Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. August 2001 Editorial

The Zone Performance Festival - the Expression of a Regional Context

Ileana Pintilie (Timisoara)

Eastern Europe

The debate about areas and cultures has a long tradition in Europe; in one form or another it is still going on today, albeit in a rather veiled way and with its focus on a division between two distinct worlds: "civilisation" and "barbarism". Certainly the European space has never been unitary, but the most important fracture occurred when, after World War II, it effectively divided into the western democracies and the proletarian dictatorships. This important mutation, which lasted for more than 40 years, profoundly marked the eastern world. Following a real miracle, freed from communist rule and the Soviet statu pupillaris, Eastern Europe is now in convalescence and on the way to recovery. It is an area that was abandoned by the capitalist world, and whose sufferings remained largely unknown.

Today Eastern Europe has become a "case study" for Western researchers surprised by the discrepancies in regional circumstances. Generally they are inclined to apply the same rules and ascribe the same uniform development to it without understanding the local colour. The area is still an unexplored territory, to be exploited in the manner of pioneers descending unto other continents. It is a region from where there suddenly appears (now and then) an artist capable of a highly convincing international career, a thing which will of course lead to the loss of the authentic note. Exhibitions often focus on this unknown Europe, which present the region as a picture recomposed according to the imagination of Western curators. It is however an image in which the region does not recognise itself.

Communism resulted in isolation, lack of confidence and a lack of co-operation. The latter now have to be relearnt. One effort at cultural co-operation among the former communist countries resulted in a sizeable exhibition dedicated to performance art in Ljubljana in 1998 entitled Body and the East. In this exhibition the East tried hard to impose its own image of itself.

Actionism during communism

In this region actionism was regarded as a practice with a powerful individual component which concentrates on visual experimentation or relates to some social or political commentary that eludes "official art", and which thus situates it at the opposite pole. This is why actionism was frequently an underground phenomenon; it was considered subversive, and consequently it remained almost unknown in the former communist countries, where movements that opposed the communist regimes were passed over in silence. In the 1970s actionism manifested itself in a variety of ways, ranging from environmental actions and land-art events, such as those organised by the members of the Sigma Group(1) in Timisoara, to events of the Muscovite Conceptualist type(2), which occurred in isolated places outside the towns. These were performed in front of a specialised public or under secretive circumstances, in art galleries or in other public spaces, but for a small public.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s actionism appeared sometimes in the form of body-actions in the artist's studio, and sometimes only in front of a photographic or moving picture camera as a kind of post-happening art manifestation. Artists abandoned direct corporeal presence and revealed their alternative, which was the image mediated by photography or the moving picture.

Since Eastern European actionism did not exhaust its expressive potential during this period, its proper language was kept vivid thus allowing further onlookers to discover this form of art. Since 1989 it has recovered with far greater intensity.

Zone Performance Festival

Following the events of 1989, when society in Eastern and Central Europe precipitated political change by means of its massive street demonstrations, there occurred a change in attitude towards performance art: on the one hand, the increased influence of the mass-media (and especially that of television - the Romanian revolution was largely a media phenomenon), in terms of the speed with which it can broadcast news of political, social and world events around the globe, contributed to a theatricalization of life, such that society as a whole seemed to be continuously participating in a performance. On the other hand, the popularity of performance art had steadily increased, so that this genre, which had so long existed in a subterranean zone, could manifest itself openly. This general background meant that in the 1990s performance art throughout Central and Eastern Europe experienced a sudden change for the better.

In 1993, following the explorations undertaken in several countries of the former communist area, the Zone Festival was called into being with the intention of establishing an Eastern European arena where artists could meet and cooperate. The objective was to put an end, firstly, to the mutual ignorance of practitioners from the countries of this region, and secondly, to their isolation from the media circuits of the Western world. The declared aim of this Festival was to bring eastern artists together and try to discern tendencies and developments in the performance art of this region.

It is important to note that performance art already had identifiable traditions in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, the Baltic countries, Russia and Yugoslavia. In Bulgaria, on the other hand, one can hardly find artists working within this artistic genre. In such a vast and varied region it is hard to establish connections when the means of investigation are so meagre, or when budgets have to rely on modest sponsorship and on the income from programmes set up by foreign foundations to promote East European cooperation. Paradoxically, these countries have no interest in, and no financial means of supporting, such artistic explorations, since their priorities lie elsewhere. For this reason we have never succeeded in completing this research theme; neither do we have a complete picture of activities in the Eastern European area. The festival participants from Central and Eastern Europe helped to define a cultural, social and political space different from that of the West. Their obsessions, their frustrations and a tendency to seek refuge in spirituality, all helped to adumbrate a new continent which is continuously on the move. On the one hand, in the early 1990s the territory of the ex-communist countries had the appearance of a former concentration camp, where abandonment, neglect and physical degradation resulted in a depression verging on despair and cynical scepticism. On the other hand, in the past years one has seen improvements in the conditions of our existence and the growth of hope, in short, a return to life. This has also made it possible to invite West European artists and amounts in effect to the reestablishment of normality. Even so, the festival retains its own special character, addressing a public endowed with a special type of perception.

The main themes of interest both for Eastern artists and their audiences are political and social, dealing first and foremost with the major directions that opened up in the region after 1990. These artists are equally interested in issues relating to communication and ecology; these issues have implications for the visual language that makes use of technology, thus creating the main lines of a more varied and subtle topic.

As already stated, in the 1990s politics was probably one of the most up-to-date concerns of performance art in Eastern and in Central Europe, which has at last become a topic that can be freely debated. This theme provokes greater anxiety especially among Romanian artists, who dramatically relive the recent past or the present of the transition. One of the most impressive actions in this category was that of Dan Perjovschi entitled Romania (Zone 1, 1993); the artist let himself be tattooed with the name of his country, on a shoulder which was in fact an "anti-action lasting as long as its author would live". Referring to his impression of Ceausescu's dictatorship during the 1980s, Perjovschi wanted to underline that he did not have his own identity, that he lived as if enrolled in a collective identity. To a certain extent, this tattoo is also reminiscent of the identification numbers written directly onto the skin in the concentration camps (see Kristine Stiles' hypothesis(3)). In the threatening context of the Balkan War, Ion Grigorescu's action entitled The Family Tree (also at Zone 1 Festival) tried to set up a plea for the regional relationships created precisely by the past of the artist's family, whose members had in the course of time migrated from the Balkans to Romania.

Discouraged by Romania's isolation after the fall of communism as well as by the lack of dialogue and cooperation between East and West, Teodor Graur created an ironic action also marked by pessimism: the artist appears in a metal cage placed in the town's public market. Inside this space, symbolically reminiscent of a place of detention, he has a table, a chair and a radio. Watched by the spectators, the artist presents an absurd monologue in answer to the question that comes from the randomly tuned radio, "Hello, hello, can you hear me?"- a response that indicates the lack of communication and the tragic isolation of the character inside the cage. The apparent dialogue is ridiculously set between the artist and the radio waves.

An objective evaluation of the December 1989 events in Romania and the way in which the mass-media manipulated public opinion in those days are the subjects dealt with by Dan Mihalflianu in his video film La Révolution dans le boudoir. The artist presents fragmentary images of his morning toilet which includes brushing his teeth, shaving, cutting his nails, dressing etc.; in the background one hears in steady crescendo the sounds of the national radio and TV. The sound was recorded live, during the street demonstrations of December 1989, the events of which it conveys with pathos and grandiloquence, while manipulating public opinion by mixing up false news with true. It created a contrast between the "cold" banal everyday acts, presented without any emphasis at all, and the boundless exaltation and total lack of decency or objectivity in the way the news was presented. This indicates a critical view of the feelings the Romanians had in 1989. In the meantime they have had the opportunity to discern the false promises of a political power that lacks innocence.

It isn't only the Romanian artists who are interested in the political situation but also those from former Yugoslavia: the Croatian artist Nenad Dancuo presented during the Zone 3 Festival the action Dracula the Horrible showing, in a kind of tragicomic parable, the scenario of how the war developed in this region: the provinces of the country were first symbolised by small inflated animals placed in a kind of enclosure waiting docilely to be devoured by Dracula, an unidentifiable force of evil; then little promotional flags with international names such as "Shell Gas" and "MacDonalds" were planted all over the conquered area, underlining the fact that this has happened in terms of the economic and financial interests which are aloof to moral principles and other considerations.

The social themes are interesting to the Eastern artists' work, a concern which is amplifying the messages they propose in their works. This direct communication with the spectators means that the artists become important participants in public life; they become the creators of opinions. An attack on sexual taboos makes up the central theme of a piece by Janos Szirtes and Laszló Lugossy during the Zone 1 Festival, in which the two artists together with three naked models participate in a complex action.

The social situation of a district of grey flats is shown in a surprising aspect in the video performance Loop by Amalia Perjovschi, in which the monotonous and exasperating movement of someone continuously jumping up and down is equivalent to a mood generated by the background of grey blocks of flats, with the dreary sky seen between concrete walls or accompanied by the barking of dogs and regular domestic noises.

Among the major themes of Central and Eastern European culture is also ecology, one which is naturally connected to the evolution of the European conscience. Whereas for the Hungarian artist István Kovács (Natural and Decay, Zone 1) this theme makes up a leitmotif of his action dealing with the relation between nature and his own body, for Stefan Bertalan (Zone 3) it constitutes a second nature for the artist. Sensitive to the degradation which man inflicts not only upon nature but also upon society in terms of its falsities, Bertalan refers not only to the habits which are wrong and harmful for the environment but also to the manners harmful for the community.

Communication on the social level is another theme frequently addressed by the artists of the Zone region, one which also raises the problem of the artistic language used. Sandor Bartha tries to achieve communication between the audience inside the hall and people on the street outside by means of his own body. By touching a sensor he causes music to be broadcast out on the busy street, while the reactions of the passers-by are picked up by a video camera and relayed to the people in the hall. The communication between Oskar Dawicki and the public on the theme The Most Important Things remains a virtual one, in which the imagination supplements what is missing from the physical space, the spectator being totally free to complete the list of "the most important things".

At first the harmonious language is characteristic of a couple; however, sometimes this communication becomes impossible and the two remain isolated without being able to create a harmony, as in the case of the artists Gusztav Utö and Réka Konya (Survival, Zone 3).

In the light of the past, the artists' internal moods frequently appear as profound subconscious problems when illuminated by the spotlight of the artistic enterprise. These moods vary greatly in form, from violence and masochism (the Aby Space group), to violence mixed with tenderness, such as that lavished on a double, a doll which serves as a standard for this self-referential mood (Amalia Perjovschi: I fight for my right to be different, Zone 1); at other times the moods are of abandonment and silent despair, as in Artur Tajber's work (Desolaction, Zone 2), or of revolt and a desire to exorcise the evils we supposedly carry within us, as in the action of ritual character (Casting one's Skin-coat, Zone 2) by Alexandru Antik.

Interest in the body and technology is by no means absent from the Zone. This is a topic of great actuality, dealing with the realities of the body in terms of a new context provided by technology. In Karen Kipphoff's performance Revisited (Zone 3), the female body is presented as a subject for discussion in terms of the taboos relating to it or to attitudes which negate it. Starting from Gustave Courbet's L'origine du monde, the artist tries to evince the transformation of old mentalities concerning the female body. Using a mini video-camera, Kipphoff picks out various usually hidden triangular marks on her own body. These are projected onto a screen, changing her own body into a new medium with the help of technology. Neither is there a lack of humour or of speculative visual effects in this artistic field. Imre Bukta (Zone 1 and 2) and Avdei Ter Oganian (Zone 2) are just two eloquent examples in this respect, artists for whom irony and fun seem second nature.

The actions at the Performance Zone Festival in Timisoara offer a varied register of themes and motifs and bring back into discussion problems of great importance for art today. For each occurrence of this Festival, it helps define a special local sensibility which can then be contrasted with other cultural spaces.(4)


Natasa Teofilovic & Biljana Klaric-Klara - Live coals

Stefan Bertalan - A Political - ecological Encephalogram

Nenad Dancuo - Dracula the Horrible

Alexandru Antik - Brainstorming Exercise

Ütö Gusztav & Konya Reka - Survival

© Ileana Pintilie (Timisoara)

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(1) The Sigma Group was the first experimental group in Romania (1970-1978), made up of its permanent members: Stefan Bertalan, Constantin Flondor and Doru Tulcan. Their programme was both artistic and pedagogic; at the time its members were all teachers at the Fine Arts Academy in Timisoara. Their activities focussed on a free, experimental study of nature integrated with an ecological vision, and were characterised by an interest in land art. The group presented actions, film and photography, in an attempt to integrate several "visual languages" in their research.

(2) Muscovite conceptualism was a complex movement mainly developed around the "Collective Actions" group, made up of Andrej Monastyrsky, Nikita Alekseev, Nicolai Panitkov and others. This group considered observation the most important objective of representation. In addition to artists, the group also included writers and philosophers. It presented itself mainly by means of texts.

(3) Kristine Stiles is Associate Professor of Art History at Duke University, co-author with Peter Selz of Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, University of California Press, 1996. She is an international authority on Happening, Fluxus and Performance Art.

(4) The Zone - Eastern Europe, 1993 and the Zone 2, 1996 and Zone 3, 1999 were edited at Timisoara by Ileana Pintilie, the festival curator.

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