March 8, 2016
Since I came back to live in Romania, every single time I took a trip to see the art scene in cities around the country, I was presented with spaces and people whose degree of professionalism far surpasses that of the capital city. Not that I would pick my object of love and desire based on professionalism – proof is, I still choose to struggle in the deepest swamp of the Balkans. But Târgu Mureș, Cluj, Sfântu Gheorghe, Arad are all good examples of places where art happens with some high degree of good practice. Iași is no exception – in fact, had it not been for the chronology, according to which it was one of the last cities on my list to visit, it should have come first. Vector and Periferic have long put Iași on the international contemporary art map, and the newer tranzit.ro/ Iași fills in the steps quite nicely. Curator Livia Pancu is your well-bred, impeccably edgy RCA graduate, who could be working in Barbados or at the MoMA, she’d still run the place like it was the den of conceptualism with a specific touch of a je ne sais quoi of the periphery. She invited me to write about their latest project, “Artists as agents of institutional exchange”, and I should say that nothing stresses me more than receiving such invitations directly from the organizers – I usually manage a subtle getaway, or take ages to write the text until I find my voice if it’s people I am normally involved with. But Livia was in the know about my position – in fact, she made it clear that it was a professional gesture, the kind that our local art scene badly needs. One should not pretend that the critic writes from some neutral position – however, she can always write from an authentic and informed one. Fee and expenses paid, I was your guest writer for 2 days, and with an extra touch of idiotic jet lag, I felt I was finally receiving the treatment I deserved as a hard working, potentially cocky, young art critic on the rise.
Day 1, airport pick by Florin Bobu, partner in crime of the curator, organic takeaway coffee, ice-cream at the mall with the couple, and start of a long series of Propaganda Walks. This is the kind of concept people in small cities must enjoy developing (it turns them into local leprechauns for the occasion) and those gathered around tranzit.ro/ Iași made no exception. In a few hours, I was briefly yet firmly pointed towards key issues in the city, from the Disneyfication of the centre to the rise of hybrid institutions which sell artistic soul without remorse, in the course of 3 walks (the leader of the 4th, precisely the one responsible of the soul-selling, pulled out at the last minute). This is how I met local leftist (they are still a rare specimen in Romania) and university professor, who had recently been won over by the alternative offered by tranzit.ro/ Iași, Ovidiu Gherasim-Proca. His in-transit position rose my hopes for authenticity in the space of art. Evening ended with a meal in the gallery, cooked by members of the informal group gathered around tranzit.ro/ Iași, basically the experience so far was ticking all the right boxes.
Day 2 was dedicated to the discussion of the actual project, an EU-funded residency exchange between tranzit.ro/ Iași and their Icelandic partner, Skaftfell.
The project was build around the direct invitation made to one Romanian artist and one Icelandic one – Cristina David and Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir respectively – to mingle with one specific medium, that of live video streaming, during their residency in the partner’s space. This came with certain constraints, mainly technical and emotional ones, as the 2 artists had to constantly have their equipment and expressive disposition at hand. Cristina made a point to question the necessity of these constrains – I heard nothing of the sort from Ásdís – but on the whole both artists seemed to enjoy exploring their places of residency whilst staring into a camera or pointing it to their immediate surroundings. The resulting videos can be fun to watch, I scrolled through some of them and others I watched whilst sipping a drink on the comfy couch at tranzit.ro/ Iași. I had not previously followed the work of any of the 2 artists, Ásdís’ out of ignorance, Cristina’s out of lack of curiosity regarding a body of work I assumed cold or falsely conceptual. I was pleasantly surprised by the subtlety of some of Cristina’s videos, which showed a really original sense of humor – for example, in the filmed postcards she was sending from Iceland, she made one for artist Dan Acostioaei in which she memorized a large chunk of text with information about bees in response to his prodigious memory. Actually, several other snippets I caught from her videos amused me – and I would go so far as to say that they moved me, in the way small observations on the street can move you when you put your head out of the window on a boring Tuesday at work. In any case, she had taken the challenge seriously, and her work reflected a real engagement with both the medium and the context, which I suppose does tick some right boxes once again.
It was quite endearing to see how much the Romanian side was putting forward their organizational innovations, from letting the artists in the know about details of the project they would normally be happily oblivious towards, to testing the limits of public funding in the context of them being fully subsidized by ERSTE. And even though the partners were keen to point out their similarity in geographical and functional terms, I really could not come to terms with what brought together a villa with dependencies from a small Icelandic village with a small gallery space in the centre of the capital of a Romanian province. At a closer look, it seemed that the degree of their financial comfort was what brought them together – a blessed situation, judging by what organizations in actual capital cities experience. It really looked like tranzit.ro/ Iași and Skaftfell had the time and leisure to work on a project with the care and attention it needed, and within the framework of some sort of 90s dream of the independent, philanthropy-based, art space. The bureaucratic endeavor of producing an EU-funded project was not faced with the usual groans one hears in my side of the world, instead there were talks of good cooperation with the authorities, in what really impressed me as the most professional (doh) art project on the local scene. Honestly, Frank Underwoord could have hired the crew judging by their results.
But does it matter? The project, not so much. I think it was an experiment for the artists involved, and an excellent moment for them to test new tools and dispositions, whilst getting some breathing time in a, well, exotic location. But the fact that a tight group of hard working and highly moral people are able to acquire and frame the space for such mental holiday, in a city whose inhabitants could stupidly do without them, ignoring their lapse without reverse into shopping zombies at the Palas? Yes, that happens to matter. This understanding of art as not necessarily production, the openness towards the artistic project as potential failure (in terms of products, audience, ultimate meaning and usefulness), the dodging down of efficiency (this supreme goal of a modernity with our without prefixes) are all good indicators that when the circumstances are well assessed, the artistic model can be quite different from the business one that Romanian society of late development thinks is cool to copy-paste then make their own. Now don’t be so quick to object that it is the business world that made possible a venture like tranzit.ro/Iași – demonizing capitalism is the basic mistake one can make when trying to approach it and stay alive. And the fact that the tranzit.ro/Iași run by Livia, Florin and Delia is this space which gets someone like Gherasim-Proca to move out of his comfort zone in academia and test models which he innocently describes as “free(r)”, is symptomatic of a reality which has become so predictable that responding to it with violence and mess (on any level) is downright stupid. When faced with a world ruled by bureaucracy and institutional duplicity, artistic institutions (meaning both artists and spaces) which choose to stay low profile and mimic the hard work of the capitalist model, slowly but surely gain their space of freedom, which moreover comes with a label of professionalism. This is the model implemented in Iași – by all accounts, in the wake of the Vector forerunner – and one which could benefit the all-talk no-action Bucharest scene . When all respect for the arts is gone – and in our accelerated present, this is only a matter of when exactly – such models will save us zombies from our believed paradise, not by giving us the option of the bourgeois nostalgia for value, but by engaging us into actions we will not even know are exactly what art is meant to be. In fact, seeing how well the Tranzit Iași model functions, I say we do away with art immediately, and get down to serious business.
The project “Artists as agents of institutional exchange” takes place as part of the programme “Promoting diversity in culture and art within the European cultural heritage”, funded through a grant provided by Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and the Romanian Government.