March 21, 2023
Queer Culture in Romania (IV). Tracing Queer Narratives in Romanian Time-Based Media Art
Queer time-based media art is closely connected to the emergence of new art spaces and practices that started during the transition from Communism to neoliberal democracy. However, understood as a practice of body politics that resists oppressive sex/gender regimes, queer time-based media in Romania can be traced back to the works of earlier actionist artists such as Geta Brătescu and Ion Grigorescu. In that sense, the contemporary “revolution” of queer time-based media art in Romania displays a form of continuity that is in dialogue with the past. While new social constructions map new forms of social control onto the human body – in particular via the revitalization of the church and hetero-patriarchal capitalism – resisting dominant sex/gender regimes through deeply intimate and sensorial experiences thus remains essential to the artistic gesture of queering the body in Romania. In this essay, I wish to draw some parallels between contemporary and past Romanian time-based media art, in order to show how Romanian queer time-based media is shaped by different forms of political resistance ranging from personal emigration to Utopian escapism and from ironic performativity to political activism.
The rise of time-based media in Romania took place in the first decade of the nineties, at the very beginning of the post-Communist period. It was immediately marred by multiple scandals. Each new media exhibition organized at the beginning of the nineties was met with loud criticism. Romanian video art history needs to be written, re-written, re-thought and more deeply understood. During this period, video art as a medium can be considered queer in itself for the reactions it provoked in some circles of the art world. Ewin Kessler, the most vocal art critic of the time, wrote a series of articles that criticized the rise of video art in Romania:
“In the Romanian artistic landscape, video art still remains a science fiction entry. For most, video art seems to be undesirable because it does not reflect the true level of socio-economic maturity of Romanian society, which has been dormant for so long in the antechamber of industrial civilizations […] permanently ravaged by those media storms in relation to which video art wants to be a barometer.”
The opening of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art (CSAC) in 1993 accelerated the production of time-based media works and the discovery of experimental (private) artistic practices from past decades. It was the CSAC that financially supported the rise of new media art, organizing exhibitions, conferences, publishing books and creating an international art network. From its inception CSAS orchestrated three major projects: a financing line for socially engaged art (favoring time-based media and other experimental practices); an archive focused on contemporary art; and the organization of an annual exhibition dedicated to contemporary art. CSAS often commissioned socially engaged works for their annual time-based media exhibition. The initiative was received with hostile criticism. The strong debate around the guidance received by artists from the exhibition-making teams sparked accusations of “modeling” the “new artists”, pushing them in a direction of imitating the international creative trends in order to meet global standards. The changes of artistic practices were thus seen as forms of opportunism.
An important discovery of CSAC were clandestine video artworks that were made during the Communist years by a generation of experimental artists. Under the umbrella term “experimental art”, the art historian Alexadra Titu mustered all non-traditional visual artistic practices, such as video art, video installation, video performance, computer-based art, net art and so on. From Titu’s viewpoint, “the experiment as attitude, eluding or integrating the political, certainly is one of the integration strategies, but not only a strategy.”
The first video art exhibition “Ex Oriente Lux” opened its doors at Dalles exhibition hall in Bucharest in November 1993, inaugurating a series of annual exhibitions organized by CSAC. The show put on display ten commissioned video installations made by Alexandru Antik, Josef Bartha, Judith Egyed, Kisspal Szabolcs, Alexandru Patatics, Dan Perjovschi, Lia Perjovschi, subReal (Călin Dan & Josef Kiraly), Laszlo Ujvarpssy and Sorin Vreme. The exhibition was historically contextualized as neo-avantgarde and, with a few exceptions, negatively reviewed by the press. The second CSAC annual exhibition, “0101010”, gathered multimedia works by Horia Bernea, Gheorghe Ilea, Marilena Preda Sânc, Teodor Graur, Marcel Bunea, Radu Igazsag, Judit Egyed, Rudolf Kocsis, Ion Grigorescu, Alexandru Chira, Adrian Timar and intermedia Group at the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant.
CSAC commissioned socially engaged works, addressing current issues of Romanian society. The 010101 exhibition concentrated on reaffirming the role of artists as social catalyzers, the educational importance of art, as well as the political meaning of artistic practices. It was the beginning of “freak shows”, of poverty porn that focused on an exotic representation of various communities from the Roma minority. Poverty was a recurring subject and was addressed by the act of documenting the life of ethnically and racially marginalized communities. However, sexual or gender marginalization only played a minor role, if any. Despite the criticism they faced, some artists that had been given the opportunity to experiment with video art had taken the practice seriously and continued working with the medium. A case in point is Marilena Preda Sânc. CSAC exhibitions were non-normative in terms of being open to different subjects, methodologies of research as well artistic mediums.
In general, political topics were most often received with reservations, if not with hostility, by the contemporary Romanian art world. There was a fear of activism, a fear of political correctness, a fear of critical speech. With the memory of the programmatic politicization of art that dominated the Communist years still fresh, reservations to be branded as political and skepticism towards the politicization of art were widespread. On the other hand, neoliberal democracy brought about new problems such as racism, homophobia, nationalism, gender inequalities and poverty, not to mention the distribution of power inside the reshuffled art scene. Art historian Magda Cârneci remarks that by the end of the nineties, we can observe
“moments when a political awareness of the urgency of change begins to develop in Romania, of the need to develop critical positions, but also the courage to assume irony, sarcasm, cruel humor and even nihilism against the local mental status quo. It is the moment when many artists begin to assert with enough determination unmistakable truths about inherited clichés and about historicized, expired, obsolete cultural acquisitions.”
The modest legacy of video works discovered in the context of CSAC, dating from the 70s and 80s, were the result of a process of documenting actions and performances taking place without an audience, in private places indoors or outdoors. Alienation, solitude, identity, surveillance, imprisonment, the human body, and nature were the subjects touched on by the actionist artworks of Geta Brătescu, Ion Grigorescu, Alexandru Antik and later by a younger generation spearheaded by Wanda Mihuleac, Aniko Gerendi, Decebal Scriba, Iulian Mereuță, and Lia Perjovschi, among others. The camera offered the illusion of artistic freedom: the artists had no official directives to follow and only limited information about the developments of the global video art scene. The access to technology was limited and highly regulated. Ion Grigorescu in Bucharest and the Sigma Artistic Group in Timișoara owned amateur Super 8 cameras and the kinema ikon group in Arad had access to a professional filmmaking apparatus. The conditions for producing clandestine experimental films were rudimentary. In their work, experimental artists explored their bodies, shifting towards subjectivity, psychology, and personal emotions. The body was a map of personal subjectivity, a form of internal emigration, which is why these works were later seen as a critique of Communist authority. Ileana Pintilie, who played a significant role in studying the body narratives in these films, singles out Ion Grigorescu (b. 1945) in particular, who she says was “undoubtedly the central figure of body-oriented artistic research in the 70s.”
Can a poetics of queer culture start here? Using an amateur Soviet camera, Ion Grigorescu’s performances in front of the camera were meant to explore his own flesh, the forbidden territory of nudity. He developed a complex photo-video archive of bodily expressions of feelings that he named a “scientific-mechanical” language. The video action Male and Female recorded in 1976 on 8mm film (black and white, silent) staged what can be understood as a “gender troubled” personality. The artist described his bodily experiences as multiple and complex, going outside the hegemonic understanding of the gender binary:
“Penis as a paintbrush and masculine as a mask. On the one hand, it occupies a large part of my person, but no one should hold this place (for too long). She is a masculine conversation partner, although she uses a feminine name. She gives me an idea about myself and about my position in the world; she corrects a behavior that is inclined towards feminine. Our dialogue is not limited to the organic (things that we almost neglect); I have to acknowledge her intelligence, her ability to create, compose and imagine. As regards the status, your sensitivity is almost feminine, hysterical, morbid and febrile, with real language disorders. The more she asks about my personality, the more I tell her: I give you everything, that is, independence and authority, but not space, because there are others in the body too.”
The video Male and Female softly touches on issues of gender transformation without having any awareness of gender theory. Grigorescu’s creative process is guided by intuitions in which vulnerability plays a crucial part. The ways in which this vulnerability is exposed in the creative process can be seen as a queering of masculinity. Grigorescu’s film shows how the complexities of the self cannot be fitted into gender norms. In that way, his film critiques the social pressure to perform the gender assigned at birth and the heteronormative regulations in a totalitarian society. Beyond gender politics, his experiments with the body might have a spiritual meaning as well, Grigorescu being interested in mythology, in particular myths of Androgyny, that fall outside the binary logic.
Ion Grigorescu’s unintentional queer touches were an inspiration for the young artist Alex Mirutziu (b. 1981), one of the first artists in Romania to consciously use a queer vocabulary. In his artworks, Mirutziu explicitly articulates his homosexual subjectivity, exploring his own desire, love, fear, pulsation and compulsion. Mirutziu centers his work on the body, often using his body to return the gaze, while making subtle sense of a “sinful and pathological” desire. Alex Mirutziu finished his visual art studies in Cluj-Napoca in 2001, the same year that homosexuality was decriminalized. He is a multidisciplinary artist working with performance, video art, theoretical texts, poetry, and drawing. His politics are oriented toward personal poetics, queerness being implicit, often abstract. Mirutziu makes use of metaphor to form an abstract queer vocabulary, understanding his art as “a protest”. Mirutziu only began including video art in his practice in 2017, extending some performances in new video art works. He doesn’t consider the documentation of a performance a work of art. Similarly, a video-documentation of a painting may not be seen as a new piece of art. His video performances Dignity to the Unsaid, The Gaze is a Prolapse Dressed in Big Business (2018) and Bottoms Know It (2019) have performances as a starting point but end up as unique video artworks often incorporating new scenarios. Mirutziu builds his subjects rhizomatically, carefully connecting ideas so as not to fall into categorical thinking. His work investigates queer issues, mixing theoretical approaches with intuition. For example, Bottoms Know It aims to
“give access to a distinct type of knowledge, that of the complicated relationship we have with our assholes. Centered on the poetics of anality, hence of openings, entrances, closings, exits, centers, and holes it deploys means of seeing and understanding the world and the ‘other’ taking disappearance and debasing of the self as the subject and gateway to a more profound grasp of our humanity.”
In the performance/video, three local performers (dancers) are put into situations of visual alienation. Conversing and debating about the limitations of the body, they engage in an absurdist philosophical dialogue. Anal poetics is a way of queering a penis-oriented masculinity. Anal pleasure is seen as a pathological pleasure and as a feminizing pleasure. It is hence often refused by heterosexual males out of fear of homosexuality, largely being associated with gay sexuality.
Alex Mirutziu’s complex explorations of the homosexual body and his inventory of gestures undoing masculinity often touch on religious taboos. The use of Christian symbols in his art can be seen as a powerful way of queering himself, of liberating his symbolic body from the prison of sin. The idea of sin is very present in Romanian homophobic narratives, as the strongest opposition to homosexuality comes from the Orthodox Church, a highly influential institution both inside the state apparatus and within societal structures. Hand in hand with the church, conservative political groups were protesting against homosexual liberation, perceived as something foreign that was closely associated with Western Europe: “Romania wants to join Europe, not Sodom”. In Romanian national myths, the collective symbolic body is identified with the homophobic claims of Christian Orthodoxy.
Part of the construction and preservation of any myth is the exclusion of whatever falls out of the intended narrative. From the simple perspective of statehood, individual bodies reproduce themselves inside nuclear families while working inside capitalist survival economies. The aesthetics of such national bodies associate ability and obedience with religious values. In the process of instituting dominant regimes centered on material production and heteronormative reproduction, some bodies, in this case queer bodies, fall out of the collective national body. Since the national body is in part defined by what it excludes, the narratives it creates to uphold its gender norms can be seen as a form of symbolic violence against those diverting from such norms. Art plays a key part in this process.
An aesthetic concerned with narrating the queer body should thus pay attention to excluded bodies, bodies often targeted by violence. A body that performs an aesthetic different from “the national body”, be it in its life choices, its fashion or even its inventory of gestures and body movements, is a fascinating subject (an object of desire) for artists and at the same time a target for violence (transphobia, lesbophobia or racism).
Alex Mirutziu’s narratives challenge the national body in a way that complements Katja Lee Eliad’s abstractions of lesbian subjectivity. Katja Lee Eliad, a multidisciplinary artist who works with drawing, poetry, painting, and time-based media art often records actions done in the studio or outside, the camera becoming a spectator, witness, and self-surveillance tool. For example, Perform is a poetical reflection on mental health and the abstract language of psychiatric diagnosis. How does a diagnosis affect our mind and behavior? Through the means of a video-performance, she staged an investigation of pain and its effects on the body. The performance compiles footage of skateboard exercises (specifically falls) where Katja stages skateboarding accidents in order to contemplate the crash, the falling, and their effects on the body. The attempt to signify the fall comes from a desire for understanding pain beyond the psychologically pathological. Most information we have about the experience of a mental breakdown comes from external psychiatric observation, rarely from self-study. Through the means of a cathartic artistic process, Katja stages a Cartesian doubt on what we know about brain circuits, affects, the human mind, the body, and the relationships between them. The strong connection between psychoanalysis and spirituality is often a subject of philosophical reflection as the fall and repetition resemble ritualistic processes. Eliad, exactly as Ion Grigorescu, is a spiritual person, and her imagination is rooted in mysticism and mythology, but she intentionally plays with overlapping significations. Spirituality, especially ideas originating in non-white religions, can expand our understanding on yet fragile topics such as gender or same-sex desire, offering alternative views to the dominant Christian Orthodox religion.
European homophobia and transphobia are strongly rooted in religion, therefore a more inclusive spiritual narrative can add some positive tension to the very strong notion of “sin” attached to the queer symbolic body. What are the mythologies of “sin” that justify and normalize the violence against the queer body? A political video that goes deep into questioning the relationship between “sin” and the queer body is Bahlui Arcadia, signed by the artistic duo Simona and Ramona. Simona Dumitriu and Ramona Dima are life partners, working together as an artistic duo since 2014. Since then, they have explored issues connected to gender, sexuality, and non-normative life in general. Inspired by Renate Lorenz’s methodology for making “freaky” queer art, Bahlui Arcadia consists of two superimposed components: a video screening at the artists’ home and a long performance taking place at the same time on the shores of the Nicolina river at its confluence with the river Bahlui, where Simona grew up as a young child. Simona and Ramona are blurring the lines between art, existentialism and politics. Their artistic practice starts from finding meaning in personal subjectivity, which is always understood in a feminist sense as political: “I try to live and to work starting from a set of ethical rules: to not instrumentalize the experience of other persons, to take my own privileges into account, and to speak about what I know, using a language that is as undiscriminating and without able-ing as possible.”
The video Bahlui Arcadia shows Simona exercising on a stepper outside, in a green space behind some Communist housing blocks. The scene takes place in Simona’s childhood Arcadia, a small green area near the Bahlui River. In the background we can hear a conversation between Simona and Ramona, an intimate dialogue filled with memories, fantasies, and reflections about religion, desire, and ordinary life experiences. The non-linear dialogue is a reflection on the notion of “sin”: the recently renovated blocks of flats from the area where Simona grew up were filled with religious quotations (e.g., quotes from the Bible written on walls). Embodying condemned bodies engaged in an act of sinful love, Simona and Ramona’s work can be seen as a moving poetic visualization of the lesbian body, a powerful story that sews together multiple narratives that shed light on what it means to become a lesbian and navigate the meanings of being Eastern European, Romanian, precarious, Christian, white, female, and educated without falling under any of these possible identarian and constructed categorizations. An old-fashioned love letter softly introduces the viewer’s gaze to the intimacy of lesbian seduction. At one point in the video, Simona introduces Claude, her drag persona:
“What is Claude? A wannabe Catholic priest, the poetic centennial result of the generic liberations brought by the avant-garde somewhere else, a moral being, a leaflet of queer feminist ethics propaganda found 50 years later in a vintage edition of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Claude was Cahun asking in Aveux non Avenus ‘Surely you are not claiming to be more homosexual than I… ?’ when meeting her postmodern multiples in the ’90s. Confronted to the absence of non-normative stories in history, Claude asks himself ‘Can I become a municipal legend, ready to wear my drag persona as repair of this absence and resistance against the local reproductive machine?”
Ramona begins creating Dersch: “What is Dersch? A found object. Contemporary militaria, a piece of cloth randomly retrieved from bric-à-brac. USA official Marine army jacket, size M with NATO identification label.” The work touches on various mythologies strongly connected to the local experience of this specific geography, asking questions about how the lesbian symbolic body is affected by national myths, and especially Christian Orthodoxy.
Alex Mirutziu, Simona Dumitriu & Ramona Dima, Katja Lee Eliad, Sorin Oncu (1980-2016), Manuel Pelmuș, Veda Popovici, Alexandra Ivanciu & Anastasia Jurăscu or Hortensia Mi Kafkin (Kafchin) were pioneers in the field of queer time-based media art. None of them can be considered a “video artist”. They all pursue a multidisciplinary approach, which sometimes includes video. Today, the queer scene is growing very fast. With the internet especially, more and more time-based works touching on queer issues are put on display in various exhibitions. The rise of queer culture started as an alliance between various artistic initiatives and LGBTQ+-right activists. The collaboration between activists, artists, and curators often resorts to a methodology that calls to mind the annual exhibitions organized by CSAC. Commissioned art and solidarity-exhibitions are often financed by NGOs: this led to a new precarious periphery that is still in the process of being recognized.
 Kessler, Erwin. Valențele dezarticularii vizuale’’. In: Revista Arta. nr. 3-4, 1993 [republished in: “ceARTă’’]. 243
 Titu, Alexandra. Experimentul in Arta Romaneasca după 1960. Bucharest: Meridiane, 2003. 61.
 This may not least be due to the creation of a video art department at National University of Arts (UNARTE). Today four Art Universities in Romania have moving image studies in their curricula.
 Cârneci, Magda. Artele plastice în România 1945-1989. Cu o addenda 1990-2010. Editura Polirom, 2013. 170
 Pintilie, Ileana. Corpul o utopie a interiorității. Disputa dintre corpul public si corpul intim în arta contemporană românească. In : Laura Grunberg (ed.). Introducere în sociologia corpului. Polirom, 2010. 88.
 Grigorescu, Ion. Diaries 1976-1979. Sternberg Press, 2021. 54.
 Anthonissen, Anton; van Straaten, Evert. QUEER?! HB: Visual Arts in Europe. ACC, 2019. 315.
 Mirutziu, Alex. “Bottoms Know It’’. Artistic statement published on http://www.alexmirutziu.com/performance-documentation [Accessed on 6 April 2022].
 Anania, Bartolomeu, Bishop of Transilvania, in a public speech. Cited in: https://www.iol.co.za/news/world/we-want-to-join-europe-not-sodom-romania-44242 [Accessed on 6 April 2022].
 Dumitriu, Simona. “My Own Experience – Discretely or Indiscreetly Autobiographical – Is The Only Hole Through Which I Can Look Towards The Socio-Geo-Affect-Landscape Which I am Part of.’’ Interview with Simona Dumitriu & Ramona Dima by Raluca Voinea. In: Metaphor. Protest. Concept. Performance Art from Romania and Moldova. Idea Design and Print, 2017. 356.
 Simona Dumitriu & Ramona Dima artistic statement, “I went to Vienna and came back a new man,’’ artist in residence August 2015, Romania / 2015. http://tranzit.org/en/grants/artist+in+residence+vienna/archive/simona-and-ramona [Accessed on 6 April 2022].
Valentina Iancu (b. 1985) is a writer with studies in art history and image theory. Her practice is hybrid, research-based, divided between editorial, educational, curatorial or management activities ...