Sunday, October 31, 2010

Instead of nothing, a preview

Have you heard of the principle "the economy of effort"? It comes from design theory and states that design and production time should be in proportion to the value it produces in the quality of the final product serving the users' needs. Lately I've been hard pressed to apply my efforts to this blog, in that I have a lot of urgent topics I would like to address, but not enough time to render them to my readers in the quality that I would like. The work of an art history graduate student is mostly directed toward the assimilation of theory, rather than responding to art and culture as it unfolds in the world beyond the pages of the book. For a scholar in training of modernism and contemporary art, a balance between the life of the mind, the expectations of one's professors and being involved current art happenings is a sort of utopia: we all aspire to achieve it, but in the end we fall back to resolving the pressures of academia foremost. I would like this blog to offer a space of resistance towards the latter, and that is why I decided to devote this entry to introduce you to three recent art events which will constitute larger themes in the unfolding map that I am piecing together with my readers.

Last Saturday and Sunday, the wonderful artists of the Bureau of Melodramatic Research (Irina Gheorghe and Alina Popa), staged an intervention in the Carol Park in Bucharest. Entitled Cry-Baby (a throw back to John Water's 1990 film), the event proposed a training in good manners for the general public in the capital. What was the rationale behind this intervention? According to the artists, it started with the observation that the global crisis of capitalism is discoursively translated into an official rhetoric of optimism. Finally overshadowed by negative feelings, the transnational ode to joy gives way to panic and a sort of emotional collapse. The artists link economic and poltical depression with the nervous kind, catalyzed by doctrinal public lamentations. And even if the EU forbade the tradition of mourners in Eastern public space, generalized teary outbursts cannot be subjected to jurisprudence anymore. At the same time, there is a new category of official mourning, a new code of good manners, of the emo-political kind. This code is made popular by officials of all kinds, from presidents to corporations, generating compassion to justify economical interests. On the other hand, if we consider depression as a deactivation of desire, it can constitute a key breach in the social nervous system, an unsolvable equilibrium in the miracle of self-sufficient capitalism. Following this circuit of emotionality, The Bureau of Melodramatic Research conceptualizes crying as a form of resistance and a way to manipulate consensus at the same time. Thus, the Bureau proposes a new guide of good manners, the "cry-baby guide." Using onion as a catalyst of emotions in public space, it seeks to destroy the monopoly of sentimental outbursts in public space. Cry-baby suggests reflexive-crying as a form of anti-crying, a protest which begins with organic tear-gases.

Switching gears, the great team of Club ElectroPutere in Craiova, have just had a very successful double-opening, as part of a larger project, Romanian Cultural Resolution, an analysis of contemporary cultural discourse through art in light of the post-Communist condition in Romania, in which constant references to the unresolved past coexist with Utopian projections of a democratic future. The exhibit "An Image Instead of a Title," seeks to engender an archive where, images rather than texts anchor cultural and political narratives: The 'Gospel of St. John' is transcribed on copy-sheets in preparation of a difficult exam in the work of Ciprian Muresan; Cristi Rusu zooms in the Venetian street sign 'Calle della morte' (Street of Death) until his hands start shaking and the frame loses focus; Miklos Onucsan re-tells the history of rust methodically from its origins to the present, as a layer of decrepitude in the absence of the rusting object; finally, the colors of the Romanian flag materialize the interdiction to look and speak for Serge Spitzer, led into exile by the ideological brutality of the dictatorship.

Club ElectroPutere juxtaposes this opening with another provocative exhibition, "Figurative Painting in Romania between 1970 and 2010." Another national painting retrospective may seem banal to the uninformed viewer, until he or she is forced to construct a shared narrative connecting works produced before the Revolution, in its immediate aftermath, and during the dramatic opening of Romanian artists towards international trends in the last 10 years. Artists like Ioana Batranu, Sorin Campan, Constantin Flondor or Gheorghe Ilea contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the period before 1989. Their works are marked by a rejection of both the official painting style of the regime, and of new cultural trends imported from the West after the fall of the dictatorship. I should also mention that in most cases, these paintings have never been viewed by an audience bigger than the artists' close friends and a handful of scholars. Thus, they are inserted and produced in a yet uncharted history of Romanian modern art. Together with this group, the exhibition features Adrian Ghenie, Victor Man, Gili Mocanu and Serban Savu, which began their careers in the period of opening at the end of the 1990s. Thus, their works are oftentimes concerned with socio-cultural transition, keeping alive the ambiguities of recent history - as in the case of Victor Man whose' work "The place I'm coming from" can be seen as a polysemic question.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for these kind of investigations, which will be expanded in longer interviews with the protagonists over the course of the next weeks. Until then, academia beacons my return to the page.

Image credit: Bureau of Melodramatic Research, "Cry-Baby," intervention in Carol Park, Bucharest (above), opening of "An Image instead of a Title" + "Figurative Painting in Romania 1970-2010" at Club ElectroPutere, Craiova (below), October 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Between failure and affect: social movements and 1989

In modern art history we talk a lot about success and failure. We cringe at the thought that an art movement has failed to effect change in its own context, and has thus failed. But then, what are we to do with celebrated works of art that were never seen or even discredited in their time? What is the value of avant-garde movements that have historically been eradicated by the total art of totalitarianism? And closer to home, what can we imagine to be the role of neo-avant-gardes today in Romania, when the post-revolutionary social, political and economic order is severely tested?

Just recently, in the past year or so, there has been a resurgence of full blown protests in these distinct but interconnected spheres in the country. The failure of the democratic, free market economy is starting to become more poignant : the Parliament is up to receive another no-confidence vote just next week, while the Social Democrats have come up with 100 more or less idiotic solutions for a "Fair Romania, Social Romania." No matter. Most state employees are either abandoning the sinking ship or taking the Palace of Parliament and the Government building by storm protests. My own parents who have lived most their adult lives under a dictatorship, and did not leave, are seriously considering jobs in Western Europe just a couple of years before retirement. What promises and responsibilities did we inherit from the 1989 Revolution?

Remember Timisoara? After 45 years of dictatorship, the people of this city formed the nucleus of the Romanian Revolution, which by December 22nd 1989 had spread all over the country, and in the capital, Bucharest. Unlike other Eastern European societies where the overthrow of former regimes was peaceful for the most part, the Romanian revolution unfolded into thousands of casualties ( figures vary from 2000 to 10.000). In the aftermath, the newly appointed legal system – still run by the nomenclature, should have brought those responsible for the December massacre and for the 45 years of oppression to trial. They failed to do so, chosing to simply execute the dictator and declare the country was now free of communism. Thus, the injustices of December 1989 and of the Communist past remain to this day a running sore on the Romanian community. During the events of December 1989, the National Salvation Front was formed and made its appearance on national television. The most prominent speaker, Ion Illiescu, a former high official of the Romanian Communist Party would later become president of the country. Despite the group’s efforts to deny its connection with the previous communist party, it soon became obvious to many Romanians that the party’s anti-communism was an old and painfully familiar type of propaganda.

In response to the surge of neo-communism, worker and student associations held meetings in Timisoara to adopt the Proclamation of Timisoara , which stated: “ For the victory of the Revolution, in Timisoara, together with the Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Serbs and members of other ethnic groups died, who for centuries lived peacefully in our city. We want to live in a country where tolerance and mutual respect are the only principles that will rule the future Europe Home.” Of significance was the proposal that “ an electoral law that forbids former communist activists and former Secret Police officers for the first three consecutive elections from standing for election on any electoral list and the inclusion of a special paragraph in the law forbidding former communist activists to run for President.” These circumstances prepared the ground for the University Square Protests (also called the Golaniad), which lasted for 6 months. On April 22nd 1990 a mass protest began in this place in Bucharest. The protesters declared themselves to be peaceful, multicultural, anti-communist and anti-neo-communist.

President Iliescu called those in University square golani (thugs), a label rapidly appropriated by the demonstrators who, in addition to calling themselves golani, baptized the space they occupied in University Square Golania (Thug Land). This was a particularly bad choice of words for Ililescu because only 4 months earlier dictator Ceausescu had referred to the protesters who initiated the 1989 Revolutions as hooligans. The University Square protest was in many ways a cultural event where artistic expression in the form of slogans and songs served the political goals of the protesters. Their signs exclaimed for example: “Yesterday hooligans, today thugs!” “Today in the capital, tomorrow in the whole country!” “We do not go home, the dead won’t let us” and “We will die but we will be free.” With the same principles in mind, songs were composed with the purpose of building continuity with the 1989 Revolution and of overthrowing the National Salvation Front (which would later be reconstituted in the Social Democratic Party). Most of the songs and slogans accused the present government of the same crimes as the 1989 revolution had the former dictatorial government. The accusations were articulated in lyrics: “ God, come God/ to see what’s left of humans/ There are nights long and sad/ And you don’t even care about those who are not / Those who accuse you from there, from their graves” The University square movement even adopted its of anthem, “Anthem of the Golani” whose lyrics were sung from the University balcony with the crowd joining in from below: “ Better Hoodlum that traitor/ Better Golan than dictator/ Better Hooligan than activist/ Better dead than communist” Music served as a vehicle for sustained social and political challenge in the University square events, giving the events a sense of spectacle while also framing the protesters’ social and political identities, in their protest against the government. President Ion Iliescu effectively repressed the large scale protest by calling on the miners ‘s union to restore order and democracy in Bucharest. Hundreds of people died and thousands were injured by the club-armed miners.

Even though it was brutally repressed, and thus it could be considered a failure, The University Square movement had a significant impact on politics and culture. Most of its affect stems precisely from its failure, which engrained the limits of control in the fragile post 1989 socio-cultural-political climate. The University Square protest, however marked the formation of a civil society, in particular the birth of several politically active groups such as the Civic Alliance, the Student League and the Group for Social Dialogue, organizations promoting resistance to undemocratic rule and corruption in Romania through trust networks; the founding members had taken part in the protest. Demonstrations, although continued to take place in the University Square from 1990 to 2004. Also this bloody protest continues to receive yearly coverage in newspapers and magazines such as Revista 22 under the title We must not forget.

I would like to suggest that the powerful identity of the University Square survives to this day, and this episode could constitute a major learning tool in a country where the generations of my grandparents and my parents had to rediscover social equality, while my own generation had to grasp its implications. I argue that the affect of social movements does not have to end with the movement itself; I believe the latter can have long-term political implications, as its symbolic and social force can be sustained by other means.

So today, even if its the Social Democrats (for more or less self-serving reasons) telling us to not sit quietly in our benches and upset the political order, I cannot but sympathize with those who do, for reasons that may seem illegal, exaggerated or unjustified. Because I haven't forgotten how they used to beat the Hooligans in University Square into quietly going back to work. I am a proud hooligan who will not be quiet.

Image credit: Zone free of Neo-communism/ University Square Protests in 1990, Bucharest, Romania

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960: A review in absentia

If there is one piece of material that any self-respecting Art Library should own it is without a doubt Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960, a source book of the most important unofficial developments and counter-cultural models in Romanian society during the Cold War period of severe repression and the first years of transition immediately after it. The material suggests "Art" moves beyond the definitions of visual production, and includes exponents in diverse fields such as: literature, theater, dance & choreography, music, film, architecture and visual arts, in some cases from an interdisciplinary angle. Published by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art and Culture in 1997, the book covers the largely undocumented period between 1960 and 1996 in the country, and to my knowledge it is the only collective effort that pieces together the fragmented and conflicted history of the Romanian neo-avantgarde, some of whose representatives are currently internationally acclaimed artists, such as: Ana Lupas, Paul Neagu, Ion Grigorescu, Andrei Cadere, Teodor Graur, Lia & Dan Perjovschi and Geta Bratescu to name just a few.

One would think that a book of this magnitude would be widely printed around the world (especially since it's in both Romanian and English), but the reality is that in Europe you can only find a copy at the ICCA in Bucharest, the former Soros Center (open freely to the general public) and in the U.S. at the MOMA library (if you can afford the 12 $ ticket for students and 20 $ for the general public) or at the National Gallery of Art Library (finally, for free).

It seems fitting then that on the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a chance visit to the ICCA in Bucharest introduced me to a book about experiments in building socio-cultural-political alternatives in a time of great duress, and in the period immediately following the dictatorship. The beginning of the book places Romanian Experimental Arts in the larger Eastern European context and offers an overview of the developments in the country since the 1950's. The authors portray the difficult situations of the artists, who had to split their lives between official work for the Union of Fine Art and the Communist Party and their personal artistic interests. In Romania, artists lived within the fluctuations of repression, relaxing censorship and its consequent tightening during the70s and 80s. This was particularly the case starting with 1971, when Ceausescu's so-called 'ideological theses' were published. This situation reflected a real split in the artists' identity: the public or official style on the one hand and the personal, hidden style of their own work on the other.

Unlike other Soviet Bloc countries where artists collectives were active (such as NSK in Slovenia or Collective Actions in Russia), the book presents the insularity of Romanian artists and the scarcity of groups with a specific aesthetic; this was due to extreme surveillance – informers for the Secret Police numbered one out of six Romanians at the time. This engendered an analytic quality of Romanian art: the artists used their own situation as the subject of their work, creating actions in seemingly impossible circumstances and inserting them into everyday life. These specific types of tactics and strategies have yet to be fully understood contemporary art theory, and this book is the first example to offer original material in this respect.

The predicaments of Romanian artists are eloquently presented through the 1970s work of Paul Neagu, who placed several art objects in black boxes, thus making them inaccessible to the viewer. The boxes contained small objects of variable forms, which could only be touched, forcing the audience to create their own mental images of what was inside. Neagu’s work is an allegory of his milieu, expressing what could not be seen or talked about: art outside censorship; moreover, the black boxes suggested the condition of Romanian art in general, which was confined to back rooms, so as to remain unnoticed or secretly enacted in discrete actions merged into everyday life.

Another important contribution of “Experiment since 1960” is the documentation and analysis of video art and experimental film, a completely neglected chapter in Romanian contemporary art. In these chapters, the art historian Calin Dan argues that cultural experiments are intimately bound to technological ones, characterizing the experiments in new media as the aesthetics of poverty, which resulted from a dramatically oppressive reality. Dan goes on to suggest that experimental film and video art (which was basically recording actions and happenings) were the markers of underground culture, not only because they were non-conformist ways of expressions, but because they were the only documents of the underground milieu. A hallmark moment in this uncharted history is Ion Grigorescu’s “Dialogue with Ceausescu” (1978) in which the artist plays two opposing roles, one as himself and the other wearing a mask with the face of the dictator. The two men talk about the people’s welfare in the communist society orchestrated by Ceausescu. Grigorescu confronts the dictator with the declining material and social prosperity of the people. The film has no sound and the subtitles running over the picture are almost illegible, suggesting a line of self-reflection and questioning in complete contradiction with the political structure and socio-cultural restrictions of the 70s.

I hope my presentation of just a few chapters of “Experiment since 1960” stirs your appetite for more exploration. For any scholar seriously engaged in contemporary art practices and/or this geographic region, this book is paramount. But the value of “Experiment” or moreover the elision of its value due to its limited availability points to a larger problem.

In my earlier posts I mentioned the scarcity of documentation and archives on Romanian modern and contemporary art (and the same is true for most countries in the former Soviet Union). By returning to this urgency, I want to emphasize the correlation between erasing or neglecting cultural history and destabilizing a people's heritage and identity, a dangerous venture in the midst of the sweeping structural transformations in the past 20 years in the region. Of course, I consider identity as a fluctuating, continually constructed concept, but in the case of Romania, where history and culture have been erased and re-written successively in 20-year intervals, the volatility of legacy can be easily linked to real social conflict and violence (only last summer major cities in the country were the sites of dramatic strikes with human casualties as a response to major cutbacks in public wages). This may seem like an overstatement in the case of just one book about art, but what I want to emphasize is that it's not only a book that counts, but the eroding process of eliminating historically seminal books, models, archives, centers, educational alternatives from the socio-political landscape of Romania. The absence in Romanian historiography of sound cultural models incapacitates communities to seek sustainable positions of resistance that confront instead of seek to erase the status quo, and ultimately fall back to reinforce it.

Image credit: Artists featured in "Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960" (clockwise from left): Teodor Graur, Ship Recollection (1987), Marilena Preda Sanc, My Body in Space and Time, Time in Time and Memory of Everything (1983), Mihai Olos, Sketch for the "Universal City" (1967), Andrei Cadere, Action in the Bruxelles Fine Arts Museum (1976), Roxana Trestioreanu, Me Among Others (1993), Dan Perjovschi,Transfiles (1995), Marilena Preda Sanc, Bodyscope, Handscope, Mindscope(1993), Valeriu Miedin , Homage to Mengele (1994), Marian Zidaru, Bloody Christmas (1985)