Issue #45, 2014
Scene

Performance As An Object Of Artistic Research
Alexandru Polgár in Conversation with Szilárd Miklós

Szilárd Miklós was born in 1981 in Miercurea-Ciuc. He studied graphic at the Art and Design University in Cluj (2000–2004) and worked as a teacher at the Partium University – Department of Arts in Oradea (2005– 2007). He is a founding member of several projects and nonprofit associations in Cluj: Conset (www.conset.ro), workshop program (2014–); Protokoll (www.protokoll.ro), ȘPAC – Școala Populară de Artă/People’s Art School (2009–2011); Julesz Community; “conset.org“, on-line publishing platform (2004–2007). He is an artistic consultant at the Tranzit House in Cluj (2004–). Presently he lives and works in Cluj.

Alexandru PolgárπA few years ago, but please specify the exact date if you know it, you started dealing with performance art in Romania and especially with the material of the performance festival organized at Lake St. Ana. What brought you, as an artist, to start such a research project?

Szilárd Miklós∫I have started researching performance days at Lake St. Ana by an invitation to participate in an exhibition on the topic of apocalypse, The End of Worlds. This has been the third part of an exhibition series called Maybe, organized every five years called, which has taken place in September 2012 at the Magma exhibition space in Sfîntu Gheorghe. The video work I have made for this exhibition has been constituted by combining two photo series with text inserts. I was camping with a friend in the area of Lake St. Ana, where years ago, in the 1990s, there were organized the performance days since then famous. I have used an analogical photo camera and a colored roll. I oriented the camera towards my friend and took pictures for a day and a half, practically documenting his presence there. I have made a photographic essay, knowing that it had to fit in the 24 pictures of the roll I had in my device. We have played with the thought that he is a performance artist and we have tried reenacting the performance festival. In fact, I tried to make a portrait of him, without any previous research on performance.

On the web page of the Etna Foundation, which used to organize the AnnArt Festival, there are a few poor quality documentary films about the festival, made either by the organizers, or by various TV stations. I observed and described a few performances watching these films, and I later inserted these descriptions in the two photo series. Writing in the name of my friend, these descriptions about the various actions often misinterprets them, either because they are simply mistaken or because information was lacking. In spite of the fact that I have tried to formulate things in an objective manner, the raw materials of the documentary films are often cut, and the quality of the image is very poor, because it was optimized to internet standards now obsolete. It was clear that their documentary value, at least for some of the actions, is not full or trustworthy, but I blindly stuck with them as the sole sources of information I could access at that time. The third layer of my video is another series of photographs, which captures a normal day in the life of a dog accompanying us. The two portraits alternate in a slightly monotonous manner during the film. The calendar dates inserted in the middle of the film offer a key for a reading, whereby the duration of the events at Lake St. Ana becomes obvious, 1990–1999, as well as the in year in which the dog has been born, 1999. By this, I concretely reference the archive, but this apocalyptic signal at the middle of the film is followed, with the same monotony, by a list of those actions that, through their alteration, through their association with a strange face and a domestic animal, could have an alienating effect on those who know the events from a different angle, as a documentary material at hand. In this case I tried to highlight the critique of the way in which the archive is utilized in a local institutional context, where collaboration between generations (Etna/Magma) has become problematic, in a country where there are no public institutions assuming the role of creating archives, research and mediation. I have approached performance as a genre from the point of view of documents, material imprints and institutional practices. Since then, I returned many times there to get an idea about the archive of the Etna Foundation in Sfîntu Gheorghe. This triggered an interest in a better acquaintance with performance after the regime change. Parts of my work I have already made public on several occasions under the title Stateless Anthropology.

πWhy “stateless“? And why “anthropology“? What is behind this curious phrase? How can this relate to the question of the archive, both in its generic utilization and in the light of its lacks at a local level? Do you really believe that there is no collaboration among generations? What would such a collaboration mean, how do you imagine it? And, beyond this “political“ or socio-cultural question, should we understand that your preoccupation with performance is simply an accident? For, the question of the archive and the question of intergenerational collaboration can be studied on any other artistic genre. Why performance? How do these questions stay together?

∫I try to think through my work. This means that I do not try to interpret the world only in an intellectual manner, but I also intervene physically, I create objects, I make decisions that bring visibility to conglomerates of information, processes, and operate with or are determined by the categories of various sciences, such as sociology, economics, politics, etc. I would not like to present the expanded art practice resulting from here as some sort of ideology; this is why I use that phrase with a certain self-irony, as an analogy of art.

Stateless anthropology means for me to penetrate to the inside, to search man from close, similarly to the field work carried out in classic anthropology, but there is no field for us to go back. There is no center, perhaps it never was, where the knowledge about man gathers, that is, a place where the collection of information would be part of a different administration (I will return to this). Therefore, stateless anthropology must highlight knowledge in the place it finds knowledge; it must articulate knowledge on the field. There is then a certain geographical, spatial carrier of this phrase, besides the fact that a certain force of organization appears in it. Of course, anthropologists smile when they hear such a phrase, but they agree that anthropology can be in no other way but stateless, thus, in a certain sense, the phrase is tautological. The title has, in fact, a hidden meaning, which activates itself in the local community, in the place where my research about the performances at Lake St. Ana has started. The etymological meaning of the word bozgor, pejoratively describing Hungarians from Romania, is “without a homeland, a country“. If you try capturing it from the point of view of this meaning, that is, approaching it ethnically, this anthropology still has a home(land) , but this is a subversive, negative homeland, being outside of any states, exodus. This title, when I used it for the first time, has also served practical goals, because the two institutions that assumed contemporary art practices in Sfîntu Gheorghe – the place for which I created my work mentioned above – have become incompatible because of the feeling of national identity. The causes of this incompatibility have, of course, many layers, and their analysis requires lot of attention. I have started formulating questions about the type of ideological predetermination that performance as an artistic option bears, about the possibility that performance could take a leading role in “progressive“ social struggles in different historical contexts, as it did in Eastern Europe during the regime change, and, finally, about the causes for which such efforts remain in the custody of some “one author institutions“and, as such, they cannot be transmitted.

Contemporary art practices in Romania are organized and managed by the civil sphere. But the support received by civic organizations is always unsure, project-based, and exposed to a logic of funding that does not give them the possibility of taking over the tasks of public institutions. My interest focuses primarily on the performativity of these institutions, about which I try to formulate a speculative interrogation in order to shed light on their ideological background. For the visual arts in Romania before 1989, performanceas an artistic practice has become something extremely important. Similarly, as regards experimental art practices before the regime change, art history always emphasizes performance,which seems to be the most economical way of criticizing the system. The body, object and instrument of resistance, tries to escape the repressive administration of the state apparatus. But where could it escape? To a different administration. AnnArt was one of the festivals that, after the regime change, embraced only this genre. The fact that, for a relatively long time span (1990–1999), it managed to keep its profile can be seen as the choice of an author. Its administration, as well as its organizational achievements, has a special meaning, for this fixes, documents the bodies set in motion by performance. Beyond personal ambitions, which sometimes homogenize actions, we would need institutions offering the possibility of an equally critical relationship with the institution to those who build it and those who use it. I do not believe that there would be no collaboration between generations; I am only saying that institutions created from an auctorial position cannot properly highlight their public character.

πThis year you have been invited to an exhibition at Salonul de Proiecte in Bucharest. Your participation there has involved a piece of work resulting from the research we are talking about. A chair that bears on its seat the shape of the AnnArt tent. Why is it that this piece of absurd furniture is the best image of your current preoccupations?

∫Watching the various records about AnnArt, my fantasy has been attracted to a huge tent with a tetragonal structure used as the center of the festival. At that point, I thought that it was a military tent, on which they printed the logo of AnnArt, but I have soon learned that it was built by an architect on the basis of some sketches drawn by Gusztáv Ütô, the main organizer of AnnArt Festival and curator of the Etna archive. In the documents stored in the archive, the tent appears under the name “AnnArt center“ and it was installed each year by the team helping out with the organization of the festival. The landscape full of tents, with this six meter one in the middle, seemed slightly utopian to me. It was like an imagistic analogy of a self-organizing society after the regime change, the model of a utopian institution meant to place in institutional forms the practice of a radical freedom – performance. A friend has made me attentive to the fact that he was reading this tent in juxtaposition with the tents of the occupy movements, which advance the requirement of social reorganization. Within these, the tent suggests a new locality, a new social contract. There are pictures in which people wear their tents and demonstrate in this outfit in public or run nonchalantly before the eyes of the police (tent monsters). As regards my research of performance days, I was curious especially about their institutional background, about their institutional self-definition and their infrastructural development rather than of analyzing individual actions. On my first visit at the Etna archive, which is a latent archive functioning with a precarious internal systematization, I have been interested primarily in these things, somehow for being able to connect this existing archive, in its physical and administrative capacity, as well as in its institutional continuity, with real data, economy and local history. This form has been born as an abstraction of infrastructure, and the chair is used as an instrument for measuring man, as a yardstick for one man. By the fact that I placed on it this tent shape resembling a crystal, the functional character of the chair has been lost, but I have tried somehow to reintroduce a certain function. I do not know to which extent this formal search covers the way I think. In a sense, it is as a hieroglyph, or as the sitting coffin made by Magritte. I still search its function. I do not project man onto it, but I try to locate man between a lost action and one that was still not found. Beside this object, with the support of Salonul de Proiecte, I have visited again Sfîntu Gheorghe, for digitalizing all video tapes in the archive, which contain materials about the AnnArt Festival. By cutting this material, I have made a portrait of the tent. In this film I have introduced just pictures of the tent. Because of this simple principle of selection, in many cases actions taking place in the foreground interrupt, and everyday events receive the same importance as performances and official events organized around the tent.

πIn the last time, performance festivals have disappeared one after another in Romania. Everybody – with rare exceptions – returned to the fabrication of objects. How do you explain this shift in your research?

∫Indeed, many events with a similar profile have started at the beginning of the 1990s. To remind just the most significant, Vectorfrom Iași has also started as performance festival, and later become a contemporary art biennial; Zonaof Timișoara, despite the fact that it was a festival with a strong curatorial concept, in its last catalogue one can notice a certain distancing from performance as a genre. Practitioners of performance in that time often expressed the need for theoretical reflection. Similarly, they said that performance was not about money. Today, there are many young people who grew up in the magnetic attraction of commercial galleries. When performance lived its age of glory, this was not something natural. I believe that I am very much at the beginning of studying these questions. I am looking for the right question to ask, the question that already formulates an edifying answer.

Translated by Alexandru Polgár