Associations Interview with Vector Association Part 2

The following is part 2 of a conversation that took place between Kristina Lee Podesva (KLP) and Matei Bejenaru (MB) and Livia Pancu (LP) from Vector Association at the Western Front (Vancouver) in March 2011. Special thanks to Jesse McKee, Exhibitions Curator at the Western Front, for arranging the interview on the occasion of Vector Association’s exhibition there from February 18 – April 16, 2011.

MB:
But positioning is difficult because we discovered in the beginning that as artists we were all the same, but later we discovered “Okay. I’m interested in this kind of thing, and the others are interested in different things.” So, we are not the same, which is normal. In the beginning it didn’t really matter what we were thinking. We didn’t think too much about art. We didn’t have enough expertise at the time. Instead, we had to be united in the idea to legitimize ourselves. It was the time of the affirmation of the self. And later on, we discovered that actually “While one of my colleagues is doing that thing I am doing the opposite from an ideological point of view.”

KLP:
Vector has established and disseminated its own discourse through multiple channels, including Perferic’s dialogue with foreign curators, through Iaşi’s university and its new media department in particular as well as through the magazine that you published. Perhaps you could talk about some of the motivations and mechanics behind developing different discourses?

MB:
We were running a social-cultural project for 5 years called the cARTier project and for this project we received a strategic grant from the Swiss Cultural Program in Romania (Pro Helvetia/SDC). Therefore, with the help of this project we managed to have a gallery space but also pay salaries. Somehow we stabilized the institution because of this grant, a situation that we never had before. We somehow had time for reflection and we achieved the top of our institutional power in 2005-2006, producing our biggest biennial then. We were able to employ four people and had an office because of this grant. I was using more than 70% of my energy for developing the institution at that time because I had a dream (I was so naïve) to make the institution grow and grow and grow…So, in 2005, in this situation where all engines were at maximum speed, I thought “What are we? Where are we? What place are we in?”

Well, first of all, we were in a place, which was becoming like an outpost of this political construction, which is Europe, since we are one of the major cities on the eastern border of the European Union. I understood for political reasons that the end of something is always the beginning of something else, meaning our identity would also be based our position as a border culture institution. We then asked ourselves “What is East? What is happening East?” We had to ask what was happening in Ukraine, Moldova, the former Yugoslav countries, Turkey, and later Lebanon and Egypt. I figured we had to develop a network and so I started to travel in the region to develop this network to exchange ideas and artists between institutions that were somehow similar. In 2006, I was carrying a lot of catalogues during these trips and they became the basis for an art databank, which no one had. We could then act as a centre for western curators to show them what was happening East. We weren’t able to continue the databank though because we did not have the resources to maintain it. In 2006, we also had the Vector residency with Istanbul and Novy Sad. After attempting to build both this regional network and residency program, we thought why don’t we put all these things into a publication? This would give us an identity and a way to construct discourse among the institutions in the region, which, despite differences, were all Post-Communist and in transition.

KLP:
The magazine was a way to articulate your identity and discourse, but did it also provide evidence or documentation of Vector’s activities?

MB:
Yes. When I worked with Cătălin, my colleague at the time, to start to structure the magazine we were aware of the fact that there was already an art magazine in the western part of Romania called IDEA Arts + Society. In the beginning we did 2 issues per year. We managed to produce these issues in 2006 and 2007, but it stopped because it was for me too much work in the end. I was doing layout, writing grants, and going to the printing house, which was 100 miles away.

LP:
I think for all of us who work in Vector the same thing has happened to us in different ways and different scales. Huge sacrifices were made both financial and sometimes in terms of personal life. Most of our time was spent in Vector to the detriment of our families. There was a mismanagement of our lives in relation to the process of institutionalizing Vector and self-professionalizing, the two biggest demands during that period of time.

MB:
Yes. Everybody was sacrificing. What we have in common is ambition…but let’s be pragmatic. It’s not enough to be motivated. It’s not enough to have a strong will. Probably now the challenge for the institution is to develop a smart discourse.

KLP: As it moves forward in time, every artist-run institution, if it survives, experiences growing pains. What do you think is the difference between Vector’s activities and objectives now from when it began?

MB:
In the beginning, all the events that we organized were made under the concept of the institution in the 1990s, a time of the affirmation of the self, of a legitimization of the institution, of a group of people; the story of the satellite. Now is the time to stabilize the institution, to develop a more specific discourse, and to have stable, medium and long term financing. And, this may come only from the local government, from within Romania. Nobody is now treating culture within Romania as a tool for changing mentalities. Already these things were done to a certain extent over the last 10 to 15 years. Romania is one of the poorer EU countries. This is what it is. It is a country, which is in the eastern bloc, but it is part of the European Union. In Romania, nobody will kill you in the street. Yes, there is a kind of poverty there, but also you will find a nice restaurant. Also, you will find people who speak English. You will find a university. You will find a small art institution. Maybe you will not find these on a large, Western European scale, but you will find almost everything happening. So, Periferic and Vector have to reshape to try and find a strategy to attract local money, to put pressure on local authorities. Maybe Periferic shouldn’t have to be a biennial any more. Maybe it should have a chance to be a platform or a project.

LP:
I don’t know if Periferic is a biennial in the classical sense. In my opinion, the use of the term biennial was a strategy and fortunately this format was fitting our local conditions and aspirations best. It’s a large-scale exhibition, as event, and a platform for international production every two / three / or four years. Only Periferic 7 and Periferic 8 had two years between them. I think that the use of the word biennial is a convenient terminology because it allow us to make use of different methodologies of production. Of course, the term is also linked to international funding.

KLP:
But the position of Periferic as an artist-run biennial is what has attracted international attention to it I think. Is Periferic the only artist-run biennial?

MB:
There are some in Russia, but Periferic is maybe the oldest artist run biennial that we know of.

KLP:
I want to return to Matei’s comments about seeking local support for the organization as a survival tactic. In the beginning, Perferic had a kind of exotic appeal to the outside, but now that Romania belongs to the EU, there is a different framing of Periferic. Is it possible that the story of Periferic and Vector is also the story of former Eastern European art entering into an expanded, global situation? Does the historical arc of Vector parallel, to some degree, the experiences of other post Communist artists and art institutions?

MB:
Absolutely. I totally agree.

KLP:
So, what does the future look like for Vector, and, by extension, do your ambitions reflect on contemporary art in the region in some way?

LP:
It is a platform for exchange between supporting the local art scene and its exchange with the international context, but the machinery might not be the biennial as it was until now. I would opt for a longer process of producing and maybe a more experimental thinking and interaction with the local situation. I am still, however, very, very fond of Periferic, and I think that we can make use of the same terminology.

MB:
The strong import of models coming from the West in terms of artistic production, art institutions, and so on made us very vulnerable at first. We were subject to legitimization by some of these models. Therefore, we decided that we had to be something else and act differently. We had to be ourselves. We didn’t have to be enrolled into one agenda or another, but we did have to have a little bit of power, and this power came from a network of institutions and people that we collaborated with. This was what I was dreaming of. I said this to my friends in Serbia and in Bulgaria, and they all said yes, but in practice we all focused on our own work and dreamt of being in a vitrine in a big institution in the West. One can’t escape it. We were and are trying to be part of this globalized art system. Having our own network is probably the only way to get in. So, maybe we first get into the system and then later we see how we can make a little bit of jujitsu to the system.

LP:
This is mainly about strategies of getting financial support that was not provided by the national or local stakeholders, with few exceptions.

MB:
Funding, knowledge, structure and everything. Probably with money, one is more relaxed, but it would be nice to keep this atmosphere of work and commitment to something and not to become lazy because of some easy money that will come. When I say lazy, I mean not having the commitment to be creative, to experiment, to try to understand what art should mean, what art is used for, what is its function, what kind of awareness it can create in our context, and what kind of dialogue it can make. These are questions that I always raise.

KLP:
These are philosophical questions. I am sympathetic to them, but I would say that many artists do not think nor care about these questions.

MB:
You have to contextualize your existence and in the moment when you are aware that your art is not suspended in a vacuum. There are different systems of references that are judging in different ways with different systems of measurement our production of symbolic knowledge. Artists think about themselves. They are like children demanding chocolate all the time. I am speaking to you as an artist who has learned about the responsibility of having an institution, and you are speaking to me because of this institution, and having the responsibility of an institution means being aware of the context in which I am living.

KLP:
What you say is very interesting because artists who make institutions are taking on responsibility. When an artist creates or works on an institution it does not simply mean receiving legitimacy or authorization from that institution, but actually taking responsibility for it.

Image: Dan Acostioaei, Proposal for Vector’s emblem, 2011

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