Since 2011, every year, Salonul de Proiecte in Bucharest organizes an open call for the production of new works. The resulting exhibitions represent cartographies of the contemporary art scene in Bucharest. However, throughout time they have selected artists from other cities as well as Romanian artists living abroad. Recently Corina Apostol has written an excellent review of the last exhibition, Heroism Rises from a Warehouse. In the following lines, I would like to take the exhibition as a point of departure for the analysis of some of the tensions around contemporary art practices and production conditions.
Should I answer the call or should I remain in the ivory tower?
I first found out about Salonul de Proiecte in 2011, when they began their activity with an open call. I applied, but I was not accepted. I tried again in 2012 with a different project, and my perseverance was rewarded. I heard about an artist who applied several times with the same project and the third try was the lucky one. This example cheers me up, because it comes to prove that we are operating in a permeable system. In the meantime, I went through several application processes and got to know several artists who organize their lives around deadlines and topics proposed through open calls. I have the feeling that lately, the open call is becoming an open tender procedure for the small entrepreneurs of the art world, restless content generators, hardworking and motivated, punctual and full of fear that they might be missing an opportunity. Gamblers in the lottery of time, paying credit for hope.
What does it mean when artistic practice becomes an act of adequacy in relation to a given topic and time interval? Far away from the ivory tower, many artists seem to work in reaction to opportunities for distribution and production. In the case of Salonul de Proiecte, things are made simpler by the fact that open calls don’t have a topic. Another remarkable aspect is that Salonul de Proiecte invites artists and not curators to realize the selection.
I am writing all this and at the same time I would feel very sorry if the team of the Salonul de Proiecte would stop organizing open calls. This is the only entity which in the last years has offered a consistent platform for the production of new works.
But I have often thought of all those rejected projects and all those shattered hopes. Where do all these energies go? Larisa Crunțeanu once proposed we should make our own selection out of the losing projects and produce some of them. I thought I would much rather like a lottery, something that would embrace randomness fully. A sort of revenge of unfulfilled potential. But in the end I realized that there was no point.
What can fit into the exhibition space?
This year the selection was realized by artists Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor, who took as a point of departure the film VƏTƏN (Homeland), realized by Azer artist Zamir Suleymanov. Homeland is the name of a cinema in the center of Baku transformed into a games space with table tennis, pool, a tea-house, a perfume shop, and one of its rooms which was made into a pet-shop. This year’s selection refuses the monocultural conception of visual art, bringing foreword projects from theatre (You Haven’t Seen Anything, Alexandru Fifea & Cătălin Rulea & David Schwartz, 2015), film (Miss Piranda, Ivana Mladenovic, 2015), or performance (Postspectacle, Ion Dumitrescu & Florin Flueraș, 2010 and The Congregation of the Cast-offs, Paul Dunca, Mihai Lukacs & Ștefan Tiron, 2015). If André Bazin considered that the medium of cinema is reality itself, the example of the cinema in Baku represents a symbolic reversal of the realist verdict. The space of the cinema is invaded by reality. In this spirit, Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor chose works which represent elements of Romanian reality: the church, science, the world of manele or the media spectacle. The name of the exhibition Heroism Rises from a Warehouse is inspired from an old article from Revista ARTA, its proletcultist connotations referring to the character of art with tendency of certain works.
Right at the entrance one is overwhelmed by an installation with an ecumenical air: clerical vestments, prayer carpets, icons and other objects of worship against the dramatic backdrop of red velvet. This space functions as an installation in itself but also as a stage for a series of rituals dedicated to cast-offs. I haven’t been in Bucharest when the performances took place, but the concept made me think of transgender theologian Be Scofield and his spiritual activism.
Another live-art project was the play You Haven’t Seen Anything! by Alexandru Fifea, Cătălin Rulea and David Schwartz which deals with the phenomenon of institutional racism, staging the troubling case of young Daniel-Gabriel Dumitrache who used to work in one of the parking lots of Bucharest’s Old City Center. The man was beaten to death inside Police station 10 in Bucharest. The play denounces the abuses of police over vulnerable citizens, blending techniques of documentary with fragments of the actor’s personal history and statements. Personally, I first got in touch with this way of working during the dramatic writing course at the UNATC coordinated by Prof. Nicolae Mandea. During my studies I unwittingly started to think and act in the spirit of useful art. Many of those who have been through this school have worked with methods such as: identifying and denouncing social injustices, actors which interpret multiple roles in the style of Anna Devere Smith, addressing their story to the public. The three authors have gathered materials about other police abuses and in the space of Salonul de Proiecte, You haven’t seen anything! takes the form of documentation panels mixing, text, objects and a soundtrack. Thus the project also ticks the box of the exhibitional aspect.
Next, to this piece, one finds Transelectrica the work of Irina Gheorghe which, by comparison, seems to deliberately miss any target. Armed with imprecision, Irina Gheorghe navigates the muddy waters between science and the occult. Her work comprises three elements related in a certain but ambiguous manner: a performative action at metro station Precizia (Precision), an installation and a publication. The installation is inspired by a seemingly random element of interior design an assembly of equilateral triangles on the marble floor at the entrance to the Polytechnic University in Bucharest. For the publication, Irina Gheorghe worked with the archive of the Almanac of Science and Technology – selecting articles such as: “The Secret of Secrets”, “Artisans Hazard” or “From the History of Economic and Industrial Espionage”.
In the show I also found the documentation of an older work, an action initiated by Ion Dumitrescu and Florin Flueraş at the mall AFI Palace Cotroceni in Bucharest. On December 1st 2010, the Postspectacle collective managed to infiltrate the festive show which celebrated the National Day but also the inauguration of the biggest mall in Eastern Europe, giving a performance that slips into a media delirium with proto-nationalist and Orthodox accents. On the edge of ethics, this was one of the group’s strategies to confront the regime representation. Their actions at the mall, at OTV or in front of a church, represented turning points in Romanian contemporary art. The moment live art stepped outside of the space which had been assigned to it, taking great stages by storm. I was surprised to find them here because I knew that in the past, the group refused to show the recordings of their actions in exhibition spaces, instead proposing site-specific performative actions. But since performance has become an almost indispensable accessory to exhibition making, Ion Dumitrescu and Florin Flueraş decided to reassess their position and take a different direction. In the context of Salonul de Proiecte, they presented these actions as a zombie concept. Because when being socially engaged or making performances become imperatives and art funding policies, these strategies should be challenged.
Harmless Art, Subversive Art and Art with Tendency
The two curators included in the exhibition artists working with different strategies: on the one hand recognizing the representativeness of art activism but also the subversive potential of art without tendency. I don’t want to further polarize between these modes but I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the relationship between subversive art and art with tendency. In her work Useful Art, Tania Bruguera, known for her project Immigrant Movement International and a partisan of politically engaged art recognizes that the main risk of useful art is that it becomes design. This brings to mind all of the strategies I learned during my apprenticeship at the UNATC. When talking about spectacle, I think that the merit of documentary theater school was to bring a kind of political and social commitment shifting perspective from the slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” which still echoed on the corridors of our school. But this engagement came hand in hand with a kind of aesthetic disengagement or minimalism. Certainly, this was also a reaction against state institutional theater. A way to escape the convention of theatre. At the same time I feel that right now, documentary theater is being made according to a pre-determined set of operations and that its methods deserve a critical reassessment. How to overcome the spectacle? Tania Bruguera would answer: “Put the urinal back into the toilet.”
To complicate matters even further, I am launching myself into a Berliner digression: recently a symposium titled International Artists Organizations took place at the Hebbel Am Ufer theater, a project initiated by Florian Malzacher, Jonas Staal and Joanna Warsza bringing together artists and activists working at the intersection of the two fields. In a format of 10 minutes each would present their vision in a roughly pre-determined format. The participants included the organizations Chto Delat, Etcetera, Haben und Brauchen or PAF. The event was met with strong resistance on the front self-organized art, and the contenders included even some of the invited speakers. With an increasingly distinctive voice independent artists are denouncing the “NGO-ization” of contemporary art its abstract autopilot. The context is more complex: by 2018 the Berlin government plans the opening of Humbolt Forum, a cultural monolith, financed with 19 million euro. Here is where they plan to relocate the ethnological collections of the Dahlem museum containing artifacts from different cultures obtained during the colonial period. Together with the new curatorial platform Humbolt Lab, this monolith was conceived as a tourist attraction designed to fuel the illusion of multiculturalism. Representatives of the local independent scene believe this it is a cynical mask for a cultural appropriation phenomenon. Moreover, they feel that the gentrification of art activism through events such as International Artists Organizations is a way to legitimize a hegemonic cultural policy.
In a completely different context, I am rephrasing and reiterating the question: what is the relevance of art genres when they become a response the market of art institutions?
Gallery film and /or festival film
Since we are speaking about aesthetics, in my conversations with Ivana Mladenovic there was one recurring question “What is the specific difference between gallery and festival films?”.
In this exhibition Mladenovic is present with the film Miss Piranda which centers on Cristina Pucean, the winner of a beauty pageant and belly dancing contest for Roma girls. Against the backdrop of a Chroma curtain, provocative but inaccessible, Cristina Pucean teases and intrigues us with her seductive dance moves. The film Miss Piranda is part of a process started two years ago by which the artist investigates the lives of women in the world of manele.
Ivana Mladenovic works mainly with documentary, but the way she shoots and relates to her characters defies its observational logic. Her approach relies on the construction of a relationship. Ivana creates circumstances and contexts for things to happen. Putting spin offs on the situation, she becomes a character in each one of her films. Even in Miss Piranda when at one time Cristina Pucean stops dancing and says: “I’m tired, I can’t go on”, I have the intuition of Ivana’s presence and expression.
Returning to the question “What is the specific difference between gallery films and festival films?” Ivana and I tried to make sense out of it. We talked about different types of audience, and Ivana mentioned the reactivity and freshness of gallery film. Away from the toilsome and hierarchical regime of production houses, gallery films may be more amateurish but fresh and up to date. For my part, I thought that we, who operate in the austere regime of art can easily slip into arrogant self-sufficiency. Free from the pressure of production budgets, we sometimes have the courage to try and the tendency to fail. So I’m always glad when I hear about film-makers who were seduced by the lightness of gallery film and the mirage of a new audiences to take steps towards experimentation.
Even If Nobody Wants You, I Will Always Love You
This was the title of the first project I ever made an application for. It was suggested to me by Ștefan Constantinescu who thought he had heard this fragment of a in a radio program one morning. Beginner’s luck, the project was selected. As a result, it was produced and then presented at the Small Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice. In retrospect I realize that this episode has given me unrealistic expectations on how to artistic production support works.
And one of the chapters of this text is called What can fit into the exhibition space? Amid debates about its indefinite role, I thought that contemporary art could assume the vocation of a promised land. A place where those who cannot or do not want to play by the rules of other worlds can take refuge. But is it really a home to the free and the brave?
Heroism Rises from an Open Call
Salonul de Proiecte, Bucharest
5 March – 24 May 2015
Artists: Simion Cernica, Claudiu Cobilanschi, Ion Dumitrescu & Florin Flueraș, Paul Dunca & Ștefan Tiron & Mihai Lukacs, Alexandru Fifea & Cătălin Rulea & David Schwartz, Irina Gheorghe, Ivana Mladenovic, Zamir Suleymanov, Iulia Toma
Selected by Mona Vătămanu & Florin Tudor