Interview with The Center for Visual Introspection

The Center for Visual Introspection, an independent center for research, artistic and theoretical production in Bucharest, was co-founded by Alina Serban, Anca Benera, Arnold Estefan, and Catalin Rulea.

Center for Visual Introspection. Image courtesy of the author.

Olga Stefan: The Center for Visual Introspection (CIV) is a cultural platform that undertakes projects that critically examine the relationship between art and public, art and power structures, art and society. CIV is an independent organization. What does independent mean in Romania? Independent from what? And how does CIV differ from other existing platforms?

Alina Serban: One of the terms used by the nonprofit cultural initiative is that of independent; however, this term, which primarily draws the line between state and/or commercial culture and that driven by organizations from civil society, is particularly reflected and appropriated by each initiative. In the case of CIV, independent refers to our ability to act as agents in the public sphere and to freely express opinions and exercise our rights. What defines us is the format. CIV is the project of the curatorial collective p+4, founded by myself together with artists Anca Benera, Arnold Estefan, and Catalin Rulea. We propose that we avoid a certain type of institutional formalization characterized by the reproduction of previously checked discourses and to “risk” the adoption of a chameleon dimension, continuously adapting to the circumstances, particularities and limits of the Romanian social and cultural order. We wish to shift the role of the art institution on the Bucharest culture scene, by means of a systematic, clear and, why not, responsible discourse. The collective dimension of the center has determined the quality of its programs that, I believe, generated a sharing space between different communities, discourses, initiatives, and people.

Ana Benera and Arnold Estefan: We are independent in terms of being self-funded, apolitical, and noncommercial.

OS: CIV has undertaken some very ambitious and important projects, of particular interest to me is Ars Telefonica, a public art project that took place in telephone booths and featured a series of lectures and discussions on the topic of art and the public and the theme’s many dimensions. Also, Self-Publishing in Times of Freedom and Repression, an examination of the history of self-publishing through the communist regime’s censorship and the funding challenges of today. Have the projects brought about any concrete conclusions about the lack of funding for art in Romania and engaging the public? What needs to be done?

AB and AE: We don’t expect immediate concrete conclusions but aim to offer insights with long-term results. Self-publishing in Times of Freedom and Repression discusses the new forms of censorship and freedom of speech today. We believe that samizdat publications, born in specific oppressive contexts, might shed some new light on the condition of self-publishing today, on its present forms and challenges.

AS: Projects such as Ars Telefonica or Self-Publishing in Times of Freedom and Repression were naturally conceived in our attempt to turn CIV into a mediator between artistic and curatorial discourses and the public sphere, between various regional histories and institutional strategies. In our activity, recovery, integration and comparison are constant processes in a collective project aiming to personalize critical effort and to liberate itself from under a holistic vision of culture. Concrete conclusions…? I guess we cannot talk so much about accountability when speaking about culture. Of course, there are experiences that can be fruitful for future approaches when dealing with the public sphere or public funding. Transparency and civic dialogue are key concepts in succeeding to change the public funding system and the perception of the legitimate role of art institutions as spaces for social action, where both actors – us, as the art scene, and them, as implementers of cultural policies – are in permanent communication.

OS: What do you see as the most critical problem in Romania’s cultural realm? Where does the stagnation and inertia lie? What is keeping the system from changing?

AS: The weakness of the independent cultural scene in Romania is caused by its isolation and lack ofdialogue among the several actors of the scene. Isolation is reflected by an atomized cultural production, where each initiative acts almost without any interest in collaboration or co-production. This attitude contributes to the minimal impact that this scene has upon those creators of public cultural policies.

Catalin Rulea: “Culture” has different levels in Romania, as it does in so many other countries. The segment of culture in which we are active doesn’t have a “mirage” like theater or classical music does, for example, in Romania. The Museum of Contemporary Art is not central, like in some other major cities in Europe. It is like contemporary art itself… at the edge of cultural life. After twenty years of “freedom” some things in culture should have been recovered, studied, archived, then advertised for educational and commercial reasons. Politicians should realize, once and for all, that art as an innovative process is needed and worthy for society, then maybe money will come. The most important thing that Romania and Romanians recovered in this past twenty years is orthodox religion. It is such a step back and totally opposite to contemporary art or any other form of evolutionary and innovative thinking.

AB and AE: Dialogue.

OS: In the art scene, what are the power structures that inhibit implementation of a healthy structure, and what is to be done about them?

AS: You cannot blame just one side. From my perspective both the state/public and the nongovernmental sector dealing with culture have their equal parts in drawing a healthy cultural system. What is to be done? To see things in a pragmatic way, to cooperate with both the local government and private sector in order to identify the priorities and necessities for the creators and the organizations within the cultural sector, and to allow them to be decision makers in designing the local cultural policies.

CR: Well, it is a long story. People and mentalities seem that they cannot be changed, even in twenty years. Politics, business, and the mass media were all ruled and implemented by former communist politicians and secret services. We are talking about newspapers, television, information, property. And as in medieval politics, education was last on the list.

But nowadays you can see that some new generations rise, and that bad television, mass media in general, is at the edge of collapse. It is not the case of CIV to be an opinion leader, but in this young context we have something to say. People and structures like Dan Perjovschi, Horia Roman Patapievici, and the Romanian Cultural Institute help a lot.

AB and AE: The Romanian art scene is active to the extent to which society needs to support contemporary art. Nevertheless, both this need and the scene are extremely small. We live in parallel worlds.

OS: You have travelled quite a bit and seen many different models of functioning systems. What would you like to see Romania’s system look like? Which country serves as a model, or what elements would you like for it to have that it doesn’t now? What is CIV’s current situation and how do you see its future in Romania’s ever-changing art landscape? How are your activities supported and is it a sustainable model?

AS: I am not a person who believes in “sustainable models.” Each art context has its own particularities, behaviors and dramas. You cannot make a “copy-paste” to any of these contexts. Each model that appears is the result of the specific conditions in which art was developed and produced. And to reach such models means time, research and constant self-questioning. These are the steps we need to follow. It is not about “doing it as” or “doing it differently from,” it is about “doing it locally.”

AB and AE: We don’t like models or patterns, and can’t predict the future.