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

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