Balkan Express Caravan: Cluj-Napoca (Romania), November 13-15, 2013

by Nina Gojić

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 DAY 1: Wednesday, November 13

The fourth Balkan Express took place in Transylvania’s regional capital Cluj-Napoca and was hosted by Corina Bucea and Rariţa Zbranca, two cultural managers who had attended previous Balkan Express meetings. The whole event took place in Fabrica de pensule, a former paintbrush factory that has been re-purposed into a multi-functional cultural space. It is located in Cluj’s last working class neighbourhood, a few minutes walk away from the “spray building”. Apparently there was a tendency in Cluj’s architecture to construct residential buildings shaped as the products that were being manufactured in the factories surrounding them. Fabrica de pensule is an encouraging example of how a former industrial complex can successfully be transformed into a shared space for producing and presenting contemporary art as well as hosting a variety of civil initiatives and events, local and international alike. Currently, other than hosting a series of exhibitions, including the early works by one of Romania’s most acclaimed and influential artists Cornel Brudașcu, during the Balkan Express Caravan Fabrica also hosted the Temps d’images Festival. This is an international interdisciplinary festival that has taken place in ten countries so far and, in the organisers’ words, its aim is to bridge the gap between performing arts and moving images. This year’s theme of the Romanian edition is solidarity and so the performances, debates and discussions were overarched by the investigation of occurrences or absence of solidarity in times of crisis. The overlap between the Festival and the Caravan was a strategic decision made by the organisers with the aim of enabling the participants of the Caravan to get a multi-faceted insight in the Romanian performing arts scene.

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The introduction to the civil scene in Cluj began with a slot on Wednesday in which local initiatives were presented through the umbrella concept of social creativity. In Rariţa’s words, all these initiatives meet in the investigation of how new types of society’s functioning can be imagined through culture and innovative alternatives to the current state of affairs. Hence, the first initiative was presented by Camelia, one of the organisers of the Autonomous Market of Cluj. It it envisioned as a non-profit exchange of material goods (including electronic books and music) but also involving workshops and service exchanges, Food Not Bombs events and education about civil rights. The first edition happened in December 2012 and continued to take place more or less regularly once a month in different public spaces across Cluj, including Fabrica de pensule. It is carried out by volunteers, based on donations from anyone who wishes to participate in the exchange and the attendance is growing from event to event. The market is mostly visited by homeless, Roma and the supporters of this kind of social gathering, but more and more random passers’-by attention is caught with each edition. Corina made an important point by differentiating this initiative from charities due to its clear social and political stance and its raising awareness about why being based on gift economy is important. However, when the market took place in Fabrica de pensule, it wasn’t met with equal approvement by all. Apparently there was some disagreement about the fact that an “elite” artistic space hosted a primarily political event which attracted participants who usually don’t attend nor fit into the image of a typical art audience. The consensus still hasn’t been reached. Nevertheless, the Autonomous Market proves to be an important and sustainable initiative which indeed provides a different understanding of how economy might function on principles other than one class benefiting at the expense of another, a situation we are increasingly becoming aware of in transitional societies.

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Sorana, one of the initiators of Urban gardening project at the Fabrica de pensule was the second speaker. This project is part of the Butterfly Effect organisation’s activities and is financed by a Romanian NGO which supports civil initiatives. The garden is located on the roof of Fabrica and was being built even during the Caravan – we could even hear the construction sounds from outside the windows during the presentations. For now, the garden is only open to the existing community in Fabrica, but if a growing interest in the project appears, they plan to expand and organise more urban gardens across town because the main objective of such a project is not about the products of the garden, but about the genesis of new communities. For now this is a guerilla project, but the organisers are putting pressure on the town municipality to legalise urban gardening.

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Pata Rat IT cluster was presented by its initiator, István. This is an example of how a simple gesture using simple means to activate citizens’ solidarity can create a valuable contribution to a marginalised community living on the periphery of Cluj. Pata Rat is a slum inhabitated by around 2000 citizens with a growing population. Due to the new mayor’s policy, a Nokia research centre was built in the place of the former settlement of mostly Roma people who were then forcibly transferred to Pata Rat. István decided to intervene by using social networks such as Facebook and set up a group in which he first sought for teachers who would voluntarily teach kids from the community. After this this was done successfully, he asked people to donate spare computer equipment to enhance the learining process. The response was so big that there was so much equipment and a house had to be built in order to accommodate it all. Now called the Pata Rat IT cluster, the house was built by the inhabitants of the settlement with mostly donated material. At the moment they are having some problems with ensuring internet connection in the cluster, but the project is ongoing and continues to develop.

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Corina introduced a project she initiated with her Mixer Group, called Kitchen Stories. Drawn by the predominantly Eastern European phenomenon of recipe books mostly collected by women, they approached the theme from an ethnographic point of view and even organised an exhibition which presented recipe books as a specifically female type of analogous open source system. Beside that, they have organised five public cooking events and built a mobile kitchen for the purpose. Like the urban gardening project, the main goal of getting together by mostly non-professional cooks is community building and exchange based on random encounter.

A project that caused some dissent about its classification as a socially creative initiative was the Cluj Hub. One of the initiators, Cristian, explained how the idea occurred as a reaction to the lack of shared workspace for IT developers, entrepreneurs and freelancers from different areas of expertise. They help start-ups to appear, organise entrepreneurship training programmes, involve tech innovation and support creative industries The space is rented out for a certain price, but the criticism from the participants arose from the fact that those who pay the rent do not get to participate in the decision-making policy of the organisation and that it is regular business presented as socially engaged. However, Cristian responded that the Hub is in fact a social enterprise because all the gain is reinvested for the same purpose which results in a self-sustainable mechanism in the long-term. As the time was running out, the potentially very interesting discussion didn’t have a chance to develop further so we moved on to the final presentation.

Save Rosia Montana was presented again by Sorana as probably the widest-ranging Romanian environmental initiative which developed into a proper movement in the past years and continues to polarise the Romanian society. This grassroots initiative was first conceived a decade ago as a reaction to the  project of building a mining plant in the Apuseni mountains near Cluj which would cause severe environmental consequences. The pros and cons belong to a familiar discourse when it comes to such projects: the pro side sees the alleged economic benefits this project may bring, whereas the cons, other than warning about the ecological aspect of it, include disagreement with the usual way the political elites monopolise decision-making on such important issues by excluding the public in the process. The festival annually held as part of the resistance involves artist contributions as well and so various workshops are always organised in support of the usual protest strategies. Also, the role of culture was emphasised by the fact that framing something as a cultural event alleviates the bureaucratic complications that may occur. Save Rosia Montana continues to be one of the most vital Romanian massive movements and so far has been able to prevent the mining project from being realised.

The afternoon session was part of the Temps d’images programme so the following events were attended by a wider audience. First we had the chance to hear about another local activist project concerned with alternative community building. This time it was about the colloquially known “most complicated neighbourhood in Cluj”, Mănăştur. The participants who mostly came from an artistic background engaged in an attempt to activate a different type of neighbourhood culture by working together with the inhabitants and facilitating their ideas. They built a common urban garden together with the local kids, started recycling waste and making furniture out of used tires, created a stage for common activities and plenary sessions which enable the citizens to discuss future plans for the neighbourhood, etc. What followed was a discussion with local architects, cultural managers, city councilors and other participants who were already familiar with the project. They particularly highlighted the problem of public space which is a stumbling stone when it comes to communicating the issue with the city governance. This is why informal procedures such as this one tend to be more successful because they ignore the potential bureaucratic obstacles. It was also pointed out that this significantly experimental project is specific because it had no clear goal at the time of its inception which is an encouraging and new approach for Cluj’s local scene. However, there was some disappointment since some of the communal projects failed because the very inhabitants of Mănăştur didn’t take proper care about the common goods. Finally, the question about the relationship between culture and social practice was raised and it was concluded that in this case the process is more important than the product because it relies on sustaining relations between the public space and its users. Thus, ethics comes first regardless of the categorisation. The question that ended the discussion was about the role of the artist in society, which was promised to be addressed further on Friday and the Skype lecture by the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi.

The last slot of day one was reserved for launching the third issue of Gazeta de Artă Politică. This is a Bucharest-based journal started by theatre-makers and theoreticians who felt the need to redefine the term of political as a reaction to it being understood solely as party politics. By understanding the political as the way the social field is organised, they are exploring the notion of political art and the paradoxical position of the artist who is conducting social critique while being immersed in the system. The first issue consolidated this kind of understanding of the political, while the second addressed the question of labour in art institutions which they dealt with, for example, by conducting a set of interviews with the less visible agents in theatre such as technicians, sound and light designers etc. The third issue which was launched on spot deals with art for young audiences and the necessity to re-envision the current practices in children’s theatres. They announced that the following issue will be focusing on art for marginal communities. What is particularly important is that the principles advocated for in the journal seem to be applied in its the production as well so it is entirely self-financed, the contributors write pro bono and the journal is distributed free of charge. Likewise, part of the material is available online in English for free and can be accessed at http://artapolitica.ro/?lang=en. The journal itself does not seem to differ significantly from other journals of that type, but every such platform is an important expansion of communication about the interstices between artistic and political practice.

DAY 2: Thursday, November 14

After quite a detailed introduction to the activities conducted by organisations within Fabrica de pensule and their fellow initiatives during Day One, the first thing on the schedule of Day Two was the meet-up of the Balkan Express core working group in order to further discuss conceptions of social creativity. The discussion was moderated by Samo from Bunker, one of the founding members of Balkan Express. After a few introductory observations about the initiatives presented the previous day, the issue of public space emerged quite soon as a shared and pertinent problem all over the Balkans. The countries of Balkans old and new, with the possible exception of Greece, all face a similar treatment of the public space in the process of transition from real-socialist to neoliberal economy. Consequently, the perception of public space is changing: before it belonged to everybody and now it belongs to no one. The working group participants gave examples of how public space is perceived and treated in their respective countries so although there is a tangible difference between, for example, Kosovo where, in Majlinda’s words, there is no recognition of the public space and its potential to be articulated as site of resistance such as in Romania, a common feature about the current situation in the Balkans could be extracted: public space is becoming increasingly privatised as part of the ongoing neoliberalisation of all our societies. István stressed out that rather than communicating on the axis private-public, we should look at how space is being produced and by whom because the relation and direction always change. Precisely that is the question of public. Also, this is where the arts come in because of the ability to produce tools people can use for critique.

Soon, the examples of recent protests and their relationship with the sphere of culture emerged. Samo gave the example of last year’s protests in Slovenia and said how their aestheticisation can sometimes be tricky because it can take the attention away from more important issues. Alexandros gave the Greek example of protests which are getting boring because of the saturation with repetitive and predictable strategies. There have been so many that even the most radical ones fade out in the memory of Athenians. This was a very important point because it proved how even the most progressive leftist and anarchist approaches tend to uniform their activist procedures making them monotonous and lessening their efficiency. However, when Alexandros mentioned a squatted theatre that functioned in Athens and where activists and artists shared both the space and activities, it reinstated the idea that culture can be comprehended as a field in which new strategies and tools of producing meaning can be envisioned and tried out.

A somewhat different example of mixing art and politics came from Mario, the founder and manager of Jazavac theatre from Banja Luka. The situation with art funding in a society fragmented by the national criteria prevents new initiatives from developing smoothly so Mario explained how he managed to put up the entire theatre from private funds. The major problem in Bosnia remains thinking in categories of three ethnic groups which reflects upon all segments of the society. Cluj, a multi-ethnic city itself, is not unfamiliar with this kind of reasoning. During the nineties the city was governed by a very right-wing mayor Gheorghe Funar whose people were able to, for example, cut the funding for cultural events if their managers belonged to the “wrong” ethnicity. Danko from Belgrade-based Hartefakt fund spoke about the appropriation of public space in Belgrade which also happens by reproducing nationalist discourse. Recently the political and economic relations between Serbia and Azerbeijan have been enhancing which sometimes manifests in bizarre manners, to say the least – a statue of the former dictator Heydar Aliyev has been placed in one of Belgrade’s biggest parks, close to that of famous Serbian writer Milorad Pavić. This working group once again brought to light the most common maladies of the post-socialist Balkan countries which all occur as a consequence of transition. On the one side, ethno-nationalist tendencied grow stronger in times of crisis while the neoliberal solutions to that crisis claim to be the only possible ones. The examples the participants exchanged showed how that kind of logic can indeed be interrupted by envisioning alternatives to deficient dichotomies always anew.

In the afternoon the participants of the Caravan joined the public talk on art and sustainability  which was again part of the Temps d’images programme. This time it was moderated by Corina, the co-organiser of Balkan Express Caravan. After a greeting by the festival director who asked to discuss practical solutions rather than theorise too much (although I must admit I don’t understand how can one talk about practice before grasping the situation theoretically), a debate started between the invited speakers and guests. The conversation itself was a little unfocused and actually didn’t touch upon too many practical issues or examples. First, Alexandros said that survival and sustainabilty are often confused and that it takes time for art to become sustainable. There is no sustainability if there is no genuine relation with the public, with the least mediating possible. Norbert Petrovici, a Cluj-based sociologist, warned that dependancy on money can very easily be accessed through neoliberal discourse and that it is necessary to create autonomous spaces which are able to function outside the market. Not by surprise, the issue of negative trends across Europe – namely, the withdrawal of state money from the arts – was brought in the discussion and we could hear the argument that art cannot be sustainable if it wants to rely only on funding by its consumers. Again, this was claimed as an issue of survival more than sustainability which was recognised as a symptom of precarity in the arts. The remaining discussion revolved around the mostly agreed-upon fact that there is a general lack of efficient policies that would help resolve these paradoxes. In the end, artist and activist Veda Petrovici shared a thought about the relationship between art and activism understood as subversive politics. She said that subversive politics is always illegal because it’s potentially dangerous for the system, while art is always legal. This leads to another paradox: through art one can act subversively because of the secure frame art provides, but this can also mean that subversive politics can be made harmless because they become legalised.

DAY 3: Friday, November 15

On the third day there was a change of plan in order to break up the formal frame of the Caravan so we all met at the main square, Piaţa Unirii. We were split into small groups so Danko, Aleksandar and me went to the greenmarket to get some groceries for lunch. We all met at Rariţa’s place and a Caravan version of Corina’s Kitchen Stories happened since everybody jumped in and out to help with the preparation. The talks from previous days countinued in a laid-back way and the change of plan also left some time for us to actually see the city on a sunny afternoon.

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