The Museum of Conflict - Art as Political Strategy in Post-Communist Europe
Research conference - Tuesday 12 September

The Museum of Conflict - Art as Political Strategy in Post-Communist Europe

The conference was organized to discuss the question whether 'art can ever really take over the location of power, being a "symbol of openness and democracy" , with special regard to the position of the museum and the artistic event, as well as the presence of artists and the art system.
Meta Haven had proposed a main case study, the famous Casa Poporului (People's House) in Bucharest. This totalitarian icon designed by Nicolae Ceausescu co-locates, apart from the Romanian parliament, a National Museum for Contemporary Art (MNAC).

Moderator Matthias Pauwels (BAVO) started by asking how exactly art"either the art system or artists individually"should operate to cause political effect. Unconvinced by the assumption that every artistic act is itself already political, Matthias asked:'what openness?' and'what democracy?', as to undermine or question the precise pretext of these two terms, addressing the role art is sometimes asked to play as an illustration: While democracy is manipulated by the new alliance between economic pragmatism and religio-nationalist idealism, art is supposed to live out the dream of democracy and openness.'

Meta Haven: Design Research (Vinca Kruk, Daniel van der Velden a.o.) presented a lecture entitled Imagination of Engagement, departing from an analysis of the call for ideas that the Italian magazine Domusand its chief editor, Stefano Boeri, launched around the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea. Observations from this case study were then transposed to the Casa Poporului and its in-house museum, linking to the ideas of political philosopher Claude Lefort, who imagined the place of power in a democracy as structurally empty. Meta Haven concluded by suggesting that art's political potency lies not so much in being'given' power, but in taking it.

Mihnea Mircan, curator at MNAC, spoke about the events and exhibitions that took place in the museum since its opening in 2004. Mihnea curates the exhibition series Under Destruction, where the People's House and its political references are the central framework. Mihnea emphasized that MNAC is a site specific project, in part one that seeks to come to terms with the meaning of the building for Romanian society. As for the opposition that MNAC has encountered since the beginning, Mihnea responds by asking the question what, then, would be a valid alternative for art to deal with the history of the People's House.

Artist Calin Dan, based in Amsterdam and Bucharest, spoke about Linna Hall in Talinn, Estonia, describing how after the fall of the Soviet republic, this power structure has become a space for public events, functioning rather as a square than a building. Working from a list of general characteristics of totalitarian architecture, Calin also highlighted important differences in architectural and urban strategy between Linna Hall and Casa Popolurui"the former being built as a landmark coinciding with the Moscow Olympic Games.

Gideon Boie (BAVO) used as his main example the case of W.I.M.B.Y., a multidisciplinary project initiated by Rotterdam-based think tank Crimson, to redevelop and'pimp' the post-war town of Hoogvliet (near Rotterdam), based on grass-roots energies and aesthetics with the help of both signature designers, and local politics. Gideon argued that precisely in the appropriation of semi-underground and even'ugly' artistic strategies by the government, art's political moment is lost.

Wouter Davidts, architect and architectural theorist, started with the example of the Palais de Justicein Brussels. This building was referred to once as a 'crazy monument to a civilization and society that no longer believes in neither architecture nor justice, but simply adores progress'. Departing from a quote from Geert Bekaert stating that 'architecture can be no secret code in a society that calls itself democratic', Wouter plead for the an architecture that, in an era of blatant political and cultural populism', has a decisive role in the ' formation  of the various public institutions"not only the courthouse, but"bourgeois  institutions such as the opera, the library, the theatre and the museum.'

Edi Muka, curator based in Stockholm and Tirana, demonstrated that in Eastern Europe with the gradual drawback of Soros-founded art spaces, often a cultural institution has become a kind of hollow shell that, while equipped with staff and facilities, has to painstakingly apply for funding time and time again in order to be able to carry out any activities whatsoever. He spoke about this in relation to the Pyramid Cultural Centre that was located in the former mausoleum of Tiranian dictator Enver Hoxha, and in relation to the Tirana Biennial.

Florian Waldvogel, curator at Witte de With, Rotterdam, and member of the curatorial team for the cancelled Manifesta 6 in Nicosia, Cyprus, spoke about the events he organized at Kokerei Zollverein, in a former industrial complex in Germany. Among these were some that engaged in direct political action. Florian demonstrated a'hands-on' attitude towards art and politics. He briefly mentioned, but refused to theorize about the cancellation of Manifesta 6 by the major of Nicosia, where the event's curators had hoped to involve both sides of the Greek/Turkish city.

Matthias Pauwels kicked off the discussion by taking an example mentioned earlier by Mihnea Mircan. In one of the projects he curated, artist Santiago Sierra hired actors who would wander through a corridor in the People's House in Bucharest, begging for money with visitors. Matthias asked the speakers and audience present to vote'for' a version where the actors would be replaced by real beggars, and art would thus not'translate' or'envision' but directly provide access to the social problems of Bucharest. While an actual voting did not take place, Maria Hlavajova, artistic director of BAK and curator of the Dutch pavilion in the 2007 Venice Biennial, launched a fierce criticism on MNAC, stating that, apart from its location, it misuses the artistic integrity of the exhibiting artists by having them create work about the People's House. Minhea responded by saying that although, indeed, a number of works were created about the building, it is not an obligation. The situation that Romanian politics do not interfere with MNAC's programme, subsequently came to lay under fire, as the museum receives no support either, so that in fact, Matthias provocatively suggested, this tolerance could be explained as both as indifference, or even censorship. It was emphasized again"also by Maria"how much, once an actual institution has been created, the problem then lies in running it.
Daniel van der Velden returned to an initial reason for Meta Haven organizing this conference: that the totalitarian building functions as a'symbol', the meaning of which is strongly connected to the distribution of its image. Following this logic, (an institution like) MNAC would be not just about affecting the physical reality of the People's House, but also about its symbolic meaning, as experienced by audiences distanciated from it in time and space.

The conference was concluded by a dinner for audience and speakers in the Jan van Eyck's exhibition space.

A detailed outline of talks presented, as well as a transcription of the discussion, will be made available in the coming months via and via
The follow up conference on the topic is planned for January, 2007, at MNAC in Bucharest.
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