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:

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 or 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 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.


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:

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”

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