Interview with Raluca Voinea: “Solidarity and prioritizing the common goal might be our only chance for survival…”

Raluca Voinea is an art critic and curator based in Bucharest. Voinea studied Art History and Theory in Bucharest (1997-2001) and Curating Contemporary Art in London (2004-2006). In 2006 she co-founded E-cart.ro, a nonprofit, independent institution based in Romania dedicated to researching, producing and publicizing modern and contemporary art and architecture. Since 2009, E-cart.ro has been developing a new program of cultural debates and artistic interventions, under the generic title The Department for Art in Public Space. Voinea has been a co-editor of IDEA. Art + Society magazine, published in Cluj, Romania, since 2008. She is one of the directors of tranzit.ro, which was recently launched in Iasi, Sibiu, Cluj and will open in autumn 2012 in Bucharest.

Sven Spieker: You participated in the recent protests against the reorganization of the Romanian Cultural Institute. What is this protest about?

Raluca Voinea: The Romanian Cultural Institute (RCI) is one of the few cultural state institutions that have functioned well in the past years. While its mission is to represent Romanian culture abroad, it has understood this task in a much more generous way, supporting both emerging and established practitioners from all fields of culture, some of whom were participating in prestigious events, invited by well-known institutions. The RCI’s program also included more traditional forms of the so-called “national culture,” therefore one can say it was a very democratic institution and as representative as one can get. The recent decision of the government means that from now on the RCI will be under the control and supervision of the Senate, a political and politicized institution. In the emergency ordinance signed by the prime minister it says that the priority from now on is the “consolidation and amplification, under different forms, of the cultural relations with Romanian communities abroad, with the purpose of maintaining and perpetuating national identity”… and it goes on in the same tone. Therefore the RCI should fulfill a political agenda of safeguarding the national identity in which Romanians “temporarily based abroad” can recognize themselves. In other words, official culture which content of which should be approved by politicians, as well as propaganda.

The protest in front of the Canadian Embassy in Bucharest was an alarm signal against the danger of turning culture into an instrument in the service of political power. Our idea is not that it is or should be completely autonomous, we are not that naïve; but there is a big difference between accepting certain conditions of functioning in the current system and being told what one should say and do in one’s artistic work. Our protest was called “we are emigrating from the national culture,” as a way of drawing attention to the fact that the big artist names our politicians like to claim as representative of Romanian culture (such as Constantin Brancusi, George Enescu, Tristan Tzara, etc.) actually left the country, often for political reasons. Our own “symbolic emigration” in June was just one form of protest in a series that also included petitions signed by more than 3500 people, letters of support from Romanian and international personalities, legal action by the People’s Attorney concerning the constitutionality of the government’s decision. The People’s Attorney himself was dismissed from his position today. It is not something new that people in public positions change with the elections’ seasons; however, now it feels almost like a war between the current government and the former ruling party, a war whose collateral damage is unfortunately most of us, the people who try to live in this country.

SS: How do the changes occurring at the Institute fit into the broader picture of the relationship between politics and the cultural sphere in Romania?

RV: I think this relationship has always been a very unbalanced one, with culture being visible from the political side only when it served immediate agendas, personal interests, or electoral propaganda. The way in which the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) was constituted and offered a venue in one wing of the Palace of Parliament (Ceausescu’s House of the People) by the former Prime Minister Adrian N?stase can be mentioned as an example. While this was one of the rare political decisions supporting contemporary art, and while we still have the museum running (so this was a decision whose effect lasted much longer than the reign of the respective politician) – the lack of negotiation between those who are directly benefiting from this decision and those who signed it into law, the idea of the MNAC as a personal gift when it should be established as part of a clear public program, and the persistent reticence of those involved rather than discussing the limitations that the proximity of the Parliament brings upon the museum, all these make the example of MNAC quite paradigmatic for the attitude of submission that culture has in relation to politics. All this, of course, has deeper roots in recent history. However, it is interesting to note that if before 1989 culture was part of the state apparatus and it had clear outlines, both in form and in content, at the same time the regimented cultural workers had some rights and privileges, which have been gradually lost in the post-communist years of market dominance, individualism and competition. Unfortunately, what is happening now is that the state wants to keep control over culture, but it doesn’t give anything in return: only a very small number of artists are commissioned and compensatedfor their work, whereas most of the others are left to compete for scarce funds or to rely entirely on private money.

SS: What are the consequences for the developing contemporary art scene in Romania?

RV: Right now I do not even want to imagine the consequences, it is hard enough to keep working in a field that is of very little interest, when we are constantly sabotaged. I guess many people will simply leave the country, while others will have to change strategies, or even their field of work. It is great to live in a politically challenging context, but not when it comes to one’s very subsistence. Artists do not claim special treatment (in a country confronted with increasing inequality and with a constantly present state of disunion of social and professional classes), but they do ask not to be taken as the puppets of politicians.

SS: Raluca, you have set up the new Romanian tranzit branch. It is organized differently from the already existing operations in Vienna, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest. Your idea has been to create a network rather than locate tranzit in a single city. Can you tell me how you operate?

RV: tranzit Romania was founded recently, and indeed, while all the other tranzits operate in the capital cities of their countries, in our case we decided to form a network, with multiple centers in Iasi, Cluj, Bucharest and Sibiu. We are a group of five people, curators and artists (Matei Bejenaru, Livia Pancu, Lia Perjovschi, Attila Tordai-S., Raluca Voinea), who have all been invited by Erste Foundation to submit a proposal for what tranzit.ro could be. This network was our proposal and it is what we are trying to define and make functional now. My colleagues already have permanent spaces in Iasi and Cluj, I am still in the process of obtaining a space in Bucharest. Lia Perjovschi sometimes hosts specific projects in her studio in Sibiu. In each place we are autonomous in conceiving the program, but we have a common administration, which is in Iasi, and we also have a wider framework concerning objectives, communication, methodologies. Most likely, there will also be common points of interest that can determine a direct exchange and collaboration between our places.

SS: What are tranzit Romania’s priorities for the moment, and how does it plan to respond to strong local initiatives in Cluj, Sibiu and Krajova?

RV: We are interested in creating spaces for reflection and for an art that is attentive to its context, and to commission new works and research projects related to our immediate problems, to the system in which we are functioning (be it legal, linguistic or economic), to our history and our neighbors. Somehow right now it all sounds very general, but there are needs we feel are more urgent than others and that we should address. As we are still in the beginning, it’s hard to tell how our project will be seen in a while in relation to other initiatives and institutions in the places where we are active. In reality we have a very small group of people who are actively trying to build something (whether functional institutions, a professional climate, or simply their artistic careers), and they are constantly menaced by the threat of disappearance, erasure. Probably this is not only a Romanian issue; I feel the pressure is the same everywhere, once you stop working in a frantic rhythm, even for a breath, you stop existing. In some places archaeology can still dig you up later, as there are material traces you leave behind, but in Romania these are very few. It’s not only that you stop existing, it’s like you never existed at all. tranzit.ro is a small institution and it will not be able to do everything, from publications to exhibitions and to recuperating oral histories (to mention a few of the things that should be done now). We are a network of people working together; we as an institution are also relying on our other colleagues, as fragile as their positions might be, to continue doing their work. If there is a professional model that tranzit.ro could bring to the scene, I hope it would be this way of collaborating in a nonhierarchical structure, a way that brings forward what is to be done, what are the ways to do it and less the individual egos and commercial gain. Solidarity and prioritizing the common goal might be our only chance for survival in the face of political offensives such as the one we are confronted with right now.

Sven Spieker lives in Los Angeles and Berlin. His most recent book publication is The Big Archive. Art from Bureaucracy (MIT Press, 2008). He is one of the editors of ARTMargins Online and the editor of ARTMargins.

Sven Spieker (Los Angeles/Berlin)
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. A curator and researcher, he specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art (especially in Eastern and Central Europe), and critical theory. His work has been published in Russian, German, Swedish, Korean, Polish, Romanian, and Spanish. Spieker's publications include Destruction (ed., MIT Press/Whitechapel 2017); The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (MIT Press, 2008; Korean translation, 2013); The Imprints of Terror: The Rhetoric of Violence and the Violence of Rhetoric in Modern Russian Culture (ed., with Anna Brodsky and Mark Lipovetsky, Vienna, 2006); Bürokratische Leidenschaften. Kultur- und Mediengeschichte im Archiv (ed., Kadmos, 2004). Spieker teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.