Interview with Matei Bejenaru

Matei Bejenaru is an artist, a professor of photography and video, and the founder of both the Periferic Biennial and the Vector Association in Iasi. 

Matei Bejenaru is an artist, a professor of photography and video, and the founder of both the Periferic Biennial and the Vector Association in Iasi.

Olga Stefan: We met in 2001, when I was visiting Romania to research the development of the art scene for my master’s thesis, and you were interested in doing a residency through Artslink but needed a partner organization in the United States. You were managing a performance art festival in Iasi called Periferic, and I was managing a multi-media arts festival called Around the Coyote in Chicago. Therefore, it worked well for the both of us. Why did Periferic become Vector and what was Vector intended to be?

Matei Bejenaru: The Periferic project started in 1997 in Iasi, as a performance festival that transformed into an international contemporary art biennial in 2001. In the first years of Periferic, the organizers of the festival were private persons, like myself, but as the project began to develop, it became necessary that the organizer be an institution. Therefore, in 2001, the Vector Association was formed, composed of individuals whose goal was to promote contemporary art in Iasi and to develop a local art scene.

OS: What is the context in which Periferic operated? What were the specific challenges of Iasi?

MB: Periferic appeared at the end of the ‘90s in Romania, at a time when, despite the lack of art institutions, there were quite a lot of artists developing artistic projects. In Iasi, an important university center, there was almost nothing going on in the visual arts in those first years after the fall of communism, but rather only traditional art shows. A number of the students from that time, among which I count myself, were unhappy, and this was the reason that we built this other form of project that responds to other types of expectations.

OS: How was Periferic, and later Vector, funded?

MB: In the first editions, Periferic was financed by foreign cultural institutions (Pro Helvetia, the Center for Contemporary Art Soros, the French Cultural Center). Ultimately, Vector Association applied to other granting agencies (the European Cultural Foundation), some Romanian cultural institutions (the Ministry of Culture, the National Fund for Culture, the Romanian Cultural Center), as well as the local administration in Iasi (City Hall). But always the foreign funds were the majority of the support we received.

OS: Who was Periferic’s, and later Vector’s, public? Do you feel that you were providing a needed service that was supported by those you intended to serve?

MB: I would divide Periferic’s public into two categories. The local public was made up of students and young intellectuals. The public from outside of Iasi was represented by Romanian and international professionals from the art field (curators, artists, directors, and journalists). I think that Vector did a lot to develop a local art scene, but this association always functioned more as an artist-run institution, so it never succeeded, due to economic restraints and the traditional provincial mentality in Romania, to establish itself and hire professional managers and staff.

OS: What legacy do you think Periferic left?

MB: For a long time I was the director of Periferic. The last edition that I organized was in 2008 and I don’t think I’ll continue. In retrospect, Periferic put Iasi on the international contemporary art map, and helped the development of a local art scene connected to the international one. It was a project that analyzed the modes and functions that contemporary visual art can have in this type of context – that of the city of Iasi.

OS: Do you feel that the residents of Iasi can become consumers and supporters of contemporary art? If so, what needs to be done for that to happen?

MB: Yes, with the condition that even in Iasi there will be initiatives supported and funded by the local administration. Only an institution with a coherent and long-term program that can also offer educational programs can build a local public.

OS: It is evident that relying on funds from the Romanian and foreign governments is proving to be an unsustainable model. But what is the alternative?

MB: Money from the local administration (Iasi has to pay to have contemporary culture), as well as support from private organizations (but here there’s a danger that the organization will be a PR agent for the sponsor). I think it is important to have institutions with independent agendas, independent of political and commercial influence.

OS: How can contemporary art activity survive? How can cultural workers make a living in contemporary art in Romania?

MB: Through continued pressure so that the institutions in Romania (the Ministry of Culture, the National Fund for Culture, the local administration) have to sustain contemporary art.