Simona Nastac: How would you define your interest in Romanian contemporary art and where it comes from? How did your interest in Romanian contemporary art change through out and after the trip?
Ben Borthwick: My interest in Romanian contemporary art comes from two different perspectives. First, having worked on the Brancusi exhibition at Tate Modern, I was interested to see what role he plays as a historical figure within contemporary art. Second, the increasing visibility of artists from Central Europe, the Balkans and former Communist states beyond those regions in the last few years means that I was interested to see if there were artists (aside from the few whose work I knew ) who were making equally interesting work in Romania.
In relation to the Brancusi question, I quickly discovered that he is rejected by most contemporary artists as a figure who contradicts the general assumption that ‘the modern’ must be technological. This is in part a reaction to the fact Brancusi has, to some extent, been appropriated by nationalist, conservative, reactionary interests. He is seen as a somewhat embarrassing irrelevance by most artists making work about contemporary life in Romania. While I lament this discarding of one of the most radical artists of the early twentieth century in terms of subject matter, abstraction and seriality, formal developments in sculpture and photography, his position in relation to Duchamp, and his refusal to follow the prevailing orthodoxies of modernism, I recognise that many of the concerns Brancusi was dealing with may seem remote from the current situation in Romania.
In relation to the contemporary art scene in Romania, I was challenged as much by the work as by the context in which it is being made. One of the greatest problems artists in Romania have to negotiate is the fact that there is no existing infrastructure to support artists after college, no established network of spaces (both in terms of studios and commercial or nonprofit spaces) through which contemporary art is produced and disseminated, and very little awareness of the Romanian art scene outside the region. It is compounded by the extremes of inequality between those with technological skills and those without. As membership of the EU approaches, Romania’s position as the poorest member also makes it the market with the greatest potential growth. Artists who have IT skills and are ‘visually literate’ are in demand from commercial agencies for well paid jobs in web design, advertising and so on. Consequently, the decision to remain an artist is already a political one as it is a conscious choice not to exploit the commercial possibilities available through the privilege of education. This is further compounded by the extremity of the historical situation of Ceausescu’s rule and the impossibility of not taking a position in relation to it. A positive consequence of this vacuum is a very strong desire to articulate a narrative, both historical and contemporary that is relevant to the very specific context of Romania. A negative is the unwillingness to look for left-wing social models as alternatives to neo-liberalism because the discourse and language have been tainted by the historical association with dictatorship.
S.N.: Have you seen works by or met Romanian artists in the UK or in international art events before coming to Romania?
B.B.: I had seen work by Romanian contemporary artists at the Venice Bienale in 2003 and previously. However, the first times I encountered work that I was really impressed by were through recommendations by friends. One was Matei Bejenaru’s water pump project at Tirana in 2003, the other was Dan Perjovschi’s project for the Edinburgh Festival. I then realised Matei was connected to the Periferic Biennial in Iasi which I had heard about from various artists, curators, and students who had either participated or visited.
S.N.: You visited Bucharest, Iasi and Cluj, the most active contemporary art centres in Romania. What, in your opinion, were the situations and scenes for contemporary art in these cities?
B.B.: All of the scenes faced the same key problem of how to create an infrastructure in the vacuum of historical precedent and unfamiliarity with the notion of contemporary art as a form of cultural production or critique. Negotiation of a past in which the role of the artist was to produce state propaganda means that discussion of how to create a better society can be seen as limiting the freedom of the individual. This was the central problematic that informed the different approaches in the three different locations.
The main figures in each context are all intimately aware of what is happening elsewhere, whether because they identify or disagree with each other. Yet the scenes seemed completely different, in terms of the situations out of which they have developed, the networks they are part of, and their possibility for realising projects.
As the capital city, Bucharest draws more artists because of the commercial possibilities available to artists with IT and graphics skills, the increased traffic of regional and international artists, academics, curators giving talks, putting on exhibitions, and doing residencies. Our time in Bucharest was limited by what was clear is that, unlike in Cluj and Iasi, there are multiple approaches with enough people affliated with each to sustain themselves as clear positions. This is emphasised by the presence of Dan and Lia Perjovschi who have clearly defined a radically independent position in terms of their relation to the state, art schools, the MNAC and other issues. Their authority is grounded in a rigorously theorised and ethical set of arguments, a clearly established political position, and willingness to open up their studio as a resource. This is recognised by everyone and respected by most we met. Even if people disagree with them or, in some cases, regard them as anachronistic and out of touch with reality, they couldn’t deny their foundational importance in having been the first to articulate a coherent, critical, independent position that is not dependent on unsustainable grant money or tainted by association with the corruption of the artist unions or government. Furthermore, they are equally critical of the impending membership of the EU. This is not a nihilistic position that is anti-everything, but a clearly worked out analysis of the pitfalls of accepting the conditions of EU membership without a robust public debate. Just as there is a vacuum in the cultural infrastructure of the country, economically it is a similar situation. However, the impact of the flexible labour market proposed by the EU could bring much need jobs and prosperity, but it could equally have disastrous consequences for Romania. It would most likely bring both things, consecutively. The in-built instability of this economic model has an extreme impact on less developed economies while nations like Britain or France with their deeply established capitalist systems are not as diversely affected. What the Perjovschi’s persuasively articulate is that this offer of economic development does not have to be accepted wholesale and uncritically, but that it is possible to imagine an alternative that conforms to neither a neo-liberal nor former-Communist ideology, but one that includes social welfare and job security, education and equality.
The position represented by Razvan Ion, founder and editor of Artphoto is equally resolute in the rejection of state funding, but distinct in that the market and corporate funding is embraced as a means to underwrite projects. To me this seems uncritical of the cycle that corporate funding follows – namely, use the art sponsorship as a financially insignificant but publicly high profile means of demonstrating corporate social responsibility while attracting young consumers in the opinion forming creative industries. However, when the art world is no longer a new ‘market,’ or a cheaper labour force becomes available and operations are shifted from Romania, the economic model will kick in: the corporation will simply withdraw production or market itself through a channel more media friendly and new for the sake of being new. They have products to sell after all. I applaud Ion’s work and attitude to make things happen where government funding is both very limited and ethically impossible to accept. However, I am critical of his dismissal of the ramifications of embracing the market wholeheartedly. I am not saying I disagree with his decision to take sponsorship, but that it is possible to do so and remain critical of where that money comes from.
In our brief meeting with ADD I was impressed with their long term goals and strategy. They have clearly set themselves up on a non-profit, NGO business model in which artists and businesses are offered services as clients. This service is to provide advice and act as a resource on how to fund art projects in response to a series of developments including: the emergence of commercial galleries in Bucharest; the decline of the Soros Foundation funding and resources; the increasing corporate presence in Romania and attendant possibilities for seeking sponsorship; and greater number of artists or curators who now understand that corporate money is available and are willing to accept it. This marks a level of familiarity with the market and a willingness to engage in it that is distinct from the Perjovschi’s position. ADD has a familiarity with corporate structures and is able to act as the interface between artists and the market, while retaining the public way in which the Perjovschi’s treat their library as a resource. ADD is building up a library, commissioning art projects, and making publications that are clear, concise and helpful in detailing how to apply for funding, how to budget, and so on.
In Iasi the Vector/ Periferic organisations have a very different profile. Affiliated with the University, they do accept state funding. The artists involved clearly felt less able to take the principled stand advocated by the Perjovschi’s due to lack of resources to show their work (hence their perception that membership of the artists’ union can be an evil worth living with in order to have a studio or exhibition), as well as the structure of the organisation which requires levels of investment to produce the biennial that are only available from the state. Unlike in Bucharest, the artists grouped around the Vector gallery are predominantly art students who studied in Iasi, got involved with the projects and have stayed there to try and build a scene. Due to its remote location both domestically and in relation to the Vienna axis on which Romania is the last stop, there is little passing link to other cities – everything that happens has to be initiated locally. After my initial surprise at the apparent arbitrariness of a link to Sweden through curator Anders Kreuger, it started to seem reasonable as there doesn’t seem to be a natural geographic axis on which it sits. Why not Sweden? With Kreuger and Maria Lind on the board, and the next Periferic curated by Angelika Nollert, Marius Babias and Attila Tordai, the last two having visited IASPIS in Stockholm for discussions about curatorial practice, it seems that the network being in Iasi is at once focused on Stockholm in terms of models of practice, but perhaps the most diverse and dispersed in terms of artists who will contribute to the scene.
In Cluj the situation is different again. The activities of Idea magazine and related publishing imprints are funded by the commercial print press set up the founder of Idea Tim Nadasan. The staff is a mix of artists, philosophers, linguists and translators which creates more of an academic context. Like Dan and Lia Perjovschi, the prospect of accepting state funding would require such levels of compromise and association with corrupt local government that they find the prospect unacceptable. One of the most interesting things about Cluj is the clearly established geographical and historical association with Hungary and Austria. This is reflected intellectually where the association with Budapest and Vienna seems just as strong, if not stronger, than with Bucharest. Idea has a strong link to the visual arts, but its remit is broader in terms of trying to establish a discourse that is absent from the academy due to the uncritical acceptance of neo-liberal free market ideology as the terms for membership of the EU. The magazine is programmatically putting in place an intellectual infrastructure to demonstrate that to be left wing is very different from being a Ceausescu apologist, and that cultural practice is a key area in which these discussions can take place. They are working with local writers about exhibitions in Romania, translating high profile international cultural theorists like Boris Groys, Slavoj Zizek, and Chantal Mouffe, as well as historical texts by the likes of Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault. By translating (in-house) historical and contemporary texts into Romanian for the first time and contextualising them in relation to the 20 page artist project, Idea is building up a resource that should prove invaluable for reference by future artists, students, academics, and, if we are optimistic, politicians. There are possible future expansion plans to establish the Idea Foundation and build a cultural centre for conferences, screenings, exhibitions, that are completely autonomous from the university’s conservative dismissal of the values to which the magazine is committed. This level of commitment, strategy and success by reinvesting profits from their commercial activities into an intellectual infrastructure is truly radical.
In summary, I would therefore describe the Perjovschi’s as something like a critical unconscious of the diverse scene in Bucharest, particularly the Contemporary Art Museum. In addition to trying to establish scenes in Cluj and Iasi, Idea is providing a pedagogical source of information that is easily disseminated domestically but also acts as a means of raising awareness about some of the things happening within Romania on the international stage. Iasi is much more artist oriented and focused on exploring the locale as a context in which to make art, and how the local intersects with the international through the biennial.
S.N.: What do you think about the relationship between state-run/funded art institutions and independent initiatives in Romania?
B.B.: I have indicated above how state funding is viewed differently by different organisations, but that all are wary of taking money from the state because of the explicit association between the state and corruption. Where organisations decide to accept state funding they all claim have put in place safeguards against being exploited for political ends, but acknowledge the problems and perception of compromise that come with government money.
The role of the free market is in many ways just as problematic as that of the state. Again, I have alluded to the corporate agenda in relation to expansion of multinational corporations into Romania, and the ways in which these corporations use cultural practice as a means by which to bring validity to their activities. Suffice it to say that if Hans Haacke visits Romania his conscience would be torn between critiquing the government and corporate expansion.
Although we only met briefly, the directors of ADD seem to be trying to strike a balance between these two poles. It seeks corporate donors, but functions like a non-profit organisation. They have clearly identified where the really practical problems are for younger artists starting out by creating a library for public access and reference. Their excellent guide to how to secure funding draws artists attention to the social and economic basis of any such awareness.
The experience of visiting MNAC was disturbing. Not only are the historical associations of the building so over determined that a significant proportion of artists and society are unwilling to participate in their activities, but it is also an exclusionary space: it is miles from the centre of town, there are no public transport connections, taxi drivers do not know how to get there, there is no parking anywhere nearby, vehicles are not allowed to through the gates and are forced to drop off visitors on a busy highway.
There are also symbolic problems. Due to the fact the building also houses the parliament, there are armed guards demanding to know the purpose of your visit. Once inside there are more guards who x-ray your bags on the way in and every visitor has to pass through a metal detector. This is not a process that represents the inclusivity that should be the defining characteristic of a national institution.
Whether it is appropriate for a museum to be in the same building as the government is also a discussion that seems to have been ignored. My view is that it is inappropriate as the perception of independence is elided by proximity. The cost of the building to Bucharest’s architectural and social history, as well as the labour conditions of those who were forced to build it, make it such a contentious space that it is doubtful it will ever be viewed as anything but an ethical contradiction. If it does move beyond that status, then it is a sad statement of historical amnesia. Furthermore, the cost of converting the building far exceeds what could have been done in an industrial conversion or new, purpose built museum. There are plenty of sites in the centre of town where the public could visit and make the museum part of their daily lives – something that is geographically impossible with the House of the People. And the megalomaniac wavelength of Ceausescu’s building has reverberated through conversion of a space that far exceeds the requirements of its purpose. The collection cannot fill the building and there aren’t the resources to fund its programme and operation.
On our visit to MNAC the building was completely empty. The exhibition on display was the collection acquired since 1989. It was, essentially, an attempt to demonstrate that MNAC had inherited an embarrassing collection of work form an earlier regime. The curators told us the current director was not involved in its acquisition. This contradicted what I had hear so I pushed for an explicit statement as was told, categorically, that the current director and museum staff had no role whatsoever in the acquisition of the work on display. After my visit when explained to curators and artists what I had been told they were outraged and reiterated, categorically, that the current Director had, in a previous role, determined the acquisitions policy that resulted in the current collection. Whichever side was telling the truth, the fact that there is a total breakdown of trust between the institution and its public is perhaps the most damaging issue.
In terms of the collection exhibition, I also object to the basis of the display. Whether or not the work should be in the national collection, it is irresponsible for the institution to mock it. This is work made by artists who are still alive and, however they ended up in the collection, should not then be presented as an embarrassment in some attempt to deflect criticism from the institution. Curators should contextualise the means by which this work ended up in the collection, demonstrate the systems of power that acquired it, but also show what it meant for this kind of work to be made at the moment of its production and the struggle to find aesthetic models when there is no legacy to draw on. Curators should be trying to find ways to complicate their own practice rather than deny responsibility for the quality of the museum’s collection.
The final reinforcement of my view that the museum is not interested in being a space that is open to the whole of society, including those who are critical of it, is that the curators claimed to be giving oppositional voices space to be heard. However, in reality this meant nailing photocopies of writings critical of the museum onto lengths of wood which were propped against the wall or laid on the floor. Again, this is a demonstration of contempt for anyone with oppositional views and uses display techniques to make their views seem disposable, inadequate in the face of institutional authority and, ultimately, the nail through the photocopy signifies a violent rejection. While it is important not to elide the difference between the horrors of Ceausescu’s repression of dissent and anything that happens in his building in the present day, it is difficult to resist such an elision when the building offers it up and the behaviour of its occupants shows such disrespect for critical voices.
While I am tempted to end my discussion of MNAC here, it is necessary to say that the small Kinema Ikon exhibition was a fascinating show of historical work from the 1960s and 70s as well as their current practice. Of the two historical films I saw, one built up a complex visual language from short clips shot out on the street which the second, George Sabau’s Fragmentarium, used the visual strategies of formalist abstraction combined with a radically experimental electronic soundtrack. This resonates with the contemporaneous sound experiments of industrial pioneers like Throbbing Gristle in spite of the total isolation from those developments.
S.N.: How did you find the local art production and its historical, social, and economic contexts comparing with those in the UK or in the West at large?
B.B.: As I mentioned earlier, the historical situation in Romania is, from an external perception, fascinating. The opportunity to attend a talk by Liviana Dan demonstrated that there was a skeletal underground of artists during the Ceausescu era, but it existed in near total isolation from anything that was happening outside Romania. The question raised now is how to make sense of this history which is completely anomalous in relation the dominant trajectory of Western art histories, or even for other former Communist states. This has given rise to a series of approaches to fill in some of the absences. Through Lia’s Centre for Art Analyse newsletters the basic language of art discourse has been put into the public domain: terminology defined, the underground history documented, and a discussion of the shift from dictatorship to democracy in relation to art practice has been established. Through the Idea publications a more academic trajectory is in place. Organisations like ADD and Vector are making this information available to students and artists. However, instead of being able to engage with historical precedent, artists who have started working in recent years are severely restricted in their models to refer to which demonstrate attempts to articulate the specifics of a local historical and cultural context. In reaction to this, it seems that most artists who have come through art schools during or since the 1990s are working in new media. Video and the internet has opened up vast sources of information to artists and established connections internationally. These imaging technologies only entered Romanian society after 1989 and therefore also signify a rupture with a past that many younger artists feel is not part of their lives. Painting and sculpture are seen as bankrupt forms associated with a corrupt past and the Artist Union. However, I am suspicious of the fetishisation of technology as the basis an art practice. As Lia’s self-published newspapers or Dan’s simple, acutely observed, line drawings demonstrate, it is possible to work with the most limited technologies and makes something relevant and engaging.
Our visit was mostly organised around meeting curators and art professionals rather than artists, but in Iasi and Cluj presentations by students and local artists involved with were very strong. It is easy to imagine the work of many of these artists being shown in London, Paris or New York. One of the few younger artists we met who was negotiating this fetishation of new media was Victor Man. His project at Plan B gallery in Cluj was a monochromatic painting installation. On grey walls there were a series of small images depicting two C19th figures duelling. A narrative was established across 12 images in which one figure was killed, cremated, and turned into pigment used in a painting. The final element was the Latin word ‘Auguri’ meaning ‘best wishes.’ The size of the images echoed the scale of tiles used on the chimney that dominated the room, the cremation the function of the fireplace, and the painting formed the final self-referential element. The nostalgic immortalising of the adversary in a kind of portrait is undermined by the taboo of cremation in Catholic and Orthodox religion, turning homage into insult. As much as an analysis of the myths of painting’s regenerative force, this was also a critique of photographic media. The images were monochromatic and sequential like negatives on a contact sheet or cinematic stills. On close inspection they were pixelated as if they had been low-resolution downloads printed at home. Man’s reflection upon the limitations of painting and attempts to push those limits resulted in an installation that refused the commodity status traditionally associated with painting. By exploring the limitations of painting through photographic imagery he succinctly demonstrated that he is unusual in the Romanian context because he is reflecting upon the limitations of what he can represent.
S.N.: What do you think is missing here on the level of art practice, conceptual and visual discourse, and cultural policy? Are there elements that you find more desirable within in Romania than in the UK?
B.B.: I would suggest that pretty much everything is missing! Yet the absence of a cultural infrastructure means that there is a strong commitment to generating a discourse, and creativity about how to make things happen. As a consequence, there is a commitment and awareness of what else is happening that made a very strong impression on me. Without wanting to romanticise a situation that has been forced into existence through censorship and lack of funding that is unthinkable in Western Europe, the way in which the different groups of artists, magazines, and curators are mapping out the possibilities where nothing currently exists are very exciting.
S.N.: What is in excess? In your opinion, are certain areas of contemporary art in Romania over-saturated and others lacking? If so, what areas do you see this within?
B.B.: As indicated in the previous answers, I strongly believe there is a fetishistic relationship to technology that negates a more conceptual approach to production. To make work that is challenging is to test limits – political, intellectual, personal as well as, rather than by necessity, technological. Where technology is accepted as a signifier of a set of assumptions about the rejection of a corrupt past, it then becomes a complacent instrument of conservatism. Ironically, the very rejection of historical modes of practice because of their associations with tradition has established a situation that mirrors the political and economic discourse: anything associated with the past is rejected as bankrupt while the new, whether new media of neo-liberalism, quickly becomes a new orthodoxy. The limits of orthodoxy are often best tested by the minimum, most conservative means (such as line drawing or painting) which are often shown to be just as, if not more, radical.
S.N.: Could you speak about a local specificity in Romanian contemporary art? Does it have a certain identity mark you could name and recognize it?
B.B.: No, I don’t believe there is a local specific tendency that is evident, even if the historical conditions from which artists are coming are absolutely local. There are kinds of work that resonate with similar approaches within or outside of Romania, but this is because they explore issues that address the specificity of how these issues unravel into Romanian culture and society rather than anything intrinsically Romanian about the way the work is made or how it looks.
S.N.: Do you have any suggestions to make to specific Romanian artists, curators and institutions?
B.B.: If you have ideas for projects within or outside of Romania, do not be inhibited or intimidated about approaching the people and spaces that can help realise the project. Romania’s position within the region and the EU makes it an important discursive space with valuable things to contribute.
S.N.: Do you intend to initiate collaboration or exchange with Romanian art institutions and artists in the future? If so, please give details of what these projects may entail?
B.B.: I am interested in working with certain artists and spaces on particular projects but I do not have a timeframe for when these will happen. I fully intend to return to Romania or the next Periferic biennial and to meet with more artists and curators.