Sunday, August 26, 2012

Just Another Brick in the Wall: Interview with Olga Stefan

December, 2011
subsequently published in ArtMargins Magazine

OS: Your practice aims to reveal how our emotions are manipulated by the power structures to create the narratives that support the status quo, or those structures’ legitimacy. How did this interest develop? Can you give us some recent examples in Romania where melodrama was used to convince the population of a particular agenda?

BMR: Ever since the beginning of its activity the Bureau has taken a critical view of the genderization (that is feminization) of emotion: the representation of the woman as a reservoir of sentimentality, built in opposition with a presumably masculine reason. This is part of a historical process of disciplining women, which reached a peak in the 19th century with the medicalization of hysteria. The women were gradually cast as over-emotional, irrational, dangerous beings in order to safely attach them to the domestic sphere and ensure the fulfillment of reproductive tasks.

On the other hand, emotion is presently taking over the public sphere. We are witnessing unrestrained pathos overflowing public discourse under the guise of technocratic objectivity insistently claimed by public institutions. This is not only a characteristic of Romanian institutional sphere. All across Europe and North America political rhetoric gets sentimental infusions, accompanying the neoconservative backlash. One of the local instances BMR has been investigating is the melodramatic re-writing of recent history by such institutions as IICCMER The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes or CNSAS The National Council for Studying the Securitate Archives. Their official anticommunist discourse is backed by the current political power and contributes in turn to its legitimation, with the help of a positive re-affirmation of the interwar period. There have been consistent efforts from the Romanian neoconservative intellectuals to gild the 30’s in a dramatic opposition to the communist period, thus dissimulating the scientific racism, antisemitism and eugenics of the period.

OS: In much of your work and artistic statements, you express criticism towards corporate funding of the arts. In a country like Romania, whose government does not see funding the arts as a priority, and where the public is disconnected from, and uninterested in, the contemporary art discourse, who is left to support and fund practices like yours?

BMR: The problem of state funding stands not only for Romania, but for the countries of the so-called former west as well, where rampant political conservatism goes hand in hand with the neoliberal economic doctrine. Moreover, the recent government cuts resulted from the global crisis of capitalism have affected a wide range of social areas, such as education, the health system, social security. There is no exceptional case of art and culture. In this respect, the pretension of autonomy that some of the artists and theoreticians have been recently trying to argue for is not a coincidence. It maybe expresses a financial worry rather than a theoretical preoccupation and in the present political context their claims are rather inappropriate and disproportionate. It would be a stronger position to focus on solidarity of art and culture with the general demands of broader social categories.

What about the state of art funding in the countries of the Third World who were historically constrained to look up to Western culture industries and internalize a condition of the peripheral, of the cultural subaltern? How are their struggles of resistance being supported?

We have got most of the funding for our practice from foundations representing government and corporate interests alike in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. We have received travel funds from the Romanian Cultural Institute and some years ago even from the Ministry of Culture. As for corporate funding, our main concern is that artists should be paid especially if they work to raise the symbolical capital of a bank or corporation by participating in an exhibition/biennale/project. Last time when we participated in a project funded by a bank in Bucharest, we didn’t receive any fee for our work – absolutely no financial support for our practice. This particular experience was the onset of a collective struggle of artists and other cultural workers alike for equitable compensation.

On the other hand, if we expect funds exclusively from banks and corporations, then it means we would have to accept only capitalism as a valid system and fall into the TINA* (There is no alternative) ideology (a subversive linguistic remark is that “tina” in Romanian means “mud”). Again we think there is an alternative only through a collective effort to claim our labour rights in solidarity with the demands for social equality and economic justice of larger social groups such as the ones articulated by the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the Indignants and so on.

OS: How have your practice and projects been received by the general public? Who are you addressing with your work?

BMR: We are addressing different audiences with our work, as every project we made was context-specific and focused on local issues. Therefore we generally address a specific audience. Our projects are oftentimes produced with the help of people from different social categories and with different professional background. We have rarely exhibited in museums, where, the public comes driven by a sort of an escapist urge to get away from daily routine and from the economic and social injustice they are faced with.

To better explain our approach we chose to illustrate this interview with a selection of our actions/performances whereby the involvement of a specific audience is made evident.

OS: The “Making Of” project at the Center for Visual Introspection in March of 2011 in collaboration with Stefan Tiron of Paradis Garaj, was a humorous, but also thorough, look at the effect of capitalism on Romanian society. What is a more sustainable and less destructive model for Romania, and why do you feel that the general population is not supporting it?

BMR: f you put it like this, then all our interventions and investigations are examining the effect (and defects) of capitalism in contemporary society. In that particular instance it was more connected to the mechanisms of the field of art itself than many of our other projects: it was part of a series of events called Making-Of, which was supposed to be a retrospective reflection of one’s own (artistic) practice. We decided to place copying and reading squarely at the center of our statement, taking into account key principles of the Bureau’s activity: collaboration, dissemination, theft, copyleft, multiplying, pirating on one hand, and research, theorizing, interdisciplinarity on the other. It was a critique of the myth of the original artist, creative, unique, built as a model for capitalism.

As for an alternative and people’s attachment to it in Romania, the general population’s support of capitalism is not as widespread as the mainstream conservative political discourse would like to prove. According to a recent very controversial opinion poll undertaken by the aforementioned IICCMER in collaboration with CSOP (Center for Studying Public Opinion and Market), 47% of the Romanians consider communism a good idea which was badly put into practice, and 63% consider having lived better before 1989, to the despair of the local anticommunist clan. And the percent seems to be rising directly proportional to the neo-liberal measures gradually imposed by the IMF and enthusiastically embraced by the local political power.

OS: Do you feel that artists and cultural workers can make a real difference through their comments and criticisms? Do you feel political art has the ability to effect change?

BMR: The “real difference” rhetoric has become too much engulfed in the advertising campaigns to have any emancipatory meaning. The “real difference” made by one or another product ultimately translates into social difference and class difference. The problem is who affords the “difference” in the first place and by which criteria. Capitalism is basically built on class difference and inbuilt divisions based on so-called “race”, age and gender. How and on which level does one challenge the hierarchies built upon “difference” and its criteria? Isn’t the “most real difference” the 99% compared to the 1%? Social inequality is growing in spite of the alleged social responsibility of the private sector. Cultural workers and artists intervene on an epistemic and aesthetic level as well as through direct action to develop and reform strategies of resistance. Just have a look at the theoreticians involved in the Occupy Wall Street Movement and generally in the recent protest movements spread worldwide. On the other hand the edges between disciplines are not so sharply defined anymore, and therefore the artist, theoretician and political activist constantly switch roles in the struggle for resistance.

OS: How do you think you will sustain your activities in the future?

BMR: We have founded together with a group of artists and theoreticians an online platform, ArtLeaks which aims at collecting proofs and giving voice to cultural workers whose labor rights have been violated. As we all know, volunteering (that is constant unpaid labor) is the main type of work artists do. In accordance to the ethical codes prescribed by suprademocratic (i.e. beyond the reach of people’s vote) institutions such as those of the EU, artists could well serve as a model for this year’s work-fashion as 2011 is the European Year of Volunteering. All the characteristics increasingly enforced on the labor market: flexibility, creativity, volunteering, uncertainty, project-oriented work (occasional work), time-based compensation are all embedded in the contemporary “bohemian” way of life. Not to mention the precarious condition of women in the context of the feminization of work brought about by the global expansion of capitalism. Women are more prone to part-time jobs because of the reproductive labor plus the care labor they have been traditionally assigned. Historically women have worked for lower wages, which from the point of view of capitalists is of course highly profitable, that’s why entire sectors of the economy have been employing mainly feminine work force – for example the pink collar workers in the data entry industry.

Having all these in mind, our position of women-artists living in Eastern Europe under the rabidly worsening economic conditions brought by the global crisis of capitalism determines our future means of subsistence. We are now in the course of completing a training program at Goethe-Institut to become German teachers. This will probably be the main way of sustaining BMR’s activities in the future. We have always had a part-time job (mainly derived from our knowledge of German) from which we financed our volunteer artistic activity. Nevertheless, we will continue our struggle against the perpetual precarization and self-exploitation to which cultural workers are subjected due to the systematic refusal of art institutions (even when supported by banks or corporations) to pay fees for this type of labor. For these, there always seems to be a better and more profitable destination for a project’s budget – to make glossy catalogues or bring together as many names as possible.