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<nettime> Art and Political Mythology of Virtuality (Romanian Style)
geert lovink on 12 Jul 2000 18:41:28 -0000


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<nettime> Art and Political Mythology of Virtuality (Romanian Style)


Art and Political Mythology of Virtuality (Romanian Style)
Interview with Călin Dan
By Geert Lovink

Călin Dan is a Romanian art critic, curator and artist, based now in
Amsterdam. For me he is one of the people embodying the post-89 circumstance
of Europe. Călin is equipped with an enlightened form of nihilism (to be
found in Cioran - a cult figure for the Romanian intelligentsia); he
practices black humor (like Caragiale - another cult figure for the same);
he has a vivid interest in anthropology (see Eliade); and sometimes in
metaphysics (Noica/Liiceanu). Born in 1955 in the Transsylvanian town Arad
(next to the border with Hungary) in a middle class family, Călin Dan had a
mixed career under the Ceausescu regime, managing to achieve a reputation in
the art circles while keeping a low political profile, and he survived the
dark eighties as an art historian and journalist.

He was therefore quite well trained to enter the chaotic period after the
bloody "television revolution" of December 1989. Together with the artists
Dan Mihaltianu and Iosif Király he formed in 1990 the art group subREAL and
started to produce conceptual installations. Their style was dirty and
minimal, full of ironical references to Romanian history and to the
political moment - the dubious post-communist leadership of Ion Iliescu.
In 1990 also, Călin Dan became editor-in-chief of the art magazine "Arta"
(where he was working as junior editor since 1987), and from 1992 he taught
in the Art Academy of Bucharest orientation classes in new media and
advertisement language. In parallel he curated the first post-wall major
Romanian shows in Hungary and Germany, and Romanian participation in
international art exhibitions and media festivals.

In 1992 Călin Dan was appointed director of the Soros Center for
Contemporary Arts (SCCA) Bucharest. In that position he initiated the first
media art event in Romania, "Ex Oriente Lux", which opened in November 1993.
As a somewhat regular visitor to Bucharest, teaching media theory and video
at the Art Academy, I was part of this event, working together with Călin on
a special issue of "Arta", on the catalogue of the show and on the program
of a two days conference. During that intense period I made a first
(unpublished) interview with him.

The conversation below was recorded in Amsterdam, February 2000. A lot has
happened in-between. The government withdrew all funding for "Arta" in 1994.
The same year, Călin produced another mega-event, the exhibition
"010101...", using for the first time in the Romanian context features like
community oriented projects, interactive displays of content, on-line
communication. The event generated an important body of work produced in
collaboration with 14 artists, a documentary film and an impressive catalog.
In 1995, due to personal reasons, but also to differences of visions
concerning cultural policies, Călin resigned from his position in the SCCA.
The same year, Călin Dan and Iosif Király (by and since then the only
members of subREAL) were invited for a one year residency in Künstlerhaus
Bethanien, Berlin. They traveled there with the photo archive of "Arta",
practically saving it from destruction by neglect from the part of the
authorities.

As a result of the works produced there, subREAL became almost synonymous
with "artists & archives". Unlike in other cases originating in the Former
East, subREAL did not intend to reveal any scandals about compromised
artists or alleged secret agents, working for the powerful (at the time)
Securitate. The 600 kg heavy archive was primarily material illustrating Art
History as a concept. Nevertheless, this was the archive of a communist,
state-controlled art magazine, closely tied to the rich and influential
Union of Artists, an organization embodying the official ideology as far as
the art scene was concerned. Established in 1953, "Arta" went through a
Stalinist phase, experienced a short period of reform in the late sixties,
until the even more rigid (but also ambiguous) times of the Ceausescu
regime. Striking in its pages was not the pompous propaganda art, with
heroic statues of the steel workers or posters stating "Victoria
Socialismului" (The Victory of Socialism). But the fascinating and deeply
frightening horror vacui of normality, the boredom of the works, the mental
attitude of the artists, desperately trying to avoid any lively form of
expression (let alone dissent). This art, produced under the strict
surveillance of the authorities, is trying to escape history by doing
exactly what the party officials are expecting. In search for the "eternal"
(like in the work of Brancusi - significantly a recuperated hero during the
communist dictatorship), the metaphysical aims of 'art' are becoming fully
operational as repressive instruments.

Still: severely over coded by ideological tasks, there is always an element
which will ultimately neutralize the official forms of expression. As
reflected by the Art History Archive, art is not merely embodying the Will
to Power of a few second class party intellectuals. But the disappearance of
a whole category - Art itself. Art tends to disappear since it can no longer
distract our attention, let alone subvert... No expression, no pain, no
desire. Instead, we are taken on an endless journey through advanced forms
of mediocrity, masks of oppression from which we will never know if
something was hidden behind this apathy.

It must have been a rather confronting experience to work for such an
extended period with the images of a fake normality which defends its limits
fiercely. Călin Dan moved on. From 1996 he established himself in Amsterdam
as an artist. After having worked during the years with video, after using
the computer mainly for word processing and e-mail, Călin entered abruptly
in a media recuperation phase, and produced a lot of graphic material
commenting digitally on (again) art history (mainstream Western art this
time). After that he got engaged in the exciting world of 3D computer games.
It is at this point that our interview starts.

In collaboration with the newly established V2_Lab For The Unstable Media,
Călin developed between 1998-1999 the interactive installation "Happy
Doomsday!". Călin chose for the purpose two fitness chairs used for training
the arm muscles, and interfaced them with the computers through sensors reading
the movements of each user. The machines are performing the functions of joy
sticks, generating navigation/participation in a multi-user 3D environment,
which is a simulator of European war history based on the political map of the
continent. This is how it works (quoted from a press release): "Through workout
the users are given an instrument to induce dynamic changes of the borders, and
also to navigate in spaces presenting warfare as a set of narratives. Before
starting to play, the users make 2 options on a touch screen: avatar (any
political unit that the user wants to represent) and target (any political unit
that the user aims at conquering).  The users are involved with each other
directly, by the behavior of the avatars at the tactical level, and by the
mediated action of helpers, agents and weapons at the other levels. With
graphic and sound environments redesigning samples from art history, military
history, science, media, folklore, pop culture, "Happy Doomsday!" is a
metaphor-based war machine, and also a game about game playing."

GL: The complete version of "Happy Doomsday!" was recently shown in Vienna's
Museumsquartier, in ZKM - Karslruhe, and at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
Before that, the beta version with only one fitness chair interface was
premiered at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria in September
1998. How does it feel to have completed such a big project, which is, if I
may say so, your first as an interactive media artist?

CD: Basically it feels good, if I look at the people crowding to work out on
my machines. I am happy mainly because this gets my initial hypothesis
confirmed: there is a possibility to communicate with your public in a way
which is both enjoyable and serious. That was the main expectation behind my
choice for the computer game formula: to get an entertainment tool which
leads the audiences somewhere else. That is why I put my trust in
interactivity and in the pop culture formats.

GL: Budget-wise working at Nintendo must be different from working in the
structure of a media arts organization such as V2_Lab, even though you got
there a very generous support. How would you describe the aesthetics of
computer games in connection to this type of technical and financial
limitations?

CD: Building a computer game starts with decisions painters have to make
when buying the canvas, the brushes and the colors. If you are rich enough
you go to the best shop. If not you end up with a piece of cardboard. It
happened to Van Gogh. So, in the end much depends on what you are able to
use it for. In bigger words - what kind of visions haunt you. You do not
need the latest version of Maya or a super-computer in order to develop a
good piece.
Mind you that I am not necessarily in favor of the poverty approach. At
least not as far as the knowledge of the field is concerned. You have to
understand what is going on the market. Only after having your research
done, knowing what is on top and below your capacities, you can position
yourself properly. We ended up in the medium-lower scale. We worked with 3D
StudioMax, and we used World Tool Kit as game engine. It is fine compared to
older software but its kid's stuff if you look at what is used now in the
commercial world.
On the other hand, I do not see yet enough authoring knowledge enabling
people to contain the illusionist powers lying in high-end software. Without
that knowledge, generated in a thin zone between Technology and Cultural
Tradition, we are easily carried away by the fascination of the new,
sometimes in unknown directions, but mainly in versions of a Barbie
environment. That kind of knowledge is a delicate product and needs time to
develop and mature. While when working with lesser tools you are on the
familiar ground of poverty, and therefore forced to be inventive.

GL: Is this the distinction between the workshop-based digital artisan, as
Richard Barbrook has described it, and the industrial way of game
production?

CD: I do not see a structural difference between low and high scale
production, if the production mentality is there. As soon as you leave the
studio and start working outside of the art system, you are forced to
abandon artistry. If you run a project like "Happy Doomsday!", with a staff
of fifteen, or "Super Mario" with - I don't know, a team of two thousand
maybe? - it burns down to the same thing. You have to meet deadlines,
generate ideas at high speed, keep your drive. And mainly, work with people,
know what are the limits of your decisional powers, when to force into a
certain direction and when to give up, when to accept failures and when to
fight beyond.
Talking of deadlines, maybe that's where the differences occur. In low
budget projects, deadlines are basically impossible to meet. Not necessarily
because of bad planning, but because we talk here of a domain where process
control is very limited and where we practically do not know what we are
dealing with. You cannot quantify the work and drop deadline dates unless
you have an open pocket. And even then. At Nintendo, the above mentioned
"Super Mario" (a drag content wise, if I am allowed an opinion, but an
ambitious experiment in interaction and in physical responses of the
interface) was delivered with two years delay.

GL: What is the relation of "Happy Doomsday!" with the present situation of
digital art?

CD: The game was designed for two users who meet in a real-time rendered
3D-environment, a feature which implies quite some work. I think the public
likes it; not necessarily the critics or the digital arts community. "Happy
Doomsday!" is not trendy enough: not enough techie stuff in it, not enough
play with randomness or with any other imports from the surface of
scientific research. Besides, a strong physical interface grounded in a
specific location is different from a permanent web presence. That's also
not cool enough in those times of high bandwidth propaganda.

But more important to me, there is a mutual distance here, based on
different visions on the functions of art. I personally don't believe in net
art as a distinct visual territory, and obviously net art sets a tone in
today's digital discourse. I appreciate net art for some ideological stand
points, but I am not sure that the methods to fulfill them are appropriate.
Net art looks very much like an in-house product, with solutions easy to
absorb in main stream web design. I sometimes have problems in drawing a
clear visual distinction between a net art product and a smart commercial
web site - not enough resistance there, I would say. Next to this, net art
raises an interesting marketing issue: if you don't try to reach out with
intriguing, interesting physical interfaces your web site will be lost in
the electronic void. Getting into the public sphere needs more than a URL
printed on a T-shirt and much more than obstinate promotional campaigns.
Unfortunately, or luckily so -  I am not sure.

An exception in my view is Shulea Chang's "Brandon" project, due precisely
to the fact that it is interfacing with people, with institutions and with
the city at the same time (http://www.waag.org/brandon). "Brandon" provides
an example that interfacing to the public should not be just a metaphor,
since your audience is not just a matter of speech. An interface is also a
sculpture, and the social body you aim working with is fluid material that
can be modeled. Beuys had some good visions in that direction. But that is
ancient history - before the net ambitions. I think we should be more
concerned by the expectations of the audiences. People are very simple but
very sophisticated at the same time. This ambiguity makes them so hard to
catch and then hold, since it is so difficult to stir both aspects: their
simple curiosity and their deeper needs as well.

GL: Before "Happy Doomsday!" you worked mainly as an editor, critic and
curator. Your work as an artist member of subREAL was never that technical.
What skills did you learn in the process of putting together such a big
interactive computer installation?

CD: Not very much. I started my high school education in computing, and did
some programming in Pascal when I was a kid. I left that track very early
and studied art theory. Afterwards I always worked in teams, as an editor,
curator, manager. What the 90s brought in my life was the discovery of
today's neo-pop culture: advertisement, clubs, fashion. That was totally
different from what I experienced before the TV revolution allowed me to
both travel and zap. My option for the fitness machines as interfaces and
for the game paradigm as a support for my discourses come from this. If you
want attention you have to use attention-tested techniques. But for the
rest, "Happy Doomsday!" came very much along the line of other big projects
I did back in Romania in the early 90s, "010101...", or "Ex Oriente Lux".

GL: Could you describe the "Happy Doomsday!" environment for us? Is it an
ironic experience?

CD: First of all, "Happy Doomsday!" is definitely not an information space;
it started that way, but it then became a narrative (after all, I am from
the Balkans, where people love to tell stories). HD! is a game that deals
with enormous issues - (political) history and war - in a ridiculous way.
Starting with the fact that you have to pump up your muscles while
impersonating a country which tries to destroy another country: it's
grotesque!
On the other hand you have topics like money, vampires, nano-technology,
urban guerrilla, wars of the future. The method is self-ironic: I am
constantly deconstructing my own thinking processes, which is good, since I
am a trend determined animal. The topics are real, but also media induced,
and therefore vain. The situation is open, non-oppressive.

GL: To me you are very much a post-89 artist, a New European, not anymore
from the East or West. You moved from Bucharest to Berlin. You are based in
Amsterdam and recently have spent three months in Vienna. How do you look at
Romania, ten years after the Fall of Ceausescu?

CD: The more distance I get from Romania, the more I am interested in it.
Which is a normal process, I think. Besides that, I developed a conviction
that local circumstances considered, each and every different country in
Eastern Europe is a very interesting lab of the future. The conflicts
between various co-existing historical times are much more violent there,
compared to Western societies, even though these conflicts exist here as
well. The welfare state is dragging the foot here as it tries to survive, if
not in the governmental budget policies, then at least in the mentalities of
the people. The transformation from a welfare to a neo-liberal system is
implying a jungle of legal-to-personal changes, impossible for individuals
to follow, even if information would be totally transparent. That is because
psychologically speaking we are living in a cotton environment and do not
necessarily feel what is being decided in Brussels, Strasbourg and
elsewhere.

While in Eastern Europe the impact of the so called globalization, new
economy and so on is much more drastic and more on the surface, precisely
because of the specific conditions, which leave those countries more
vulnerable to changes. What makes the situation there more challenging for
the researcher and the activist is the relative innocence of the local
populations, which is usually misinterpreting the painful collapse of the
local economies as a transition towards the vanishing welfare state order.
Which is of course a procedure of political mythology: there is no such a
transition there, just a fall into the reality of neo-liberal disorder. One
has to admit that this is a most interesting dynamics.

GL: Do you have any plans to do work in Romania in the future?

CD: I am a believer in the symbolic aspect of culture clashes. Not because
they seem so trendy now, if we look at the inflationary ethno-anthropo
tendencies in music, fashion, art. But because working with remote cultures
can still provide us with a lot of information about who we are and where we
stand. This is certainly linked to my personal experience but also to the
strong traditions of anthropological research that Romania developed in the
last century. I would like to use this scientific tradition by working in
Romania or elsewhere, but always in a remote area, using wireless
technology. To build multi-user computer games for peasants and hunters,
with customized content, and interfaced with household tools. We still have
the chance to grab there a fundamental way of understanding the world and to
give it a voice. In a few years from now it will be too late.
People in the Romanian countryside watch TV and meanwhile they still believe
in vampires; sometimes they even act accordingly, sticking a piece of wood
through the heart of deceased people suspected to be werewolves. You can
offer to those neo-peasants Internet culture as a shamanic mirror. Not for
bringing new belief systems into their lives, but for analyzing old ones;
also for checking once more if there is real magic in computer environments.
Which I think is the case.

GL: Let us go back in time a bit, to Berlin in 1995/96 when you started to
work with the photo archive of the former art magazine "Arta". You went way
beyond the reworking of communist art history.

CD: The "Art History Archive", as Iosif Király and myself baptized the
project, became so successful basically because we avoided at all times and
sometimes against the expectations the obvious political connotations the
material had. It is significant that one of our works, dealing with an
omnipresent official artist of the time is called "The Man Without
Qualities". In the context of power, art people become shadowy figures, they
start to look alike, no matter the political system or its economic
infrastructure. Men without qualities gravitate in the high circles of
Western cultures and in the shadow of corporations that play the game of art
investment and public spending. In the A.H.A. projects we always started by
looking first at the historical data. From there on we extrapolated to a
symbolic level. And then we looked for similarities in the art of today.

In the beginning of the nineties when we started working together we denied
being artists. It was commonplace then to hate art. Recently we got back on
this issue. We use art as a platform for meeting people, for surfing
different cultural communities. The quality of communication and information
is higher there, less tough if compared to the technology or to the business
sectors. subREAL's new series "Interviewing the Cities" is precisely about
that. Meeting people on the basis of their trade as artists, curators,
collectors, architects.

GL: Can you tell the story of the negatives you found in the archive? You
started working with them at Akademie Schloss Solitude; part of the work
produced there was exhibited in the Romanian pavilion at the 1999 Venice
Biennial.

CD: In Berlin we worked with an archive of black-&-white photos. After a
year of research we knew it almost by heart, and therefore had no curiosity
for the negatives in the collection, thinking we knew what the prints would
be about. There were dozens of boxes with negatives. In the end we decided
to have a look at them any way, and that was a moment of revelation. The
images in the b/w archive were cropped from 6 x 6 negatives. Artworks are
usually long or wide, never square. Therefore paintings and sculptures were
just one part of the image, while a lot of things were happening in the
picture around them. It took us two years to process this source material in
various formats. Its connotation powers looked endless.

After that, in the fall of 1999 we went further, and started a new archive -
ours - by taking photos of people from the cultural world. The new project
is called "Interviewing the Cities" and started in Vienna. The procedures
are standardized: we go in the studio of a person we do not know; we
introduce ourselves, with a display of books and images of our work. Then we
look at the work of the person we visit. We talk about it. It is a complex
therapy of mutual interrogation. After that we take two photos, one of the
person, another of a piece of work. Iosif and I are always in the picture,
waving a back drop cloth behind the subject, precisely as in the old
negatives of the "Arta" archive. Some people find this cynical. I think it
is just matter of fact, and somehow humble: an old technique created through
the objective need to give a profile to the subject in an environment full
of accidents. We are there as the "servants of art", no more than that.

GL: The portraits of the city series have got something extra, something
timeless. They do not have that harsh, almost alienated brightness displayed
by most of the contemporary photography you see in galleries.

CD: subREAL is using old aesthetics. There is no relation to commercial
photography in our work. Handmade photography becomes more and more an old
medium. In the future it will be praised or despised like painting is today.
Because it is handmade, precisely. Today's digital mass photography is
completely different. We believe in old photography because of its rhythms.
We are actually interested in moving the universe of our photographs in
sculpture and painting.

GL: Does "Interviewing the Cities" have an anthropological aim? You have now
finished two series, Vienna and Amsterdam. Do you intend to give an overview
of the cultural scenes in such places?

CD: "Interviewing..." does not offer the context for a systemic approach. It
is not a scientific research tool, but a diary where events are provoked, if
you like, while a lot of room is given to chance. The series will gain
anthropological value in time, I am sure. That is already obvious after just
two layers of experience: the images from Vienna are so much different - in
a subtle way - from the Amsterdam ones. But I think it is too early for me
to elaborate on the topic of difference in an interesting way. I am now
looking forward to work in the next town - Helsinki.

GL: In October 1999, ten years after the fall of communism, a survey show on
East-European contemporary art was organized by Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
Is there something like a post-89 conceptual/media arts generation?

CD: Exhibitions like "After the Wall" are always good because they bring
topics together. The art there, in what I would call "the region" is very
diverse, and the differences kept working despite the political unification
of the cold war era. Russian artists are still very interesting, while
Russia is a miserable country. We, the Balkan people are not the top of the
pop; there is something divisive and small there. The weaker part of subREAL
comes from the Balkans, whereas the better part is Transsylvanian. I must
admit that I have a special interest in Hungarian art, probably also because
as a Romanian I should not like it. I find the Slovenian environment smart
and sophisticated. Things are happening in the Baltic states also. Certainly
the cultural borders within Europe are blurring. There are artists which are
already absorbed by the international scene, while others stay local. They
are not lesser artists, they just have another destiny.
As far as the young generation is concerned I do not know very much about
the subject. But I guess that a period of sedimentation is needed before the
political and the economic changes of the previous decade will reshape the
cultural scenes. For the time being those belong still to the generations
which gained a voice in the beginning of the 90s or even before.

GL: Can we now stop using these regional label that people always feel
slightly uncomfortable with? Parts of the former Eastern bloc are already
members of NATO. Some of the countries will soon enter the EU, whereas
others are fresh battlefields, poverty zones. Belarus is still a
post-communist dictatorship. And then there is Russia, which seems a case in
itself.

CD: As far as things develop normally, which is hard to believe, art will go
its way. People from the region can focus now more organically on the
region's needs and figure out wider strategies. Local and regional networks
are slowly building up next to Western influences and policies. Also, a
shift seems to be operating on the periphery. This buzz word from the
beginning of the last decade starts to be operational now, and the
connections on the North-South axis became suddenly real.

This is an extremely interesting period. Also a somehow naive one. In
perhaps thirty years from now we will have a very different look at the turn
of the 21st century. We will not understand why things were not moving
faster, and why were we so enthusiastic about the wrong things. But that
happened before, didn't it?

URL of Happy Doomsday!: http://www.v2.nl/v2-lab/hd"
URL of subREAL: http://www.plueschow.de/fellows/subreal"

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