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  • Art as methodology (interview by Raluca Voinea)

    Interview with h.arta Group about the project Feminisms, Timisoara,
    September 2008 – May 2009, realized by Raluca Voinea

    printed in IDEA arts+society #30-31

    Raluca Voinea: For Spatiul Public Bucuresti | Public Art Bucharest 2007 you organized a space (Project Space) with multiple functions, a workshop, a meeting and information place, which every day for a month (between 15 September and 15 October 2007) hosted events, discussions, projections created along with independent activists or from different organizations militating, for example, against gender discrimination or globalization. It was for the first time that such a platform was created in Bucharest, offering the chance of expression to groups normally excluded from the public sphere, which in Romania is still largely dominated/marked by the discourse representative for the white, heterosexual and Christian orthodox male. What reactions have you received during and after the completion of the project?
    h.arta: With Project Space we wanted to create a point of meeting where different critical voices from different fields render more visible the means used by the dominant ideologies to shape our reality, the ways in which these ideologies manifest their influence in different spheres (education, mass media, culture, public space, institutions, etc.) and implicitly the ways they infiltrate into our lives trying to appropriate them. We thought this space as a demonstration that there are alternatives.
    The reactions received about this project were diverse. During the project and after its completion we and our collaborators tried to answer questions raised by the public, by the media, by colleagues from the art world, by people we knew, etc, questions regarding the necessity of such a project and the legitimacy of the topics approached. In a context where so often most of the mainstream discourses equal capitalism with democracy and Christian values
    with the ultimate good, it’s normal that more explanations are needed when one has an anti-capitalist discourse and when one challenges the conservative “values“ mostly seen as something natural. So we saw these questions as starting points for an important and necessary discussion.
    On the other hand, there were also positive reactions (again from the public, the media, colleague from the art world, people we knew, etc.). There were reactions from those who have seen this space as a place where, even though temporarily, a break in the pre-established order occurs. It was very encouraging for us to talk to people who entered the space to attend events, to browse through the archive or just to talk and who told us how necessary the existence of such a space (physical or not) seems, where one could talk about the fact that the reality we live in, based on an ideology of profit, is not unavoidable and that there are alternatives.
    Raluca Voinea: In April 2008 you returned to Bucharest to take part to some of the actions against the NATO summit. Can you give us a brief account of the overall climate of these meetings in the context of an exaggerated security and overzealousness on the part of the Romanian authorities? Have you met again some of the Project Space participants?
    h.arta: Even since the 24th of March all protest actions have been completely banned within he public space. Given the circumstances, activists from Romania and other states have rented a space where, for a week (28 March – 5 April), they planned to organize different workshops, film projections, presentations, etc, as a form of peaceful
    protest against the policies used by NATO.
    We reached Bucharest on the 1st of April, one day before the NATO summit begun. We were aware that the police and the Romanian Secret Service were closely watching the activity of the anti-NATO militants and that one could be taken in custody from the street with no reason, but we couldn’t have imagined the violence that the authorities would use in order to ban any form of protest. The saddest part is the fact that the media, in articles and reports broadcasted
    weeks before the summit started, have made this oppressive action of the authorities look like a normal security measure. From the 1st, when we reached Bucharest, and until the 5th, when we left for Timisoara, we felt like living in a parallel world, where citizen rights are being suspended and any abuse from the authorities is possible.
    A world reminding largely of the totalitarian times during communism, on the critique of which today’s democracy rises. There were people following you on the street, discretely or sometimes in an ostensive and deterrent manner, phones being watched, curious and voluble “activists“ always carrying a mobile phone and ready to record something “incriminatory“ and the feeling that you don’t know whom to trust anymore – these were the constants for the whole period spent during the summit.
    Out decision to go to Bucharest, exactly when the authorities advised the citizens of Bucharest to leave the city, was closely related to the fact that we had met a part of the activists involved in organizing this “anti-NATO week“ during the Project Space, which helped us
    detect immediately the huge contrast between the way media has built the image of the anti-NATO militants and what we knew from the direct discussions with them and the way we saw them trying to solve various social problems. An important support came from Emil
    Moise (another Project Space guest), with whom we maintained an almost permanent telephone contact throughout the day of April 2nd (the day when the Gendarmerie broke abusively into the rented space and held into custody all the persons who were there at the
    time) and who filed a complaint at the Prosecution of the High Court of Cassation and Justice against the Romanian Gendarmerie and the Romanian Police for the abuses they made those days.
    Raluca Voinea: Among the four major topics you approached at the Project Space events – education, feminism, post-communism and display – you chose feminism as a general framework for the project you are working at now in Timisoara. Can you give us a broader definition of the starting points for this project and at the same time explain the whole title of the project: Feminisms: Histories, Free Spaces, Participative Democracy, Economical Justice?
    h.arta: We thought it would be important to further develop the topics
    approached within the Feminism module of the Project Space using the feminist perspective as a basis for a broader discussion on what is relevant and what is visible in the public space.
    Although one cannot deny the emancipative effects of the “state feminism“ during communism, during Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime words like “emancipation“ and “feminism“ became void, covering up for the deaths of thousands of women resulted from the pro-birth policy, deaths occurring on the background of the official hymns glorifying a generic “woman“.
    On the other side, in recent history, as a condition for the integration in the European Union, Romania has adopted a series of gender related laws. The same generic “woman“ is being protected by these laws. Although, of course, the adoption of such legislation is a very important step and although these laws may prove very useful to those who have the means to use them, a series of problems with an important gender-related content such as precariousness, poverty, migration, which result directly in violence and discrimination, are
    not covered by these laws. What does result out of this “normalization“ of the gender problems is an apparent democracy and equality “enforced from the top“, democracy and equality which leave large categories of people outside the discussion.
    Starting from the history of “state feminism“ during communism and the gender mainstreaming processes according to the “European“ models, it seems important for us to create the conditions for a discussion between initiatives (from Romania and abroad) which work on gender issues starting from the local conditions and which establish their aims according to the real people they are addressing.
    Bearing in mind the necessity of a multiple definition of the term “feminisms“ not as a label, but as a mobile and flexible basis for interpretation and action, we would like to give possible answers to questions such as:
    Which are the differences and similarities between the “state feminism“ of the communism era and the new “European“ gender mainstreaming? How should we relate to the post-communist
    silence regarding feminism and the role of women in the communist period, to the necessity of an objective analysis of them? How could one use the feminist strategies and perspectives as a way of analyzing the privileges and power relations which global capitalism is structured on? What relation does occur between patriarchate and capitalism? How could one talk about feminism and gender-related issues avoiding copying a “Western paradigm“ and, at the same time, talk about local problems without imprinting exoticism onto oneself?
    A possible design for the project would look like this:
    HISTORIES: emancipation, the double workday, “the costs of transition“, reproduction policies, “state feminism“;
    FREE SPACES: solidarity, cooperation, queer, resistance against exploitation, grass roots democracy, net activism, alternative economies, alliances;
    PARTICIPATIVE DEMOCRACY: emancipative democracy, power, the production of knowledge, public space, visibility, culture jamming, free expression, responsibility;
    ECONOMIC JUSTICE: the work of women, transnational ethics, immaterial work, precariousness, economical rights for women, reproductive work, “efficient“ bodies, the “glass-ceilings“ effect, gender hierarchies, gender division of labor, migration.
    Raluca Voinea: Even since you were working at the h.arta space in Timisoara, where you started to express yourselves as an artistic group, you were constantly concerned about the public you were addressing. To what degree has this public changed? If the topics you approach now have another level of urgency, your practice and your tactics are pretty much the same, based on dialog and involvement. You are now being seen more as a group of social and cultural activism than as an artistic group and does this difference matter? Do you think that the social responsibility of the artist implies the departure from aesthetics while favoring the message or does each message have an inevitable corresponding form of its own? Have you thought about such delimitations when you conceived and set the physical space where the project takes place?
    Lately, we have been witnessing a re-actualization of various feminist issues and, at the same time, an institutionalization and even a classicization of the artistic feminism. Could you identify some of the methods inspiring you and which you consider to be important?
    h.arta: We could say that the public has changed or maybe rather diversified. Our first public consisted in our colleagues at the faculty, whom we used to invite to talk about art, what art should be about. These questions related so closely to the means of making art because at the time, right after the graduation, the fracture between art and society seemed to us a natural attribute of art. This perspective has changed when we started to see things more holistically.
    If you actually start relating to the context you live in, if what happens to you and what you feel becomes a topic, if the others count, too, then the discussion no longer regards only you as an artist and your possibilities, but becomes a discussion about yourself as a citizen and your possibilities.
    An intermediary phase in our developing relation to art and its public was the project About Art and the Ways We Look at the World, a manual talking about art, but without simply addressing those within the field. We conceived it in such a manner that someone interested in becoming an artist could find some guiding points in there, but we were especially concerned about how the manual could be useful to any person wondering: “Why do I need art?“ and “What connection is there between me and art?“
    Another phase of our relation with the public was the moment when our projects became meeting platforms for various fields, a debate space no longer relating exclusively to the art sphere, with art becoming just a methodology of working with a more complex content. This way, not only has the public became more diverse, but, in fact, the possibility of an actual collaboration with those we call the public has been opened, as we become, in our turn, the public for the topics they bring into discussion. The way we conceived the project Feminisms is very much based on this kind of approaching the public and we also tried to render visible this flexible and fluid character in the way we conceived the visual identity of the project. Even though we had a pre-established plan of events for the 10 months during which the project space will be functioning, this is nevertheless a plan in progress and this is something we also wanted to make visible in the website design, in the invitations, etc, and especially in the way we set the physical space for the project. The spatial elements do not create a fixed structure; they are modules changing their destination according to the needs and which would also prove useful in other locations. We thought the space as a “sculpture“ with references to a private space and to a space where nothing is definitive, completely “unpacked“ yet, a mixture of kitchen and passing space which still hasn’t revealed all its potentialities yet. Apart from its various practical functions, we conceived the space as something more than a neutral framework for the public events or informal meetings, as a form relating itself to ideas such as, for instance, the fluidity of the borders between public and private.
    From our point of view, our practice is still an artistic one, even though the issues we’ve been approaching in the last years changed gradually from questions like: “What is Art?“ to questions like “What is the use of art?“ and “What are the responsibilities of each of us?“
    So we don’t see any contradictions between the fact that sometimes what we do is regarded as cultural activism and sometimes as art. We think it is very important to find ways in which art, although many times is appropriated (partially or completely) by the neo-liberal system,
    may still be used as a self-reflexive and honest tool of critique and analysis. We think that artistic strategies may be used as a form of cultural activism.
    We think that the way we work as a group and the way we negotiate the relations among the members of the group, as well as with other groups or individuals, the way we constantly refer to ourselves as “I“ and “we“ is an important practice for the ways in which we constantly
    try to define our position as artists and as persons who want to react to the injustices around us. In this respect, we could also talk about the models which inspire us in our collaborative work.
    We think that the need to approach feminist issues was and still is always present throughout the world. If we think, for example, about one of the major issues approached by feminism, that of inequality (who are the outshined, whose voices are not being heard, whose
    problems are not being talked about, what is considered worthy of being talked about, how inequitable and to whom are the states of fact which we take as “normality“), we will see that this is a problem never completely solved. In this respect, the models inspiring us are not necessarily from the art field. They are diverse and come from various fields, they are all those questions, actions, approaches, practices which challenge our prejudices, which broaden our perspectives, activate our creativity and our courage to think that it is possible to change a compelling situation.
    Raluca Voinea: Practically, the space of the Feminisms project functions as a meeting point for the public and all those local and international initiatives you were talking about. You have already worked in Bucharest with some of these participants – can you already talk about continuity and about fruitful collaboration on the long term?
    h.arta: We think that, if we may use a word rather devalued by the rhetoric of the “project evaluation“, the “success“ of projects like Project Space or Feminisms, which serve as platforms where different initiatives meet, is given by the time continuity of these platforms, even after the space itself stops functioning. The fact that there are still people and groups with whom we have a continuous bond in time, which materializes in various other discussions, encounters, projects, friendships is a great source of energy and inspiration for us.
    Raluca Voinea: Do you think that the model of participative democracy and selfregulated micro-communities may become efficient on a large scale? That we can replace “heroic“ symbols of the revolution such as the generals in uniforms?
    h.arta: Even though, if we consider the present global situation, it seems very improbable for the model of a democracy from bottom to top to be applied on a large scale, especially considering the revolting lack of ethics and responsibility which mostly governs the world, we think that it is important to believe that a different world could be possible.
    It is probably, keeping an eye on what happens in the world, the most difficult thing – to think that there is a point of return and that the possibility of change depends on everyone of us, to think that the way we choose to live our individual lives and our everyday actions can impact on a wider change, not to give up imagining possible spaces outside the existent norms and not to lose hope that these spaces could be someday accessible to everyone.
    Raluca Voinea: What are your plans for the months after the conclusion of the Feminisms project?
    h.arta: The project space Feminisms will be open until May; until then,
    the public has access to a small library of books and magazines relevant for the project which mostly consists in the collection of Travelling Zines of the Ladyfest Romania/F.I.A. collective. In parallel, we work on a publication which, apart from the space-related events, will reflect different feminist positions and practices in Romania and abroad, which are relevant for a more nuanced understanding of the issues. Thus, during the months after completing the work within the physical space of the project, our main focus will be on editing the publication. At the same time, the topics and the practices of the project will not exhaust once it is completed, but will surely continue to be a constant of our work.

    Translated by Alex Moldovan