The Corridor through recent history
An interview with Santiago Sierra - Mihnea Mircan
The Corridor through recent history - An interview with Santiago Sierra
by Mihnea Mircan
A more extensive version of this interview was printed in the catalogue of the exhibition Santiago Sierra, published by CAC Malaga, 2006
Bucharest, October 2005
Mihnea Mircan: I propose that we start from the subject matter of the piece you made in Bucharest which, as opposed to the majority of previous projects, was not only labor, it was not about what people would do for a certain amount of money, under certain circumstances, not about enacting or holding up a mirror to economic or social disparity. While incorporating that, ‘The Corridor in the House of the People’ engaged the broader idea of the Nation, in this case the Romanian nation: its relation to itself in recent history, its self-perception, as well as the transnational representation of that particular reality and social context.
Santiago Sierra: I believe that, in order to make this project comprehensible, this conversation should try to imitate the process that was actually followed in making this piece. The process started by considering which were the curator’s concerns regarding the place where the piece was to be made. If we take that into account, as well as my own stereotypical image of Romania, the work that came out was something almost unavoidable. If we also consider the circumstances and the conditions which I found there, we could say it was the only possible piece that could have been made.
What I mean is that there are many kinds of spaces: on the one hand there are neutral spaces which give you more room for action because they are not so loaded with contingencies, and where you can just place whatever you want; and there are also spaces which have particular formal features. But there is yet another kind of space, where the space itself doesn’t matter anymore because its connotations are so strong you just have to overreach the space as such. I would even say that working in certain countries is a handicap, because doing it means that you must deal with the country itself. You don’t have the option of not working with that country, because the nationality is very heavy. It has such a heavy presence it becomes unavoidable. For me, working in Switzerland, in France or in London is relatively the same. But when you arrive to a country like Cuba or Colombia, or to a country like this one, the context is so heavy that the people in the art world cannot avoid being Cuban or being Romanian. And the artist that comes from abroad cannot avoid working with very radical components, which involve acknowledging his place of origin, acknowledging where he is coming from and where he is. In those cases, the curator is already bringing in a problem, which conditions the piece to such an extent that the amount of over-determinations only leaves one way for action, and there is only one possible piece.
M.M. So your strategy in such contexts is to immerse yourself in a sea of problems, to accumulate or register the particular determinations of the place and channel them into the work…
S.S. There are places that lead you to one and only possible piece. For instance you have a place as connoted as the Spanish Pavilion in the Venice Biennale: it was so over-determined only one piece could be made. The spaces of this kind are often the outcome of a supreme historical brutality, but the House of the People in Bucharest holds the Guinness Book Record. Building it meant that a huge portion of the city was destroyed to obtain a useless and gigantic thing, which worked as a symbol of power…a symbol of bleeding power, a place that stands for the entire generation that has been coerced into producing it. It looks like a totem of evil, of the terror in the city, very heavy, very politically loaded. It goes so far that people have hallucinations with the soldiers that died during its construction, and all the things that happen around it are interpreted in the sense of the negativity of the building. It is so big, and you have to walk so much, that you get tired when you go to pee. Then you have the X-Files kind of interpretation. They say the building steals your energy, because there is some sort of paranormal evil locked in its walls. The building is a great monument to the exploitation of the masses, to the defeat of the left, to its transformation into fascism with social inclinations… we had to work with this building, and there wasn’t any other way.
We also worked with a city that has a general feeling of sadness about it, of fear, or even a huge bad vibe. We are talking about the ruin of Romania, about the attempts made by this country to enter a state of normality and an international context where its role is not yet clear and where its highest expectation is to become an Adidas sweatshop for the rest of Europe, a provider of cheap and obedient labor. The people know that their options are immigrating or enduring the storm, which means they have to fix a country that has no illusions of ever being fixed. Let’s remember that Romania has been an exemplary country when it came to European barbarity. When it assimilated fascism, it was the most fascist of all; when it assimilated communism, it was the most communist; and we shall expect that when it becomes neoliberal, it will be the most neoliberal of all. Of course, that will be loaded on the backs of the Romanian people… the People that have their House in Bucharest.
New sacrifices are to be expected and you can see that on the street. The people, as a mass or as a nation, know that they are obeying orders, performing a role in a theater play written for the masses. Western Europe perceives Romania as a country of beggars. Certainly, the Romanian immigrant is actually seen in the streets of Europe asking for work or for charity, I don’t see a difference. There, in the Western World, is where the immigrant discovers his new potential nationality as a wetback or his role as a simple pedestrian of History. In its relationship to Romania, Europe says: “Well, they’re just the poor relatives, the losers in European history”. The European Union is a Pirate Club with a monument in a public square where there is no room for landlubbers. You will only be respected there if you have been a really mean bastard. Just look at its members, they are all the saints in pirate heaven: the English, the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Portuguese, the Spanish… Romanians have a very strong feeling of defeat, they have only been mean bastards to their own people and to some gypsies that happened to be passing by. On the one hand they do not recognize themselves when they have to play that role, but on the other they are forced to do it; they stand on the edge of a cliff and are forced to do it. When an entire nation is willing to become a sweatshop and start making jeans, brand clothes or TVs, it is a nation that has been forced into begging. I don’t see a big difference between large-scale unqualified labor and begging. There isn’t a big difference between working for a few coins and showing others your empty hand.
M.M. I remember now your reaction in a conversation we had earlier. It struck me when you said that you did not come here to save Romania, you came here to film it, to present an image that would incorporate all the strands of your research, without pointing to the possibility of change. This is consistent with the fact that you establish a very clear difference between the activist and artist, even though currently this difference tends to be blurred, with many people describing themselves as activists and artists. You say that art is a profession like any other, so to that extent a part of the system, and positioning it against the system, as activism does, is utopian and powerless. You distrust the subversive capabilities of art, yet you realize that I invited you here to create a subversive situation or a critical mass, to destabilize the building in its real and symbolic architecture. Is there any meaning to what we are doing, or are we just contenting ourselves with staging a minor incident, which in fact leaves things – the building, the old and new powers that inhabit it, the questions that resonate here so insistently – untouched?
S.S. The thing I take from here is, again, a confirmation on how things stand. I don’t know what could be subversive for the audience and for the persons who took part in the performance. We had around 390 women – I think there were more but we were unable to register all of them – who didn’t think it was so bad to beg for a couple of hours and get 6 euros in exchange. What we have here is the confirmation of what I’ve found in other places and in other countries. I would say that, instead of creating subversion, we are confirming, again, the falsity of all liberatory maximalisms, of all the humanitarian, emancipation maximalisms. We are confirming how fucked up the planet is. I insist, I deeply respect the people who respond to an unfavorable situation in a radical way, those who face it with political weapons and those who try to fight their way out of it. I don’t want to include myself in that, I couldn’t. I just make art. Truly I am nothing but a snob, and that is how any worker should regard me, as a snob, because that is what they should call someone who makes art, as well as someone who shows off on a catwalk. I don’t think that there is more to it, but I thank you for your expectations.
M.M.You mentioned other projects that you have done in other contexts where nationalities are very strong, places like Cuba or Colombia. Could you elaborate on how you integrate the idea of a nation in your work?
S.S. Yes, of course. Nationalities are ideological constructions that should normally be innocuous, I have no idea of what the flag of Luxembourg looks like. But there are places where they are not innocuous at all, in which they have a force and a spectacular weight. An Austrian artist might entertain himself with very vague subjects. He or she could, for instance, – as some actually do – build his or her entire work on the difference between his or her intimacy and the public sphere, and arrive to situations based on perfectly convenient and endogamic presuppositions. But there are situations and countries where there is no way out, every Cuban artist is Cuban-like and every Colombian artist is Colombian-like, it is even very difficult for the Mexicans not to do this. There is a group of Mexicans that doesn’t do it, but they had to adopt other nationalities. A well-known art critic even said that there was a whole generation of Americans born in Mexico. I speak of nationalities that are really heavy and which are brutally defined.
The project in Bucharest has also been made to speak about this country. There are certain elements that have been fundamental for me. For example: I arrive to the museum, and I notice that the curator hates the place where he works, he transmits this feeling of utter aversion; he wants to work with the place but he dreams of annulling it. The most evident solution is to go through the place without seeing it and that’s what we have done. We have built a tunnel from the access gate to the exit. You go through the place but you don’t see it. If we simply wanted to deny it, we would have made the piece in some distant square of Bucharest and far enough from this context. Nevertheless, we wanted to make it here and make our deep dislike of the place clear enough. That is where the corridor is coming from.
There was security at the door because we are in a museum that shares the building with all the political institutions of this country, including the two chambers of the Parliament. This was the key element of the building for me. It is not any building, any museum, and the security is not like the one you normally have in museums. It is a political kind of security, with constant changes of guards to prevent them from establishing friendships with the people working inside, that is, an absolute control that shows how bureaucratic the building is and makes it even heavier. It followed that this bureaucracy also had to be included in the project: the control of the gate was marking a rhythm for us, the rhythm of the entrance defined by the magnetic bands and the scanning of all the material that goes into the museum. That rhythm had to be preserved, as well as the one created by the fact that only one person can enter at a time because of the metal detector.
The atmosphere that surrounds the museum, including all those stories I mentioned before, was also acknowledged. The more or less spooky stories had to be included too, therefore the piece has some of the shades of a horror movie. I have been thinking about this idea and trying to bring it into the art world. The idea of social terror, the terror of being infected by the poverty of the others and ending up like them. This is what classicism feeds upon and it is also what we find in zombie films, a mass of desperate people that want us to become like them. That had also to be included in the piece, which is like a zombie film. The people that work here project their own knowledge of the history of the place on the space, thinking they are able to see sometimes the ones who died during the construction of the building. Everything is interpreted in the negative, as evil, as something that comes from a horror movie. All these elements came together in a piece that could not be any different, I cannot imagine any other piece here. I would say that you have also made the piece, and that you should tell your part of the story.
M.M. The House is a good place for discussing the question of nationality. The statistical Romanian oscillates between the idea that the House is big and resplendent and, on the other hand, the shame of its history, of dictatorship and submission, as rapidly as he or she alternate in their perception of the nation, between a ferocious complex of inferiority and bursts of superiority. There is a combination of pride and shame in both, and the fact that they colluded in the project is very significant. The women in the tunnel were proud because I told them that they were participating in a piece made by the greatest artist alive. But they were also ashamed because that artist was making them ask for money. They created a choir in which all those things were side by side, simultaneously present. Another difference to your previous work is that they took advantage of the freedom you gave them, a freedom that your performers normally do not have. You had less control than ever over this project, you couldn’t supervise them constantly, so some of them took advantage of that freedom and didn’t do their job very strictly.
S.S. For me, the advantage of bad actors is that they let their opinions show when following the text. Bad actors are transparent. They cannot play the role well because they give away who they are. If the text reads ‘Give me a piece of bread’, or ‘Give me a coin’, they also state what their opinion is on giving that coin. The bad actor is perfect. We had a situation in which we forced a multitude to play a role, and insofar as that role was not properly played, precisely in that measure, we had an element of dissension with the established script.
Those moments were perhaps the most interesting. There was a group that would not accept the rules even if they needed the money and were going to charge for doing the job – they would not play that role. Of course those attitudes were at a minimum, and even if the women didn’t play their part properly, or did it in a relaxed way, they stayed. They were there, they would not leave, therefore we cannot delude ourselves about that kind of dissent. They stayed in the tunnel even if they didn’t agree with the role they were playing. I guess that would be the most noteworthy part of this piece. Nobody left.
The acting has been very important and taking theater as a point of departure derived not only from history, but also from the place. What we have here is actually a gigantic decoration, the building seems to be built from solid rock and imitates a diffuse Versailles-like style. Yet it is nothing but concrete, it is only a façade. When a stone falls you see that inside there is a structure that has nothing noble about it, it is just plaster. Loose bricks, rubble, iron bars… It is the same thing with all historical buildings. Then all this theatricality of the building, with its enormous and unnecessary spaces was also included in the piece. As a matter of fact you entered the piece through a curtain, people went in to see the performance just as in a theater. Theater as a political weapon, as something politically instrumentalized, was crucial for this piece. The pride, which is vertically induced through the theater of the nation, and the humiliation that stems from the mania that people have for remembering things. Those problems belong to second-class actors and to first class theater plays.
The Corridor through recent history
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