L: Hello Miki Braniște. Thank you for accepting to do this interview with us. The interview is part of a broader project financed by the Iasi City Hall entitled Research. Production.Dialogue. First of all, I would like to ask you to introduce yourself.
M: Hi Livia. Thank you for the invitation.
L: First of all, I would like to ask you to do a short biography, which should include how did you get to dedicate yourself to cultural activities.
M: Well, I’ve always been interested in art. During my highschool years in Alba Iulia I discovered the UAP ( Artists’ Union) gallery and I went to all the exhibitions (she laughs). I was interested in learning art history, but in Cluj there was no art history department, so I decided to study aesthetics through philosophy. I continued to read and to connect myself to the art world and I soon realized that I will never be an artist or an art historian, but I felt that I could do something else, something that I couldn’t put a name on it at that moment; it wasn’t curating.
L: Sorry for the interruption, but can you tell us when all these things took place?
M: Yes, early 2000s. To give you an idea of Cluj’s cultural context at that time, apart from the Art Museum, there were only a couple of art spaces, most notably Atas gallery and Sindan gallery. There wasn’t an independent art scene at that time; there was the group around the Idea publishing house/magazine (which for me was the standard for theoretical resources); there was also Protokol gallery, but I didn’t get there. Basically, if you wanted to see cutting-edge contemporary art you needed to go to Iasi; we in Cluj were tackling mostly theory, you guys were tackling both the theory and the practice (she laughs). Anyway, long story short, I realized that I don’t want to become a highschool philosophy teacher and that I need a different profesional raison d’etre. Later, during a Erasmus mobility in France, I found out about a MA programme in cultural management. After working in cultural management for a while, I figured out that what truly interested me was a better contextualization of artists’ work and a better understanding of the larger processes that underlay this work. So I ended up curating for performative arts; I shifted from visual arts to dance and theatre. Furthermore, I met new people, like iulia popovici, that helped me evolve, and together we managed to do an interesting twist for the Temps d’Image festival; at the same time, I became more interested in the social dimension of art. From 2009 until last year , I worked very hard for the organisational (we can’t really call it institutional) project of Fabrica de Pensule [The Paintbrush Factory]. A lot of people’s energies went there; we were a group of a couple of women and men which in turn was part of a bigger group. Today I’m trying to reflect on the last 10 years of work in the cultural sector, trying to understand what happened in Cluj; what has changed between 2009-2019; how the european cultural policies are being interpreted at the local level and what are their effects considering that the most recent Creative Europe programme has a strong neoliberal emphasis.
L: Why did you choose 2009 as the starting point?
M: In that year I started working for the Factory, but my cultural activity started sometime in 2004-2005.
L: So, one can say that Cluj’s independent art scene developed during this period, 2000-2009…
M: Yes, probably. Between 2003-2009 I wasn’t in Cluj, so I’m not 100% sure, but in 2006 Plan B gallery was opened. Meanwhile, the Protokol gallery ceased to exist… Of course there were many interesting artist groups, but too few exhibition spaces.
L: When did Protokol close?
M: I think 2007-2008, before the economic crisis and before the Paintbrush Factory’s project. There were some interesting projects in Cluj at that time; Laika, the AltArt foundation. There was also some emulation in the local theatre scene through the Man.In.Fest alternative theatre festival. Starting from 2006 the GroundFloor Group association began to be visible in contemporary dance; also, it would go on to become one of the founding members of the Paintbrush Factory. [All these initiatives] were connected to varying degrees with academia. With Romania’s accession to the EU, more funds became available, and this of course facilitated the consolidation of the local art scene. The emergence of the Paintbrush Factory was a founding moment for Cluj’s art scene because we all assembled in one institution, and through this, we consolidated our presence. Of course, without the existence of the associations prior to 2009 this consolidation would have not been possible; it was critical that people realized the importance of coming together.
L:What was the dynamic between the independent art scene, academia and the local government?
M: Regarding academia, we’re basically talking about two institutions: Arts and Design University and University of Cluj (more specifically the theatre&television department). People talk about this so-called “Cluj School” but what I found interesting is that my colleagues from the Factory were very dissatisfied with the quality of the information they received during their studies; they learned much more from each other by developing professional relations between different generations. Probably Mihai Pop was some sort of a nexus between the generations. Others from “Cluj School” include Cristi Rusu, Ciprian Muresan, Victor Man, Adrian Ghenie, Serban Savu, Marius Bercea…They were dubbed as “Cluj School” by curators because most of them studied in Cluj and went on to have international careers. […] It’s interesting that, later on, I heard mr. Zbârciu (the former rector of Arts and Design University) speaking about “Cluj School” and basically appropriating its success, arguing that without the university there wouldn’t have been a “Cluj School”; but from what i saw, the artists had a negative view of academia and disavowed Zbruciu’s comments. If we’re talking about alternative theatre, I remember that when I returned to Cluj, there was an independent festival called Man.In.Fest that managed to attract some of the students; there was also a journal with the same name in which students could publish their articles. At the same time there was a summer school called Everyday’s Dramaturgy/The Dramaturgy of the Ordinary, organised by the department of Theatrology, in which students could discuss politics, economics and in general themes that affect the immediate social reality. Within this context new generations of playwrights appeared, especially a super generation of women playwrights; this new generations are strongly connected to Reactor art space, where many of their plays were staged; we also staged some of their plays at the Factory. So if we’re talking about theatre, I would say that the university had a fundamental role and this role is constantly being acknowledged; many appreciated the theatre department’s openness towards studying the social realities.
L: Why do you think this happened? From what you’re telling me it seems that the theatre students have a more favourable view about their college years, in contrast to art students.
M: It’s important to mention that this is true only for the theatre department. The departments are pretty different (theatre, directing, acting) and unfortunately there is not much collaboration between them; there is a certain hierarchy between these departments in which theatrelogy is last, although it offers the conceptual framework for a performance; the screenplay is very important. Of course the manner in which the director stages a play is also important, but the essence is given by the screenplay, so it’s only fair that the screenwriter should be on the same level as the others, but his work was always under-appreciated. Probably the specificity of the theatre department has to do with the desire of students to assert an equal position inside this whole equation; also the professors were pretty open-minded by offering examples from day-to-day life and they didn’t practice a passeistic style of teaching; they were connected to what was happening in the universities abroad and they were paying close attention to information update; i didn’t study there, these are outside observations. I would add that when I was a student, the information regarding art history ended at modernism; there wasn’t any discussion about contemporary art. The artists had to get their information about contemporary art from the French Institute’s Library which had an interesting collection of art magazines and catalogues. Basically the university wasn’t equipped to answer student’s theoretical needs; at least that was the situation then; I hope that things have changed.
L: I see. Probably things changed.
M: It would be odd if they didn’t….especially in Cluj, Romania’s boom (she laughs).
L: In my case, as well, the contemporary art education came from the independent art scene. I’m from a generation educated by the Periferic Biennial.
M: Well yeah…[cultural] manifestations get to supplant the teaching role which the university should have. We in Cluj had the Idea magazine which kept us to date. Also, I was lucky that at the faculty of philosophy there was a class about contemporary art theories that, in connection with the information that i got from Idea, helped me complete my knowledge.
L: Actually, Idea and Balkon magazines also helped me complete my education.
M: There was also another group…MindBomb; this group was important because it managed to couple/link art to civism. Actually I wrote a piece about their work in Cluj. It’s interesting that there weren’t only artists; there were also journalists (Mihai Gotiu), architects (Eugen Paunescu) alongside artists like Mihai Pop, Laslo Bencze, Luminita Dejeu, Cristi Rusu and many other people whom i don’t know personally. These people initiated a project about critical thinking by putting posters all around the city; and those posters were something novel, given the fact that usually the poles were used mostly for posters promoting theatre or philharmonic events; and all of a sudden there is something new, with a unique design and a unique message. […] I felt that what Idea was trying to transmit through theory was put into practice by MindBomb’s actions; they were stimulating critical thinking by praxis. This was happening around 2001-2003.
L: Cluj has this image of a model city. Can you talk a bit about that?
M: I don’t think Cluj should be considered a model. I’m sure that some good things were accomplished , but some things got out of hand and there’s no regulation. The budget for culture increased ten times. The biggest budget for culture was in 2018, but it dropped a little in the last few years.
L: How much is the budget for culture in Cluj?
M: In 2019 it was 11.998.000 ron [2.455.632.87 Euros], probably a similar figure in 2020. It started from 200.000 euros in 2009; most of that 200k went to TIFF [Transilvania International Film Festival] and scraps for the rest of us. It’s very important how you grant the funds and especially to whom [her emphasis] and what are the conditions for the financial reporting; in Cluj these conditions are quite strict and you are treated in a very unfriendly manner; this fact made me not want to apply [for City Hall grants] anymore. It’s interesting to see how a big budget attracted new entities that organise big festivals, but mostly it attracted a more commercial segment that saw in the public financing a support for their own private business. From the local public budget dedicated to non-profit projects, the most financed segment is the festival one. It’s very easy to have an NGO in addition to your Ltd. and to funnel public funds through that NGO. Your festival is organised by two entities: one gets funds from the public budget and the other one pockets the money from ticket sales. Basically in Cluj a big budget paved the way for this new antreprenorial approach and encouraged the emergence of a more commercial culture, with big marketing budgets. This approach is detrimental to the already existing associations that are trying to operate in a grassroots, communitarian manner. The big events manage to attract consumers from outside Cluj; they [the big events] are being considered big contributors to the local budget, but most importantly they gave Cluj a certain image that, in my view, is very inflated. Cluj is always “ the capital” of something or is running to be “the capital” of something, and this looks like a title hunt. We have to ask ourselves where this need comes from; probably the need for a new narrative about the city and the turbulent social economic context of 2009-2012 generated the desire for a repositioning in the regional and european context (on of a mottos used in that time was “East of West). So basically it’s about adorning Cluj with a new narrative that would appeal to its residents and to investors; and tourists are taking the bate about what beautiful things are happening în Cluj. Yes, beautiful things are happening in Cluj, but at the same time things that benefit only the creative classes are happening as well; things that are detrimental to the common Cluj resident. This image that Cluj has, that of a brilliant city, is not an inclusive image; it benefits only a certain part of its population. It’s easy to understand this; you just need to look at what’s happening in Pata Rat [community just outside Cluj]. As a common resident, it’s complicated to live in a big city, adored at national level, knowing that you can’t afford the things for which your city is admired. In conclusion we need to be mindful of what development means and at those left behind by it. Our mayor said nobody will be left behind.
L: In a recent interview, in which he talked about the fate of Vector association and Periferic Biennial, Matei Bejenaru said that for him the success of an event or initiative [i.e. biennial, festival etc.] is measured by the way in which the cultural scene is capable to produce cultural managers that can sustain the scene. What’s your opinion on this? In your view, what’s the role of the cultural manager in the economy of the local art scene?
M: I think it plays an essential role, because it’s offering another perspective, other than the artistic one. It’s interesting that in the Creative Europe programme, i.e. at the EU level, the reference is made not to cultural managers but to cultural entrepreneurs; and this is pretty much the trend, apropos of neoliberalism in culture. I’m hoping that we will manage to keep the term cultural manager and save it from the rising tide of entrepreneurship, because, if not, the role will still be of critical importance, as Matei hinted, but in a different direction [i.e. incessant commodification of culture]. I personally was trained in France and I learned about the importance of context, administrative work, team work, and I was rather drawn to this idea that the cultural manager can build something [only] with the help of the artists and other cultural managers. I believe that I developed a style of managing in which the cultural manager is more of a companion [and not an executive]. There are different types of cultural managers: some have a patriarchal attitude towards artists, others are being too servile; as for myself, I tried to develop partnerships with every artist I collaborated with because I wanted to create long-term, healthy relationships.
L: As a cultural manager, how do you manage to balance the interests of the artist with the interests of the institution?
M: I didn’t run an institution, but rather an organization that built its strategy by cooperating with the artists. Among the goals of our organisation was to support the local art scene and help create a local cultural context. So, it’s very important to know how to listen; it was in our institutional/organisational interest to support the existence of a local art scene and to create the proper conditions for the local artists to stay in Cluj and not leave for Bucharest. I don’t think you can do that if you have a personal agenda that you shoved down the throats of the artists you’re working with. For me the dialogue between the two sides is essential and an agenda has no sense if it’s not consonant with an artistic content; i mean…the existence of an art scene for the sake of the existence art scene, no thanks; an art scene should have something to say, it must produce discourse; this is where my interest lay, in supporting artistic discourses.
As a manager/curator I tried to put a great emphasis on providing artists with a platform; our team offered administrative, financial and logistical support; we also provided an artistic direction which could have been amended later. For me a [good] cultural manager is aware of the context in which he/she is operating, has a good knowledge of the community, understands artists’ problems and tries to address those problems. Of course, to make this ecosystem viable, the energies of the manager and of the artist are not enough; for a while, why did all this things by ourselves, so to speak (The Paintbrush Factory came into existence by its own funds/ when it opened The Paintbrush Factory was self-funded). But at some point this organisational/institutional consolidation needed a little more consistency which should have come from the local authorities. So, from 2012, we started to have regular contacts with the Cluj City Hall, which was, at that time, interested in the title of European Capital of Culture, and in titles in general. It was a feasible proposition which could have helped the city to move forward in the context of an identity crisis; the incumbent mayor became prime minister, and the acting mayor didn’t really have any vision, so basically the proposal to become cultural capital served as an attempt to fill a vision vacuum/lack of vision. The problem was that along this proposal came an interpretation designed to attenuate the PR problems of the recently dismissed prime minister [the former mayor]; there was the desire to rekindle the connection with the local community. In this context, the City Hall [had no choice but to] propose a new stage of development for the city in order to diminish anguish caused by the economic crisis and, at least declaratively, to catapult the city to new heights of development (she laughs). The european capital of culture narrative folded perfectly; it was like eating cake first thing in the morning. There wasn’t any alternative discourse; on the contrary, everyone rallied around this proposal. At the same time, it was an occasion for those residents of Cluj that have an inferiority complex [regarding Cluj’s relation with Bucharest] to feel that they’re living in a Capital (she laughs).
L: Since we’re talking about european capital of culture, I think we can move forward and talk about Iasi. When did you visit Iasi for the first time? Can you describe the Iasi art scene in the 2000s?
M: I didn’t visit Iasi during the 2000s. In Cluj everybody talked admiringly about Periferic; it was the place to be. After a while I met Matei [Bejenaru] in Bucharest. I was very excited to find out about your cARTier project: i said to myself “wow, an association that is organizing a contemporary art biennial is interested in developing connections with a neighborhood; so not art only for the elites”. I mention this because in Cluj, at that time, those who visited art galleries and read the Idea magazine formed a rather close circle…So, I didn’t visit Iasi during the 00s. I visited Iasi for the first time in 1997 for a school contest. Then I returned in 2012.
L: What did you think about Iasi back in 1997?
M: I will have to dig deeply to remember something. I came from Alba-Iulia, a city considerably smaller than Iasi. I remember visiting the Palace of Culture. I didn’t really understand why there were so many churches. I revisited Iasi in 2012 as a producer for a Gianina Carbunariu’s play; I had contacts with ContemporanIS student theatre festival and Teatru Fix and i was glad to see that there are signs of a fledgling alternative theatre scene; i was a nice vibe; some parts of the city resembled Lipscani and that reminded me of my beautiful days in Bucharest. I felt a different vibe, an interesting urban planning; the streets were larger and maybe this can create different expectations as a resident. At the same time, I met some activist groups that were already looking with envy at Cluj and I think I disappointed them when I told them that all the activities they admire in Cluj are all the work of the same small group of people. They were also saying that, in Iasi, there is no relation between the art scene and City Hall; they felt a need for backup for the moment when their resources would run up. I felt that in Iasi there was a closer connection between the Arts University and the cultural associations than between associations in Bucharest and the Arts University there. In this aspect, the situation in Cluj was a bit special, because we, at Temps d’Images, knew that we need to have a good relation with the university, given the fact that most of the future artists would come from among their students; with that in mind we always had special events for students in our festival. Initially, I was in touch only with the alternative theatre scene in Iasi; I visited Iasi again in 2017 at your invitation. I developed the most consistent relationship with Iasi in 2018 when I was invited to a two and half month residency by you guys. […] Later on I asked myself, trying to make a comparative analysis between what happened in Iasi and Cluj, why Iasi seemed to have disappeared from the map.
L: You mean after the Periferic bienal?
M: Yeah…I think it’s normal to take a step back, to reflect on what happened and to accept that you arrive at the end of a journey; and that you need to wait a while to start a new project. I know that Vector continued its existence through the Vector magazine, but our way of perceiving things makes you think that an [art] organisation is dead if it doesn’t have s strong social media presence. We (ColectivA) are being asked by some people: “What happened? Did you get tired?” Yeah, we got tired and we are comfortable with this tiredness; we don’t want to be under the yoke of ceaselessly content production just to prove that we still exist. I was talking with Iulia [Popovici] about the fact that there are all these associations and organizations that are composed of people with extraordinary energy and interesting conceptual framework; they put all their heart into a project and after that the only thing they have left to do is to write about that project. […] The projects are not carried on, if we come back to what Matei was saying. I think there’s a problem of transmission.
L: Do you think this a systemic problem or it has to do more with people that build the art scene?
M: I’m talking about the institutional dimension. I think that the existence of both Periferic and Temps d’Image was strongly connected to the work of certain people; I asked my colleagues if they want to take over and manage the festival; the answer war “no, it’s too difficult”; and I understood this answer; it is too difficult; i’m still carrying the consequences of those difficult times. Speaking of transmission, I think that both events started in conditions of economic precarity and we and our collaborators were alright with that; the fees (they weren’t even wages) didn’t really increased over the years; nowadays people are not willing to do same efforts to maintain their precarity, as we did (she laughs). And I think they’re doing the right thing, they shouldn’t accept that. We at Paintbrush Factory “produced” some [cultural] managers, but I don’t really see a transfer of values. Me and Corina [Burcea] learned a lot from Rarița [Zbranca]. There was a colleague from Ground Floor Group that produced contemporary dance spectacles; Kinga Kelemen was very good at financing; we all had different and complementary skills and that made for a perfect match. Besides Corina, which joined the Factory’s collective in 2009, Rarita and Kinga didn’t “raise” any people around their projects in order to continue the project managing work. On the other hand, I did that: I brought Cristina Bodnărescu from Iasi and now she is the manager of the Factory; in 2011 I recruited Simina Scarlat and now she coordinates the performing arts section; and there are other people that joined along the way. Because the association/festival couldn’t offer a monthly wage, it was obvious that everybody would need to have an extra professional activity, and the easiest way was to work inside the Factory; in this way basically people worked at the same place, for two institutions that complemented each other. What I find interesting is the fact that the things that brought us together (the people that founded the Factory), the idea of solidarity, the idea of community, doesn’t exist any more. […] Our focus was to build a context; nowadays the focus is on personal survival.
L: This role of cultural facilitator takes up all of your time. You don’t have time to read; you always have to build new [cultural] contexts, that in the end…
M: …will benefit others.
L: The next part of our discussion will focus on the announced International Center of Contemporary Arts “The Turkish Bath”. The City Hall managed to attract funding for the rehabilitation of the building but there is no clear vision yet on how this institution should operate. As I told you, there is this word, “international” in the title; we all know how difficult it is to be relevant in the international art scene. What we are trying to do is to identify some clear characteristics of such an institution.
M: They should visit international exhibitions to have an idea about the proportions; to personally experience the dimensions of the international art scene. At the same time, I believe it’s important that you [the local art scene] know what is the City Hall’s vision and if this vision is consistent with your needs. I think it’s important to understand that this center cannot exist without know-how from the people that are working in the field.
L: What do you think about a manager with know-how, but not from Iasi?
M: It’s important that the person in charge has know-how about contemporary art, not only managerial skills. Also, that person should know about the needs of the local art scene, given the fact that it is the main producer of contemporary art. Without the local art scene this center has no utility; yeah, they can try to exhibit artists from Bucharest or from abroad, but they can’t really do that without your connections; the local art scene is the reason why the existence of this center is taken under consideration, so it would be awful you wouldn’t be consulted. I really think that the person in charge should be someone that understands the local nuances and sensibilities; of course, that person should also be aware of the City Hall’s desire for symbolic capital, but in the end, one should know that such an institution needs to serve the local public and the local art scene. This new institution would be basically a new opportunity for the local art scene to coalesce; this would represent a tremendous success. […] Regardless, it will be a lot of responsibility for the manager of this institution; i think that this responsibility should be shared; maybe, besides the manager, there should also be a person in charge with the dialogue between the institution and the local art scene.
L: What do you think should be the relation between this new institution and the general public, given the fact that the latter is not necessarily very accustomed with specificities of contemporary art?
M: It’s true, contemporary art is a niche; I think what ‘s important is precisely the acceptance of this fact; also people should understand that this center will not generate numbers. A corporate management should be avoided. It should a clear understanding of what are the needs of the city right now and how can this new center address those needs. I see this institution more like a platform, opened for all the actors from the local art scene; the City Hall should only provide the institutional framework and adequate financial support. Basically the local authorities should offer the means, and should not intervene in issues regarding the artistic content; those can be discussed inside the community. I think that this should be the role of the political authorities: to offer the means by which the local art scene can connect to the international art scene. This new institution shouldn’t be politicised. The City Hall shouldn’t act as an owner; instead it should assume a role of support by helping the local art scene to progress; it shouldn’t impose the direction of that progress. In the French cultural practice there was an expression about the role of the state: “support without interference” i.e. a state that provides the means and the infrastructure. I think this is how the City Hall should act in this situation.
L: What names of institutions/artists/cultural workers come to mind when you think about Iasi’s local art scene?
M: Ok. A subjective order: Tranzit, 1+1, Vector, Teatru Fix, Borderline (which operates on a different model), FILIT, Fapt Company & Carmen Gradeanu, the apARTe gallery, Satelit. Also Cezar Lazarescu ( I very much enjoyed the city tour he took me. This is another thing i like in Iasi; the artists are very aware of the city planning and the relation it has with the concept of power; you don’t really see this kind of awareness in Cluj), Dan Acostioaei, Andrei Nacu, Matei Bejenaru. What I find interesting also is the fact that you developed projects with people from different fields, history, critical theory and so on; this kind of collaboration takes art out of a comfort zone by offering it a social&political perspective; this practice is slowly disappearing in Cluj. Smaranda Ursuleanu, Liliana Basarab, Stanca [Jabenițan], Mișu Pintilei, Maria Comârlău Cătălin Mândru, […] Petronela Grigorescu and Delia Bulgaru.
L: Thanks a lot, Miki!
M: With pleasure!