Talking About My Generation

When I was 6, I became a pioneer. I was an eager one, a squad leader, with big dreams to one day become the head of my class. But it was all in vain because for three years in a row, my colleagues voted unanimously for Cosmina – a blond bootlicker (Forgive me Cosmina!) whose mother used to curl her hair with a hot iron before sending her to school. Instead, I distinguished myself through my oratory skills. I really liked patriotic poems. They instilled a sense of enthusiasm and pride in me. At the end of third grade, dressed up in my uniform I recited such a poem on the stage of our school’s festive hall. My mother had put a little lipstick on my lips, to match my beret. It was time to prove myself. I wished that I could contaminate everyone with that state of euphoria that the verses instilled in me. And I recited with an intonation, so melodious, I could have almost sang. Every verse gave me wings. From a corner of the stage Mrs. Bulboacă was hanging on my every word. Next to me, an accordion hanging at her neck, apathetic, Cosmina was breathing with her mouth open. Or maybe she was just in awe. And from the first row, my mother was looking at me, touched, rosy cheeks, turning more and more red, almost as red as the velvet of the armchair, she had sunken into, hand to her forehead. When I got off the stage she took me by the hand and whispered through clenched teeth – “we’re going home”. I would have liked to stay longer to receive my bouquet of praises. On our way home, on the tram, mother didn’t say a word. Only in the evening, over dinner, she asked me, half jokingly: “Couldn’t you have done without the pathos?”. My father laughed and mentioned something about Păunescu[1]. I didn’t know what pathos meant, nor who Păunescu was, but I understood back then that mother didn’t share my patriotic feelings and that from that moment on, I would have to hide.

This happening is a sample of an ideological conflict that was to go on for many years – in different forms and variants. I believe this was that first time that the political exploded in our kitchen. Not the last one. Such blunders followed one after another, with my parents as helpless and embarrassed witnesses.

The Forgotten Pioneer Movement (TFPM) is the name of a project I visited in Berlin at the end of 2014. Brainchild of curators Ulrike Gerhardt and Susanne Husse, it took place in the space of District Berlin at the end of last year. Situated in an old malt factory, in the South of Berlin, District got my attention because it organizes a yearly residence dedicated to women artists. Initially, the event gave me the impression of an international festival bringing together the most representative voices of a younger Eastern European art. But beyond that I was seduced by the premise of the authors who conceived TFPM as a sort of fictional paneuropean movement. I imagined fervent or rebellious, grown up pioneers, reunited under the banner of a secret movement, connected to each other through many invisible and entangled threads. And there was of course the logo, of a surprising nineties sensibility. Designed by Pieterjan Grandry, it succeds in looking fresh and obsolete at the same time. Grandry is a designer and an artist working in collaboration with Valentina Karga.

I passed by at District in one of the last exhibition days, on the occasion of a guided tour led by the two authors of the project. The modular design of the exhibition by KLOZIN – Office for Display Solutions by Wilhelm Klotzek and David Polzin entitled Apply System ‘Flat Fix Panel’ (2014) was inspired by the aesthetics of traditional products fairs in East Germany and non-official art during socialism. Instead of a description of the works in the exhibition, I will rather discuss the premises of this almost too ambitious to be true project. Part of a series of events commemorating 25 years since the fall of the wall, TFPM strikes a different chord, if nothing else, because it works with the notion of ‘psychodrama’. Normally, the sheer idea of ‘psychodrama’ is enough to give me shivers of discomfort, but I could not think of a better instrument to unravel this entanglement of history and biography, which we call generation. Pioneers caught off guard by the arrival of a new economic order – children of the revolution marked by the schizophrenic heritage of transition. Come to think of it, even the notion of pioneer has multiple connotations: it may represent the devoted scout but also the zealous capitalist, self determined and adaptable. Building on the polyphrenia of the term ‘pioneer’, the two authors speculate on the corporeal aspects of memory and ideology, with the help of ‘psychodramatic’ strategies.

Started three years ago in outspread conversations with artists and curators from various places across the former East, the project was initially conceived as a site-specific performance festival in different cities of Eastern and Central Europe. The conversation partners were Agne Bagdžiunaite, Ana Bogdanović, Snejana Krasteva, Eglė Mikalajūnė, Maya Mikelsone, Anca Rujoiu and Ivana Hanacek, Ana Kutleša, Vesna Vuković of the curatorial collective [BLOK]. The two authors were at the time flirting with the conceptions of corporeal knowledge and language as a sculptural material. Working in the company of Precarious Life. The Politics of Mourning and Violence (2004) by Judith Butler, they consider the acceptance of vulnerability as a fertile ground of reflecting the present.

In the end, their endeavor didn’t take the form of a performance festival but of a project belonging to the field of contemporary art. That most likely due to the anniversary opportunities for which the city of Berlin had made new resources. Furthermore I think the way such projects evolve on multiple levels, shaped by intentions, conversations but also production possibilities and constraints, is interesting.

TFPM was conceived in three sections: a performance program (Set #A), the exhibition itself (Set #B) and a lecture and workshop program (The Pioneer Camp of ReVision, Set #C). In recent times, performance has become the “it” accessory to exhibition making. Much like a trophy wife, its role seems to be that of entertaining the guests and lending her shine to the “the actual work”. An indispensable accessory but still just an accessory. From the point of view of cultural policy a good addition, but still not a genre in its own right.  In the case of  TFPM however, one could almost think the contrary. It felt as if the two curators had conceived everything around the idea of performance.

Within the performance section, I got to see Delicate Instruments to be Handled with Care by Alexandra Pirici. In a performance à la carte, Mădălina Dan, Farid Fairuz, Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuș reproduce moving quotes from pop culture or recent history: the first broadcast of the Romanian television after the revolution, a Coca-Cola commercial, the Death of the Swan. In a moment of shyness, I asked my partner to request Beyonce’s Drunk In Love for me. The author took him on the side and offered him and us all an unforgettable view. You have been warned: during this number, Alexandra Pirici sings, poses, shakes her thighs, and crawls on the floor with her back arched, reconstructing the diva’s number in a faithful manner. Starved of its instrumental backing, of the dynamic of the camera and editing, I saw this choreography of seduction in a different light, a raw energy, gloriously grotesque. As Queen Bey would say,  “Can’t keep your eyes off my fatty daddy…”

Speaking of performance I think we are witnessing lately a seduction ritual between visual art and the immaterial. But the immaterial plays hard to get. In an article written 4 years ago, Andy Horwitz tried to pin down the difference between performance coming from visual art and contemporary performance as a genre coming from theater and dance. Taking position for time-based art, Horwitz’s diagnosis was the following: visual art has been historically organized to create value around objects, while contemporary performance was configured to create experiences. I thought that the title of Pirici’s work responds in a certain measure to this difference. Performers as instruments making themselves available to the public’s request. Their defining feature, this assumed availability. Instruments as objects. Functional objects. Objects with buttons. Objects that can awaken sensations: delicate objects.

Left by myself in the exhibition space, the first work I was drawn to, as if pulled by a thread was Vocabulary Lessons (2009) by the CORO Collective (Eglė Budvytytė, Goda Budvytytė and Ieva Misevičiūtė) – also a reverence to pop culture. Imagine three women starring in a video with innocent premises –  An Alphabetic Song. But wait, these women seem deadly serious. And the video is filmed in an unlikely location – on the staircase of the Sports and Concerts Palace in Vilnius – a masterpiece of Soviet constructivism. With vogueing moves the three women form the letters of the alphabet with their bodies. Their costumes seem to be borrowed from a Pet Shop Boys video called Go West. No. They are even more beautiful, they remind me of Lizica Codreanu. Their echoing voices seem to be resonating from a dream, but the lyrics have nothing to do with “Now I know my ABC’s, next time won’t you sing with me” but rather with the claim “This is not a dance lesson, this is a hypnotic horror session. As if fished out from a collective political subconscious, the words are rolling and falling off with an echo, like pebbles in a deep well.

Right across from it, thrones Valerică, Eau de vie (2014) the dramatic portrait of a man in this prime by Nicu Ilfoveanu. Out of context, I would have thought that it is a frame from the films of Abbas Kiarostami. Reading the text, I find that Valerică is Nicu Ilfoveanu’s neighbour and childhood friend and that this portrait is part of a game or ritual through which Nicu sometimes takes shots of Valerică. I search the Internet for Valerică, and I find a video. In the video, he sounds like a child who’s been pulled by the ears. I suppose a power relation is inevitable when you turn the camera towards someone – anyone – but in this case it seems crushing. I feel like this work draws its force from this very tenssion: Valerică does not control the context at all and offers himself without any measure of protection. And Nicu Ilfoveanu seems to be tying his eyes and taking him by the hand. Seeing them I feel afraid for Valerică. It is like one of those horror movies: you are afraid to look, but sometimes crack your fingers to catch a glimpse. You could press the remote control and it would be over, but you actually do want to see more.

And what is holding you back is precisely this tension between fragility and control. Because Valerică’s vulnerability is a force in itself. A disarming force. From my point of view the work raises two questions: how to manage the power of being behind the camera and how to calibrate this power. In this work, beyond the relationship  that the camera creates, one infers an old liaison and some sort of affection. In his collaborations with Irina Botea, Nicu Ilfoveanu transformed this callibration into a method. Working in a doccumentary manner, their films Picturescque and Film Postale reveal the tender portraits of several guides into almost extinct worlds.

Another work that got my attention was Imagining the Absence (2014) by ŽemAt (Žeimiai College of Aesthetic Thought and Anonymity), a collective from Lithuania which consisted of an installation and a mockumentary. The film takes as its point of departure the figure of Mrs. Meilė Lukšienė whoduring the reform movement Sajudis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reformulated the strategy for education in Lithuania, basing it on the principles of humanism, democracy and national identity. A theatre director and a teacher who had at the time been trained in this method are co-opted to explain its principles to a group of acting students and teachers. During the film they discuss and improvise on the subjects relevant for the Perestroika. I understand that the two men who think themselves leaders of the group are being set up and that they are purposely given the floor to express ideas that the film-makers disagree with.

After the revolution, our house filled up with newspapers, and my parents were going from protest to demonstration. “Come on dear, eat your food, we’ll be late for the meeting.” In our kitchen and at festive meals, they would always discuss politics, but they never got involved because they did not want “to get their hands dirty”. For me, the patriotic fervor of the pioneer years and the enthusiasm of the revolution were followed by a period of political indifference in high school.

In 1989, the film Malenkaya Vera was promoted as the first post-Soviet film to star sex scenes. Sunbathing on the rocks, Sergei asks Vera:  “Do you have any goal in life?”, and she responds mockingly, “We have a common goal Sergei, communism.”

[1] Adrian Păunescu was a Romanian poet, journalist, and later on politician known before 1989 for hosting the folk and pop festival Cenaclul Flacăra but also for the ardent odes he used to dedicate to the dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu.

The Forgotten Pioneer Movement was at District Berlin between 3 October – 29 November 2014.


Xandra Popescu

Xandra Popescu studied Dramatic Writing at the National Film and Theatre University and has a background in Political Science. She works as a writer, artist and curator. From 2012 she powers Atelier 3...

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