Actually it is in the stratosphere where we are mostly working. We are privileged enough to get a bird’s-eye view, one which most people don’t have access to, burdened as they are with watching their steps, but we are constantly threatened to either be hit by a plane or to fall down with a speed that leaves us hallucinating, in both cases losing our stability and composure. Sometimes we get close to the chilling mesosphere. We get a glimpse of blue lightning and become fascinated by the solitude of these upper realms.
We wonder what it would be like to explore this stratum more, which seems to consist of beginnings and ends, where meteors burn and auroras emerge. It is a brief glimpse though, as scientific research has had its funding cut in our post-socialist countries after its token role in the Cold War was over; therefore, no one knows how to build the special costumes for this kind of exploration. To go even higher is not imaginable, so we pat each other’s shoulders in consolation: we are too busy to avoid the next plane heading our way or to keep our balance while floating anyway. At the same time, we know there is this space we simply don’t grasp yet, a density we have so far only been able to navigate at high speeds, without leaving any impact, and this knowledge is on the one hand comforting—after all, look, there exists a place which escapes the damaging effect of humans—while on the other, it is intriguing that there still remains so much to be explored, discovered, and claimed for the realm of the known. From this perspective, the mesosphere appears, as the editors of this magazine point out, as a territory of hope, a territory of the future, I would add, of the imagination and potentiality, of untested possibilities.
Scientific metaphors are beautiful and appealing for the field of art. The two—science and art—are also often invited to work together and to borrow each other’s lenses of magic and reason. Lately, they have begun to appear as two necessary tools for taking humanity out of its mood of doom, or at least instruments of persuasion for how urgent and impossible survival has become. Comparisons between the two fields can also be applied in the way they are managed and instrumentalized. In the way they become trademarks for nationalist governments (which otherwise forget to fund them for years) or accessories for corporations and the millionaires of the immaterial economy. In the way workers in both fields have to provide numbers, entertainment, efficiency, production, public presence, results, or how they have to perform the Romantic role of the creator/innovator while writing funding applications and sweeping the floors.
A recent conference at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey (an educational institution otherwise dedicated to technological innovation) tried to shift the focus from innovation to maintenance, bringing together participants “from a variety of fields, including academic historians and social scientists, as well as artists, activists, and engineers, [all of whom] share an interest in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world.”1 Such focus, coming from within the academic field, can only prove that the “creators” and “innovators” themselves are not interested for much longer in the stories and demands from their neoliberal employers and commissioners (disguised as they often are as progressive benefactors). Scientists and artists, academics and freelance professionals, they all feel that the imperative of the new (of the fresh, the unseen, the latest, and the youngest) is driving them on the same path, ultimately leading to patterns of burning out, self-precarization and often losing balance. It appears to be insufficient to invent new structures, technologies, or institutions, if they are abandoned mid-way, if the work of maintaining and caring for them is not valued, a daily work which is often one of routine but allows one to understand how a real society works.
In Romania (and in many Eastern European countries), cultural state institutions exist mostly from inertia, severely underfunded, struggling to fundraise externally or to refresh their programs and educational strategies. Independent institutions are mostly based on voluntary work and dedication, and their lifespan ranges between one night and a couple of years, with some exceptions in places where the city councils understood the importance of supporting culture in a structural way and not just for populist festivals, as well as cases where private sponsors have taken up the mission to invest for a longer term in cultural institutions, associating their image with the avant-garde and leaving their mark on the art histories in the region.
Recent years have seen the emergence of a “community-spirit” or rhetoric, with many artists and cultural operators finding each other in the streets for political or environmental protests, or in the online spheres, debating not only the content of their work but also the conditions of its production and dissemination, discussing changes in the laws that define their status as “creators” or “authors,” and organizing into coalitions or informal groups that can become partners or consultants for public institutions. Sometimes they infiltrate the positions of power (the Ministry of Culture2) or the institutions which are still acknowledged as powerful despite their rigid, crusted structures (the Artists’ Union3), or they might start from within such institutions only to depart from them (Salonul de proiecte4). At other times they found their own institutions for questioning the status quo and demanding for their rights to be protected (ArtLeaks5), they are trying to be self-sufficient economically in order to sustain the cultural and activist projects,6 and, in some rare cases, they find success on the commercial international market and reflect some of that success in the dynamization of the local scene.7
Up in the air of the stratosphere, where we are able to detect each other better, it looks like, few as we are, we are doing good in multiplying the scarce means that we have, as if it were the biblical fish, building some strong institutions even when we are at odds with the politicians’ agendas, creating waves that give the impression of a tumultuous scene to those who pass by (or fly by). If only this entire scene wasn’t menaced with disappearance every time the governments change, or the sponsors swing their attention (and financial interest) elsewhere, every time public money is invested into cathedrals and private money into expensive entertainment. In the absence of longer-term institutional stability and, most importantly, of the actual physical survival of us all, the efforts and strategies we elaborate and perform are evaporating, and every generation starts it all over again.
During an event in Bucharest co-organized by tranzit.ro/București and ArtLeaks, titled “Parasites and Prophets. International Conference on Artistic Production, Organization and Struggle,”8 Florin Flueras9 pointed out that artists are no longer the prophets today, which is not due to the public perception having changed (although it is true that now they are mostly recognized by the figures of their sales at auction houses). Rather, as we are now imagining the future on a planetary scale, where predictions are no longer limited to small local revolutions but rather extend to all the geological (and atmospheric) strata of the planet, where the new Internationales are inter-species and technology-based, and where the avant-garde needs to drag along all the rest of humanity; the prophets we currently need to rely on are scientists, suggested Flueras. Despite his attunement to global currents of discussing scientific work as essential to humanity’s future (whether or not this future is already doomed) and the potential his angle had to stimulate our shifting from the artists’ isolated struggle and internal questionings of their role in society in order to focus on the need for broader alliances and more complex networks, Flueras’s point was not however touched again in the rest of the conference. We revolved instead around issues of self-organization and unionizing, looking at ways to salvage the wrecks of the socialist system of social protection for artists or finding similitudes between today’s rise of neo-fascisms and nationalism and the 1930s. In other words, as in many cases when independent operators from our countries come together, we started again from the same level of sharing our miseries. We were at that time not ready for Flueras’s perspective, he was already in the mesosphere, exploring its darkness in which lights of new knowledge sparkle, while we were worried about not losing the ground from sight and from underneath our feet.
Of course, we still need to learn how to keep the grounded-ness while continuing to dream, how to maintain the structures we create while not closing them off from innovation, how to be both parasites (parasitizing existing institutions when this is possible) and prophets of a better future, and, not least, how not to give up the attempts to gain access to and understand the new territories of hope. Even when that hope is not even imaginable, let alone visible.
A contribution to issue #3 Back to Basics. Responses to the Issue Inside the Mezosfera.
About the author:
Raluca Voinea (born in Romania in 1978) is a curator and art critic, based in Bucharest. Since 2012, she is co-director of the tranzit.ro Association (a member of the tranzit.org network and a network in itself, with permanent spaces in Bucharest, Cluj, and Iași, as well as an annual project in Sibiu), and she runs the space of tranzit.ro in Bucharest. The space includes an art gallery, a communitarian garden, and an Orangery (a space for hosting fragile plants and ideas), all developed organically and in response to both the local context and the general, global situation. Since 2008, she is co-editor of IDEA arts + society magazine, published in Cluj, Romania.
- http://themaintainers.org/ – retrieved on January 5, 2017. The 3-day conference (April 7–9, 2016) was followed by a blog and a sequel, Maintainers II: Labor, Technology, and Social Orders, is announced for 2017. ↩
- In 2016, a number of independent cultural workers were involved in a transitional Ministry of Culture, as counsellors or advisors, contributing essentially and on fast-forward to the devising of, for example, the proposal for a new law of cinematography or a national strategy for culture. It was one of the rare cases when it seemed possible that those who are the actual producers of the living culture could get to the position where from to influence the structural frameworks in which this functions. ↩
- If in the 1990s it seemed the younger generation was about to abandon the Artists’ Union altogether, not only as membership but also as a model; recently there have been some artists, art historians, and curators who have decided to use the still big infrastructure this institution has to offer, from gallery spaces to the Arta magazine. Sometimes the process of negotiation with the Union’s leadership or expectations does not allowfor long-term relationships to be forged, but at least temporarily collaboration is possible. Some examples include Atelier 35 in Bucharest (managed in its last version by Larisa Crunteanu, Xandra Popescu, and others), followed, in the same space, by ODD (run by Cristina Bogdan, also an editor of Arta magazine), or another gallery which was in turn given by the Union to The Centre for Visual Introspection, Club Electroputere, and at present to an informal group of women artists, Local Goddesses (with Simona Dumitriu as one of them, having been for many years part of the Platforma artist-run-space, which was hosted in a building belonging to the Museum of Contemporary Art, MNAC-Anexa). ↩
- Salonul de proiecte started in the same Anexa space as Platforma (see note 3), receiving moreover logistic and budget support from MNAC (with one of the project initiators, Magda Radu, being employed at that time as a curator at MNAC). After MNAC-Anexa was closed indefinitely for structural consolidation of the building at the end of 2015, Salonul de proiecte became an official independent association and has, since 2016, relocated to another space. ↩
- Although managed by an international community of cultural workers, many of the platform’s founders came from Romania. ↩
- Macaz, a bar and a space for theater and other events, run by a group constituted as a cooperative. Its members have already been active in the past years on the rather thin progressive scene in Bucharest, both in their artistic, socially-engaged work and in their activist dedication. ↩
- The now famous Plan B gallery from Cluj started as an artists’ initiative by Mihai Pop and Adrian Ghenie. Over the years, they continued to exercise an important influence on the art scene in Cluj, not least by their investment in the local Paintbrush Factory. ↩
- See more about the conference here: http://ro.tranzit.org/en/project/0/2013-10-25/parasites-and-prophets—conference-organized-by-artleaks-and-tranzitro-bucuresti ↩
- Florin Flueras is an artist and performer; he worked in the fertile environment of the early years (second half of 2000s) of the National Dance Center in Bucharest. He co-founded, with a few colleagues, the collective post-spectacle, with which he participated in actions and interventions in public space, in museums, at a television post, and in a shopping mall. He wrote and performed on concepts such as “second body,” “dead thinking,” or “artificial emotional intelligence.” http://www.fflueras.ro/ ↩