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

Friday, August 27, 2010

They pay artists don't they? Bucharest Biennale /Part 2


Rarely have I taken part in a press conference/ artist panel that blew up in the organizers' faces, and most definitely none so intense as the debate I witnessed this May at the Intercontinental Hotel. Scores of artists exhibiting in the Biennale were present, art critics and media representatives, as well as the curator, Felix Vogel, the directors, Razvan Ion and Eugen Radescu, and Ioana Nitu the executive director. The conflict started when Vogel suggested the artists engage with the following prompt: "What role does narrative play in your practice and how are you transforming those narratives in your work?" And then things took an unexpected turn.

French artist Jean-Paul Naudy, member of the French/Hungarian cooperative "Societe Realiste" , stood up and challenged the curator: "It's not about narratives! " The overcrowded room turned so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It is worth reproducing Naudy's statement, which articulated many artists' concerns over having a budget to produce their work, but not a per diem for their actual labor:

“I am a professional artist, which means I pay my rent, feed my daughter, buy clothes, Champaign and kebab while practicing art. This event has been produced; there are lots of people involved in putting on such an event. All of the people that work here, the press, the artists. Everyone is a professional. And everyone is being paid. Because it is your work. I know that you fundraised a lot of money to produce this event. I guess you have an agreement with the Hotel Intercontinental in order for me to sleep in a five star hotel. On Monday I was sleeping in a park and tonight I am sleeping in a very nice, good, fancy, expensive bed.

And my question is how is it possible, that in an international event like this one that pretends to raise questions about political economy, possibility to produce differences and open the field of knowledge and consciousness…how is it possible that I don’t even have 20 euro of per diem?…How do you pretend to contest the dominant political economy while you have people working to produce your damn event who are not getting paid! I know there are people in this exhibit who were paid, and I was not. Why!? We can talk about theoretical things, we can talk about abstract things, but this is reality. I am a worker, a proletariat, I am producing works for your context and I am not paid!”

So let's leave the narrative aside and ask the question few dare to bring up: Who decides what artists get paid and on what principles? It is beyond the scope of my entry to fully answer this question. Indeed it can be the subject of a thesis or a book. But it is an important issue to address, one that is mostly confined to the back-rooms of institutions.

The organizer's reply to Jean-Baptiste Naudy's concern showed their lack of preparedness to engage with a problem that is extremely relevant in the context of an exhibition at the intersection of art, politics and activism. Namely, Vogel shyly explained that the Biennale budget was raised through embassies and art councils, which in most cases provided the artists a grant to produce the actual artwork, but in very few awarded travel or living expenses for their trips to Bucharest, not to mention paying them for their work. But that was not the artist's point however. Naudy cut much deeper at the heart of inequalities about the funding procedures for artists coming from different countries, and those for the organizers. The artists retort was to the point : "Are you paid?" (for being the curator of Bucharest Biennale). Vogel shortly replied, yes, he was. "Well, I'm not!" and with that Naudy stormed out of the conference room, while the remaining artists applauded his intervention.

Next, Razvan Ion ( the co-director of the Biennale) took the microphone qualifying the artist's comments as "offensive" for someone coming "from somewhere in the West." But again, this response is dismissive, refusing to deal with the real problem of artists' funding. Moreover, the silence that followed demonstrated that the audience's concerns remain unresolved, because of a combination of the curator's unpreparedness and the director's violent suppression of the topic.

The whole affair reminded me of a similar conflict also sparked between the directors of Pavilion and a Russian artists' collective, Chto Delat / What is to be done ? (based in St. Petersburg). Namely, on the occasion of the exhibition Comrades of Time, in February 2010, Chto Delat were invited by the directors and the curator (and then dis-invited) to present a video work - Angry Sandwich People or a Praise of Dialectic (2005). The artists group initially requested a fee for their work to be shown at Pavilion, arguing that since the space was financed by Unicredit (an important bank in Europe) and named in honor of the same bank, the latter should offer more solid support and provide production and per diem costs for the artists. In the artists words: "there is something perverse about featuring the bank's name without securing enough funding to run a decent program and treat artists and contributors right. " (You can read a longer version of the conflict in the artists’ words here.) After all, on the official Unicredit website, the bank boasts that:

“As part of a banking group with a tradition in supporting the arts, UniCredit Tiriac Bank has a strong interest in cultural artistic projects. We already have a tradition in supporting social and environment protection projects. We believe in the power of example, and this is why we involve our employees in the various projects that we support. Beyond its main objective of making profit, we think that a private company has a responsibility to give something back to the community. Without this, we cannot speak of sustainability.”

It would be logical to assume from Unicredit's statement that as an institution supporting the arts, it would provide the much needed financial support for the artists, curators and cultural managers working on its premises. It is precisely to this point that Chto Delat wanted to make an intervention. After being informed by Pavilion that there were no funds for artist fees, they agreed to show the work for free, but on the condition that the video be presented in conjunction with a discussion on the issue of financial support for the arts from corporate sponsors. In other words, why aren't artists paid for their work at Unicredit? The board of Pavilion rejected this proposal, informing Chto Delat that "their board couldn’t permit anyone to exhibit an attack on their institution (even in the form of an artwork) within the institution itself." And like in the case of Bucharest Biennale, the show went on glossing over thorny issues.

Sound familiar to a similar debate only a few months later, involving the same institutions and the same (unanswered) urgencies? By refusing to further discuss the matter, the team of Pavilion foreclosed the opportunity of a real discussion dealing with the actual problems artists face to produce their works and make a living out of it. On both occasions, a radical challenge of the principles of corporate funding was pushed behind the walls of institutions with power and capital. It is disheartening that precisely the Pavilion side is self-censoring itself from engaging with the grey area of the politics of sponsorship, when their survival is assured by being backed by one of the richest banks in Europe. If an art center with this kind of prowess cannot critique the politics of the economy, then what relevancy can it claim to have in the community it is supposed to serve?

Both cases are particular instances, bound up in personal narratives and emotions that nonetheless point to a larger problem which, whether they like it or not, art centers like Pavilion will have to face more openly and directly. After all, how can a self-proclaimed leftist art center oriented towards socially responsible projects avoid the issue of funding and artist fees? We have all heard and read the narratives in the catalogue and the media, been impressed with the richness and depth of art works in the Biennale- now let’s get real and actually challenge the status-quo.


Image credit: Pavilion Unicredit, Banner for Bucharest Biennale in Victory square (left) and artists panel at Intercontinental Hotel(right)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Between narrative and (in)action: Bucharest Biennale 4 /Part 1



Have you heard of Bucharest Biennale? If you've looked around your prestigious art publications this summer, you might have read about it in Frieze or the Economist, Artforum or even Vogue Italy. From May 21st to July 25th the Biennale, now at it's fourth edition, boasts to be "the most important contemporary art event in Romania" and "the meeting point of the art community in Central and Eastern Europe." The Biennale was organized by the contemporary art and culture center Pavilion Unicredit, located in Bucharest in Victory Square, right across from the Romanian government. The center is funded by the bank Unicredit Group, which also provided the organizers space for exhibitions and offices starting with February 2009 - in a former wing of the bank.

I came to know the Bucharest Biennale in 2006 (then at its second installment), taking part at a parallel event, "The Brunch," at CAA(Center for Art Analysis), moderated by Lia and Dan Perjovschi. There I met one of the biennale's co-directors, Razvan Ion, who remained memorable in my recollection of the discussion when he cried that living and working in Romania makes him want to smash his head against the wall everyday. I enjoyed his buoyant spirit then, and when I decided to spend time in the capital this winter I approached him and the team of Pavilion for a collaboration. Among other responsibilities, I was assigned to translate and edit artist texts for the fourth edition of the Biennale, act as a liaison between the curator, Felix Vogel and the artists, and handle publicity and marketing for the event. But as the months progressed, I felt disappointed that what started out as a collaboration on equal terms turned into an errand running operation, where my criticism of the Pavilion team's practices were discouraged and ignored. I decided I wanted more out of the position than being someone's secretary and stopped working at Pavilion right before the Biennale was supposed to be installed. My contribution to the texts for the Biennale catalogue and PR work were erased from the Pavilion website and never acknowledged in the final printed matter. So I figured "the only independent art center in Romania" , as Razvan Ion quickly points out to visitors, got more out of me than the other way round, and quitting was the right decision.

So I am putting all my cards on the table, because I don't want to give the impression of innocence. Despite my disappointment with the team of Pavilion, I am convinced that I could not have been given a better insight into the dynamics of the art scene in Bucharest as it relates to local and international actors.

Innocence is claimed by curator Felix Vogel as his unique strength in being the youngest (born in 1988) curator of a biennale ever. In an interview with H-Art Magazine (Belgium) Vogel boasts his lack of experience and legacy set this event apart from the more famous European biennales which, lets face it circulate a shortlist of curators, artists and themes. But I think more relevant than having a fresh outlook is having a clear strategy to explore, present and communicate to the public in Romania what the Biennale is trying to get across. I am more interested in how Vogel's fresh perspective gets translated into the specific socio-political context in Bucharest and the country in which he was invited to work. To this point, one of my biggest concerns was the presentation of the Biennale exclusively in English. It is almost bewildering to claim that one is putting on the "most important contemporary art event" in Romania, and then to address only English speakers. And even admitting that the majority of intellectuals in this country have a good command of English, it is still challenging for a non-native to make sense of the more complex concepts espoused in the catalogue, wall texts, and in the art works themselves.
So when I read in the final report put together by Pavilion that about 58.000 people attended the Biennale, I couldn't help but wonder -who exactly were these visitors? How much impact did this event have on the culture that it is supposed to make a difference in? Why is the team of Pavilion putting together a Biennale anyway? And for whom? The foreign press and a handful of critics interested in this region?

The theme chosen for the Biennale was Handlung, a German term which translates into both Action and Narrative. Around thirty seven artists (mostly from Europe and the US) were supposed to show their works (twenty of which were commissioned especially for this event) in the six locations (art centers, museums, universities) in Bucharest. By choosing to display works of art in traditional venues (such as the Center for Visual Introspection) as well as official state institutions (such as the Institute for Political Research), the organizers sought to use the exhibition to influence the local cultural and political climate. The dialectic between narrative and agency effectively connected the works in the exhibits, exploring as the title suggested, the power of contemporary art to instill political awareness and even more to spark some sort of collective action(s). The exhibits showed mostly film, photography and video works dealing with storytelling, truth-telling and documentary. But what truths did the Biennale reveal officially and unwillingly?

Even before the Biennale opened to the public on May 21st, the organizers were faced with a crisis. US artist Kaucyila Brooke's work Tit for Twat (1992) was pulled off from the show. The whole affair started when the Geology Museum staff realized that the Tit for Twat contained female nudity and informed the Biennale organizers that they could not accomodate the three-part photomontage, perceived as pornography, in the promised space. In fact Tit for Twat is a tongue and cheek retelling of the creation myth, the story of Madam and Eve, addressing lesbian and interracial sexuality. My first reaction to this conflict was, why didn't the Geology Museum know beforehand what works would be placed on its premises? How could the dialogue between the Pavilion side and theirs go so terribly wrong? The Biennale team's reaction was to simply condemn the museum's director Marcel Maruntiu's decision as Stalinist era censorship. But really I cannot give them credit for acting in the spirit of justice and fairness, when they could just have easily put Brooke's posters in a more permissive space (like their own premises), or if space didn't allow simply exchange the photomontage containing nudity with another new media work in which everybody kept their clothes on. Sure, one can say every space in the Biennale had its own internal logic, but what is more important in this case : allowing Brooke's work to be shown in Bucharest or sticking to the original layout of the exhibit? How can the organizers call the Biennale a "resounding success" when their judgment failed both the artist and the public? For an event that is explicitly themed around the power of art to spark civic consciousness, it is disappointing to see how precisely the political is the first to go out the window. I would even venture to ask, why the other artists involved in the show did not show solidarity with Kaucyila Brooke and at least formally protested her work's unjust exclusion? Statements of support for the artist's right to free speech were issued in the US mostly, but none came from the individuals that participated in or organized the Biennale itself. The show must go on, and indeed the Biennale seemed to put on a show for the sake of keeping it going.

But the unplanned conflicts and , in my opinion, most important conversations about the role of artists, their work, the cultural managers and the public continued to follow the development of the Bucharest Biennale. At an artists panel held in the Intercontinental (a four start hotel, one of the most luxurious venues in Bucharest) a strong contention developed between the organizers and the artists, over the politics of paying for the artists production budgets as well as their daily expenses while in Romania.

I will stop here for now because I think the question of the artist as a worker with rights and responsibilities merits an entry of its own. These conflicts and criticism of the Biennale process in Bucharest represent an exciting, albeit challenging avenue which could be productively exploited by its organizers, instead of swept under the rug. It is here I believe that the possibilities for action really lay. Being a contributor and observer of the process at the same time, I appreciated the vivid clashes between the participants, making the works of art that much more relevant.



Image credit: Kaucyila Brooke, Tit for Twat :Can We Talk? (2002)

Friday, August 13, 2010

The archive is closed, long live the archive!


About two weeks ago I received an alarming email from artist Dan Perjovschi, about the state of his and Lia Perjovschi's Center for Art Analysis/ Contemporary Art Archive (CAA/CAA), located in the backyard of the Art Academy in Bucharest. Namely, I found out that the Perjovschis, both internationally renowned artists and researchers, were being kicked out of their studio, where almost twenty years ago they founded the CAA/CAA. To mark the event, the artists had invited a score of artists, curators and researchers for a final round of networking at their soon to be evacuated studio.

I was outraged by this news, also remembering many vital art spaces around Romania which shared the fate of the Perjovschi studio. But what really made me angry was that the CAA was being destroyed by the Art Academy itself! The artists had been keeping their studio-archive alive on their own expense and they offered the Art Academy (National University of Fine Arts) an opportunity to collaborate, then appealed to the UAP (Union of Visual Artists) - offering the archive as a study basis and the studio as a meeting place for art seminars; unfortunately their proposals fell on deaf ears. How can such an important space be torn apart by an official cultural establishment that is supposed to promote these very type of practices? And why weren’t more people offended that this was happening?

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's rewind to how CAA/CAA came into being and why I think it's so important for our cultural legacy. Lia Perjovschi started her practice with performances in her apartment flat in Bucharest in the 1980s, which were witnessed and photographed by her husband, artist Dan Perjovschi. To a great degree, the censorship of the time impeded the artists from exchanges with the unofficial art scene in Romania or abroad (except for Mail Art circles, in which the Perjovschis took part). From the beginning, Lia has been preoccupied with creating a space for normality, knowledge and resistance, driven by a curiosity to understand, discuss and share with the public - from what intellectuals were forbidden to know during the dictatorship to making sense of the boom of information today. Describing herself as a "Detective in Art," the artist has stressed her drive to recuperate for the community what her generation was denied before 1989. In the early 1990s Lia and Dan have transformed their studio into much more than an archive. CAA/CAA is comprised of a collection of books, magazines and reproductions that deal not only with Romanian and international artists and art platforms, but more generally with the production of knowledge in the humanities, social sciences, science & technology. Lia called the latter development “Plans for a Knowledge Museum,” an open-structured archive focused on the process of learning.

Moreover, the Perjovschis have opened their studio space as a meeting point for young and mature artists, researchers from all fields and students, offering a productive environment for dialogue and critical perspectives: lectures, talks, presentations, exchanges between Romanian and foreign curators, open studio programs, coaching, one to one discussions, resistances attitudes. Using the archive as a basis, as well as the experience of international experts, the activities at CAA were aimed at analyzing strategies in the Romanian art scene and beyond, supporting innovative programs, criticizing those who abused power and offering a concrete basis for art-activism. Through the experience of communism, when informal structures were the only breath of normality, the Perjovschis understood how sharing and teaching can become a survival strategy. Today, when the country’s obsession with integration has crumbled into nostalgia for the dictatorship, CAA/CAA proves even more necessary as a model to build and sustain civic networks based on trust and transparency.

I came to know the Perjovschi’s practice through a seminar on Representations of Trauma in Art, taught by Prof. Kristine Stiles – who has been writing about the artists since the early 1990s and who also organized a mid-career retrospective of their work at the Nasher Museum at Duke University in the summer of 2007. It was then that I first had the opportunity to travel to the studio, in preparation for shipping the artworks to the museum. Since then I have been impressed by the Perjovschis’ humility, boundless optimism and energy to inspire, support and advocate for young artists and professionals across Romania – a far cry from the local neo-communist educational system breeding mediocrity, where the best students are those who don’t question their professors or the curriculum.

From the outside, The Center for Art Analysis hadn’t changed much from when I had last seen it in 2007: a decayed neoclassical block of artist studios sandwiched between rising skyscrapers and scores of commercial banners hiding more decay- a familiar sight for Bucharest’s urban landscape these days. On the door, Lia had posted a blank sheet with the message: "The Contemporary Art Archive will be closed for consulting. The Center for Art Analysis will stay open because it doesn't need a physical space to exist. lia " Lia’s text hints back to an intervention by American artist Robert Barry, who in 1969 hung a sign in three art spaces in Turin, Los Angeles and Amsterdam, announcing that during the exhibition the gallery would be closed. People were invited to find the doors locked. The interplay between presence and absence, materiality and invisibility suggests a criticism of authority and invites the participants towards some kind of action. As Lia stated, the empty space of the Center for Art Analysis will be exhibited until it can be replaced by something intelligent.

Well I didn’t find the entrance to the studio locked, but the archive, together with the works of art the Perjovschis had stored over the years, were definitely gone. The only remaining traces were a black on white cluster of Mind Maps by Lia, several self-produced publications (Detective Draft, Zoom, Sense, Subjective Art History and the book Contemporary Art Archive. Center for Art Analysis) as well as a visual timeline of the activities at CAA/CAA from its inception to the official letter of evacuation. It was startling to see the space once populated with books, slides, files, postcards, photocopies, printed material about international art and artworks –the core of the Perjovschis’ philosophy of public education as an art practice – almost empty; except for a table around which the artists invited us to talk and enjoy a typical Eastern European buffet. People came and went, conversations sparked between strangers and old colleagues, printed matter was exchanged – Dan and Lia stopped to talk to each one of us, questioning, advising, answering questions about what comes next. The palpable absence of the archive revealed its most important legacy – creating a network of civic-minded people through ongoing discussion and exchange. Taking part in the last stand at CAA, I felt the artists shared with us the responsibility to carry on the survival strategies stimulated by their archive, in a period of social amnesia and confusion.

While the contemporary art archive will be preserved in a studio the artists have built in Sibiu, it will not be as easily accessible to the public; as Lia herself mentioned, it will take some time to re-organize things and the artists are unsure whether they will carry on hosting in Sibiu the same type of activities that energized and supported the art community in Romania. Although knowing the Perjovschis they will continue to stay involved in the Romanian socio-cultural-political space, the disappearance of their studio in Bucharest leaves a permanent scar. The artists are optimistic that the move away from the capital marks a new chapter in their practice, and the new space will be more manageable and functional for an archive of this size. However, I remain skeptical and saddened that the Romanian educational system and a large part of the art community have failed to grasp the necessity to preserve and enrich CAA/CAA for generations to come.

What is to be done for a more engaged and promising future?

All photographs taken by the author at CAA, Bucharest on Friday, August 13th 2010.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You may ask...


1. What does your banner represent?

The banner is a photograph I took this summer at the Memorial for the Victims of Communism in Sighet, Romania. The statuary bronze group by the artist Aurel Vlad is entitled "Cortege of the Sacrificial Victims" and it was presented in 1997 ; it is made up of eighteen figures, men and women, walking towards the wall where political prisoners were summarily executed during the Cold War. The original concept of the sculpture was to present people faced with a closed horizon, just as the communist dictatorship disrupted millions of human lives. I chose this image to suggest the suffering in the country's past but also to look forward, to ask what we might do with this past, how we may act in the period of transition towards a more free and just society.

2. I didn't read the rationale behind this blog. Can you break it down for us again - why are you doing this?

My first reaction would be , because I am dissatisfied with the sate of art criticism in Romania and with the insufficient information about how its cultural institutions work. I would go even so far as to say, because the Romanian art scene has never really analyzed itself post 1989, with the exception of Lia Perjovschi's Contemporary Art Archive, a non-institutionalized project. Too many brilliant initiatives have been lost or forgotten because of the lack of solidarity and collaboration between artists, institutions, cultural managers and critics. Also, an obvious reason would be the under-representation of Romanian artists in Art History, museums, publications around the world. I am trying to fill in some gaps both within and outside.

3. Why do you allocate more space to some artists/institutions/projects and less to others?

It's hard to please every reader, when some of you may already know half of what I am writing about and some are just getting introduced to the issues. I try to write more about an artist who has been overlooked in the past, than someone who is getting a lot of coverage in the international media. Some of the people/spaces I am writing about are inexistent except in archives in Romania, while some have comprehensive websites, reviews etc. So I hope that if someone/something grabs your interest you will make the extra step and visit the links I have scattered throughout the post or even better, go see the original work - and make up your own mind. I don't support the position where the authority tells people what the work conveys, as if there is a single Truth about its meaning. So I try to give you as much as I can about the context, some of my ideas, and then send you on your own exploration path.

4. What is your position between the democratic system and the communist dictatorship?

All this talk about transition from dictatorship and democracy - it seems like a big ad campaign when you're living in this country. I am in principle against returning to the failed communist regime, that is instituting communism by force; there is a resurgence of nostalgia for that period nowadays and frankly, those who want to bring Ceausescu back probably deserve their own fate. In any case it is a symptom of how the post-1989 projects have become bankrupt, both economically and ideologically. It is infinitely more difficult to go from corruption and total mistrust to an open society, and Romania is not even half-way there. I believe the 1989 Revolution was stolen from the people, and instead we got a neo-communist government for some good years and then entered a period of confusion and hysteria over integration into Europe. Even thought that's simplifying it a bit, the process of democratization has been corrupted from the start, and as a people we have not come to terms with the human rights violations during the dictatorship or the mineriads. So while I am in principle in favor or democratic society, I am suspicious of both the Romanian politicians who are blinding implementing Western ideals and of Western systems (like the IMF or EU) which seem to not care for the social but the(ir) capital.

5. How do you organize your posts? This all seems pretty random.

I chose the blog format because it allows me to react spontaneously. My posts respond to various stimuli from the media or subjective ones, from casual meetings and conversations. I never intended to write a Romanian Contemporary Art History, although I do my best to historicize, to bring context and rationale behind each presentation. It is far from being a perfect system, which is why I called the blog a Map, to suggest the project of discovery that is subjective (my process) and to bring the reader into the stories. Another great thing about the blog format is the cloud of concepts and list of art platforms floating on the right hand panel, which allows you, the reader, to structure the information based on your interests. If anything this is an ongoing art history alternative, presenting various subjective narratives, voices of different and disconnected generations and opposing aesthetic views. Thus, I hope to synchronize form with function, to describe a complex process - the dynamics of the contemporary Romanian art scene - in a concentrated, accessible and understandable format.

6. How can I get involved with what you're writing?

By reading and responding, by looking into the people, places, works of art, publications and institutions yourself, you are contributing to creating more knowledge and awareness, and basically I am happy if my blog achieves just that.

You don't have to be from or have had experience working in Romania or Eastern Europe. If you're interested in art, culture, art history, civic society - preferably in combination with one another and this geographic region- then send me an email and I will be happy to guide your interest.

Do you want to be a guest blogger for this Art Map? I am open to ideas that contrast and compare, challenge my interpretations with facts and logic, or something that you think is really relevant that you don't see on here. Just email me.


Thank you for reading, I really appreciate all your comments and questions!



Image courtesy of Dan Perjovschi.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Timisoara on my mind: Gallery Calina


Does this blog seem partial to the art scene in Bucharest? Well it just so happens that I am most familiar with the art community there, but this past week I have branched out to some key contemporary spaces in Transylvania; so without further introduction, this entry will feature an interview with Alina Cristescu, the founder of Gallery Calina in Timisoara. This is the first in a series of debates over the state of the art institutions in Romania, through which I hope you will gain some insight into their current challenges, and also to inspire the institutions themselves to examine their principles and strategies.

Gallery Calina was inaugurated in February 2007, in the center of Timisoara, next to the Romanian Opera. The gallery promotes the works of contemporary artists from Romania and abroad, especially young artists. Every show is enriched by catalogues, films, flyers and postcards about the artist and their work. I was introduced to this space by Ileana Pintilie, a renowned art historian based in Timisoara which I had the opportunity to meet at the Nasher Museum in 2007. I approached Alina Cristescu with my blog project, and she was generous to contribute with some thoughtful answers.

[RAM] Can you tell us something about how you came to be involved in the contemporary art scene in Timisoara? Why contemporary art?

[AC] I started by buying art, collecting seems like a big word for my endeavors....I graduated university with a degree in journalism in 1989, after the Revolution, and I was eager to write about art and culture in general, but in those times there were more interesting topics for me. I started buying art from the first private art gallery in Timisoara, and I also started training there. One of my biggest dreams was to own a contemporary art gallery, which would function according to my ideas.

[RAM] Please share with us a contemporary Romanian artist, whose work really touched you. Can you tell us why?

[AC] I have the privilege of knowing Romul Nutiu, who is also one of the galleries advisors. The moment I bought one of his works I felt prepared to run a contemporary art gallery.

[RAM] Your exhibitions promote young artists especially, which is something most art spaces are afraid of. Can you tell us why you chose this curatorial strategy?

[AC] Romania doesn't promote its artists. Let alone the younger generations of artists. In the gallery's third year of existence (2009) we launched a nation-wide program destined to support young artists, 30 years or younger [“Express yourself through art: dynamism and cultural diversity with young artists”]. We received around 50 projects out of which we selected 13 for solo shows. Those exhibitions were instrumental for the artists' careers and for putting Timisoara on the map in what concerns contemporary art.

[RAM] How do you see the evolution of contemporary art spaces in Timisoara and in Romania since 1989? Are they struggling with the same problems?

[AC] I am hopeful because we have found international partners by collaborating on shows that bring together artists from Romania and outside the country. I think by now we have acquired enough experience to enter the international circuit. We intend to participate in art fairs, and I am particularly interested in the Vienna Fair, which focuses on bringing together contemporary art from Eastern and Western Europe. We also collaborate with the Art University in Timisoara. Unfortunately we don't get much coverage from the local media about our events... It is very difficult....I know some very talented curators in Bucharest and Cluj, who could do extraordinary things for contemporary art. But currently they are fighting for survival....

[RAM] What about curators or cultural managers at the beginning of their career in Romania? What resources can they rely on to make a name for themselves?

[AC] Well, my first remark is that there are extremely few of them active today. Very few curators, managers and private galleries with which they can collaborate. There is a master's program (which I graduated from) at the Art University of Timisoara in European Cultural Politics, especially for training cultural managers. Unfortunately, most graduates are deprived of the object of their study (the art centers) in Romania. So they either find other fields to work in or emigrate.

[RAM] In a period in which the focus is more on commercial entertainment than culture, what strategies does your gallery use to build a public?

[AC] This is one of my biggest disappointments. We show exhibitions featuring young artists, who are very promising, and it is precisely the young audiences that are missing – for example art students from the University. I find this attitude baffling. Generally our public is pretty homogeneous, also depending on the nature of a show. This spring, precisely to attract younger audiences we stepped outside of the traditional gallery space and organized a show in an industrial warehouse (Halele Timco), curated by Ileana Pintilie, one of Romania’s foremost curators [“In the Middle of Things,” May 2010]. We had an overwhelmingly big crowd at the reception, hundreds, but throughout the show very few people came.

[RAM] What are your long-term goals?

[AC] I would like the gallery to enter the international art circuit. My biggest dream is to found at Contemporary Art Center in Timisoara. But this is not possible by relying only on private investors, and I’m afraid the government will not get involved for a long time because of the crisis.

Image: banner for the exhibit “In the middle of things,” curated by Ileana Pintilie, May 2010