabilizing a people's heritage and identity, a dangerous venture in the midst of the sweeping structural transformations in the past 20 years in the region. Of course, I consider identity as a fluctuating, continually constructed concept, but in the case of Romania, where history and culture have been erased and re-written successively in 20-year intervals, the volatility of legacy can be easily linked to real social conflict and violence (only last summer major cities in the country were the sites of dramatic strikes with human casualties as a response to major cutbacks in public wages). This may seem like an overstatement in the case of just one book about art, but what I want to emphasize is that it's not only a book that counts, but the eroding process of eliminating historically seminal books, models, archives, centers, educational alternatives from the socio-political landscape of Romania. The absence in Romanian historiography of sound cultural models incapacitates communities to seek sustainable positions of resistance that confront instead of seek to erase the status quo, and ultimately fall back to reinforce it.

Image credit: Artists featured in "Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960" (clockwise from left): Teodor Graur, Ship Recollection (1987), Marilena Preda Sanc, My Body in Space and Time, Time in Time and Memory of Everything (1983), Mihai Olos, Sketch for the "Universal City" (1967), Andrei Cadere, Action in the Bruxelles Fine Arts Museum (1976), Roxana Trestioreanu, Me Among Others (1993), Dan Perjovschi,Transfiles (1995), Marilena Preda Sanc, Bodyscope, Handscope, Mindscope(1993), Valeriu Miedin , Homage to Mengele (1994), Marian Zidaru, Bloody Christmas (1985)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Case-file: Constanta

Whenever members of the art community in Romania ask where I'm from, I usually quickly whisper....Constanta....and a heavy silence follows. I already see a perplexed look in their eyes and then, almost invariably a comment along the lines of: "Constanta!??! There are no artists or scholars there just bishnitzari !(which is a colloquial term for mercers, usually with bad connotations). Up until recently my reply would sound something like: "Yes, I know, we barely have a small art museum, a modest sculpture gallery, an on and off running theater and ballet and a public library that went bankrupt and closed." And then I would change the topic of conversation to hide my own disappointment and slight embarrassment to hail from a commercial enclave whose city officials could not care less about culture and education.

Historically, Constanta is one of the oldest cities in Romania, founded around 600 BCE, as a Greek colony. The ancient name of the town is Tomis, and it was here that the renowned poet Ovid was exiled (47-13 BCE), lamenting his banishment in the famous poems, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Tomis was later renamed Constantantiana, in honor of Constantine the Great (274-337), from which derives its current name. Historically, Constanta is a city ripe with multiculturalism that arches through the centuries - its material traces are visible in the town's major sites: The Roman Edifice with Mosaic (4th century CE), The Archeological Park (3rd-6th century CE), The Genoese Lighthouse (circa 1860), St. Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral (circa 1885), The Great Mahmudyie Mosque (circa 1910), The Greek Theater – now the National Theater (circa 1927) and others more. With such a rich cultural legacy, it is downright pitiful that its officials are effectively eradicating the arts by severely cutting funding from vital establishments such as the library, the museum, the theater and the opera, while pouring funds into the development of tourist resorts.

Contemporary artists in Constanta feel neglected and secluded, with no almost no support, financial or otherwise, scarce available material and no place to showcase their creations. The situation is then forcing them to move to Bucharest or abroad (or abandon their profession for careers in advertising), and/or compromise their artistic integrity by producing only commercial art for mostly Western markets, favoring decorative painting and sculpture. But things are starting to turn in another direction, and while it will take more than one initiative to change the status quo, one may just be the snowball that foretells the avalanche. So today I am a little bit proud to write about a much needed breath of fresh air blowing from Constanta, a foundation that uses art as a vehicle to inspire a much needed social change in my hometown.

The Menthor Foundation was established in 2000 as a non for profit, nongovernmental organization that works with disenfranchised populations in Constanta, employing artistic practices to sustain a dialogue and give these communities a voice and a platform for agency. The foundation is comprised by a small staff of artists, actors and philologists, which operate under the motto "Menthor for an open society"; their goals were set to offer cultural alternatives to the dire situation in Constanta - a city which boasts the biggest harbor in South-Eastern Europe. In theory and in practice, this collective is starting to introduce socially involved artistic practices into the curriculum as well as offering educational programs to children and young people from disadvantaged socio-economical backgrounds.

By engaging diverse practitioners from theater, visual arts, linguistics, dance and music, the foundation seems to build up confidence and cooperation among the young generation- deprived from a critical age of almost all avenues for critical self-expression in Constanta. Believing that art is a vital part of social change, the people from Menthor started a series of workshops which culminated in the participatory production of plays. Teaming up with the "Play against violence" project initiated by the European Cultural Foundation, they put together a series of active art interventions, appropriately called: "Short Stories About Me" (2001), "The Dream of Reason Creates Monsters" (2002), "Sustainable Journey"(2004) and "Photograms"(2005). Through theater, the participants from diverse backgrounds (as a centuries-old harbor, Constanta has developed as a veritable melting pot for Greeks, Roma, Hungarians, Tatars, Russian Lipovans) were encouraged to share experiences and develop innovative approaches to deal with conflict, discrimination and intolerance.

In 2003, the Menthors took a step further and established the Resource Center for Young People in Constanta, in cooperation with the Concept Foundation (Bucharest). Envisioned as a safe-haven for teenagers from violent environments, the center became a laboratory for artistic endeavors and education through theater and visual arts, emphasizing both process and result as part of its philosophy. By foregrounding participative arts as an alternative form of social work, the center aims to enable commonly disregarded youth, so that they in turn contribute to social change in the long run.

More recently, the foundation has sought to push the boundaries of conventional art spaces (therefore critiquing the lack of creative opportunities offered by Constanta's city officials) by taking over a former military bunker and transforming it into a temporary exhibition space. Opened in August 2007, the installation "Constanta Caz" (The Case of Constanta or The Constanta Bunker), was one of the first contemporary art happenings outside of the Constanta Art Museum, the only official institution designated to promote creative arts in one of the biggest counties in Romania. The artists involved in the project, Gabriel Brojboiu, Gheorghiţă Constantin, Gabriela Gheorghe, Alfred Ipser, Constantin Papadopol, Eusebio Spânu and Dan Perjovschi produced installations, large scale graphic works and drawings directly on the bunker walls. The artists also projected a video of their creative process, an innovative, self-reflecting intervention for the generally conservative milieu in which they operate. And in case you were wondering, the artists mostly functioned as their own curators, distinguishing this project as a manifesto for forming a geo-political collective. From “Constanta Case 1,” evolved a parallel exhibition, which also played on reorienting the viewer along the tangible urgencies of the city, this time focusing on unfinished houses (Constanta is famous for scores of such abandoned urban projects, encroaching on the historical center). The project “Antropocity” (2008) established the concept of alternative art space alongside those of museum and gallery – a big step for a city where such practices are unheard of - using the artists’ urban affiliations to create something where there is a vacuum of people, ideas, objects and relationships between them. It is telling to browse through the catalogues for both “Constanta Cases,” and realize the artists’/ curators’ main concern was to draw out the lines of support that enabled the exhibition, rather than tout the works themselves. I am not suggesting that the content of those works is irrelevant, but perhaps in this case the exhibitions themselves function as a conceptual statement, a work in its own right that engages the challenges of reaching out to the public from a non-conventional, self-sustainable position.

By inventing, writing and enacting their own narratives, the Menthor Foundation espouses the concept of “subjective art history,” a strategy that is becoming more and more pervasive and viable in post 1989 Eastern Europe and Russia. In the next entries I will write more about artists from Romania producing intentionally subjective projects which espouse historicized dominant cultural trends and grand narratives of art.

In the meantime if you’re heading to Constanta this fall, the Menthors are staging the third installment of "Constanta Caz: Ca-n Gara" (an ironic expression which translates to leaving someone/something to their fate or to leave waiting indefinitely- the word “gara” means train station), which will take place, you guessed it – in the Constanta Train Station in October.

Image Credit: Gabriel Brojboiu, Menthor Foundation Workshop and Installation from Antropocity

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Other orbits for DADA: the Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire

If you are reading this blog, then surely you have heard of the notorious cultural movement DADA; you may have even heard the name Tristan Tzara. Credited to the Swiss avant-garde at the beginning of WW1 and spanning to around 1922, the artists involved in DADA produced not only art that was critical of the prevailing standards in modernist culture but also organized demonstrations, raucous public gatherings, a plethora of art and literary journals against the war and intellectual conformity.

What you may not have read is that the half of the founding members of DADA were recent emigrants from Romania to Switzerland, and no, they did not shed their "Romanianess" in the West, nor their Jewish roots. Intrigued? Then this post will satisfy your intellectual hunger.

Hugo Ball, the co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire and one of the authors of the DADA manifesto (together with Tzara), chronicled the establishment of the movement on a fateful February evening in 1916 in Zurich. One of the first things Ball emphasized about the evening was the international composition of the original DADA group: Emmy Hennings singing in French and Danish, Tristan Tzara reciting poems in Romanian and even the presence of a Russian balalaika orchestra. Ball goes on to mention that Tzara had arrived as part of an Oriental-looking deputation of five little men: the architect Marcel Iancu, his brothers George and Jules and the painter Arthur Segal. Yes, you guessed it, all these guys were coming from Romania, which prompted Hugo Ball to conclude that half of the first Dadaist group was Romanian.

It has been mentioned in the art historical literature that Tzara and Iancu had developed prominent careers in their native country before settling into Zurich. But apart from Tom Sandquist's book, Dada East and Foster's The Eastenr Dada Orbit, no scholar has seriously explored the artists' formation in Romania on the same footing as their activities in the Dada movement. For example Tzara's early poems are deeply owing to East European cultural traditions, not to mention the fact that he incorporated Romanian a lot in his art publications and performances. Remember how Hugo Ball mentions the oriental look of men when they performed at Cabaret Voltaire for the first time? It can be argued that the artists were playing on their Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian roots, the main competing empires in Romania at the time. Furthermore, it is more widely un-researched that all the five artists had Jewish roots, and had probably left their homes due to the rise of nationalism and anti-semitism, leaving all five stateless. It is no coincidence then that, Samuel Rosenstock took the name Tristan Tzara, an alliteration which translates from Romanian into "sad in the country." By this very act of changing his name , but retaining his origin, Tzara cannot be divorced from his past in Romania, of which his new identity was a product.

Fin de siècle Romania was a conflicted space where old and new co-existed in an absurdist manner: while cities like Bucharest were emerging as modern and ripe with economic opportunities, one hour away from the capital one came across villages where people lived in burrows in the ground, which was in turned owned by boieri (noblemen) who kept racing stables in Paris. Furthermore, Romania was marginalized geographically as a strange Romance culture debased among Slavs, Turks and Hungarians. Does this ring true as the cradle for the absurdist works characteristic of DADA?

The stateless Romanians dislocated by the adverse socio-political conditions in their home country, found themselves assimilated but not considered citizens in Switzerland. The parallel with Dada's polyglot and multifarious character couldn't be more obvious. More connections could be made between Tzara, Iancu and Segal's otherworldly performances at Cabaret Voltaire and the colinde festivals in Romania, which combined folk songs, plays, carnival and masked actors. While Hugo Ball may have been stupefied at the Oriental costumes Marcel Iancu devised for the opening night, they would have been a familiar sight in Romania, where the use of grotesque masks and puppets is unmistakably linked to the colinde tradition. Also relevant was the Jewish heritage of the five artists: mysticism flourished in 18th and 19th century Eastern Europe, in Cabala for example, which suggested approaching divinity through the annihilation of the ego - a value system reminiscent of Dada's rhetorical stances of self-denial and paradox.

Of course, there is not one explanation of DADA's internationalism, multilingualism and its constant questioning of borders. Its members also hailed from Eastern Germany, Hungary and Czech lands. My purpose is to suggest that there are other contexts from which DADA was born, than those prevailingly upheld in the Western scholarship. A recent exhibition at Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, "DADA East - Romanian contexts of Dadaism," (2008) sought to bring into focus the forgotten roots of the movement, as well as contemporary artists' reaction to this modernist project. The overlooked Eastern influences of DADA beg more cultural projects such as these. Successively obscured by the forces of fascism and then communism in Romania, DADA may prove relevant in the present- an emancipatory facet of modernity as an unfinished venture.

Image credit: Tristan Tzara's Le Coeur A Barbe (1922), engraving by Marcel Iancu(1918) and Dan Perjovschi 's Dada Drawing (2008)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Pioneers in Craiova: Club Electro Putere

Craiova is not a city renowned for its vibrant art scene. In fact its most notable art connection is with the renowned modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who lived and worked in the city in the 1890s.

A lot has changed since then. And two young entrepreneurs are part of a growing effort to revitalize Craiova's social fabric by injecting art and culture into urban life. Adrian Bojenoiu (curator) and Alexandru Niculescu (visual artist) founded Club Electro Putere (CEP) in 2009. The name of the space comes from a large plant in Craiova, but also refers to its trade union and the union's own club. CEP didn't just move into an industrial space, but functions alongside it, in collaboration with the trade union - taking over a building with a cinema, conference rooms and exhibition halls especially built for cultural purposes during the communist period.

Their first project is an ambitious one: Romanian Cultural Resolution(first presented in May 2010 at Werkschau Spinnerei Leipzig) is a four part exhibition, analyzing the last twenty years of cultural strategies in Romania, at the intersection of the immediate references to the communist past and corresponding projections of an unrealized democracy. "An Image instead of a Title" (October 2010) explores the concept of art archives, and their role in culture and society, suggesting a type of archive indexed by images rather than texts; "Here and then" (forthcoming 2010) is focused on artists from different generations, bringing forth the issue of relativity, national identity and agency through art; "Fetish Factory" (June 2010) is concerned with the objectification of the traumatic, communist condition in the post 1989 period, criticizing the process through which these experiences are transformed into cultural products; lastly, "Painting section" (October 2010) presents a selection of figurative painting in the last forty years in Romania, overarching the now removed pre 1989 experiences to the socio-cultural transitions in recent history. You can read more about Romanian Cultural Resolution and each of the four exhibitions here.

It is exciting to see an intelligent project that focuses not only on art but is also preoccupied with culture(s), initiated in a city that needs a cultural reinvention. For this reason I invited Alexandru Niculescu, the co-founder of CEP(Club Electro Putere) to share some insights into this enterprise.

Can you tell us how you came to be involved with the contemporary art scene in Craiova? Why contemporary art?

The idea of opening a contemporary art center in Craiova, our town, came up last year after having planned to make an exhibition together: artist – curator. We shared a common vision about contemporary art and it didn't take too long to realize that we have the tools and premises to build much more than an exhibition; Adrian Bojenoiu 's philosophical/theoretical background, my artistical experience and the possibility to activate a space where nothing has been happening for the last 15 years, were enough to open a place. Our space is independent from the local art scene , we are actually coming up with another type of discourse. Why contemporary art? Because this is what i have been doing all the time.

How do you negotiate between being an artist yourself and being involved in running an art space?

I think 'artist run spaces' have become very popular in the last few years. And I can understand why. Artists make less compromises with the quality when they work independently. For me, as an artist, the fact of being in the entourage of these great artists is a winning situation. It helps giving a serious input to the quality of my work.Furthermore, this center is part of my artistic ideas and I see the creative part of it rather than the administrative one.

I noticed how your exhibits are very conceptual and promote young artists as well. Most centers or galleries don’t take this approach. Can you tell us something about what guides your curatorial principles?

Our guidelines in making projects can be very diverse. I can't say we are promoting only young artists. We actually started with a project that mixes the generations and focuses not only on artists who have been active before the '89 Revolution as well, but also on young emerging and established ones. Of course, what matters is the quality of the concept and the exhibitions, not the age. Moreover, promoting is not the right word for our activity. Our priority is to make culture, to disseminate contemporary art within the community, to be educationally involved.

How does CEP fit into the Romanian and international art scene? Do you collaborate with other institutions and/or publications?

We are a new alternative young space with a good start, we had a successful event: Romanian Cultural Resolution in Werkschau Spinnerei Leipzig. Even if we did not do that many events so as to define our specific, I can tell you about what might be our interests from now on. Nowadays West is focusing on East, East is focusing on West. But we would like to be among the few from East that take interest in East; so this will probably be our goal, to reactivate a forgotten space which, due to the history, is being ignored these days. We are interested in showing great art from Ex Soviet countries or from the Balcans for example.

We are at the very beginning and didn't have time to make partnerships with other art centers or art institutions. We have a good collaboration with the Romanian Cultural Institute. Regarding publications, we are preparing the catalogue of the above-mentioned show.

How do you see the general evolution of contemporary art spaces in Craiova and Romania as a whole? Are there common issues that they are confronted with?

There are always the same problems, not to mention others particularly related to the place and the moment. An important one might be the sustainability of these kind of initiatives, art centers whose existence depends on funding. Romania doesn't have a tradition in investing in art spaces, but hopefully this will change at the moment we acquire different mentalities, when private and public institutions start to invest in culture.

It is difficult to anticipate how the situation will evolve, but nevertheless Romanian Culture is going upwards and seems to be more an more present around the world.

We are living in a period where entertainment trumps culture. Given this situation, what strategies does your space use to gain a following / a public?

Our projects address everybody interested in art. Due to the fact that we are pioneers, the public is not a problem. These days information is being spread with the speed of light, so young people are coming for the novelty of the projects. Craiova has a strong tradition in theater and the Shakeaspeare festival became well-known abroad in the 90s, people were crowding to get a place for Silviu Purcarete' s show. A precedent has been therefore already set.

Can you describe the present state of art critics at the beginning of their career? What resources can they access in terms of education, funds, collaborations?

I´m not the most suitable person to answer this question, an art critic would do better. Yet I can recommend the two grants I benefited of, dispensed by the Romanian government, each lasting for two years: „Vasile Parvan” in the Romanian Academy in Rome and „Theodor Aman” in Leipzig – for both artists and art critics. The last one can be anywhere in the world, for me Leipzig was a personal choice. They are great scholarships, I owe these grants all my achievements in the last 4 years.

How do you see the evolution of CEP in the future? What are your long-term goals?

A successful mission of disseminating contemporary culture will make us confident about the natural evolution of CEP, turning it into a cultural reference at the international level. And it's a good sign that you and other art critics take interest in our activity; it proves that we are on the right track.

Image credit: Club Electro Putere, Opening of Fetish Factory, June 2010