Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Speaking to Europe from Europe - the Zone Festival

On a late May evening, Teodor Graur was seated at a table, placed within a cage, bearing with the inscription: “Speaking to Europe from Europe.” The table was cluttered with a radio set, microphones, a camera, amplifiers and a deodorant spray. Nervously tuning to different radio stations, Graur began to shout into a microphone, in English: "Hello, can you hear me?", "Hello, hello, I'm speaking to you!" The artist interrupted his desperate calls only to photograph the audience, who remained silent, and to perfume the cage with his spray.

Graur realized this action with the occasion of Zone 1, the first installment of an international performance festival in Timisoara, curated by Ileana Pintilie. Zone 1 took place in 1993, and was followed by three other Zones in 1996, 1999 and 2003. "Speaking to Europe from Europe" hints at the fraught dialogue between East and West, moreover the overwhelming segregation of the East- ironically in a century of communication boom and media frenzy. Re-appropriating performance art – a previously forbidden genre used to express dissent with the communist regime, Graur's intervention emphasized the continued stigmas, dearth and isolation of his community after the 1989 Revolution.

Even though the performance took place in 1993, it may have well have been dated 1996, 1999, 2003 or 2010 - for the state of confusion in Eastern Europe did not end with the installment of the free-market economy, integration into NATO, Schengen, the European Union or other Zones imported from the West. Despite reduced isolation, a state of normality is yet to be achieved; the economic crisis, which is becoming more and more poignant, sheds light on the lack of interest in Eastern Europe's social problems both from within and internationally. The discourse around freedom and democracy has swiftly turned into an argument about capital.

In the 1999 edition of the Zone festival, Dan Perjovschi was absent. Instead he sent about 100 letters to the participants from Stockholm, entitled "Season's Greetings for a Pleasant Zone!" In the letter Perjovschi stated: "West tolerates East only if to patronize it or to make a profit out of it. East wants to be West (for free) only that integration looks like degradation." The letter pierces at the heart of Romanian realities, emphasizing the country's desire to get out of the transitional period marked by uncertainties and confusion, to be integrated into Europe. Romania would join NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007, while it is still waiting to be approved into the Schengen area. But while the artist suggests that integration has become a national obsession, its conditions look more like degradation - "visas, guarantees, stand-by, know-how and IMF." The artist concludes that "The best performance of an Eastern artist is to be in the West (on the West's expenses)." This is exactly what Perjovschi has accomplished, to work in the West, financially backed by Western capital. And in all fairness, I should mention that the artist also works amply in Romania and Eastern Europe and maintains an active presence as a cartoonist for 22 Magazine.

But what about the fate of art and culture in the East? In the words of Ileana Pintilie, the initiator and curator of the Zone Festival in 1993, the happenings in Timisoara represented an alternative to a too conformist artistic milieu but also as a means of filling the gap of isolation that the countries of the former "communist bloc" had been in.” The Festival (which consisted of performances, symposia and workshops) started out as a manifestation for artists from the former Eastern bloc (Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Russia, Germany) but soon grew to include artists and scholars from Ireland, Scotland, the U.K., France, Norway and the U.S. Staging the festival in Timisoara was charged with the still fresh memories of the bloody liberation from communism – the revolution started with protests in this city in December 1989, against the harassment of Laszlo Tokes, a dissident ethnic-Hungarian priest. At the same time, Timisoara is the birthplace of the Sigma Group, an avant-garde movement active in the 1960s and 1970s in Romania – an artistic legacy which set the spirit of experiment and innovation throughout the Zones.

Using performance as dialogue, the festival sought to restore socio-cultural links that had been destroyed during the Cold War isolation, especially in the case of Romania which was the most cut-off together with Albania. While retaining its regional specificity, the Festival was instrumental in creating collaborations across the board, bringing interdisciplinary solutions to local urgencies. Despite the fact that it had no institutional support, the Zone became a highly recognized artistic event locally and internationally, presenting a logical structure and a foundation for action. For 10 years it functioned as a regular and unwavering artistic platform, ironically developed in a country with extremely fragile and marginalized socio-cultural networks. Unfortunately, the Zone Festival was discontinued after 2003, because of insufficient systems of financing and ideological support; these continue to affect the majority of art platforms in Romania, making it harder to create a modern artistic legacy, leaving fissures and deterring innovative programs.

Will we realize the importance of maintaining a cultural patrimony of this period alive for our own normality and knowledge and for that of future generations? Or the importance of the points of connection and support in the Zone(s)? These should not be a utopia, but a necessity. So let’s be reasonable and demand the impossible!

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