The Museum of Conflict

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

Forum Discussion

This text was first published as part of a newspaper to announce the conference Regimes of Representation: Art & Politics Beyond the House of People, Bucharest, January 11, 2007

The research conference ‘The Museum of Conflict – Art as Political Strategy in Post-Communist Europe’ took place at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht on September 12, 2006. The event 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. Its main case study was the famous Casa Poporului (People’s House) in Bucharest, and its in-house national museum of contemporary art, MNAC.
Moderator Matthias Pauwels (BAVO) started by asking the question exactly how 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, Pauwels asked: ‘what openness?’ and ‘what democracy?’, as to 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.’
Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden (Meta Haven) presented a lecture entitled ‘Imagination of Engagement’. An edited and extended version of this talk can be found elsewhere on this site.
Mihnea Mircan, curator at MNAC, spoke about the events and exhibitions that took place in the museum since its opening in 2004. Mircan 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.
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, Dan 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. Boie 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 Justice in 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’, Davidts plead for 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, artist and 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 (located in the former mausoleum of Tiranian dictator Enver Hoxha), and in relation to the Tirana Biennial, of which he is director.
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.
He briefly mentioned, but refused to theorize about the cancellation of Manifesta 6 by the mayor of Nicosia, where the event’s curators had hoped to involve both sides of the Greek/Turkish city.
The conference was concluded by a debate. 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 on a version where the actors would be replaced by actual social outcasts, and art would thus no longer aestheticize the social reality, but directly intervene in the socio-political realities of Bucharest.
The discussion became an intense debate on artistic practice, political implications, East and West, collective memory, the House of People, its sign value, the museum, and beyond.

Matthias Pauwels
Irina Cios, director icca, Bucharest
Florian Waldvogel
Mihnea Mircan
Maria Hlavajova, director bak, Utrecht, and curator for the Dutch pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennial
Wouter Davidts
Calin Dan
Gideon Boie
Vinca Kruk
Daniel van der Velden
Edi Muka

Matthias Pauwels (MP): ‘In order to start the discussion on the role of art vis-à-vis the powers that be I would like to propose a scenario that the audience can vote on. MNAC invites a curator and gives him or her carte blanche. A perfect labour division is proposed: the museum takes care of the infrastructural affairs and collects money through a foundation. What happens in the museum space is left to the curator to decide on. Crucial to my scenario is that the curator decides to use the museum space for three months to accommodate the victims of the neoliberal policies, just like churches in Western Europe provide illegal refugees with shelter. There are many people in the streets, and the curator invites them in. The curator departs from the idea that a museum of art is a public space. Public space belongs to the people that do not have private space of their own. It is not easy to predict the outcome of this choice. Undoubtedly, there will be political pressure. Parliament is next to the museum space and the members of Parliament are not keen on having these people so close. There will be a financial problem because no entrance fees will be paid. Also public opinion is against it since the ‘common man’ argues that he works and these people do not and still the latter get the benefits. Things get out of hand. The curator is dismissed. The curator digs his heels and refuses to leave, stating he believes in the cause. Then the Romanian version of Rita Verdonk(*) steps in and has the place evacuated. Riot police enter. The whole thing ends up being a real event on a global scale. I think it is clear where I am heading towards: in the scenario I depict, the museum or public space is no longer a space where you can agree to disagree. It becomes a place where everyone will have to choose sides. So, why not choose sides today, in this conference room? Who believes this scenario goes too far? Who is pro the political dimension of art, art being the instance of people? Who thinks art should not at all involve itself at such a direct political level? Should beggars be brought in for real, or in symbolical way as Santiago Sierra did by staging poverty and exclusion – as if beggars were actors.’
Irina Cios (IC): ‘There is a question about responsibility: there is a division between being a social activist and an artistic...’
MP: ‘But that’s why we vote.’
(audience): ‘It’s impossible!’
Florian Waldvogel (FW): ‘Political art does not involve beggars if you are only a painter: that’s too exclusive.’
MP: ‘Then you agree to disagree.’
FW: ‘The question is not: “Do we need political art?” The question is: “Do we need art?”’
Mihnea Mircan (MM): ‘You remove the artist who is making the piece and give this task to the curator. The artist is no more than an accessory in your scenario, so I believe the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘politics’ is overly simplified; it is just a confrontation of institutional agendas.’
FW: ‘Does an artist ever work against art? Globalization is part of the thing, as is capitalism; that’s who we are, we can’t deny that. The question would be: “Who is working against art?” I do not think there are many of these people.’
Maria Hlavajova (MH): ‘But Florian, can one generalize in this? We all need art, that’s why we are in the business, that’s why we spend hours discussing it. We all see the political potential of art, that’s why we are gathered here. The questions that brought us together were defined slightly differently. Maybe we should return to those in order to proceed the discussion instead of going into voting processes.’
MP: ‘What do you think is the crucial question here?’
MH: ‘How does the institution provide ways in which contemporary art is used as a representation of political change? Perhaps I can shortly comment on MNAC; I do believe that is a central idea for the session today. Yet, I will first comment on the terminology: we seem to use the term “post-communist” uneasily when we refer to the situation in Romania. We struggle to find other names instead. But I would like to advocate the term “post-communist” because then we speak about both parts of what was a bi-polar Europe: the (former) East and the (former) West. We very often fail to acknowledge that the year 1989 saw radical paradigmatic changes on a much larger scale than just Eastern Europe. I mention it because it is my opinion that the fantasies Eastern Europe had about the West to a great extent defined what MNAC has become today. There is a very strange longing for institutions in Central and Eastern Europe. That’s where fantasy comes into play. What is desired most is a large, monolithic, traditional modern/contemporary art museum that Western contexts produced in the past. The very same museum that the West no longer knows what to do with vis-à-vis the challenges that art presents us with. This longing does not take into account the circumstances and ways in which such institutions would develop. For me, MNAC is a case of imposition. It is a monster, disproportionate to the scene of artists, galleries, collectors and all who would in normal circumstances be related to an institution. If you study MNAC’s web site you notice this on a practical level: the board members, the types of programming, all seem to testify to an established curriculum defined beyond the concrete context. Most importantly, however, it does not seem to attempt to create something new. It does not try to leave the beaten track. At least not for the time being. MNAC is ‘out of scale’ for Romania. It does not muster energy to engage in a creative institutional thinking about it purpose. Located in the House of People, it mirrors the tragic history of the nation and of the totalitarianism of the past century, which marketing magicians play with as if it were a toy. I am afraid I am not sure how to deal with the cynicism such a construction entails. I can only hope that younger generations can resolve this dilemma in a constructive way. They should not ignore history but rather look for ways that my generation was unable to see and find. For my generation, the building represents the things that damaged our lives. In 2004, I co-organized a number of conferences about the contemporary situation in Romania and on MNAC. It was impossible to host only one conference. The conflict concerning MNAC was so serious that some were unwilling to sit at the same table with opposing voices. For those who could not comprehend the depth of the schism, some of the speakers suggested: imagine that someone in the future, in post-Iraq America, attempts to accommodate a contemporary art museum in one of the corners of the Pentagon. What kind of ‘hopeful’ message would that send out? How could art presented there be read beyond the tragic connotations the building exudes? And how can any art presented there suggest a new political or social imaginary? That is also the reason why I so greatly appreciate the fierce activism that artist Dan Perjovschi shows, who travels the world to make a position of resistance towards MNAC more widely known. What I find interesting is that MNAC is currently getting over its own trauma by misusing the artists: every artist has to do something with Casa Poporului. But there’s a difference in resolving a trauma and restricting the artists’ freedom.’
IC: ‘We only did one show for the opening…’
MH: ‘I don’t want to accuse anybody.’
IC: ‘No, no, I am just clarifying things.’
MH: ‘Why does no artist in Yugoslavia work on the theme of the Yugoslavian war? Why does no Russian artist use the war Chechnya? The West made this demand. Ilya Kabakov is working with the theme of communal apartments. Artists could make career in the West by thematizing the House of People.’
IC: ‘Yes and no. The House of People is an image more than anything else. The war in Serbia does not have a visual representation that people relate to. But this image exists. I was in a working group that studies how Bucharest should be marketed. Everybody hated that image, but nevertheless it came up four or five times, as it immediately relates to the place. It is difficult to ignore, you can simply address it as a marketing thing, or as a political thing, since it has very diverse layers. For artists, it can also serve as a ‘flat surface’ that exists in Bucharest. We have lived with it for some twenty years now. It would not trigger the same emotion or have the same impact on somebody who is confronted with it for the first time or who knows about it through stories and never experienced life in Romania prior to 1989.’
MH: ‘I do think institutions should cope with their own trauma, but…’
MM: ‘What could be the strategies to work with the building, apart from sheer passivity, staring at it in melancholia? You may say that because I’m 30, I probably don’t remember much, I won’t try and persuade you that I do, but we can start from the shared premise that something should be done with the building and the social context it is part of. One possibility, as I see it, is that they undergo artistic “accidents”.’
MH: ‘That is not what I said. I was talking about collective memory. In my writing I often posited that the drama of the pre-1989 situation in Europe could only be resolved constructively by the next generation. The burden is a real part of my existence and I cannot just say: “ok, an art exhibition.” I do believe in the political potential of art, but I believe that if you enter the House of People, and criticize its past, you’re not so extremely radical, because the current neo-liberal system has adopted culture and art as a very harmless means of venting criticism. Before you make the gesture, you have already been appropriated as part of its rhetoric.’
MM: ‘No artist is condemned to work with the House of People, it is a matter of choice. And representations of the House of People do not define or limit the program of the insitution. For some artists, working with the social and political texture of the House is a welcome challenge, or at least nothing to shy away from. You say you believe in the political potential of art, yet at the same time you seem to imply that art should be kept away from the particular task of speaking with, or about the House, that this is too burdensome or too complicated. That art cannot maintain its purity or subversive potential in a place that renders it powerless or corrupted. I believe the opposite: that this a good setting for testing premises that always go unverified about the effectiveness of subversion, in East and West. What would be protected if artists decided en masse to leave the House intact, to worry about other things and operate from a “safe distance”? What would be this distance, since the House is obviously not just a building but a conglomerate of so many things? Whose collective memory would be saved if artists stayed out of the equation?’
MH: ‘If you want contemporary discussion in that place, you restrict it to one subject. That I find limiting for contemporary art.’
Wouter Davidts (WD): ‘It’s a complete overestimation of architecture at the same time.’
Calin Dan (CD): ‘In 1991, nobody was concerned with the new political power that legitimized the building by the decree signed by then Prime Minister Petre Roman. He made it into what it is now, the Palace of Parliament. If the discussion is still revolving around the building, this is because the main topic is not MNAC, but the building itself. I agree that one should not overestimate an architectural object. But if this object is the result of a complex historical process, it is not just merely a building. It has to be analyzed in many ways, with different tools. Art is just one of these tools and, I am sorry to say, not the most important one.’
MP: ‘Is it a good idea to make the person that analyzes the building part of the building, as MNAC does?’
CD: ‘I’m trying to extract myself from this tedious polemic, because I think it induces a limiting dilemma.’
FW: ‘I don’t have problems with MNAC being in the House of People. You could also say: “I use the money and transform it into better things.” For me it is more problematic that the parliament is housed in the same building as Ceausescu.’
(audience): ‘I think you should be careful where to draw the line between political activism and art. It was good that Santiago Sierra did not use actual beggars. People expect something if you meddle with their situation. If you are involved in politics, the people you represent depend on you. A three-month art project is not where it ends.’
Gideon Boie (GB): ‘Politicians are not ready to engage in a real political discussion on the issue of beggars and illegal refugees – the art sector might as well do that, no? So, I would argue that the artist should become politician. Today, it’s only the artist who can come up with a proposal that goes beyond what is perceived as “possible”, and thus create a political debate.’
FW: ‘It’s impossible that politicians can decide on what kind of art should be realised! As if we agree on all the things that politicians do. It’s about freedom of cultural production: it doesn’t matter whether you call it activism or you call it painting. It makes absolutely no difference. We are all cultural producers. Which one you prefer, that’s your choice.’
MH: ‘It’s remarkable to see how easily we slip from the idea of art in a building, to architecture that has a strong political profile, to using the term political art. We assume that art shown in a location of that nature is in itself political. I was using the term political art, but I was told to use “critical artistic practice” instead.’
Daniel van der Velden (DVDV): ‘The palace is a symbol. Do you think critical artistic practice can change its meaning?’
MH: ‘I’m not sure whether it’s possible.’
DVDV: ‘Calin said the symbolic power is always stronger.’
CD: ‘There is a most unfortunate relation between our moral paradigm and our visual needs. And that is the dilemma represented by this place. It’s pleasurable, in a very perverse way, even through its connection to a certain image of civil war. The conditions in Romania in the 1980s very much resembled those of civil war. Apart direct shooting, everything was there. “The building is related to much suffering; it is huge and familiar, and it is like Disneyland.” That is, in short, the argument many put forward. On a subliminal level, the civil war paradigm is contributing to the present destiny of the building. Any effort to organize critical discourses has to be worked out “around” the building. I think the building generates a strange feeling of pleasure that prevents people to be radically critical.’
DVDV: ‘But maybe that pleasure, that perverse side of the building, is also part of its symbolic impact. Without that, it would not be such a powerful symbol. I’m not implying to give it friendly connotations. I’m just implying a change of meaning. Could the building, through an artistic or design strategy, become a symbol of global resistance against neo-liberal dominance? This focus on sign value is maybe due to the fact that we are graphic designers, and as such, we inject ‘untruth’, fictions, stories or ideas in the space between the representation and the real thing. What I sense from your question, Matthias, is that your idea of radical art is very much one of direct action. I would like to emphasize that art and design are also sites for thought, causing people to think, as critical theory does.’
MM: ‘I do believe that MNAC by itself cannot solve the problem of the House of People. It’s just one instrument, operating so far in a void for lack of other instruments. I would like to go back to Maria’s remarks about institutions. After 30 years of institutional critique, I don’t think they emanate this crushing sense of authority any longer. I think they can be conceived as site-specific, provisional structures and organizations. Instead of highbrow offices that dispense truth, institutions can be experiments that exist for a few years, site-specific attempts at achieving certain goals; not temples where the same prefabricated idea reverberates emptily. Institutions can be testing grounds for themselves and ideas about art, and I think MNAC is doing a good job. It does not aspire to be there forever, nor does it say that everything is in its right place. It is a temporary solution for the Romanian scene in its relationship to the recent past.’
MP: ‘To what degree can the institution itself be experimental, not including the curators who decide on the programme? That’s an important distinction. We are talking about institutions: how provisional can they be, how instrumental? That’s a technical, institutional question. A curator still works in a framework that is set up by someone else.’
MM: ‘Without the framework there would be no exhibition programme, but the framework is just a bureaucratic empty shell. That framework is nothing in itself, it has to be filled with individual positions and priorities that are continuously renegotiated.’
MP: ‘You can never decide on the framework, only react to it.’
DVDV: ‘Mihnea, you have called MNAC a “site-specific institution”. In site-specific art practices it is presupposed that you react to the site.’
MM: ‘I said that any other place in Bucharest would not necessarily be a better, safer place to discuss Romanian recent history or contemporary art. It’s not necessarily true that the House of People can be addressed in a more radical, critical way from a five kilometre distance. Things are not that simple. MNAC’s presence creates a discussion. It is a starting point from which things can progress, not a sort of closure. It advocates institutionally, that the House of the People must be dealt with, but it also presents contemporary art exhibitions that do not refer to that situation.’
FW: ‘I don’t believe that MNAC can ever change the meaning of this building. Not even the biggest art show can do that. Even if only one percent of the visitors has acquired a new perspective, still 99 percent of the people consider it the same.’
IC: ‘But it is changing. I don’t think the younger generations connect to the place in the way that our generation did. Considering the visitors and the projects organised by the museum’s curators I see that they have no sense of the history of the place, they completely enjoy it. If you ask them what they know about Ceausescu, they reply that they heard he was a bad guy. But they don’t have any idea of who the man was. So I think that very few of us here have direct contact with the lived experience of the place. How many people have visited the building? It’s difficult to have a real discussion about something that you mainly know from mediated experience.’
MP: ‘Surely, one could argue that it is precisely the distance, the fact that we don’t have directly experienced the building, makes us perhaps more wary.’
IC: ‘I’m not saying that people cannot have a point of view, but the experience of the building is completely changing. We don’t live in the past. We live now. We are mobile, get in touch with many people in many places, which adds to our experiences, and so on.’
MP: ‘So one might say that architecture of power will survive its political experiment?’
IC: ‘Probably, I think it will remain some kind of anecdotic attachment to a possible experience of the place.’
MP: ‘That sounds like a very cynical conclusion.’
IC: ‘It is.’
CD: ‘On the one hand this might be the central truth of today’s argument. This is probably why I’m so interested in collecting private memories of people who experienced the palace. I’m talking about people; ordinary people, not artists. Meanwhile, the younger generation relates completely differently to the topic. This is neither good nor bad, it is just different. It forces our generation to go back to the roots of the trauma, not in order to modify, but to make experiences more complex.’
MP: ‘It’s often forgotten by the younger generation…’
CD: ‘The new generation did not forget, the new generation simply does not know. We witnessed construction of the building and contributed to it. We have to make sure not to forget.’
(audience): ‘Is that the role of the museum?’
CD: ‘I’m not here presenting arguments pro or against the museum, I talk about the building, that’s my topic. I’m not interested in this MNAC vs. Casa Poporului. I’m interested in something completely different, which is the power of architecture and in this case Casa Poporului.’
DVDV: ‘Mihnea, having seen your slide show, I have the idea that during the communist era artists portrayed Ceausescu in a variety of “artistic styles”. At MNAC, the building is the central subject in videos, paintings; we even saw it rendered as a cake. An artistic practice without boundaries is enacted, with the building as subject. How would you react to this comparison?’
MM: ‘I would say that both cases, completely dissimilar as they are, are not based on necessity. Painters before 1989 were not forced to paint Ceausescu. At MNAC, albeit under completely different circumstances, nobody is forced to make work about the House of People. It is telling that some artists decided to make works on the subject that were very ironic. But I do not believe the comparison holds. I would be glad to have new pieces on the subject, pieces that are not ironic and do not take the House metaphorically, but literally. I think it should be taken in its overwhelming literalness. An artist initiated – and regrettably abandoned – a project on an archive of the construction, that contained hundreds of interviews with those who had had a say in the construction, or those who were affected by it. The project was to become as big and in a sense as difficult as the House of People itself. I would strongly encourage such a project. For me, MNAC is not the problem, the House of People is. The formulation of this problem was silenced until 2004, but MNAC has at least recreated the problem and kept it alive – without finding a solution, but looking for ways to deal with it. The fact that the parliament moved in troubled no one and did not lead to international conferences. The House was dormant and unproblematic. It started to cause irritation and became the subject of conferences because it accommodated a museum. The museum created this huge problem for itself, but more importantly, for contemporary Romania. Ever since the feeling of irritation has been kept alive.’
FW: ‘We refer to 4 percent of the whole building, approximately.’
MM: ‘The mathematics are quite simple.’
MP: ‘But if we don’t discuss it, nobody will. The issue is too important not to be taken up.’
MM: ‘The building can be bombarded with projects. It can be attacked creatively. Not only by MNAC, which is just one of its gateways. In 1996, when the parliament moved in, a competition was held that asked for suggestions as to the future of the building. Some suggested to blow it up or demolish it. Instead, bombarding it with projects is the best solution.’

*Rita Verdonk is the former Dutch minister of immigration, also known as ‘Iron Rita’. She applied merciless ‘I am the Law’-policies when dealing with the complexities of global immigration.

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  • Architecture for the People
  • Let art save democracy!
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