L: Hello Catalin Gheorghe, thank you for accepting to do this interview with us. We have known each other for a long time, but I will still ask you to introduce yourself: what’s your background education, how did you get to work in contemporary art etc.
C: I’m a theorist, curator and editor; I teach at National Arts University of Iasi. I studied philosophy at University of Iasi (graduated in 2001), but I was already in contact with the local art scene during my studies; maybe further in our discussion I will tell the story of how I came în contact with this world. I started a Phd in Aesthetics in 2002 which i finished in 2006; in the same year i had the opportunity to apply for a teaching position at Arts University of Iasi; i specialized in contemporary art critique, aesthetics and the theory of contemporary art; but at the same time i was interested in artistic production, namely exhibit production, organization of conferences, workshops; in other words I was interested in developing an interface with the public. This aspect materialized in two directions: on one hand i worked in a cultural, non-profit association (Vector), trying to organize a certain type of events focused on contemporary art production, and on the other hand i became involved in developening of an art space on University’s premises (that would later became the Aparte Gallery); so i worked in parallel în these two configurations.
L: …in parallel since 2006
C: In parallel since 2002 because I was already involved in academic activities. It’s true that the University’s art space was opened in 2006, but there were already all kinds of events happening that foreshadowed the existence of this art space.
L: Some people, including myself, are saying that a whole generation was educated by the Periferic Biennale. What do you think about this?
C: In my case things were a bit more complex; I came in contact with contemporary art în 1997, when I first moved to Iasi; in october 1997 I had the chance to attend an alternative theatre event during a festival organised by the actor Adi Afteni. This festival took place for one week and it included events in the public space, performances by foreign theatre groups. One of the events took place at Iasi National Theatre and that was my first contact with the performing arts; Matei Bejenaru was sitting in the theatre’s lobby, all in black, being at the same time invisible and visible, with a placard that read: “If you want to get acquainted, you can contact me at following phone number….”. I wrote down and later I called that number; that’s how I met Matei. I was rather intrigued by that kind of human statuette, by staging a corporal performance during a cultural event. That was the moment that introduced me to the contemporary art world.
L: Can you talk a little bit about the cultural and maybe the social-economic context of Iasi during those years?
C: Yes. It was a tragic moment from an economic and social point of view, but for a young student the perception was completely different. It was probably a stoic approach, which accepted the fact that, maybe, during a transition era some radical changes are needed, but I never agreed with those government policies that resulted in privatisation and massive layoffs. My own parents were affected by those policies; they were working in Barlad at that time; my dad was a setter and my mom was a quality control worker at a ball-bearing factory. They were laid off in 1999, at which point I knew that I needed to find a way to survive in Iasi; that’s why i worked hard to gain a scholarship so that i could pay my dorm rent. Through the lens of precarity you see things differently, and maybe that’s why I became interested in contemporary art, a field in which you can critically reflect on society and, at the same time, find creative and imaginative ways to get out of critical situations.
L: Why did you choose Iasi instead of Bucharest or Cluj?
C: It’s true, it was a choice between Iasi and Bucharest. I lived for a while in Bucharest and I utterly disliked that urban environment. I experienced strong sentiments of alienation and depression given the fact that, in Bucharest, everyone was chasing after something and nobody cared about anybody. After coming to Iasi and meeting people from Iasi I realized that it is a more favourable environment to live in. I think it was a cultural decision based on the fact that Iasi had a more generous, benefic and solidary urban/social culture.
L: You’re probably one of the most qualified persons to talk about the evolution of the relation between the independent art scene, academia and local authorities. Can you please talk about this a bit?
C: Yes, of course. This relation went through numerous stages; probably these stages were determined not only by the cultural policies of the day, but also by the social and economic context. For example, when you are producing a contemporary art event you certainly need financial resources, but at same time you need human resource; insofar as there are people which are learning on the go how to produce a contemporary art piece, how to communicate with the artists and with the public, at that moment a structure is being born that, in a way, assumes a certain cultural responsibility, but in micro-social context. The problems start to appear when you want to implement a more costly production; in that case you need financial support. In the pre-2000 era it was very difficult to access a cultural grant; for that reason the vast majority of artistic productions was financed through personal contributions, that’s why they were quite minimalistic and penurious. Later, Matei Bejenaru started to develop a contemporary art festival (Periferic) which turned into a contemporary art biennial. The funding came primarily from private foundations that were operating in România (especially the Pro Helvetia grants), but also from the Minister of Culture and the National Cultural Fund. It’s a known fact that, unfortunately, 2007 was an annus horribilis for the independent art scene; Studio Protokool from Cluj, Galeria Noua from Bucharest and Vector Gallery closed their doors. On the other hand, for România it was probably an annus mirabilis given the EU accession; after this moment all types of external funding were diminished. [On the institutional relations with the municipality] It’s normal for the municipality to have a close cultural relationship with the Art University. There has always been a good relationship between the municipality and the university, especially given the latter’s capability to organise music concerts, theatre spectacles, art exhibitions, and in general very visible events that are an opportunity for the municipality to publicize its support of the cultural sector. This aspect was visible in the last few years when the city hall requested assistance from the university for some grants applications.
L: Can you talk a bit about the romanian art scene before and after România’s accession to the EU?
C: Yes. I think that before the bureaucratization of the cultural policies’ vocabulary and modes of action (determined by the EU financing standards), the romanian art scene was quite poetic, free and commercially disinterested. In those years, there weren’t really any people that talked about art as a commodity or as a financeable product, a profit-generating product. At that time the majority of art was produced downright disinterested, as a form of public expression of positions, opinions, without any financial motivation. Immediately after 2007, in the context of the new grants application requirements, the vocabulary changed radically; the managers became entrepreneurs and artists became their own project managers; this also happened because those in power were interested in diverting the public financing dedicated to the cultural sector towards the investment sector (urban and business infrastructure). Along the way, a narrative was created, which said that art should not be financed through public funding and that it should build its own funding/financing infrastructure; in other words, a growth model based on privatisation. This eventually led to the amalgamation of art with entertainment.
L: Do you think that Periferic bienal managed to protect the local art scene from commodification, at least for a period?
C: In Iași, like in many other places, parallel worlds coexisted. On one hand, there was the non-profit critical art [scene] which was interested only in conceiving and organizing events with a certain social message, and on the other hand, there were, of course, people that tried to adapt to the new economic thought. For example, U.A.P. (The Artist’s Union) which is an institution founded in the 1950s as a platform for ideological propaganda for the Romanian Comunist Party changed its identity after the 1989 revolution, and managed to keep many of its privileges; the Union kept its real-estate, but at the same time there was this understanding that the institution should operate in accordance to some commercial principles in order to maximize its capital. In this context, some parts of the Union’s statute were reconsidered from a self-financing, commercial perspective. These changes took place at the same time [as the emergence of an independent art scene]; the fact that people like me and you are not necessarily participating in events organized by the Union or other similar institutions, doesn’t mean that these events do not exist. I think that a diversification of the public and of the ways in which an act culture can convey an experience, a feeling, a message, is a good thing. I think that cultural formation is usually the consequence of different types of engagement, of cultural exchanges through artists that come from different backgrounds and mediate the context of reference through their own experiences. I believe it was very important that the Vector association facilitated these kinds of meetings between curators, theorists, international artists, that came to Iasi, studied the local context, and then produced art pieces that reflected their own perspectives about the city. These kinds of engagements meant cultural progress.
L: Do you happen to remember how many international artists came to Iasi during the biennials?
C: Can’t say for sure, probably some 30 artists in total. I’m referring to those artists that came to Iasi and worked in Iasi, not those who exhibited in Iasi. All the people from the artist list travelled to iasi and interacted with the local context and between them; friendships were born; this fact helped in mobilizing for future projects. Not all the artists could afford to travel because not all of them received travel grants, but they could send production instructions for their works. But they were some that travelled to Iasi and stayed a week; some of them returned 2-3 times afterwards.
L: I would like to talk a bit about the way in which contemporary art was perceived by the general public in the early 00s and how it is being perceived today.
C: We are talking about two very different historical contexts that are probably shaped by the way in which we are receiving information. Nowadays we are being exposed to an informational bombardement. In the early 00s the internet wasn’t very familiar and time was structured by different interests. Many people spent their free time reading, talking face to face, participating in cultural events (like Euro Dance Festival, The International Theatre Festival, jazz concerts, contemporary art exhibition and many more). Today things are a little more complicated because we are being exposed to a huge volume of information. In my opinion, we are witnessing an unprecedented inflation and acceleration of cultural information; there’s just not enough time to follow all the events that are being publicized on the internet. Things get even more complicated if we discuss how the pandemic affected our time habits […] It’s obvious that there will be a increase in online cultural events, both performative and cultural debates; in this context a person interested in culture will have a hectic schedule. I believe we need to adopt some sort of slow attending attitudine (similar to slow thinking and slow movement concepts); we must find a way to slow down the pace of our relationship with this extremely aggressive informational field. We are being constantly bombarded by a stream of information, and the first instinct is to withdraw and to spend your time in a less complex way. This aspect is very visible in the way in which students prepare; almost none of them can afford to structure their time in a way that will facilitate, let’s say, reading a whole book or to concentrate on a long term project. In an absence of a clear target and clear deadline, very few students can focus.
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?
C: I think there are several types of cultural management. It’s true that the term “management” is borrowed from the neoliberal jargon, and is usually used to measure the quality of an economic or cultural act and to optimize it. But there are clearly many types of management: some are market oriented (trying to identify the most efficient politics in order to commercialize a cultural act), and some are financially disinterested (trying to produce a quality event and to contribute in a public debate).It’s true that a cultural institution must have a person with abilities in cultural management, although, i would say that in art world this aspect is more intuitive; there are plenty of models and guides you can use. Today every cultural application is accompanied by a glossary of terms that helps you conceive that application. Management is not a one-person job, but a team work, and the greatest problem facing the romanian cultural field today is the lack or the weariness of the human resource which is always brought to a state of exhaustion and whose efforts are almost never recognized by a satisfactory level of remuneration or appropriate visibility. On the other hand, there are no clear regulations in place for the relation between work, which is usually invisible, and the remuneration or social visibility of that work. The managerial instinct is present in each of us. One is its own manager, regardless of the workplace. For example a university professor needs to manage its own time, cultural vision and position in the research field.
L: Do you believe that there are clear differences between doing managerial work in a public institution and doing managerial work in a NGO?
C: Yes, we’re talking probably about different types of pressure. On one hand, in a public institution you have some kind of support, of trust, based on the fact that the remuneration is simply conditioned by active presence and by some [technical] aspects that are related to the “job description”, which do not restrict the quality of an institutional act. On the other hand, we are witnessing a false conflict between the public and private sectors because the former is usually structured on people with higher education, people that invested a lot of time in their professional formation and are more qualified to operate in certain fields. I’m not just talking about teachers, but also doctors or other workers in public safety. There are wonderful people working in the private sector, but generally speaking most of them are less qualified than those working in the public sector; for this reason i think it’s not fair to claim wage equality between these two fields. It seems obvious to me that the public sector is undeveloped, and maybe this is one of the reasons for the inconsistency of events organised by some public institutions […] These things can be worked out by forging a stronger relation between those working in the public sector and the general public, i.e. more meetings, more mediation, and not only circumstantial meetings mediated by certain, special interests.
L: What were the main characteristics of the NGOs operating in the early 00s and how are they different from those operating today?
C: It’s quite complicated to do such an analysis. What is certain is that we experienced a progress, a certain growth in cultural necessities, which in turn generated changes in the way NGOs operate. Maybe one difference has to do with the level of bureaucratisation. Unfortunately today there is a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork. At the same time, the focus today is not on the quality of the cultural product, but on the way you achieve a certain objective. In other words, almost in all the calls for cultural projects there are demands for all kinds of supporting documents which make the process of cultural production more difficult.
L: Is this also true for academia? This awful bureaucratisation?
C: Yes, but most of the required documents are justified from an institutional mutual control point of view. It’s true that there are some pointless requirements, but most of the required documents are truly important; for example the discipline sheet where the professor needs to describe the topic of the class, the bibliography, the evaluation parameters, lab’s requirements etc. […] I think it’s necessary for an organisation to provide certain justifications for its cultural production and there must always be some kind of negotiation between the funding entity and the one being funded because there are many particularities that are not always being taken into consideration by the funding entity. I mainly speak about public funding, where all kind of things come up, especially in the process of purchasing materials necessary for the artistic production; in this way you realise, in fact, that an important aspect of public funding is prevention, in the sense that it tries to prevent the misappropriation of public money. But the most important aspect is the cultural product and its quality. It is very true that there is a lot of invisible work behind such productions; and this work is not always financially rewarded; many times a cultural operator needs to compromise and reach in his own pocket.
L: Can we conceive a generational periodisation of the Iasi art scene?
C: Very difficult question. There are generations of contemporary artists who were formed in a different historical time, in a completely different context… As for me, i think i am in between generations (he laughs). It’s true that in the 00s many art students were interested in contemporary art and could gain experience by organising events alongside Vector association. Unfortunately most of those that worked with Vector in that era left Iași. In other words, after graduation the local context could not support their economic needs. Those that chose to remain had the opportunity to continue their activity in academia and to enjoy this institutional support; of course this also determined the atomization of the group. Everyone had to find a way to survive, and at the same time, a way of culturally expressing themselves; at the same time, each of us developed a certain personality and this turn led to a clash of insular identities; there were of course moments of solidarity, of group re-engaging. There were certain events that specifically aimed at restarting this concept of coming together, like for example the Camera Plus biennial; unfortunate, due to some bureaucratic problems this biennial ceased to exist.
L: What do you think are the main aspects that the municipality should take into account for a project such as the “Baia Turcească” International Centre for Contemporary Art in Iasi to be relevant on the national and international scene?
C: First of all, I think there is a clear correlation between the project that was at the basis of the application for funding this Center, and City Hall’s intentions of supporting contemporary art.It’s obvious that it must be taken into account the way this project has been set up; the initiative came from those that activated in the Periferic project and it was built on the vision of artist Matei Bejenaru that envisaged the creation of a contemporary art center inside the Turkish Bath; afterwards this suggestion was taken up not only by the municipality, but also by cultural institutions like French Cultural Center, German Cultural Center, British Council; after this, the idea gained traction with the performing arts scene through the support of Fapt Company and Artes Association.The people who have been involved in creating the profile, the identity of this institution, are people who have always been in contact with the international art scene and who have travelled, been in residencies, informed themselves and conceived projects in relation to how contemporary art is perceived in the international art scene; it is implied that they come with a cultural, formative experience of how such an institution should operate in this city. From my perspective it’s obvious that the board of this new institution should include the people who have had the idea of creating such an institution in the early 00s, and also people that have a educational background in contemporary culture and have an expertise which is legitimised by their activity in academia, and who, at the same time, have worked with local contemporary art associations.If we’re talking about the pillars of such an institution, we should definitely talk about the indispensability of human resource. It should be understood the necessity of building a robust human resource infrastructure that would ensure a certain level of artistic quality; this means that there should be an artistic council which should have precedence over the executive leadership.This institution should be a combination between a contemporary art institute and a kunsthalle or a kunstverein. Those are art institutions that are active in the public space and have research programs, educational programs (debates, artist presentations, publications). At the same time we should encourage the international cultural exchange by organizing artist residences; I think this aspect is very important because residences can spur other events.
L: What do you think the institution’s team should look like?
C: It is clear that any institution of this kind must have a director, but in my view it must be a general, executive director, not an artistic director. I believe that the artistic decisions should be taken at a collective level, not by a single person. Surely one person cannot decide the profile and the [artistic] direction of such an important institution.
L: What competence criteria should be met?
C: First of all, one should have a background in art; not necessarily an educational one, but at least some professional experience. Also, international experience is important. At the same time, those people chosen to run the institution must be representative of the local cultural context i.e. they must have professional recognition. To summarize, professional experience, international activity and professional recognition.
L: Besides this governing body, what should the institution’s team look like?
C: An executive director must be supported by an administrative director to coordinate teams of technicians. There are no contemporary art productions without technicians (IT specialists, electricians, light designers, sound engineers etc.). The team must also include several curators. At the same time it’s obvious that the team should also include janitors. There should also be a financial bureau, a project management bureau and a public relations bureau. At the same time there should be at least one designer and one documentarist. Some of these people could be hired on a temporary basis, but it’s important that there are financial resources in order to make this structure of personnel possible […]
L: What do you think should be the relationship between the local authorities and this public institution?
C: The local authority should act as a supporter (by financing this institution) and as an observer (there could be a representative of the municipality in the governing body). By the way, when i’m talking about financing i’m not referring to a full financing program, but to a minimal amount that would ensure the co-financing clause in many grant applications. So, the local authority should be a financier and an observar, but not a “project manager”; that’s the role of the professional.
L: How will this institution affect the local independent art scene?
C: I think it can only add more consistency to the cultural discourse. It would facilitate new kinds of cultural encounters. I don’t think there should be any interference between the public financing of NGOs and the material needs of this new institution. I believe this center will only enhance the local art scene.
L: When you think of the contemporary art scene in Iasi, what names of people/institutions come to mind?
C: Very complicated question. I’m going to offer an extended list; I can’t particularize or do a ranking. It’s rather obvious that the first name that comes to mind is Matei Bejenaru. Next, Dan Acostioaiei is a representative figure for contemporary art production in Iasi, he is a very active artist with presence on the international art scene and is one of the representative figures for contemporary art in Iasi. Here I am including my colleague Cristian Nae too, an internationally recognised theorist. If we’re talking about institutional activity it’s clear that we have to mention Livia Pancu and Florin Bobu, who operated in the Iasi branch of Tranzit.ro and produced high quality cultural events, especially debates and workshops, but also exhibitions (despite lacking a generous art space). I would also like to mention artists who unfortunately left Iași because of economic vulnerability: Liliana Basarab, Daniela Palimaru (who collaborated at some point with Vector Association), Silvia Amancei & Bogdan Armanu (who are increasingly active in the international art scene). I would also mention Cezar Lazarescu (an artist who unfortunately hasn’t had many opportunities to exhibit his intelligent, minimalist works in this cultural context), Cristina Moraru (a young theorist and curator who, in the last few years, has been very active in the field of international art conferences and workshops) and George Plesu (a cultural manager who succeeded, of course with the support of actors from the local curatorial scene, to build this prestigious institution, Borderline Art Space, which has produced in recent years a relevant series of contemporary art projects)
L: Thank you very much, Cătălin Gheorghe!
C: Thank you too!