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)