Never has there been a sport with as far-reaching implications as football. Its players are some of the world’s most well-known, beloved and richest athletes, and its fans are some of the most dedicated, creative, but also dangerous. Hooliganism in football is nothing new, apparently it’s been around for centuries and it seems to have originated in England, who saw its first recorded act of football related violence as early as the late 1800s. This kind of manifestations or “male ritualized violence”, as it is sometimes referred to, is rooted in strong expressions of emotional ties to a certain football team. Fanatics tatter themselves to a team so strongly that the team’s achievements become their own, vicariously living unhinged sentiments of victory and failure alike, and acting on them without restrain. The raw emotion of football matches is intoxicating, so much so that it often becomes an outlet for unjustified acts of violence, under the guise and protection of a football association.
The renowned Ultras movement incorporates organized associations of football fanatics who go to great lengths in their elaborate displays of fandom: colorful flares, speaking tubes, slogans, banners, as well as an array of apparel, accessories and face paint, with the primary goal of encouraging their own team while intimidating the opposing team and its supporters. At times, their loud manifestations can even steer the public’s attention away from the game, moving the main match to the tribune. Stories of Ultras demonstrations getting out of hand and supporters rivalry resulting in death are permanent fixture in football lore. But there is more than fanaticism at play here: love for a football team is often just a prerequisite or an excuse to enter the world of Ultras, with its endlessly complex modes of operating and its fascinatingly dangerous paramilitary strategies. It’s no surprise their influence is spreading outside the world of sports and makings its marks on the fashion industry, political movements and, of course, art.
Both Marcin Dudek and Dinu Guțu’s work and lives are intermixed with the culture of Ultras and could tell endless stories. They both are storytellers in their own right: Dudek is a multidisciplinary artist whose main focus point is the tumultuous face of football, his personal tales of extreme hooliganism come to life through art installations, paintings, photography and video, and of course, performance art; Guțu, on the other hand, is an anthropologist, he loves football and loves to observe all of its facets, one of his books on the subject Ultimii oameni [Last men standing] is a full ethnography for football galleries that aims to avoid the all too familiar hooliganism and focus on other, more obscure aspects.
The two, despite their different views on the matter, came together as part of Live Action Cell, a performative residency in Bucharest at MNAC that aims to initiate contexts for urban studies and artistic research. International artists and local anthropologists each bring their expertise and conclude their research by producing a performance art piece. Ioana Păun, the series’ curator, is no stranger to intersections and hybrid encounters and sees the importance of highlighting the process behind the work, and not just the final product. And with this particular approach to artistic productions, especially when we’re talking performance art, casting light on the actual train of thoughts and decisions, not to mention the circumstances that shape an art work proves very useful for a better understanding of the piece in itself.
The lure of the arena is a very powerful temptress whose victims fall prey to its deadly grasp. The sense of belonging, comradery and respect, love for sports are some of the things a young boy experiences when getting involved with football gangs. Marcin Dudek describes his teen years in Cracow, in the 90s, as wild and chaotic, as he found himself in the midst of riots, fights with the authorities and strategic ambushes on rival teams, often against his will. Eventually, the violence got so out of hand that Dudek found himself taking refuge in art school. He draws plenty of inspiration from these manifestations, but despite the very palpable social issue at hand, his art is sublimely abstract, he deliberately avoids documentary approaches and, instead, opts for kinetic installations, large scale paintings and metamodern performance pieces. Football as a sport is only marginally visible in his works, it lays at the periphery of things, mirroring how a favorite team it is often just a pretense for Ultras to justify their brutal outbursts. Dudek’s art sheds light on the power relations within a crowd, ways of controlling it and its signifiers, such as items of clothing, choice of color, tools of trade in a coherent manner.
Being a member of a football association, where like-minded people share your obsession for sports, the ecstasy of victory and the tears of defeat, can indeed be very fulfilling. Dinu Guțu has been involved with the local Dinamo fanbase for longer than he can remember and had his fair share of football hooliganism. Yet his research is not focused on that at all, rather his view of the Ultras movement is seen from the broader perspective of Romanian society, almost like a mirror to it.
Compared to Dudek’s terrifying accounts of personal injuries and even the death of a close friend, Guțu’s take on the matter is more relaxed. He took the polish artist on a tour of Bucharest stadiums and sports bars and presented him with a much tamer image. Romanian Ultras have been known to cause mayhem on the streets of Bucharest on numerous occasions, some of which not even related to sports – Ultras have been present at almost every large-scale public protest in the capital, just to pick fights with the authorities, often discrediting the actual gain of these protests. Even so, the local Ultras are not nearly as violent as Dudek would have you believe. Guțu sees this vision as being rather dated. Since the 90s, when Dudek was actively involved with Ultras, in the heat of important political shift and public unrest, the situation has mellowed. And while the artist remained interested in this one particular aspect of Ultras culture, Guțu who remained actively involved in the movement, though more as an observer and researcher, was quick to point out the key aspect of local football hooliganism.
It’s all talk and no action, as it seems. Romanian football supporters are known to be loud and agitated, yet not necessarily violent. Ultras might scream obscenities, make threats and appear menacing, but they will generally avoid physical fights with other gangs. It’s rather funny if you compare these attitudes with those of feral dogs – all bark, no bite – especially since one of the biggest local teams’ logo is two red dogs. Guțu painted a vivid picture for Dudek, though it might not have been the one he expected. And even though the two butted heads at times, they overall bonded over football, visited sites which really inspired Dudek for a future installation, possibly involving an old Dinamo bus, and laid out the concepts for the final performance.
The House of Parliament, which also hosts The National Museum of Contemporary Art, is a bit of land with immense history. Few people remember that this was once the home of Republica football stadium, now an underground parking lot, and bits of the stands can still be seen today – one of the many architectural casualties when the People’s House was being built. What a fortunate coincidence for Dudek, who now secured a relevant historic landmark for his piece, with the unfinished cathedral looming in the background. For The lure of the arena, Dudek decided to work with other performers for the first time. He needed people who could realistically emulate the demeanor of a Romanian Ultras and could accurately communicate these signifiers to the local audience. His performers were one man and two women, in a rather surprising twist of choosing to highlight the inclusivity of football and violence, rather than the usual image of toxic masculinity.
The performance piece The lure of the arena took place on a hot afternoon, beneath the wild brush and thorny thistles. Spray painted signs on the ground show the way to what feels like a clandestine performance leading away from the museum. Here, Dudek built a section of an arena out of wooden pallets and white plasterboard where the audience can take a seat, but not before they pass a thorough an unofficial screening conducted by two menacing individuals wearing bomber jackets. As the crowd anxiously awaited the performance to begin, not unlike casual football supporters might feel before a match, the distant echoed roar of a concert could be heard – a fortunate coincidence that only served to heighten the game like atmosphere. Slowly but determinately, one person from the stands begins to bang the sides of the construction, in a rhythmic manner. Soon after, the two bouncers from before approach the stands and the public with their big jackets painted in deep blue and bright orange paint. The two slowly begin to ascend the stands and rub themselves all over the white tribune and some of the audience members, being cheered on by the chanting performer who attempts to reel the public in to clap and sing along.
The act of leaving traces of paint can be read in multiple ways: the blue and orange colors represent one of the main signifiers of football culture and in this performance, they act as a kind of contagion that spreads throughout the audience members; it can also be seen as marking one’s territory with distinctive signs. However, the performers were very gentle in carrying out this action, allowing people the time to react. As they slowly infiltrated themselves amongst the people leaving smears of paint all over, their attitude seemed dual: they simultaneously wanted to get the public involved and lead them away from the arena. From a meta narrative perspective, the spectators helped overturn the significance of the tribune – it is no longer the designated safe space for the passive gaze. As in football culture, performance art can blur the boundaries separating the auditorium from the main stage, thus breaking the spectator’s usual passivity. The performers mirror the attitude of Ultras hijacking football matches by drawing the attention on them, only in this case, the football game is out of the equation and the match takes place between them and the public. The tribune becomes at once a place for action and passive contemplation. But if the world is a stage, where does the audience sit?
The performers’ demeanor reminded me of shepherd dogs, simultaneously asserting themselves to the public but also gently steering them. However, interactivity isn’t forced here, the performers merely stating that there is the possibility of actively partaking into an art work, if anyone wishes to do so. They were menacing yet welcoming, refusing to be too specific about their intention, pushing each individual spectator out of their passive roles and prompting them to actively make a choice: leave or stay. The actions of the three hooligans grew in intensity and they resorted to shoving each other, set off colored smoke grenades and start to tear the literal arena. In their wake, most of the audience moved to the sides and watched as fanatics destroy the very foundation of their beloved sport, quite literally. The public reactions varied: some were confused, some were downright frustrated, while others actually clapped and chanted slogans. One member of the audience remained in his seat as the performers vandalized everything around him. I can see what Dudek was trying to say: not only was this display a commentary on how football fanaticism is giving the sport a bad name, but the audience’s mixed feelings mirror those of casual match attendees who want to actually enjoyed the game but get blindsided by shrill demonstrations of fandom. And naturally, just like at the stadium, the hooligans were loud but weren’t outright violent, not even among themselves.
The lure of the arena is a thought-provoking example of participatory art. Without the public, there would be no performance, and so the audience plays an active role in how the piece carries itself. The performers themselves don’t just follow a script, they go along with how the spectators react and this could lead anywhere. The piece, however, followed a predictable route where viewers choose to remain only that, viewers, and not engage in the actions. The local Romanian public still seems to have not yet familiarized itself with the performative arts, and would rather sit on sidelines and just watch for now. Even so, the work managed to spark the reactions Dudek was looking for, he recreated a slice of life of a hijacked football match in which you can actively partake or just view the scene from afar. Either way, the white stands in the middle of weeds, the orange smoke covering the view of the cathedral conveyed a rather poetic image. It’s performance pieces like these that have the power to shape the public’s general perception on art’s limitations. Unlike classical art objects where the spectator is not allowed to touch, participatory performances reveal the ephemeral, ever changing and interactive dimensions of art.