Sunday, September 26, 2010

Case-file: Constanta

Whenever members of the art community in Romania ask where I'm from, I usually quickly whisper....Constanta....and a heavy silence follows. I already see a perplexed look in their eyes and then, almost invariably a comment along the lines of: "Constanta!??! There are no artists or scholars there just bishnitzari !(which is a colloquial term for mercers, usually with bad connotations). Up until recently my reply would sound something like: "Yes, I know, we barely have a small art museum, a modest sculpture gallery, an on and off running theater and ballet and a public library that went bankrupt and closed." And then I would change the topic of conversation to hide my own disappointment and slight embarrassment to hail from a commercial enclave whose city officials could not care less about culture and education.

Historically, Constanta is one of the oldest cities in Romania, founded around 600 BCE, as a Greek colony. The ancient name of the town is Tomis, and it was here that the renowned poet Ovid was exiled (47-13 BCE), lamenting his banishment in the famous poems, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Tomis was later renamed Constantantiana, in honor of Constantine the Great (274-337), from which derives its current name. Historically, Constanta is a city ripe with multiculturalism that arches through the centuries - its material traces are visible in the town's major sites: The Roman Edifice with Mosaic (4th century CE), The Archeological Park (3rd-6th century CE), The Genoese Lighthouse (circa 1860), St. Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral (circa 1885), The Great Mahmudyie Mosque (circa 1910), The Greek Theater – now the National Theater (circa 1927) and others more. With such a rich cultural legacy, it is downright pitiful that its officials are effectively eradicating the arts by severely cutting funding from vital establishments such as the library, the museum, the theater and the opera, while pouring funds into the development of tourist resorts.

Contemporary artists in Constanta feel neglected and secluded, with no almost no support, financial or otherwise, scarce available material and no place to showcase their creations. The situation is then forcing them to move to Bucharest or abroad (or abandon their profession for careers in advertising), and/or compromise their artistic integrity by producing only commercial art for mostly Western markets, favoring decorative painting and sculpture. But things are starting to turn in another direction, and while it will take more than one initiative to change the status quo, one may just be the snowball that foretells the avalanche. So today I am a little bit proud to write about a much needed breath of fresh air blowing from Constanta, a foundation that uses art as a vehicle to inspire a much needed social change in my hometown.

The Menthor Foundation was established in 2000 as a non for profit, nongovernmental organization that works with disenfranchised populations in Constanta, employing artistic practices to sustain a dialogue and give these communities a voice and a platform for agency. The foundation is comprised by a small staff of artists, actors and philologists, which operate under the motto "Menthor for an open society"; their goals were set to offer cultural alternatives to the dire situation in Constanta - a city which boasts the biggest harbor in South-Eastern Europe. In theory and in practice, this collective is starting to introduce socially involved artistic practices into the curriculum as well as offering educational programs to children and young people from disadvantaged socio-economical backgrounds.

By engaging diverse practitioners from theater, visual arts, linguistics, dance and music, the foundation seems to build up confidence and cooperation among the young generation- deprived from a critical age of almost all avenues for critical self-expression in Constanta. Believing that art is a vital part of social change, the people from Menthor started a series of workshops which culminated in the participatory production of plays. Teaming up with the "Play against violence" project initiated by the European Cultural Foundation, they put together a series of active art interventions, appropriately called: "Short Stories About Me" (2001), "The Dream of Reason Creates Monsters" (2002), "Sustainable Journey"(2004) and "Photograms"(2005). Through theater, the participants from diverse backgrounds (as a centuries-old harbor, Constanta has developed as a veritable melting pot for Greeks, Roma, Hungarians, Tatars, Russian Lipovans) were encouraged to share experiences and develop innovative approaches to deal with conflict, discrimination and intolerance.

In 2003, the Menthors took a step further and established the Resource Center for Young People in Constanta, in cooperation with the Concept Foundation (Bucharest). Envisioned as a safe-haven for teenagers from violent environments, the center became a laboratory for artistic endeavors and education through theater and visual arts, emphasizing both process and result as part of its philosophy. By foregrounding participative arts as an alternative form of social work, the center aims to enable commonly disregarded youth, so that they in turn contribute to social change in the long run.

More recently, the foundation has sought to push the boundaries of conventional art spaces (therefore critiquing the lack of creative opportunities offered by Constanta's city officials) by taking over a former military bunker and transforming it into a temporary exhibition space. Opened in August 2007, the installation "Constanta Caz" (The Case of Constanta or The Constanta Bunker), was one of the first contemporary art happenings outside of the Constanta Art Museum, the only official institution designated to promote creative arts in one of the biggest counties in Romania. The artists involved in the project, Gabriel Brojboiu, Gheorghiţă Constantin, Gabriela Gheorghe, Alfred Ipser, Constantin Papadopol, Eusebio Spânu and Dan Perjovschi produced installations, large scale graphic works and drawings directly on the bunker walls. The artists also projected a video of their creative process, an innovative, self-reflecting intervention for the generally conservative milieu in which they operate. And in case you were wondering, the artists mostly functioned as their own curators, distinguishing this project as a manifesto for forming a geo-political collective. From “Constanta Case 1,” evolved a parallel exhibition, which also played on reorienting the viewer along the tangible urgencies of the city, this time focusing on unfinished houses (Constanta is famous for scores of such abandoned urban projects, encroaching on the historical center). The project “Antropocity” (2008) established the concept of alternative art space alongside those of museum and gallery – a big step for a city where such practices are unheard of - using the artists’ urban affiliations to create something where there is a vacuum of people, ideas, objects and relationships between them. It is telling to browse through the catalogues for both “Constanta Cases,” and realize the artists’/ curators’ main concern was to draw out the lines of support that enabled the exhibition, rather than tout the works themselves. I am not suggesting that the content of those works is irrelevant, but perhaps in this case the exhibitions themselves function as a conceptual statement, a work in its own right that engages the challenges of reaching out to the public from a non-conventional, self-sustainable position.

By inventing, writing and enacting their own narratives, the Menthor Foundation espouses the concept of “subjective art history,” a strategy that is becoming more and more pervasive and viable in post 1989 Eastern Europe and Russia. In the next entries I will write more about artists from Romania producing intentionally subjective projects which espouse historicized dominant cultural trends and grand narratives of art.

In the meantime if you’re heading to Constanta this fall, the Menthors are staging the third installment of "Constanta Caz: Ca-n Gara" (an ironic expression which translates to leaving someone/something to their fate or to leave waiting indefinitely- the word “gara” means train station), which will take place, you guessed it – in the Constanta Train Station in October.

Image Credit: Gabriel Brojboiu, Menthor Foundation Workshop and Installation from Antropocity

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Other orbits for DADA: the Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire

If you are reading this blog, then surely you have heard of the notorious cultural movement DADA; you may have even heard the name Tristan Tzara. Credited to the Swiss avant-garde at the beginning of WW1 and spanning to around 1922, the artists involved in DADA produced not only art that was critical of the prevailing standards in modernist culture but also organized demonstrations, raucous public gatherings, a plethora of art and literary journals against the war and intellectual conformity.

What you may not have read is that the half of the founding members of DADA were recent emigrants from Romania to Switzerland, and no, they did not shed their "Romanianess" in the West, nor their Jewish roots. Intrigued? Then this post will satisfy your intellectual hunger.

Hugo Ball, the co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire and one of the authors of the DADA manifesto (together with Tzara), chronicled the establishment of the movement on a fateful February evening in 1916 in Zurich. One of the first things Ball emphasized about the evening was the international composition of the original DADA group: Emmy Hennings singing in French and Danish, Tristan Tzara reciting poems in Romanian and even the presence of a Russian balalaika orchestra. Ball goes on to mention that Tzara had arrived as part of an Oriental-looking deputation of five little men: the architect Marcel Iancu, his brothers George and Jules and the painter Arthur Segal. Yes, you guessed it, all these guys were coming from Romania, which prompted Hugo Ball to conclude that half of the first Dadaist group was Romanian.

It has been mentioned in the art historical literature that Tzara and Iancu had developed prominent careers in their native country before settling into Zurich. But apart from Tom Sandquist's book, Dada East and Foster's The Eastenr Dada Orbit, no scholar has seriously explored the artists' formation in Romania on the same footing as their activities in the Dada movement. For example Tzara's early poems are deeply owing to East European cultural traditions, not to mention the fact that he incorporated Romanian a lot in his art publications and performances. Remember how Hugo Ball mentions the oriental look of men when they performed at Cabaret Voltaire for the first time? It can be argued that the artists were playing on their Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian roots, the main competing empires in Romania at the time. Furthermore, it is more widely un-researched that all the five artists had Jewish roots, and had probably left their homes due to the rise of nationalism and anti-semitism, leaving all five stateless. It is no coincidence then that, Samuel Rosenstock took the name Tristan Tzara, an alliteration which translates from Romanian into "sad in the country." By this very act of changing his name , but retaining his origin, Tzara cannot be divorced from his past in Romania, of which his new identity was a product.

Fin de siècle Romania was a conflicted space where old and new co-existed in an absurdist manner: while cities like Bucharest were emerging as modern and ripe with economic opportunities, one hour away from the capital one came across villages where people lived in burrows in the ground, which was in turned owned by boieri (noblemen) who kept racing stables in Paris. Furthermore, Romania was marginalized geographically as a strange Romance culture debased among Slavs, Turks and Hungarians. Does this ring true as the cradle for the absurdist works characteristic of DADA?

The stateless Romanians dislocated by the adverse socio-political conditions in their home country, found themselves assimilated but not considered citizens in Switzerland. The parallel with Dada's polyglot and multifarious character couldn't be more obvious. More connections could be made between Tzara, Iancu and Segal's otherworldly performances at Cabaret Voltaire and the colinde festivals in Romania, which combined folk songs, plays, carnival and masked actors. While Hugo Ball may have been stupefied at the Oriental costumes Marcel Iancu devised for the opening night, they would have been a familiar sight in Romania, where the use of grotesque masks and puppets is unmistakably linked to the colinde tradition. Also relevant was the Jewish heritage of the five artists: mysticism flourished in 18th and 19th century Eastern Europe, in Cabala for example, which suggested approaching divinity through the annihilation of the ego - a value system reminiscent of Dada's rhetorical stances of self-denial and paradox.

Of course, there is not one explanation of DADA's internationalism, multilingualism and its constant questioning of borders. Its members also hailed from Eastern Germany, Hungary and Czech lands. My purpose is to suggest that there are other contexts from which DADA was born, than those prevailingly upheld in the Western scholarship. A recent exhibition at Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, "DADA East - Romanian contexts of Dadaism," (2008) sought to bring into focus the forgotten roots of the movement, as well as contemporary artists' reaction to this modernist project. The overlooked Eastern influences of DADA beg more cultural projects such as these. Successively obscured by the forces of fascism and then communism in Romania, DADA may prove relevant in the present- an emancipatory facet of modernity as an unfinished venture.

Image credit: Tristan Tzara's Le Coeur A Barbe (1922), engraving by Marcel Iancu(1918) and Dan Perjovschi 's Dada Drawing (2008)