Saturday, October 22, 2011

What positions can women occupy in contemporary art and culture in Romania? A collective intervention in CriticAtac Magazine

This debate was also published in Romanian in CriticAtac Magazine: http://www.criticatac.ro/10903/ce-pozitii-pot-ocupa-femeile-in-arta-si-cultura-contemporana-din-romania/


What began as an interview between art critic and artist-duo, evolved into a debate over the condition of women cultural workers active in the Romanian art scene today. Corina L. Apostol, art historian, and The Bureau of Melodramatic Research (thereafter BMR), an institution founded in 2009 by Irina Gheorghe and Alina Popa, decided to do away with the normative format of a Q&A, in order to deconstruct the circumstances that brought their collaboration into being along the lines of feminist critique. The BMR is known for cooperating with or infiltrating cultural institutions at home and abroad in order to de-mystify the function of gendered emotional capital in the matrix of social, political and economic relations that govern these organizational bodies. Working together, we would like to address general conditions of inequality that direct the reception, interpretation and production of art and culture by women (in our local context and abroad) to make them visible and discernible – and to plant these concerns squarely at the center of cultural debates.

CLA: Let’s begin with formal introductions, to illuminate for the reader the condition that made you decide to work together, after being formally trained as individual artists at the Academy in Bucharest. I am also curious to know how you see your platform’s mission in the cultural field in Romania and outside its borders.

BMR: The figure of the individual artist, praised both by the art education system and by the art market, has been under constant question and critique in our practice at the Bureau of Melodramatic Research. The ideology of individualism, central to Western modernity and to capitalism - finds its overstated expression in the social role it conveys to the artist: a self-centered, coherent, unique subject, whose singularity is bolstered by an exceptional autobiography. These features are also linked to the emergence of central perspective and Eurocentrism in the Renaissance, not coincidentally right in the wake of colonial expansion and the reinstatement of slavery.i
An important aspect of the artist figure promoted beginning with the 15th century was the prevalence of a male subject. In this respect, the communities of witches in the late Middle Ages, described by Silvia Federici in her excellent study Caliban and the Witchii, are role models of the Bureau. She analyses the transition to capitalism from a feminist viewpoint, centering her research on the great witch-hunt of the 16th and 17th centuries. The witches were considered to be dangerous because they were healers - they had a great knowledge of plants and herbs, so they could use contraceptive methods and thus could make decisions about their own bodies and were part of the heretic movements - they obeyed neither the hierarchy nor dogmas of the official church nor the socio-political system imposed by it.

She argues that this violent taming of disobedient women was one of the key processes to enable the emergence of capitalism, which could not have been possible without their domestic and reproductive work. Before however, these women were living and working in communities, they were skillful in their knowledge about natural abortifacients and they had a monopoly over birth services (including surgery). In conclusion, they were able to control their own reproduction and it’s particularly this aspect that had to be repressed by all means. Federici thus draws an important genealogy for presenting alternative social structures based on communalism and at the same time empowering the women.

Later, with the emergence of European industrial capitalism in the 19th century, individualism was reinforced as a hegemonic economic doctrine. Parallel Romantic myths have produced the ultimate figure of male individualism endowed with genius, creativity, originality, imagination. These traits which once belonged to the artist were gradually taken over by capitalism: first in the realm of consumption during the fordist era along with the advertising boom, and later in the postfordist mode of production, based on management creativity, including its ability to dissimulate the exploitation of labour force in the third world. These myths prevail since they very well serve the present neoliberal discourse, centered on the assumption that capitalism has reached a postindustrial stage. Artistic and economic individualism are inextricably intertwined in the race for capitalist redemption. Creativity and originality are fetishized as landmarks of freedom; nevertheless individual freedom is often used as a mere pretext for market freedom and capital expansion. The so-called creative class becomes a reliable human resource to be placed where profit is needed (through the process of gentrification, very familiar to artists), while other classes, the working-class and lumpen are being displaced and, best case scenario, relocated to the peripheries. On the other hand, creativity is praised for its assumed potential to reform strategies of resistance. The question is to what extent this language, imbibed in the corporate world, can still be reclaimed.

Speaking of language, we’d also like to comment on the word mission in your question. Its etymological roots lie in religious (the Jesuit avant-garde of the European colonial imperialism) and military (the avant-garde of the American military operations) discourse, which both claim an ethical subtext. In the wake of the neoconservative backlash which we are currently witnessing across Europe and North America, this moralizing sermon of the right needs to be challenged. Melodrama as a genre has the polarized, personified battle between good and evil at its core, a battle on which contemporary political discourse is structured, be it the war on terror or the local anticommunist crusade. It is something we have been concerned with for quite a while: hierarchies and power relationships that are formed in the course of various missions. There is an inherent dilemma in the whole idea of the Bureau, because it tries to reconcile research activity with the study of emotions. We are sometimes wary of BMR becoming a Sentimental Police. That’s why we have to constantly negotiate our position and avoid the clinical study of emotions, their quarantine in a sanitized laboratory. Instead, we are terribly attached to a melodramatic methodology: melo-critique.

CLA: I would like to continue with the following observation, which becomes more visible for someone like myself, writing from outside of the center of debates in the local art community. That is, to whom the situation appears thus: most artists in Romania are men, while women have been assigned the role of critics and curators. What informs this attitude – is it the academic training, the power structure in art institutions which are still governed by mostly male boards? Or do you see it as personal conviction on the part of theoreticians and curators? How does it affect how we look at art practices in Romania and how art in turn affects reception by the public? And finally to bring up a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, what strategies may we develop to resist gender inequalities as cultural workers? I struggle with these questions as a theoretician acting in a field that is fraught with the historical denial of gender discrimination, more prevalent in the East but still persisting in the West as well (and I am sure North and South).

BMR: It is a multi-faceted issue and one which may cause some stir. Nevertheless we are glad you brought this subject up. We are noticing more and more discomfort caused by gender imbalance in various critical groups in Romania, accompanied by unsupported efforts to set the balance. They result in a slight improvement but never bring about serene gender equilibrium. Let’s begin by considering the specific context we are in right now, that of CriticAtac, before we go on to analyze the local art scene. The Bureau calculated statistics for the two years of activity of the magazine, a kind of gender audit. We found that while in the first year the percentage of women contributing to the platform was around 10%, this year it grew to 23%. This means an average of 18%. Quite a remarkable difference. So the three of us are proudly lending a helping hand in this respect. More generally, there seems to be a paradigm of critical clusters in Romania coordinated by mostly male boards (for example, IDEA Arts+Society with a five to one score and CriticAtac with a slightly worse situation of 6 to 1).

In the case of contemporary artists however, statistical data might at first suggest a more balanced situation. We had a look at several websites, which aim to offer an overview, such as artscene.ro or 100towatch.ro: there are 40%, respectively 36% women artists mentioned. However, if you think about the first names that come up in your mind when thinking about Romanian contemporary art, judging by the hierarchy of the international institutions where these artists have exhibited, then the balance becomes quite different from the statistical results. So maybe not only the local art institutions are fraught with gender inequalities, but also the international ones. Is it what you had in mind with the question, also thinking about your presentation at The Congress of Spectral Institutions (in June 2011) about artist branding?

CLA: My intervention at the Congress tried to deal with a form of canonization of Eastern Art in the West and the establishment of a consistent “laundry list” of artists that always appear in the shows in Western Europe and the USA. Moreover, certain works are always emphasized, that relate to the traumas of communism instead of shedding some light on contemporary concerns of artists – which have dramatically changed in the past 20 years. From my own research I can concur that 75% of these artists are male – and it should be emphasized that this is a choice on the part of the curators and the managers of these spaces, and does not rightly reflect the works produced by women artists from the region.

BMR: We totally agree. We’d also like to point out another aspect: if contemporary art is placed in a grey zone, and leaves some room for debate on the topic with gender shades worthy of the Painting School of Cluj (also male dominated), with more traditional art institutions we enter a black hole. In the National University of Arts’ painting department the teaching staff is exclusively male (13 out of 13 teachers mentioned on the website). In the same department of the Artists’ Union, there is only one woman out of 15 members of the board. That is 0%, and 6% respectively. In the photography& video department of the school the situation slightly changes (2 women out of 9) which drastically raises the percent to 22%. We also had a look at the commercial galleries: the two most internationally visible ones represent 2 Romanian women artists out of 11.

Critics and curators in turn, as you said, are mostly women, both in the Artists’ Union and on the above-mentioned websites. The percents add up to 80%, 66%, 50%, 80% - the first case of female majority.

If we think of the etymological background of the word curator we also find the Lat. “cure” meaning “care”. Care work has been traditionally assigned to women so from this perspective one can also imagine the woman-curator mothering the male-artists. On the other hand there are many examples in the Romanian art world defying expected clichés: spaces run by women, women artists who are politically and socially engaged, dealing with gender issues in their work, etc. Maybe visibility of instances of discrimination is one of the requisite strategies of resistance: that is to make the conditions of production (including gender restrictions) - public, and part of the production itself.

CLA: We began this debate bringing up feminist theory, which emerged from the 1960s and 1970s solidarity movements among women workers in the West, and is now considered a global phenomenon. But I am skeptical of the extent to which the various waves of feminist critique can be straightforwardly applied to our context. Do you consider yourselves feminists? I am particularly interested in what you see as the downfalls and opportunities associated with such a claim in Romania – which has been only recently exposed to this concept and lacks the conditions for a strong solidarity front among women to bring it to fruition – if you agree with my statement.

BMR: We are definitely taking a feminist viewpoint. However, as regards the downfalls, even if you don’t use the word feminist but simply deal with gender issues in Romania, you might be cast as a “freak” and looked down upon with suspicion and distrust. Further, we noticed that the local imaginary associated with feminism is haunted by a frightening bestiary of unshaven legs and underarm hair, bras on fire and voodoo rituals against men. In this dark scenario, feminism becomes the benevolent church of hideous femininity.

The question of the relevance of Western feminist theory in the local context should be preceded by an investigation of its visibility. The amount of international female theoreticians, whose work is being translated, referred to, quoted, even in critical groups, is minute. Rock star philosophers like Žižek, Chomsky, Negri and Groys make Silvia Federici, Donna Haraway or J. K. Gibson-Graham seem underground. All the more their perspectives seem to be rare and precious knowledge.

On the other hand it is equally important to talk about things everybody can relate to, that is to rely on examples drawn from the local situation. In this respect, we find the discussions of the Feminist Reading Group at Biblioteca Alternativă (The Alternative Library http://biblioteca-alternativa.noblogs.org/) really meaningful, as they deal with urgent issues for the Romanian context. This group’s women-only policy has been under constant debate due to its exclusiveness, but on the other hand it is necessary to create a space of solidarity and peer-to-peer dialogue for women. In the public space women are still speaking in a considerably lower voice compared to their male counterparts, so in a way such a space offers a training ground for public expression.

CLA: We have just “celebrated” the fall of the dictatorship in Romania, over 20 years ago. Usually in our local context the lines become all too blurred between the philosophy of communism and the regime that betrayed its ideals. One of the unexplored ventures of communism in this country is that it paradoxically promoted women as equal to men, women actively engaged in building socialism, engaged in the economic and political orders. Of course sexist restrictions still prevailed in this so-called equality: such as women still being expected to produce babies and take care of the household - but in theory they were conceptualized as the equal half of the male proletariat. How do you see the shift between this construction of “woman” and the “liberated” woman living in free market economy today? What has changed and what inequalities still prevail? I would like to begin thinking about how to recapture the transformative potential of the claims from both eras in theory and practice. I think it’s a very difficult exercise to imagine this, but the process toward achieving it may prove important in focusing our collective efforts.

BMR: Indeed, in keeping with the gains of the October Revolution in 1917, the postwar Eastern European governments provided women with the right to vote, widespread access to education and a working place, while at the same time confining them to the traditional roles of mothers, the main care-takers in the family. In theory it meant equality, in practice a double amount of work, and this was not only the case for Romania but for the whole ex-Soviet space.
We are currently working on an archive of women’s visual representations before and after 89, and started with the main magazines which were aiming at a female audience - Femeia (The Woman) as well as the ones dealing with health and hygiene education - Sănătatea (The Health). We began the same type of research in Poland and Moldova, and in all cases we were completely outraged by the contrast in representation between the two periods. After spending a lot of time looking at pre-89 images, in which women were often represented in professions traditionally assigned to men (the chemist, the welder, the astronaut and so on), the topless pictures of the 90s (which all seemed to re-stage Manet’s Déjeuner sur l'herbe in the fashion of the time, with high heels and “big” sprayed hair) seem to be a sort of a soft porn with secretaries, played on the premises of foreign-capital companies.

So there was a sort of visual fairness in soviet communism. Visibility was not restricted to the young, slim and beautiful, at least in what regards some categories of women. However, this was not the case with Roma women, or the disabled, fully excluded from sight. The nationalist doctrine of Ceausescu’s regime was well supported by image propaganda, with eugenics-inspired hymns of population health and scientific racism, reminiscent of the past interwar period.
Another element of connection between the interwar eugenics movement and the period between 1945 and 1989 is the denial of women’s reproductive rights with the 770 Decree, aiming at population growth. This less discussed genealogy is traced by Maria Bucur in her work Eugenics and Modernization in Interwar Romaniaiii. Her research points out that the decree passed in 1966 comes in close connection to the similar one from 1936, issued by King Carol II. She carefully follows the thread of people involved in both laws, revealing a hitherto neglected historical continuity and implicitly contributing to a critical perception of the interwar period.
However it seems difficult to counter the consistent efforts of the Romanian neoconservative intellectuals to gild the 30’s as well as their fierce perseverance to dissimulate the racism specific to this period. The official anticommunist discourse builds its legitimation upon a dramatic opposition as well as a positive re-affirmation of the interwar period, that’s why it is full of technocratic fiction and backed through the goofy LARPingiv of the intellectual “elites”.

As regards the reproductive propaganda, it persists in the present public discourse, if merely implied, influenced by local Orthodox neoconservatism. Marches for the rights of the unborn have been recently organized by the Pro-Vita, the Romanian version of Pro-Life. In some of the schools in Bucharest, sexual education is being taught by Pro-Vita agents and priests, also a consequence of their lobby and easy access in the Ministry of Education. Silvia Federici rightfully identifies the body as the main battleground for feminist struggles. She insists on the centrality of the reproductive work as the work producing the work force, ignored by Marx and Foucault alike (although the latter mentions birth rate as an important biopolitical instrument). So the moral principle of fetal sanctity claimed by the right as well as the capitalist ideology of the constant production of bodies ready-to-be-exploited-for-profit lead to the same pressures on the women’s body.

CLA: And what of the theorization of gender in the East of Europe governed by Western institutions, which possess the institutional framework and capital to support exhibitions and publications? There have been many such endeavors recently, dealing with the production of gender Eastwards in a still Cold-War rhetorical dichotomy. Most striking was “Gender Check: Masculinity and Femininity in the Art of Eastern Europe,” (2010) hosted by the MUMOK in Vienna and back by the influential ERSTE Foundation. Do you think such an exhibition could take place in Romania or another post-socialist region? Why haven’t institutions supporting contemporary arts in this context initiated such manifestations – are they even relevant to our context or do they serve to perpetuate the Othering of the East under the guise of gender critique?

BMR: It’s a coincidence worthy of melodrama that you mention this particular exhibition. We were in residency at KulturKontakt at that time, and we attended the conference and opening. So we got a little bit of backstage information and also were exposed to the context in which the exhibition took place. It was organized in the anniversary year 2009, when Vienna was cheerleading the 20 fruitful years of neo-colonial expansion over territories of the former Habsburg Empire - referred to in the title of the exhibition as “Eastern Europe”. So a “1989” exhibition was on at Kunsthalle Wien, while in its close vicinity MUMOK was proudly checking the gender of Eastern artists with the kind support of the Erste Foundation (the one that owns Erste Bank). We were amazed by how many artists were on the checklist (more than 200); the exhibition rooms were suffocated with works aligned onto the walls, in endless rows, arranged according to nationality.

Nevertheless, the rather huge differences between the social and political situations of the participating countries were hardly explained, the checking was following the principles of the check-in. Marina Gržinic, although she was part of the exhibition and accompanying conference, wrote a very critical article about the whole projectv. Already at the conference she gave a well-trimmed lecture on borders and the internalization of borders (a propos check-in) instead of the innocent melo-autobiographical tale that was expected of her. Actually it has become a habit that melodramatic stories of overcoming adversity provide the background and legitimacy of artistic practice, as shown by such presentations or artist interviews in which questions about childhood hardship just cannot be helped.

After the opening, Gržinic and her class organized a public debate inside the exhibition, taking very critical positions towards the exhibition. We sat in circles in different parts of the show and commented upon the financial supporters behind it, the happy marriage of Erste funds and MUMOK visibility, neo-colonization, the absence of some key groups such as Laibach, the printed leaflet-invitation comprising a best-of selection of the participating artists, chosen according to the glitter of their CV etc. We imagined such a gathering in MNAC, questioning one of their exhibitions on their own premises!

It’s clear that such a retrospective, such an apparently comprising checking cannot take place in the respective countries. There are neither the financial means, nor the power position to allow this bird eye’s view on the whole region, nor the prestige of MUMOK to raise the symbolic capital of post-89 Austrian investments.

CLA: I agree – although such exhibitions (with all the problems that you mention) are desperately needed in our context to legitimize more engaged conversations about women artists’ working conditions and offer models from previous generations, they by and large remain the privilege of cultural capitals in West-Central Europe. Instead of a conclusion, I’d like to think about the future, the work that still needs to be done locally to counter some of the bad practices and habits that we emphasized in this exchange. I’d like to suggest that the collective platform we co-founded this fall, ArtLeaksvi can be a productive space in what concerns women artists’ struggles – making them more visible and empowering some of the demands we identified through our collaboration. At least I hope that it will develop also in the direction of gender discrimination and inequalities that we unfortunately still encounter. If we understand these as paradigmatic of historical conditions that can be overturned through collective action then that would be taking a big step for our community already.


References:

See Hito Steyerl’s analysis on the history of the concept of horizon, closely connected to the development of linear perspective as a visual paradigm of European modernity, In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/222

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 2004

Maria Bucur, Eugenics and Modernization in Interwar Romania, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001

LARP stands for Live Action Role Playing

Gržinic, Analysis of the exhibition “Gender Check – Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe” http://eipcp.net/policies/grzinic/en

http://art-leaks.org/

Friday, September 2, 2011

ArtLeaks Platform Begins to Operate


ArtLeaks is collective platform initiated by an international group of artists, curators, art historians and intellectuals in response to the abuse of their professional integrity and the open infraction of their labor rights. In the art world, such abuses usually disappear, but some events bring them into sharp focus and therefore deserve public scrutiny. Only by drawing attention to concrete abuses can we underscore the precarious condition of cultural workers and the necessity for sustained protest against the appropriation of politically engaged art, culture and theory by institutions embedded in a tight mesh of capital and power.

Namely, we have experienced first-hand how critical thinking and dialogue can be compromised through repressive maneuvers – and turned against those workers who bring into question art institutions’ mission, politics or their engagement with corporate benefactors. By co-opting cultural activity, these sponsors obtain social credibility which they then proceed to mis-use: by refusing decent conditions for cultural workers through oppressive measures – the same workers whose labor makes their subsistence possible.

In response to blacklisting and continued abuse conjoined with unbridled exploitation, we considered it our civic and political duty to bring to light the mechanisms of corruption and inspire others to do so as well. Instead of letting singular protests succumb to anonymity, gossip or institutional hush-hush, we began working to extract from situations of inequality, general conditions that affect the social and political mission of workers and establishments for art and culture.

Implicit in this collective protest is a radical form of institutional critique – through which we emphasize the urgent need to make visible and counteract all forms of repression, abuse, mistreatment and arrogance that have been normalized through the practices of many cultural managers. While each case of abuse may be different, the increasing amount of power vested in art institutions controlled by corporate players, calls out for a collective struggle for equal rights and fair treatment of cultural workers.

Concretely, we will expose common-currency practices of slander, intimidation and blackmail as they are. Further, through this working platform we seek to enable like-minded people to stand together against instances of mistreatment related to cultural labor, repression channeled through dishonest management or blatant censorship. We seek to create a strong network of art systems’ whistleblowers – through which we support and protect each other in critical moments as much as possible. Through the power of facts, first-hand testimonies and visual information we seek to deconstruct the politics of who, what and how is invited into the exhibition space, and most importantly the circumstances under which one is ousted and then blacklisted.

We believe in the power of sustained artleaking to turn the tables on corruption and exploitation, to force art and culture institutions to publicly account for their politics and their actions. To mafia tactics and authoritarian tendencies, we answer with openness, angriness and solidarity. The tools that we continue to build together are geared towards empowering – to work with dignity and articulate our positions without obstruction and to exchange information and ideas beyond national borders.

We initiate and provide the community with online tools - http://art-leaks.org/ and the facebook page “ArtLeaks” – which are open for use by anyone ready to share this or that case. Each case will be archived, building a comprehensive index of repression. We believe retroactive artleaking is just as important as early-warning leaking in the present. Thus, we welcome cultural workers to publish reports on the situation inside of the institution in any form. Both anonymous and signed reports are welcome. We only ask to submit each case with collective evidence, such as first-hand reports and documentation such as e-mail correspondence, internal regulations and documents, video recordings and so on. We welcome the submission of evidence in the original language and we will do our best to make it available to international audiences. Our moderator will guarantee the objectivity of each case in a wiki style of communication with each contributor. For more information on submitting your case see Artleak Your Case orContact.

It is time to break the silence.

ArtLeaks was initiated through the collective efforts of:

Corina L. Apostol, Ph.D student, Rutgers University, NJ, USA
Dmitry Vilensky and David Riff of Chto Delat?, artist collective based in St. Petersburg, Russia
Jean-Baptiste Naudy of Société Réaliste, artist collective based in Paris, France
Postspectacle, artist collective based in Bucharest, Romania
Raluca Voinea, independent curator and art critic based in Bucharest, Romania
Stefan Tiron of Paradis Garaj, artist collective based in Bucharest, Romania
The Bureau of Melodramatic Research, artist collective based in Bucharest, Romania
Valentina Desideri, freelance performer based in Italy and France
with graphics by Zampa di Leone

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Whose Ostalgia?

The opening of Ostalgia, a landmark exhibition at the New Museum which brings together works by more than fifty artists from the former Soviet Republics, Russia and a few from Western Europe – has generated a lot of buzz and overwhelmingly positive reviews in the U.S. press. Milestone institutions such as The NYTimes, The New York Observer or Artforum, praise the curator - Massimiliano Gioni’s accomplishment to organize a show on the former East that „looks and sounds terrific.” (NYTimes)[i] Indeed, it is really exciting to see an exhibition of this magnitude on the art of the former East being showcased in one of the most prominent capitals of culture today. Ostalgia takes up no less than five floors of the museum, running from July 6th to September 25th of this year.

At the same, for intellectuals invested in the region, an exhibition that puts together a range of works from 1960 to the present from over 20 Eastern countries in no chronological order, relegating them to a concept that was coined in a particular historical moment after the fall of the Berlin wall – raises serious questions. In the opening chapters of the Catalogue for Ostalgia, New Museum Director Lisa Phillips explains the scope of the project: “This exhibition is not an authoritative history of the Communist period, but instead seeks to sketch a psychological portrait of the region, and in doing so, expose the myths and memories that unite a range of artists.”[ii] This claim brings to mind a host of essentialist traits that critics have used time again to describe “Eastern Europe” – in particular the fascination with the socialist past and its grasp on the (western) imagination as a terra incognita.

In this piece I will attempt to untangle some of the vectors that run through Ostalgia – paradigmatic of retrospective exhibitions on the former East as a product of the Cold War - related to gendered geographies, the politics of art and exhibition practices, and the challenges contemporary eastern artists face today. These are by no means parallel lines of questioning, but their interweaving provides further exciting fields for discussion – that might push us forward from the innocuous claims of a “psychological portrait” of the region. As I envision this article to be the beginning of a debate with the reader who will probably has not seen Ostalgia, I invite him/her to explore the images of artworks in the exhibition attached to this piece before going further, to form an opinion about the visual argument the curator is making.

Let me begin by pointing out that, unlike US critics’ claims to the novelty of the show – “Art from the former Soviet Bloc is having a moment”[iii] - retrospective exhibitions on the East have 15 year old history in Western Curatorial Practice. To give just a few examples, “Beyond Belief: East Central European Contemporary Art” in 1995 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago or more recently at the Pompidou in 2010 - “Les Promesses du Passé: Une Histoire Discontinue de L’Art Dans L’Ex-Europe de L’Est” (The Promisses of the Past: A Discontinuous History of Art in the Former Eastern Europe). There is nothing new in crafting exhibitions around the solidified descriptive categories –“memory,” “history,” “identity” – that have come to be associated with the Socialist and Post Socialist East. Another general condition for these exhibitions is their location is almost exclusively in Western capitals of culture and are usually supported by powerful corporate bodies – such as “Gender Check: Masculinity and Femininity in the Art of Eastern Europe” which took place at the MUMOK in Vienna in 2009/2010 and was funded by the Erste Foundation.

This brings me to a poignant statement made by a young Romanian artist and theoretician, Veda Popovici, writing about the precarity of local contemporary art institutions. Popovici suggests these cannot hope to host such exhibitions, explaining that “in the context of the post-89 process of historicization of art in Romania, a visible history of recent art (starting from the 60s) is still missing, consequently a cannon towards [which] one would relate to […] also is missing.”[iv] Speaking as an artist and a writer of art history, Popovici goes on to emphasize the lack of historical models usually available through exhibitions - as one of the important challenges contemporary artists from the East are faced with today. In other words, while contemporary art pertaining to the former East is clearly mapped out in cultural capitals of the West, the local scenes are more often than not bereft of such models, through which artists, curators and theoreticians could better engage their own cultural legacy.

Meanwhile, the recurring argument in glossy catalogues printed in Paris, Vienna, Chicago or New York, goes that there exists a common essential condition engendered by the pre-1989 division that carries on to this day in contemporary art (even though the same organizers emphasize the cultural, social, ethnic diversity of this region – leaving the reader with a big paradox on their hands). The aforementioned condition has traditionally been subsumed under the term Eastern Europe (including Russia) in relation to another familiar phrase the “Post-Socialist Condition” and is now continued under Ostalgia, which still preserves the Eastern specificity (Ost) in the title. Moreover, despite the organizers’ claims to the contrary, the division between West and East in these retrospectives is extremely palpable, and one is far from a post-binary, post-political situation when experiencing them.

What is at stake then in these solidified descriptive parameters?

Let me begin from the core concept of the exhibition which for Massimiliano Gioni evokes “a sense of a cultural and social transformation of gigantic proportions: only the most traumatic revolutions leave such deep traces that change our language, spawning neologisms and relegating other terms to oblivion.”[v] In connection to Ostalgia’s main theme, Agnieszka Gratza - writing for Artforum - poses a revealing question:

“Much of “Ostalgia,” the New Museum’s summer exhibition dedicated to art from and about the Soviet bloc, makes for predictably grim viewing. How can we account, then, for the sense of longing and nostalgia triggered by day-to-day imagery of life within a communist regime that hardly seems a lost paradise?[vi]

But whose nostalgia are we talking about here? Whose lost paradise? Artists in the exhibition such as Ion Grigorescu (RO) or Andrei Monastyrski (RU) who performed actions on the outskirts of the sphere of State control in the late 1970s (the first in the privacy of his apartment and the latter as part of Kollektivnye deistvia (Collective Actions Group) in fields outside of Moscow) – can hardly be considered nostalgic. Their works were produced in a time of severe repression in the Romanian and Russian contexts, where artistic production of the unofficial circles was for many the only breath of escape from official control. Moreover, I strongly doubt any of these artists harbor any nostalgia for that system – during which the social utopias of the Left were betrayed by authoritarian governments. In an interview with The New York Observer, Dmitry Vilensky, member of the St. Petersburg based collective Chto Delat?/What is to be done? – whose installation “The Rise and Fall of Socialism” is part of “Ostalgia,” puts it more to the point: “There are so many opportunities for art today. I grew up with the old system, so I have no ostalgia. None at all.”[vii] What is to be done then, with Ostalgia?

Perhaps it is worth re-examining the root of “ostalgie,” which Gioni placed at the center of the New Museum exhibition - to complicate the curator’s unidirectional use of the term. If one looks closely, the history of this idiom points in other directions, away from a solely Eastern symptom placed an indeterminate temporality - as Gioni claims : “ the sense of longing that gives many of the works in the show an unmistakably romantic, lyrical quality that seems to pervade much of the artistic output of the former Soviet Bloc.”[viii]

Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the East was coined in the 1990s by West Germans to define the condition of their Eastern peers, who expressed yearning for the utopias of communism - which seemed to have too quickly vanished from the cultural horizon. Perhaps one of the most famous symbols associated with Ostalgie today is the Berlinese Amplemann (Ampelmännchen), or the Little Trafficlight Man, a beloved Eastern iteration of the generic human figure found on West German pedestrian crossing lights. In the mid 1990 in the German capital, activists succeeded to restore the Amplemann in the former East Berlin, protesting against the process of standardization of their cultural heritage according to so-called superior values of the West. However, it was not only East Germans who deplored the traumatic loss of their culture and its social utopias. Westerns in Germany, Britain and France – who had recently lost the welfare state - also began fantasizing about an Other Europe, an alternative to capitalism, where women and men worked together for a better future. It was not just a desire for the exotic other lifestyle– but a collective sadness around the death of an idea, of the promise for an egalitarian world that persisted in the mental charts of leftist intellectuals.

In the video work “Palast” (2004), which is part of the exhibition at the New Museum, British artist Tacita Dean recorded the last days of the Palast der Republik (The Palalce of the Republic), the seat of the former parliament of the DDR (German Democratic Republic) – which was demolished between 2006 and 2008. The old Palast was to make room for a Prussian-era Stadtschloss (Castle) – despite public outcry throughout the time it was being dismantled in Berlin. In “Palast,” Dean used the shimmering reflections on the rusty façade of the landmark East German building as markers of a deconstruction, the vanishing of a culture – quite literally as the building was being taken apart.

It is safe to say Ostalgie has quickly dissolved in popular imagination in the past 10 years – and the “fodder” as Gioni suggests about ostalgic films like “Good-bye, Lenin!” (2003) – is actually a remarkably global response to a not easily palatable period. This time is associated with what Russian-born writer Alexei Yurchak describes as : “the realities where control, coercion, alienation, fear and moral quandaries were irreducibly mixed with ideals, communal ethics, dignity, creativity, and care for the future.”[ix] Yurchak’s book, “Everything was forever until it was no more – The Last Soviet Generation” is a landmark publication that avoids the essentialization of Cold War binaries -fleshing out the lived realities of Soviet citizens beginning with the 1960s and up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. His book also disturbs the division between official and unofficial artists and cultural communities – a dichotomy implicit in a show like Ostalgia – in which resistance to the system is one of the big unmentioned factors in selecting the works. In this piece, I declare myself partially guilty of perpetuating the “East” and “West” terminology – I do so to foreground the tension which still persists in these categories, through which I hope to trouble the rhetorical division between them.

What I want to get at is that Ostalgia can also be interpreted as a symptom of the West’s longing for the cultures of the East– which still holds a powerful sway over its imagination. Further, I claim that we are witnessing a reinstatement of the East, in this case to compensate and re-energize the tired visual production in one of the key cultural capitals in the West. So much can be inferred from Holland Cotter’s review of the exhibition, writing for the NYTimes: “[Ostalgia] also conveys a depth of thought and feeling that seems unavailable to most of what’s in New York galleries right now.” Cotter suggests that American art has become formulaic - “in countless variations on modernist painting in all kinds of flavors: figurative, abstract, expressionist, geometric” – and that galleries now are filled with art that is all about surplus value, unlike the works in Ostalgia, “grounded in realities larger than themselves.”[x]

On the exhibition website, the organizers go even further to claim that Ostalgia questions “the centrality of Western art historical narratives.”[xi] For scholars invested in the region, the veracity of this statement has been more than obvious for quite some time –for example IRWIN’s seminal project “East Art Map” (2006) quite effectively proves the constructedness of Grand Art Historical Narratives as Western enunciations. But it is always nice to get a nod of approval – late rather than never.

Fascinating for American critics is another almost cliché observation: that great art in the East was produced without the presence of an art market. As Agnieszka Gratza puts it: “Made by established artists and amateurs alike in the absence of commercial gallery spaces and financial initiatives, they go to show that art can exist – and even thrive – without a market.” While that certainly may have been partly true 20, 30 or 40 years ago, this statement folds the reality that contemporary art from Eastern Europe is most definitely for sale, confirmed by the number of galleries and museums that showcase and acquire works (both object-based and conceptual pieces) that are seen as a product of the Cold War unofficial culture. I am not a purist in making this statement - as I happen to work for such an museum of eastern non-conformism.

But I also want to point towards the other side of the coin: that for most socially and politically engaged artists working in the former East today, survival and precarization are newly-accurate terms to describe their art communities. These artists have to constantly struggle for exhibition spaces, studios, and funding for projects – not to mention that a lot of them have two jobs, their artistic labor and a second form of employment for subsistence. It is beyond my scope in this piece to enter in a more comprehensive discussion of these experiences, however, statements to the effect of Gratza’s naïve contemplation of how great art can be a product of desperate times gloss over deeply troubling realities.

Returning to Ostalgia, I cannot but remain skeptical of the presentation the organizers have put on the works – whose installation is in desperate need of some chronological or generational if not regional structure – especially given the fact that local audiences are probably unfamiliar to most of the artists and their contexts. While what Gioni suggests is an exciting proposal – an inter-generational dialogue between artists from different corners of the East – it is hard to come out of the show with the feeling of productive cross-temporal encounters. As a whole, the show more intensely promotes the idea of a body of symptoms, as the curator wants us to observe the “naked bodies animated by extreme desires, or bored bodies shaken by pointless gestures and uncrontrollable physical twitches,” or the effect of works such as “Alexander Lobanov’s manic drawings, which stage a process of assimilation through which ideology literally becomes part of the body, embedded in the subconscious and in the obsessions of each individuals.”[xii]

When reading these descriptions I cannot but conjure up an image of Massimiliano Gioni, the sassy, young Milanese-born curator occupying the psychologist’s chair across from Eastern Europe, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown sitting on the patient’s couch: “Never fear, darling, the Man from the Cultured West is here to figure out all your mental disturbances, while sketching your psychological portrait - “torn between isolation and engagement” [xiii]- naturally.” This is of course, a caricature, but I don’t think I am too far off to suggest that it is easy to slip into solipsism with a tinge of machismo in this case, if one goes along this exclusively psychological avenue of presentation.

In fact, political engagement is quite poignantly suggested by one installation in the exhibition which occupies the 5th floor of the New Museum. For me, this was one of the most exciting moments of the show– a counterpoint to the lack of a historical, political or chronological structure of Ostalgia in general. Entitled “The Rise and Fall of Socialism 1945-1991,”[xiv] the installation realized by the aforementioned collective Chto Delat? comprises of videoworks and a brilliantly researched timeline that mixes political, cultural and social aspects of life under socialism in the former East – with the added twist of also representing Western interventions into the historical development of this political philosophy. For example, the marginally known overthrow of the dictatorship in Nicaragua by the socialist Sandinista Liberation Front in 1979, which were shortly afterwards neutralized by the right-wing Contras – in turn materially and politically backed by the US government. More than an innocent collection of facts, images and videos, “The Rise and Fall of Socialism ” puts an entirely new perspective on Ostalgia – giving it a historical and political dimension which seemed to have been evacuated from the installations on the lower levels.

All in all, Ostalgia gives one a productive field for debate: What distinguishes nostalgia from memory in representation? How does the former East re-enter History? What are the politics behind laying claim to the cultural traditions of this region in the West? And how do these cultures transform our understanding of the terms East and West – which continue to transgress their neatly defined theoretical boundaries - demanding the viewer’s immediate engagement into the debate ?



[i] Holland Cotter, “When Repression Was a Muse,” NY Times Art&Design, 21 July 2011, accessible online: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/22/arts/design/ostalgia-at-new-museum-focuses-on-soviet-bloc-review.html?pagewanted=all

[ii] Lisa Phillips, Director’s Forward, (New York: New Museum, 2011), pg 20

[iii] Andrew Russeth, “East is Best: Art from the Former Soviet Bloc is having a moment,” July 2011, accessible online: http://www.observer.com/2011/07/east-is-best/

[iv] Veda Popovici, “The Spectral Institution: Framing a Critical Artistic Strategy or the Contemporary Art Scene in Bucharest,” unpublished dissertation, June 2011, University of the Arts, Bucharest

[v] Massimiliano Gioni, Ostalgia, (New York: New Museum, 2011), pg. 24

[vi] Agnieszka Gratza, “Ostalgia,” Artforum, August 2011, accessible online: http://artforum.com/picks/id=28699&view=print

[vii] Quoted in Andrew Russeth, “East is Best: Art from the Former Soviet Bloc is having a moment,” July 2011, accessible online: http://www.observer.com/2011/07/east-is-best/

[viii] Massimiliano Gioni, Ostalgia (New York: New Museum, 2011), pg. 25

[ix] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More – The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) pg 10.

[x] Holland Cotter, When Repression Was a Muse, NY Times Art&Design, 21 July 2011, accessible online: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/22/arts/design/ostalgia-at-new-museum-focuses-on-soviet-bloc-review.html?pagewanted=all

[xi] Ostalgia, Press statement, July 2011, accessible online: http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/440/

[xii] Massimiliano Gioni, Ostalgia (New York: New Museum, 2011) pg. 29

[xiii] Massimiliano Gioni, Ostalgia(New York: New Museum, 2011) pg. 29

[xiv] Chto Delat?’s work is accessible online at: http://www.chtodelat.org/images/Rise-and-Fall-links.pdf

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Long April. Texts About Art

The Long April. Texte despre artă is a magazine dedicated to contemporary art, with an emphasis on the art scene from Romania. The magazine is realized through the collective effort of nine authors, each one of them responsible for her own permanent rubric. The magazine tries to offer an image upon contemporary visual arts (in their intersections with other fields, cultural and not only), through the perspective of particular and localized interests of the authors. Reviews of exhibitions, performances or events, interviews with artists or theorists, fragments of academic research, studies or investigations, all these are possible forms to be used, the subjectivity of selection being compensated by the seriousness of approach and the long-term preoccupation with a certain kind of artistic research or critical writing.

The magazine is for the moment published only online, it is bilingual and can be accessed fully for free. The editors would like to have monthly appearances of the magazine, however, any promise in this sense is premature.

The Long April is realized by: Anca Mihuleţ, Andreiana Mihail, Corina L. Apostol, Daria Ghiu, Iulia Popovici, Laura Panait, Livia Pancu, Oana Tănase and Raluca Voinea. Design: Eduard Constantin. Web programming: Mădălin Geană.

The responsibility for the opinions expressed belongs to the authors.

http://e-cart.ro/longapril/en/start_page.php

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Re-blogging : The Spectral Instition


On June 3-4, 2011 I participated in the First Congress of Spectral Institutions in Bucharest, organized by Veda Popovici // The Blind Museum

About the Spectral Institutions

A Spectral Institution is an institution in the course of being authorized. It is the weaker double of a strong, authentic institution. Its (apparent) weakness, however, always disturbs in some way the authoritative structures.
The Spectral Institution is a conceptual framework shared by various projects created by artists and not only.

The Congress and the Fair have been initiated with the Blind Museum's invitation towards other institutions of the same spectral nature to gather, share ideas and prospects for the future.


The Congress is a discursive platform for lectures, debates and workshops.
The Fair is an exhibition platform for the visual and performative representation of the institutions.
The Ist Congress has taken place in Bucharest, Romania and the Ist Fair in Sibiu, Romania.

The Spectral Institution is an open conceptual framework and a network in continuous expansion. To collaborate, participate and find out more please contact veda.popovici(at)gmail.com.

The Ist Congress of the Spectral Institutions

3rd-4th of June, 2011, UNAgaleria, Bucharest

Participating institutions: The Bureau of Melodramatic Research, The Blind Museum (Veda Popovici) Kunstahlle Batistei & ParadisGaraj (Claudiu Cobilanschi), PARApolice (Arnold Schlachter), The Presidential Candidacy, The Department of Art in Public Space (Raluca Voinea, E-cart.ro), The Museum of Modest Art of the Apartment – MAMA.

Participating theorists: Corina Lucia Apostol, Irina Costache, Matei Demetrescu, Simina Neagu.


3rd of June

11:00 Intro
Veda Popovici. Welcome to the Ist Congress of the Spectral Institutions
11:30
Simina Neagu. Institutional Critique in the East?
12:30
ParadisGaraj. The Lost Paradise. (film)
13:30
Corina Lucia Apostol. Post(modernism) between East and West: the Institutionalization of Romanian Artists on the Global Market.
15:00
The Presidential Candidate. The Limits of Depression, what remains to be when the postspectacle has been integrated?

4th of June

11:00
Arnold Schlachter. About security and private polices.
12:00
Matei Demetrescu. About the spectral dimension of authority in contemporary politics: towards a conceptual definition.
Pause
13:30
Irina Costache, Luiza Alecsandru, the Bureau of Melodramatic Research
Workshop: “Institutional futurology: prospections beyond planification”
14:30
Common Space project: institutionalization vs. organization.
Invited: the commuminity around the project. Moderator: Raluca Voinea
16:00
Closing remarks: the Spectral Institution – where to ?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

European Influenza: Raising Historical Consciousness in Neo-Political Times


Friday, March 25, 2011, I gave this talk at the Rutgers Graduate Student Symposium "Territory."

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The art biennale is an artistic platform emerging from the politics of nation-states; the biennale also helps develop and market cities and regions through the staging of world cultures. But can aesthetic projects within the biennale have a meaningful political voice that reaches across various audiences and different borders in as a neo-political strategy?

The Venice Biennale is one of the most prestigious art events in the world, and certainly the most significant in Europe. It is based on the concept of national pavilions, that is national representation and (self)representation, with each country sending their best and brightest artists and curators to the fore. Venice is a type of Olympic Games of the art world, prizes included - while the format of the exhibition is the main vehicle for the presentation of art. At the same time, the biennale engenders multiple understandings of audience: the local, physically present audiences, imaginary constituencies and the professional field of the art world.

These debates and observations frame my presentation, which uses the Romanian entry for the 2005 Venice Biennale, “European Influenza 2002-2005,” as a case-study. European Influenza was conceived as a conceptual platform in 2002 by Daniel Knorr, an artist born in Romania who now lives and works in Germany. Knorr explains his work as an on-going series of materializations around the concept of Europe – and its dramatic transformations in contemporary times – related to the project of the European Union, as well as its impact over other cultures and geographical areas. Hence the word play in the work’s title, which alludes to both the influence of Europe and its darker side, a virus that threatens to contaminate. The 2005 materialization of this conceptual platform was curated by Marius Babias, a scholar who also works and lives between Romania and Germany.

The Romanian Pavilion in was left empty of visible artworks; its black walls bore traces of past interventions- scratches, inscriptions, nails, holes and dust. At the entrance, visitors encountered a label with just the title of the work. They also received a reader in English, free of charge – with texts commenting on the geo-cultural dimensions of European identity in the context of the EU’s expansion eastwards. Finally, the back door to the exhibit – leading to the streets of Venice was left permanently open, providing both an escape from the Biennale world and free entry into the guarded Giardini walls (normally the entrance to the Biennale is 15 Euros)

As a conceptual strategy, emptiness is a working method most notably used by the Moscow Conceptualists, in particular the group “Collective Actions” and Ilya Kabakov. In The Dictionary of Moscow Conceptualism, published in 1999, they described their artistic activities, related to theory and philosophy, which they developed in the Soviet Union from the mid 1970s. Emptiness goes beyond a banal absence; it denotes interventions that allow the possibility for non-authoritative, de-centralized positions for writing or producing art. The collective imagined emptiness as a way to describe a method or the lack of one, through which concepts and ideas can acquire multiple meanings in the works of artists and writers.

I imagine Daniel Knorr’s projects in dialogue with this mode of address, as they are focused on the relationship between the audience and the exhibition space; they extend beyond the walls of institutions foregrounding the participatory, dialogic aspect of conceptual art. In my interview with the artist, he described his practice as an exploration of a concept which can materialize even in empty spaces, for it is audiences that give it a form and context.

Indeed, in Venice, the piece was conceived as a space of reflection; after walking through a visual overload of images, sounds and sensations from all over the world, visitors were welcomed by the visual quiet of the Romanian Pavilion; they created the situation, continuing the aesthetic project envisioned by the artist. On one hand, they became aware of their own bodies moving through the space as they turned from art judgers and consumers to passers-by. On the other, the work’s materialization came afterwards, in people’s minds, and in the process of their interaction with society and media.

Indeed, European Influenza received a gamut of admiration and but also apprehension. It was lauded by some critics as a critical discourse that tries to raise consciousness on an individual as well as collective level; at the same time, it also was harshly criticized for presenting texts that literally cursed Europe and the US; it also presented a problematic understanding of art traditions in Romania, and seemed to represent the country through the metaphor of nothingness, reinforcing stereotypical assumptions of this region.

What all these reactions had in common was the recognition that this was as a politically loaded reflection platform. Understanding the Venice Biennale as a model for culture in Europe, “European Influenza” became a powerful counter-discourse in 2005 - just a year after Romania had been accepted into NATO and the time when its leaders aggressively sought be integrated into the EU– this would take place in 2007. This historical threshold mirrored the situation in many countries from the former East.

The reader for the Biennale, 1000 pages long, was edited by the curator Marius Babias and contained critical texts on Europe as well as sets of photographs taken by Daniel Knorr.

In one of these sets, Knorr used a self-made camera with 360 degree rotation to capture intimate moments of community life in Romania during the mid 1990s. For example in this panoramic photograph, the wedding of a 12 year old girl with a 13 year old boy is celebrated by a Roma community in the town of Sibiu. Three generations of Roma, all living in the same house, are shown drinking together, while the wedding couple (in the far left of the middle frame) sits quietly in the background, looking almost doll-like. In my interview with Knorr, he remarked that his 360s degree camera is not only a way to capture a community but also creates “spontaneous communities” in public space – as during different takes people start reacting to the camera and arrange themselves in the physical space that corresponds to the imagined one in the photograph. These sets of panoramas extend over 100 pages in the reader; they open a space for critical reflection into how communities are formed and represented through a series of selves and others that are mutually constitutive and in flux.

The texts from the reader were authored by scholars from both Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the US. While it is beyond my scope today to go into a deeper discussion of them, they by and large problematize how emerging mechanisms of assimilation, construction of identity and possibilities for action in the cultural domain affect definitions of Europe.

Curator Marius Babiaș’ statement was a critical indictment of the process of EU integration; Babiaș claimed that this process would establish Europe as a superpower through the centralization of political power, control over technologies and cultural hegemony; nonetheless Babiaș also affirmed his faith in political and social resistance movements connected to culture:

"While the political sphere formalizes EU integration process as a geopolitical vision of a greater Europe and forces norms on society (the new member states had to democratize their political systems on the Western model, accept international rules of competition and integrate thousands of EU laws to their national legislation), the field of culture has the potential to bring forth a perspective that treats the process of European unification as an opportunity for creating a critical Europe."

The text that was considered most contentious in the Biennale Reader – was Moldavian author Nicoleta Esinenscu’s play, “Fuck you, EU.RO.PA!,”; it foregrounds a strong female voice, epitomizing feelings of traumatic loss among Eastern Europeans. In this electrifying monodrama, a young woman tries to explain to her father why she does not want to participate in an essay-writing contest about her home country, the Republic of Moldova. It represents a provocative stance against the politics of European Integration- fraught with inter-ethnic conflicts, and addressing the former republics’ strained relationship to Russia:

“Daddy I have something to say….

What did I do for my country?

A country I’ve never seen.

A country that you’ve never seen, either.

A country?

Daddy, it seems you never had a country either.

My student years were only protests.

Stones.

Bottles.

Police

Curses.

Treason…

It was getting closer to you, Europe!

Familial!

Familiar!

National!

International! State/Statal!

Anti-State!/ Anti Statal!”

Betrayed and repelled by the free-market system which translates into greed for profit dominating the former Soviet republics of Europe, she also feels robbed of her past; her values and beliefs as a teenager when Moldova was still part of the Soviet Union, are revealed to be equally ideologically motivated. Chagrin, anger and disappointment are markers of her unstable identity, a symptom of Eastern Europe’s confusion- recast and remapped both culturally and politically. Performed in Romania, the Republic of Moldova, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Japan, France and Austria, the play led to fierce debates in the author’s home country; At the time of the Biennale, it was considered a national embarrassment by the political class in Romania, when its leaders were desperately seeking integration with the European Union.

The reaction in Romania was so dramatic, that it even became a heatedly debated topic inside the Romanian Parliament, as one can discern from this interpellation by a deputy of the Social Democratic Party, who questioned “who approved such a manifestation […] so that we should ask [them] to make a public apology to the Romanian people for the way in which Romania has presented itself to Europe.”

In Romania, “European Influenza” was criticized for representing the country through an empty pavilion as a metaphor of nothingness. For example, the Romanian Chronicle qualified it as “The marketing of nothingness,” The National Journal commented on “the way certain funds are squandered” “in a prestigious environment that injures the dignity of the Romanian Ministry” or even “ a symptom of the decadence in the entire cultural sphere, a decadence of life-style, language and politics that has reached alarming proportions,” as a reader commented on the latter article. Such heated debates over contemporary art projects in conjunction with the politics of the state are quite unprecedented in the country.

I would like to suggest therefore, that this project was very self-consciously meant to shock audience in the beginning, and then capture public attention and reaching the point where the contents of the Biennale reader in conjuction to the Pavilion left intentionally empty, were internalized and digested by audiences on different levels. Moreover, I argue that European Influenza 2002-2005, created a conceptual platform for contemporary art in Romania, as an aesthetic construction to raise historical consciousness, open to different interpretations.

This intervention I claim is therefore not atypical for understanding art traditions in Romania as has been suggested – as it can be connected to similar projects burgeoning in the country over the last 20 years. In art, this period of transition was manifested in the shift from socialist realism as the official doctrine and non-conformist art as the un-official discourse, to Western paradigms of modern art. After the changes of 1989, art institutions in Romania were slow to develop, and this influenced not only the national art scenes but the production of art in the country as well. The state did not recognize the importance of sustaining independent cultural enterprises but focused on establishing a handful of centrally managed museums that more or less function according to the schema of universal museums in the West – with a strong nationalist agenda of foregrounding Romanian artists commonly disregarded in the art historical cannon.

It is against this background that many artists, curators and scholars recognized the urgency of promoting alternative spaces for art and dialogue. For example, established in 1999, IDEA Arts+Society is a magazine that continues to exist even in the dire cultural milieu of Romania. Given this challenge, the editors created a column entitled “gallery” which sought to encourage local artistic practice. “Gallery” functions like a real gallery in two dimensional space. It is populated with posters designed by artists, DIY publications, sporadically published art and philosophy magazines, projects which run in tandem with IDEA for wider dissemination. Thus, the magazine functioned as a meeting and production space for artistic debates and socio-political topics of larger public interest. A similar strategy was devised by artists that have independently succeeded in reaching international art scenes: they quite simply have started creating reproductions and their own publications as new meeting spaces.

Lia Perjovschi’s archive is one such initiative. At the beginning of the 1990s the artist together with Dan Perjovschi established the Contemporary Art Archive, a collection of issues, publications and reproductions in their own studio. The archive became an important database for contemporary art initiatives, a self-supporting platform created independently of state funds or governmental support. On the bases of this material, the Perjovschis issued publications of modest design meant to inform upon and classify various tendencies in art and society, similarly creating a community like the magazine IDEA. In conjunction with the open archive and studio, the artists organized several exhibitions and open discussions and a series of lectures.

These initiatives keep art production in Romania energized and also, related debates at the nexus of art, politics, society and culture. It is in this spirit that I want to end my analysis and contextualization of “European Influenza 2002-2005”- a project which served to amplify these debates on a national and international level, criticizing and take advantage of the territory of the Venice Biennale as a model for culture. Running parallel to conceptual practices emerging in Romania in the transitional period of the last 20 years, this project suggests a new cultural model - one formulated on open and critical understandings of society, history and politics. This is a time when Western leaders and their Eastern European counterparts are pushing for normalization or consolidation of democracy - on cultural terms that have already been defined by the EU super-structure. Or, simply put, Western ideals for the progress of the non-Western world. A space for reflection becomes an appropriate response to these dramatic phenomena; it critically examines the intensity of social, political and economic transformations channeled through culture – an examination carried out through its multiple audiences, present and imagined, local and beyond its territory.

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The author wishes to thank Daniel Knorr for providing valuable material and explanations in putting together this presentation. Thank you is also due to the Rutgers Art History Graduate Student Organization for inviting me to be a part of the symposium "Territory."

Image credit: Daniel Knorr, Reader for the Romanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2005