Issue #44, 2013
Scene

Exemplary Stories
Xandra Popescu & Larisa Crunțeanu

Atelier 35 is a concept which appeared in 1966, dedicated to experiment and to early-career artists, the number 35 suggesting a conventional limit of youth. The venue in Bucharest’s old town on 13 șelari Street is probably the only one still following this concept. In the summer of 2012 Xandra Popescu, Alice Gancev and I started to work in this venue. In the spirit of mutual aid, we wanted to create an environment of solidarity, to blur the boundaries of authorship in contemporary art. So we tried to convince the first artists we worked with to enter into a temporary agreement of cooperation with the next scheduled artists. This would have led to the creation of a micro-system of mutual support. But it didn’t work. So we took on the role of constant partners.

Meanwhile, Xandra moved to Berlin, Alice to Amsterdam – and I was the only one left in Bucharest.

Amid a common artistic practice, Xandra and I continued to design the content for Atelier 35 via Skype. We met again this spring as part of a residency at the MuseumsQuartier Vienna and, through exemplary stories, we tried to decipher the experience of the last two years together at Atelier 35. We didn’t try to avoid the prosaic elements, the criticism and the production conditions that lead us.

 

Larisa (L): Tell me how it started.

Xandra (X): It was a combination of circumstances. We were about to exhibit Looking for a Perfect Gentleman at the venue, and while installing it we were told that this would be the last project at Atelier 35. The managing team at that time was about to step down and it was rumored that the Union of Artists (UAP) was planning to transform the space into a ceramic art store. One of the managing team members asked if we are interested to take over the space.

L: They asked others, too, not just us.

X: Yes. But we were the only ones interested. And that ought to have given us something to think about.

L: We wanted a territory anyway. It seemed a natural continuation of our collaboration. 

X: Well, in that context, we saw it as our duty to defend that space; to keep it available for the kind of projects that interested us.

L: And then suddenly the question of legitimacy began to occur. Atelier 35 was a venue invested with a certain symbolic and cultural load...

X: We were interested however in the idea of imposture, so we were happy to deal with the theme of legitimacy. Our idea was to create a space for practice and not for artistic production, a safe environment where people would be able to test some ideas.

L: Well, the thing is that this was in the tradition of Atelier 35.

X: Yes, we were aware of that. But because we were outsiders, we didn’t claim this tradition. However, along with the keys to the space we also inherited an archive from the previous team – a hard-drive containing a research on the history of Atelier 35 and representative artists of this phenomenon. The team had started enthusiastically this research, but the theme has remained rather seduced and abandoned. Due to the enormous volume of work and the lack of research methodology, their approach lingered at an uncertain stage. We tried to decipher the material on the hard-drive, but there were only sparse elements – nothing seemed to come out of it. The previous managing team tried to call it square with Atelier 35; so despite their kindness and solicitude, we felt that there was no availability for our queries. We felt it like a solemn and oppressive legacy. It would have been a matter of honor to work with this archive, but our intentions and energies didn’t have an archaeological vocation. So we decided to make the information available to the public. As part of the project Mai mult ca perfectul (Pluperfect) at the Spațiul Platforma in Bucharest we’ve created the Atelier 35 Research Laboratory. Those interested could consult or copy information from that drive on several computers.

Starting from here, you and Alice have created the 100 de franzele (100 loaves) performance. Tell me about it.

L: Yes, I felt the need to somehow rate that feeling – the impossibility to recover history. The day before, we bought 100 dry loaves for a small amount, which we crumbled together. On opening day we linked the two locations with bread crumbs: Spațiul Platforma, where the archive was shown, and the Atelier 35, which generated that content. Our action aroused controversy, however. A lady who claimed to be working for the city hall complained that we were making a mess. In front of a restaurant, a waiter bullied us because people might think that he was the one throwing away the crumbs on the pavement. 10 meters from Atelier 35 we were stopped by a group of police officers who identified us and took us to the police station. There, we discussed extensively and honestly about what art, citizen rights in public space and the gentrification of Bucharest’s historic center mean. An hour later, in the absence of a legal basis, we were taken to another station. Once I took responsibility for the act, Alice was freed. She returned to șelari Street and completed the crumbs trail to Atelier 35.

X: Let’s go back to the taking over of Atelier 35.

L: Our first and only meeting with the UAP board was surreal. We went there dressed up to the nines and with our homework done: artistic strategy, milestones, partnerships... After a long wait, we were met by group of men and women who seemed to be part of the board and who were sitting at a long table. They didn’t introduce themselves. The only question we were asked was: “Which one of you is the one with the writing?“ They did not seem very interested in our strategy. I think they just wanted to know that we are “serious girls“ and that we can “do a good job“. It was then that we understood the conditions in which we would operate.

X: No. I guess we already knew that. We were aware that there will be a space for negotiation and deferment. We didn’t have the illusion of independence. But we were interested in the idea of infiltrating in the fabric of recent history – of getting inside the old jar and smelling the dubious scents. So we took it rather lightly.

L: That’s what we say now, in retrospect, but at first we did try to gain ground.

X: Yes! Until we realized that we had nothing to gain – and that it was just a matter of resisting. I find it important to talk about the conditions in which we operate because they determine our practice.

L: Let’s start with the thorny issue of the estate. The Union owns the building where Atelier 35 is located. Above us there are studious given probably for life to important members of the UAP. Under an agreement with the neighboring restaurant, Crama Domnească, for six months a year, the latter extend their beer garden in front of Atelier 35. Posters with chips and schnitzel decorate the walls and the canopy with commercial to a local beer obstructs the space’s windows. After asking around, we found that the UAP artists who have studios in the building hadn’t paid their heat bills for years. The building has a common heating system with the restaurant, so its owners offered to cover the costs, provided that they can expand the beer garden in front of Atelier 35 too. Of course, the agreement has no legal basis, since the artists in the building are not owners so they cannot rent the space in front. At first we protested vehemently. Then we realized it’s in vain. They had found a win-win solution. By comparison, our so-called altruistic and artistic interest seemed really cheap.

X: This has also inspired the concept of one of the first projects. I knew Daniela Pălimariu is concerned with the idea of alimentation and resource negotiation in public space. So we thought of inviting her to make something site-specificto reflect this situation. Alice put Daniela in touch with Atelier Brut and together they made CAFE35. The idea was that what happened inside mirrored what happened outside. Therefore, Atelier 35 competed with the surrounding restaurants and beer gardens by creating its own arsenal of seduction and conviviality. Through this project we wanted to approach the very specific gentrification in Bucharest’s old center.

Returning to the relationship with UAP, maybe we should find it admirable that they protected the tradition of Atelier 35 and didn’t turn the venue into a ceramic art store after all.

L: The term “protection“ is a euphemism. At first, both we and the audience had access to the utilities in the building. Due to tensions with the resident UAP artists, the latter changed the keys to the toilets. We are currently playing roles in a little sketch: we sent a written request to the UAP so that the participants in the Performance Lab coordinated by Ioana Păun to be able to use the toilet between 10 and 19. A directive issued by the Union’s management was posted in the building asking the UAP members not to change again the key to the toilet during this period. But otherwise, at every opening, I invite the audience to visit the toilets in the neighboring bar, Oktoberfest. And so we fight a cold war every week.

X: I think it’s time to talk about the projects at Atelier 35 and the working method.

L: Over time, Atelier 35 has played a double role: host and co-author. As for the method, it is based on our personal artistic practice – cultivating a state of transfer and resonance.

X: I think that has allowed us to take some risks: we have invested in projects that speculate on confusion, that have the boldness of amateurism and the courage to exaggerate.

L: And in long-term projects. Multilayered projects that required a long incubation time. I think this is characteristic for Atelier 35 – the fact that we allow those working with us to take this time. We try to play ping-pongwith ideas and to remain suspended in the state of transfer until things really articulate. I refer for example to 1:1, (sept 2013) initiated and curated by Mihaela Varzari and hosted by Atelier 35 which had an art writing element that is still haunting us. Her project started from the “constant oscillation between desire and need in the territories recently affiliated to the European Union“.1 The exhibition was followed by a bilingual publication that circumscribes an area of intersection between political speculation, nostalgia and Pop Art. Among other things, the publication addresses the author’s fascination for the roles played by the actor Mickey Rourke. Mihaela Varzari argues that the enigmatic figure of the stock market speculator in the film 9 ½ Weeks captured the imagination of the ’89 generation and inspired a new model of masculinity.

X: We have been working at Alternative Identities, developed with Ioana Stan, since October 2013. The idea of this project originated in the short story Tristan Vox by Michel Tournier, which explores the volatility of the relationship between voice and identity. The protagonist, Felix Robinet, a radio presenter past his prime, creates an alter-ego, presenting himself under the pseudonym Tristan Vox. Seduced by the ințections of his voice, the public pictures him as a bohemian and charming young man. But there is a discrepancy between this image and Felix Robinet’s temper and look. First we analyzed how the idea of heteronym crosses critical thinking, contemporary art, film and literature. Then, based on some features not manifested, we formulated unlikely identities.  

L: Speaking of time investment, we are often asked about the financial investment. The most ardent curiosity about our activity is “how do we attract funds“ to support this activity?

X: Like ants, Atelier 35 is reproducing autonomously. No financial insemination and no external support. But there are many people who consistently support our activity: the artist Nicoleta Moise, Eng. Eduard Dedu, Eng. Dragoș Tătulea and the artist Remus Pușcariu.

L: I think the financial indiscretion is due to the presence of a large number of foreign artists at Atelier 35. Without intending to, we are one of the most active places in this area.

X: Now, to be a little self-critical, we thought about Atelier 35 becoming Bucharest’s “showcase for Western products“. This is why we wanted the foreign artists we work with to engage in a dialogue with the local scene in a give and take system. We didn’t want to nurture the colonial deference zeal “Take a look how art is done abroad!“

L: Now, if we started on the anecdotic side, let’s go all the way. Another exemplary story is the collaboration with the British artist Heath Bunting, one of the six artists in the 1:1 project​ . He believes that human civilization is moving rapidly towards the apocalypse and that soon, we, the humans, will be forced to take refuge in the woods. But most of us are completely unprepared for this situation. So, while waiting for the apocalypse, ​Heath invited us to his Surviving Skills workshop, and together with the participants (members of the Bucharest artistic community), we took a morning bus to the Băneasa forest. On the way we met Alin – a shaved gentleman with an ironed shirt – who seemed interested in our group. When we told him about the workshop,hesaid he actually lives in the forest. As soon as we got off the bus he took us to his tent. He told us he has two jobs, but he doesn’t make enough to pay the rent throughout the year. So, being in his 40s, he prefers to live in the woods than to live in his parents’ apartment. Heath asked him to be our guide, so mr. Alin taught us how to defend ourselves from stray dogs and homeless people and Heath Bunting spoke to us about the impending zombie invasion and showed us how to make a bow from hazel bark.

X: A story with a moral. In the same chapter of “international relations“, maybe it is worth mentioning our relationship with the Bucharest AiR residence. Until recently, Alice Gancevici and Remus Pușcariu assumed the role of guides within the residence: they were welcoming and introducing foreign artists to the local scene. Due to this conjuncture, some of Atelier 35’s projects ​​with foreign artists came to life.

L: In the end, I would like to talk about the woman-artist-curator equation. In an article by Corina Apostol, the author starts from the question “What positions can women occupy in Romanian contemporary art and culture?“2 The word curator is rooted in the Latin cure, which means care. In the article, Corina Apostol notes that the care work has been traditionally attributed to women. We may therefore infer that women are often in a position to take care of the art of men. Here we have assumed a delicate position, which might leave room for such speculation. Willingly and voluntarily. Why is that?

X: Because we always dreamed of being the sexy nurses of Romanian contemporary art. But we chose to especially take care of the women’s art. Atelier 35 was an artistic strategy. We were interested in investigating the production, distribution and historicization process in contemporary art. 

L: There seems to be a consensus that women are in charge with the writing – which is an adjacent occupation – or “bureaucracy“ as a young artist once told me.

X: That’s right, but we’ve embraced writing wholeheartedly and we wanted to bring text as much as possible in our practice. But to resume, I remember that, when we started, the artist-curator antagonism was very fashionable. We don’t pretend to be curators – position that, when assumed, involves a tremendous amount of responsibility. The way we work is different from the curatorial practice. The dialogue is articulated from different positions.

L: In that sense it’s a trade-off. We pay the price of the lack of power, but we gain the freedom to work in a very intimate way – to determine what follows. We don’t feel the same pressure of production budgets and deadlines. And for the time being we are not accountable to anyone. From this point of view: safe to try – safe to fail.

Translated by Alex Moldovan

 

 

Notes:

1. ‑The starting point of the project is Mihaela Varzari’s dissertation “Between Wanting and Needing: Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe“, written under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Lafranco Aceti, 2008, Birbeck College, London.

2. ‑Corina Apostol, „Ce poziții pot ocupa femeile în arta și cultura contemporană din România?“, appeared in the online publication Critic Atac, on 22.10.2011, http://www.criticatac.ro/10903/ce-pozitii-pot-ocupa-femeile-in-arta-si-cultura-contemporana-din-romania/.