In the novels of Herta Müller, Timișoara is a windy place. You “hear the wind”; it “is sweeping through the trees”; “the night is chasing the wind”. It throws someone into the arms of a loved one, and it makes the cornfields rustle. At the border, some pray the winds will endure so that they can escape in the balloons of their imagination. Sometimes the wind changes direction, tousling your hair. And when everyone is asleep, the wind, too, goes to bed in the trees. At other times, the wind is so tired it “cannot stand up”. In Müller’s prose, winds sweep past, bringing sounds, smells and particles from near and afar. They are agents of unexpected encounters.
Similarly, the winds that blow through this biennial, entitled Întâlniri cu arta / Susretanje umetnosti / Maladimata la artasa / Találkozások a művészettel / Kunstbegegnungen / Art Encounters, carry things both familiar and strange. The title reflects some of the many languages spoken in Timișoara over the centuries, echoing the diverse past of a region traversed by different troupes and groups; its Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Romanian rulers (among others); its changing borders.
One of these winds thus has to do with borders and translation: gusts that talk about walls which divide, yet can be permeated; about oceans which keep people apart but are constantly crossed; and about disputes over territories. A second breeze circles the threshold of visibility and invisibility, as if challenging vision anew. Thirdly, there is the wind of handicraft, of artists who make things themselves by hand rather than outsourcing them (as has become common in post-conceptual practices). A fourth airstream is that of self-organisation, of taking matters into one’s own hands, of self-publishing and establishing alternative structures for production.
We could feel these winds developing as we invited twenty artists, whose practices stood out as urgent and strong, to make new works for the biennial. The next step was to invite another forty artists to exhibit already–existing work – accentuating the first currents, gales and flows, causing them to swirl. These winds got to roam for quite a while: instead of packing the biennial into five weeks, as anticipated by the organisers, we decided to let the experiment unfold at a slower tempo, and in multiple components, embedding itself in the city over the course of a year. There were monthly talks by artists and other cultural producers involved in the process in collaboration with the art faculty, the architecture faculty, and with the artist-run space 2/2. A series of workshops, screenings, and a volunteer programme aimed to create opportunities for residents in Timișoara to get acquainted with the people and practices involved.
Once a month, informal meetings over food and drink – the Ambasada Gatherings – offered another mode of encounter. And over the final weekend of the biennial exhibition, during which the Autumn School of Curating was in session in Cluj and Timișoara, a publishing platform brought together self-organized initiatives from Romania and Serbia to share their materials and their experience of working with print in a diversity of forms. In another series, the Collective Readings, a group gathered to read and discuss a text in a modality selected by an invited host. In one, for instance, we focused on footnotes; in another, on fragments of texts read in various moods, or via an act of immersive, collective listening. The readings both set the tone for and engaged directly with the biennial exhibition – from discussions on local and global identities, and borders and foreignness, to transcultural exchanges and gestures of solidarity across distant geographies, to the representations of Roma minority in literature and visual arts.
So, what do biennials do? Or more specifically, what did this biennial – the Art Encounters Biennial 2019 – do? Some possible answers are already on the tips of our tongues; others will come over time. We’d like to think that this biennial made possible a wide variety of encounters between art, the inhabitants of Timișoara and visitors, alike – not only throughout 2019, but also beyond, for a number of artworks will remain in the city, and new relationships have been forged. On offer were various modalities of encounter with art, artists and others working in the field, and an opportunity for visiting artists and others to get to know the city. The question of what such a biennial actually does is not unrelated to the question “What does art do?” But what might otherwise seem like a utilitarian attitude – or even a neoliberal craze to assess, measure and evaluate – is in fact a show of concern for agency.
Art does many things, but more than anything it is a form of understanding, similar to philosophy, science and politics – one that helps us grapple with existence and create knowledge. It does so by offering a form which encompasses all the others, a form which is simultaneously concrete and abstract, functional and symbolic. However, this relationship to other disciplines is rarely reciprocal. Art is an active imagination that senses things before they become palpable in the rest of society, while remaining ingrained in daily life and its struggles. It asks difficult questions, formulates shared narratives (without which no society could exist), and provides models for how to do things. Today, this translates, for example, into a capacity to draw on that which is already there; on existing, but repressed or erased, knowledge; on resilience and agility.
The answer to the question “What does a biennial do?” depends on how one conceives of and defines the format. For the biennial is as heterogeneous as its geographical distribution. While the biannual international art exhibition, descending, UFO-like, can be an entertaining exercise in branding, it can also play a valuable role in places where art infrastructure lacks adequate support from state, nonprofit or private sources. Although a far cry from Timișoara, this is the case, for example, for the Jakarta Bienniale, whose value resides not only in the exhibition itself, but in the continuous activity of the ruangrupa collective and their dynamic presence in the city. Another case is that of the Ural Industrial Biennial in Yekaterinburg, initiated by the local branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art in Russia, which has reenergised the local art scene since 2010. Artist residencies and production opportunities in collaboration with the city’s industry have also played a major role in its rejuvenation. In Iași during the 2000s, the modest Periferic Biennial was among the world’s most interesting biennials, drawing on the engagement of the local artists and their rich tradition of performance-based work since the 1990s. Such initiatives, many of which are driven by the artists themselves, evince a great care for all the parts which constitute the whole.
Duration is an essential consideration if a biennial is to engage with art in its many facets, to build trust in a city, to form lasting relationships. If continuity is to be embraced as a working methodology, one must acknowledge that a biennial does not restrict itself to the exhibition, its most visible and spectacular feature. A serious and professional biennial as much as a festival is an institution on its own that requires full-time human resources and permanent attention over an extended period of time – it cannot be done on the side of other exhibitions and activities – no matter how appealing it might be to add a biennial to a portfolio of art activities. A serious biennial, like any festival, is an institution all its own, requiring full-time human resources and permanent attention over an extended period of time; it cannot be organised as a side project. This message is important to convey, not only to those who establish biennials, but also to those who fund them. The bulk of the resources tend to be allocated towards the main event, which is typically perceived as the one and only component, whereas it is, in fact, only the most visible in a long progression. While each edition of a biennial will be shaped by a guest curator, or curators, its organisational body (as with any other art institution) should have standard procedures in place, ranging from planning, communication and execution to contractual matters. As the writer and theoretician Andrea Phillips points out in her essay in the Biennial publication, the making of a biennial is a complex process that involves several distinct abilities and forms of intelligence – a reality that often goes unacknowledged.
We conceived this biennial, to the best of our abilities, as a work of care. For curating is an expression of care towards objects, towards people and processes, and towards sites where art can be encountered and experienced. We paid as much attention to what we did as to how we did it; the what and the how are equally important. To engage with a city in the context of a biennial is a highly relational process, and part of this entails taking hospitality to heart. A lot of effort went into organising preparatory visits for the artists and other contributors, as the quality and the diversity of these encounters has great impact on the commission and activation of artworks. Dora García’s Dr. Murke Collected Silences: Culture 1985–1989 emerged out of the artist’s encounter with several local writers and the radio journalist Daria Ghiu; Matts Leiderstam’s interest in the life and practice of the elusive painter Albert Varga was piqued by a conversation with Marius Cornea, a Timișoara-based art historian; Gary-Ross Pastrana’s energy-generating machine was inspired by a visit to the workshop of a senior clock master in Timișoara, where the artist noticed a pendulum clock using a beer can dangling from a chain. Visits to the outstanding textile museum in the village of Băița, and their encounters with its founder, Florica Zaharia, sparked new works by both Céline Condorelli and Anne Low. On a cold morning in December 2018, during an initial visit by several of the artists, we met the passionate architects from Tur de Arhitectură (Architecture Tour) in the Soarelui neighbourhood – one of the last working-class districts built in Timișoara during the Ceaușescu era, and later the site for Ciprian Mureșan’s Plague Column.
The nuanced discussions on subjectivity and commonality, on “identity”, that this edition of the biennial aimed to produce were premised on the historical specificity of Timișoara, a city that has long defied and challenged nationalist agendas. The commissioned tours by Tur de Arhitectură included some of these stories. As a border city developed at the confluence of multiple power centres and a plurality of cultures, Timișoara (alternatively Temeswar, Temesvár, or Temisvaru) emblematises a biennial’s potential to intertwine histories and to endorse trans-local relationships and solidarities, across distances both small and vast. However, the revival of ethno-nationalist-religious attitudes are as present here as in other parts of Romania and beyond, meaning conditions of tolerance are far from a given. We encountered a brutal example of this when Ahmet Ögüt’s image on a pedestrian street in the old town was destroyed. Installed as if it were a hole in the ground, exposing the city’s otherwise-invisible past, the image depicted an Ottoman-style living room within which were two individuals. One was the founder of the Ottoman Socialist Party, who had studied in Romania, while the other was one of the leading Ottoman feminists of the early twentieth century; both represented a past which is not particularly popular in today’s Timișoara. First, the six-by-four meter vinyl sticker was ripped off the ground. Then, after it was replaced, it was sprayed with large white crosses – similar to the ones sprayed on posters for the local Pride week – before being ripped off again. Angry comments on social media revealed that some people read it as “a Muslim image” propagating Islam, although nothing in it drew a direct connection to any religion.
In planning the exhibition, we sought locations which had already hosted exhibitions, or which could easily do so. In a city full of disused industrial buildings, we were conscious to avoid contributing to gentrification by scouting for exotic spaces in need of renovation – something which new biennials have had a propensity to do and this one in particular. In fact, we did not build a single wall, opting instead to work with the spaces as they were; although sometimes we did remove temporary walls, or give them a thorough scrub. Public institutions are important forms of infrastructure, no matter how functional or dysfunctional they are, and they should be taken into consideration for cultural events like this one. Hence, the Banat Museum, the Museum of Public Transport, and the Bastion housed clusters of works. At the Youth House, a handful of works were interspersed throughout a building while its usual activities continued 24/7. This move was a manifestation of our wish to highlight existing infrastructure – some of it in full use, some more idle – and if possible, to give it a boost. Occasionally, artists sought out their own locations, and in other cases we introduced works into contexts where art is rarely seen, like at the university and the National Theatre. As such, some sites had several winds blowing at once, in others a single breeze enlivened or animated an already-instituted, but rarely used space.
If art is a form of understanding, it is simultaneously about organising something, as in “articulation”. Material or not, art is always intentional, a condensation of ideas, feelings, visions, problems and concerns. It may be brash and abrasive, complex and opaque, quiet and dissonant; but it always has its implications, regardless of the modus operandi. Another way of formulating it is to say that each work of art is staging something. It is innately theatrical, with its own dramaturgy. In a gesture of claiming the prestigious cultural and educational institutions for the biennial, we forged a collaboration with the National Theatre, a hotbed for the 1989 Timișoara uprising which eventually toppled Ceaușescu. In this grand arena, with a red and gilt late-Habsburg interior and a more restrained 1920s facade, we staged three screenings of moving-image works with a strong theatrical presence. The screening of the Otolith Group’s The Third Part of the Third Measure, during the opening weekend, was a magical event, with Anjalika Sagar on stage and Kodwo Eshun on Skype from London for a conversation afterwards. Irina Botea Bucan and Jon Dean’s screening highlighted the virtues of the collective experience inherent to theatre, but also to the activity of cultural houses and cultural hearths in Romania captured in their work. The third screening featured Metahaven’s assemblage of images and graphics, a reflection upon the spectacle of power in current times. Together with a handful of screenings at Ambasada, with works by Gülsün Karamustafa, Chto delat, Želimir Žilnik and Anton Vidokle, this formed the “screening component” of the biennial.
Collaborations like the one with the National Theatre were at the core of this edition. In a scene divided by competitive art players, we had the privilege of working with independent initiatives, that keep the winds blowing through Timișoara. These included the independent film festival Ceau Cinema!, our collaborator for a survey of Želimir Žilnik and a related workshop, and the bookstore La Două Bufnițe, one of the Biennial exhibition locations for Dora García’s sound piece also provided a site for some of the collective readings. Balamuc, a friendly studio space, welcomed us each time. Two of its members, Ana Kun and Livia Coloji (part of the Zephyr group), together with Apolonija Šušteršič and Victor Dragoș (from the theatre group Forum Basca), voiced concerns about the air pollution in Timișoara – through various means, ranging from a roundtable discussion, to posters outdoors accompanied by an installation, and a forum theatre performance. Contrasens, led by Dana Sarmeș and Mihaela Tilincă, designed a multilayered mediation programme for audiences both inside and outside the exhibition spaces. Tilincă facilitated a number of artists’ projects – including augmented reality displays by Bella Rune that were shown in schools, and Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor’s workshop in collaboration with Mihai Lucáks at the Youth House. Here, a group of teenagers engaged in discussions about social media, data collection, and online surveillance, timely topics that are yet to be addressed locally in formal educational institutions.
Many of the artists in the “handicraft wind” also emphasise a collaborative practice. This is the case with Michael Beutler, who, by teaming up with various groups and specialists, accomplished the seemingly impossible, through ingenious do-it-yourself solutions that are both moving and inexpensive. Iulia Toma documented the captivating stories told by migrant women, children and men by sewing and embroidering them on plain pieces of cloth, juxtaposing current moments of their life in Romania with stylised elements from memories in far-away places. Like a magician, Bella Rune turned bundles of yarn into big and beautiful sculptures suspended from the ceiling, weighing only a few hundred grams each. Together with the Kalderash blacksmith Lajos Gábor, Joar Nango used copper to improve a lamppost and mend a broken trash can in a small park next to the Huniade Castle, in the historic centre.
Employing eighteenth-century weaving techniques, Anne Low’s slightly surrealistic sculptures are all made by hand, and speak to housework, the decorative, utility and taste. Skilful image-maker Małgorzata Mirga-Tas creates powerful portraits of women from Roma communities, employing pieces of cloth and leftover fabrics. The materials these artists use are often mundane – that which is at hand – being resilient, even self-sufficient. They defy and play with habits and expectations, investing, counterintuitively, an immense amount of time in the work, in an otherwise stress-driven era.
In artworks like these, handiwork and craft become ways of displacing dominant value structures. While practitioners in the fields of art and craft have long been suspicious of one another, the tension seems to have relaxed somewhat. For centuries, according to theoretician and curator Glenn Adamson, craft was considered a supplement to art: a necessary but subordinate feature which remained separate and different. It has been described as the frame in relation to a painting, or writing in relation to spoken language. Historically, craft has often held the advantage of flying below the radar of censorship, which has allowed a certain degree of experimentation. Today, the process of making itself, of fabricating and formally articulating something, is increasingly thought of as a crucial and highly interesting element therein. It has become a way of recognising age-old, embodied knowledge, often beyond the patriarchal epistemological models of the West, celebrating inherited know-how and the oft-maligned category of “the decorative”.
Another wind, as mentioned earlier, conveys an interest in borders and translation. In his video triptych, Naeem Mohaiemen goes beyond the frozen Cold War logic by looking at the Non-aligned Movement from the perspective of its member state Bangladesh. Meanwhile, artist Behzad Khosravi Noori, using a variety of media, depicts Professor Balthazar, a character in the Yugoslav children’s programme of the same name which transgressed many borders. In a dark-blue installation, featuring a map made of string, Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan highlight the history of an island claimed by both Romania and Ukraine, asking, in whose interests are such boundary disputes perpetuated? In a short, contemplative video, Pinar Öğrenci tells the story of a musician who had to throw his oud overboard on the Mediterranean while fleeing from Syria, and, in a format that resembles a music video, a number of Syrian refugees share their experience of the border crossing in Halil Altındere’s work. Two sisters who end up on different sides in the current Russia–Ukraine conflict are the focus of Tanja Muravskaja’s two-channel video. And in Aslan Gaisumov’s solemn work, old men and women slowly enter and take a seat in front of a steady camera in an assembly room in a community centre in Grozny – they are Chechen survivors of Stalin’s deportations.
The same meandering, thematic wind continues in photographs from Palestinian refugee camps, taken as if for a travel agency and presented on floor-standing light boxes. These are combined with large booklets documenting the Arab villages which the inhabitants of the camp were forced to leave, in a work by Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s video work highlights how walls and borders are far from impervious: recorded in a sound studio in the former German Democratic Republic, it weaves together stories that tell how the walls of buildings can be penetrated using contemporary technology with accounts of how even the Iron Curtain could be transgressed. The notoriously elusive spy Lai Teck (who simultaneously served three states before and during World War II) is captured in Ho Tzu Nyen’s collage-like video. The work is based on clips from twenty mainstream films – all of which feature Hong Kong movie star Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Here, the figure of Lai Teck, who lived at a time when the borders of several Southeast Asian countries were yet to take shape, posits a form of identity that defies the national divisions constructed by the colonial masters.
Ready and willing to cross borders, as well as to reject its own instincts, Agnieszka Polska’s digital creature, the Wayward Pigeon, is a homing pigeon whose image is dispersed through posters, stickers and banners, as well as online. But as a figure of disobedience it is unlikely to respect boundaries and perimeters. Thao Nguyen Phan, in her two-channel projection, suggests a different sort of defiance and resilience, shifting between the seventeenth century and the present, between fact and fiction. In a rural commune in Vietnam imagined by the artist, a group of children use play as a tool of defiance against colonial or present forms of authority. The duo Peles Empire (Katharina Stöver and Barbara Wolff), for their part, manipulate historical material by using fire to forge links between durable artefacts, such as a clay statuette they discovered in the display of the Banat Museum, with traces that have been rendered invisible, such as the 164 years of Ottoman administration in Timișoara. Most of the works in this current were shown in a bastion forming part of a massive fortification structure from the first half of the eighteenth century, built by the Habsburg rulers to defend their newly conquered territory and now used by Timiș County for a range of cultural activities.
The present proliferation of borders is borne aloft by this gust, along with its implications for political life, migratory movements and capitalist development. Far from erasing borders, globalisation has accelerated their construction and enforcement, as Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson show in the book Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor. Borders generate violence, but they are also interfaces, forming not simply a site, but an epistemic framework – one which can help us to understand the crisis and transformation of the nation-state and to reassess such notions as citizenship and sovereignty. Using the debate around so-called International Art English as a starting point in his essay in the Biennial publication, Boris Buden follows a similar line, reminding us of power relations and boundaries within contemporary art and beyond, of the risks that inhere in making the privilege of the few set the conditions for all. How, by whom, and in whose interest are boundaries between languages drawn? How is that connected to the border regimes in geopolitics, and to the current status of the nation-state? The idea that social, political, cultural and linguistic experience is stable and commensurable is not only invalid today, but also ahistorical; indeed, in a multilingual, diverse future, re-vernacularisation will proliferate, while the current linguistic order will have vanished. Buden argues that self-determined vernacular values need to be reclaimed, both from the enclosure of capitalism and from the political Right.
The limits of visibility comprise a third current – one felt at the Art Encounters Foundation Gallery. Cohabiting in a building owned by the founder and president of the foundation, and shared with the office of his real estate company, the gallery is surrounded by its enormous housing and office development by which it is quite literally overshadowed. Sometimes you could discern this wind in the gallery, sometimes not. In the paintings, photographs, videos, wallpaper, sculptures and drawings housed in the gallery, the viewer’s attention is divided. On one hand, the gaze drifts back to the encounter between the work of art and the observer; on the other, it is drawn towards the artworks themselves, in which visibility is consciously sought after or evaded; works produced in complex times, where imperatives of transparency compete with demands for the right to opacity, to be unseen, uncounted, unanalysed, uncontrollable and unprofitable. As an observer, you contribute to the formulation of the work, affecting the patterns which appear and the associations that come forth. By refocussing and refiguring the way the eye apprehends a given space, this wind contests ingrained habits of seeing and methods for directing the eye. In the midst of considering these mechanisms and conditions of seeing, the viewer might experience any of several moments: things so minute that the eye cannot discern them, like Alma Heikkilä’s large orange painterly and sculptural co-creation, made from bacteria whose forms can scarcely be observed with the naked eye; and things happening so fast that they escape the human gaze, as in Forensic Architecture’s video addressing the killing of two men in the West Bank. On display too were Ane Graff’s glass vessels, filled with substances connected to common, environmentally-linked autoimmune diseases now on the rise, including Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, whose components cannot be captured by vision, but whose effects are becoming all the more palpable.
Another kind of invisibility came across in Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s sculpture, where the main protagonist is nowhere to be seen – a rotating, circular stage with five microphones, but no performer. Even more enigmatic, Walid Raad’s mural of empty museum walls tells a story in which the artworks at a museum have simply disappeared. The submarine internet cables which are so vital to today’s infrastructure – and tapped by the US National Security Agency – appear along the coasts in Trevor Paglen’s picturesque colour photographs; they are concealed, but not difficult to locate. Communication and surveillance infrastructure also appear in Filipa César and Louis Henderson’s video essay on lighthouses along the coast of Portugal, which considers their function during both colonial and postcolonial times. Here, ways to be seen and to avoid being detected become matters of life and death.
Liliana Mercioiu Popa’s modest drawings engage the retina itself, challenging routine vision, asking for special attention and focus. What is flat and what has volume? Through the use of simple lines, she conjures drawings that oscillate between the two. The legs of the bird of paradise, removed by indigenous Papua New Guinean traders as they prepared the birds for export, comprise the almost-abstract pattern on Zac Langdon-Pole’s cyanotype wallpaper, made using a nineteenth-century technique to capture an impression of organic material before it decayed and vanished. Employing a similar motif, a series of evocative black-and-white drawings by Philippe Parreno of the unusually short-lived firefly, – which emits light (and thus becomes visible) via a chemical reaction in its lower abdomen – draws attention to these creatures’ decreasing visibility due to light pollution and changing land use.
These are but a few suggested entry points to the works in the third wind, every one of which is ripe with yet other connotations and agencies. Each is set off in distinct ways by its relationship to neighbouring artworks. Popa next to Paglen, Graff in the vicinity of Raad as well as Langdon-Pole. Heikkilä in the same field of vision as Paglen and Popa, to the sound of César and Henderson, and watching Boudry/Lorenz as they listen to Forensic Architecture.
Just as we wrestled with affinities and juxtapositions between artworks, we struggled with the term “public art”, which is increasingly hard to use. The same goes for “art in public space”. In both cases, the word “public” poses the biggest challenge: for the neoliberal distinction between “public” (in the sense of being accessible to all) and its presumed diametrical opposite, “private”, is a blurred one. Indeed, space belonging to states and municipalities has been privatised, and private owners now open up their spaces for anyone to use. Ownership and control of spaces also varies from place to place, and the model that used to be in place in Northwestern Europe does not automatically apply elsewhere. Thus, not even “art in the public realm” felt useful, even if it encompasses the digital sphere. “Art in situ” proved the least awkward label, and it serves as a temporary placeholder.
Ahmet Ögüt’s work was situated smack in the middle of “classical public space”, on a pedestrian street in the city centre. The ground-floor lobby of the City Hall, which anyone can enter, was the site where Halil Altındere presented his video Homeland. Behzad Khosravi Noori’s playful monument to the invisible citizen, in turn, was placed in an entirely private and highly commercialised space: Shopping City, a local mall. Again, a place that anyone behaving correctly – using the site for consumption – can enter. The art faculty of the West University is public by definition, in the sense that it is a state institution; and yet Matts Leiderstam’s work, which was displayed in its lobby, is not accessible all the time. his is at a University whose art school that still has a generous entry policy – no key cards are necessary – an increasingly rare case. The university’s lobby also housed Haegue Yang’s VIP’s Union, a work developed at the intersection between the artist, the host institution, and a group of lenders whose pieces of furniture convey stories about Timișoara and the wider Banat region. And, while it is conventional for a column to mark the city’s centre of power, Ciprian Mureșan’s work is decentralised; his monolith lies in the middle of Sudului Park, in a residential area of apartment blocks.
A monumental mosaic by Dan Acostioaei became part of the city’s fabric during the biennial – hopefully for the long term. Installed in a passageway at the North railway station, the mural welcomes daily commuters, acknowledging the manifold stories of migration (past and present) generated by economic and political circumstances. Spread across the city, Vilmos Koter’s posters reproduced a very different message. Printed in the ten languages historically spoken in Banat, they reflected the fear that national divisions will dissolve, one that is often present in conservative discourses. The Botanical Park was the site of two more interventions. One belonged to Monotremu (Laura Borotea and Gabriel Boldiș), whose structure contained pots turned into church bells, questioning the mismatch between fundamental local needs and the allocation of state funds. The other was Gunilla Klingberg’s stencilled motifs, inspired by a fence in the park, which she produced using the technique of reverse graffiti. The shapes span the walkways of the park, as well as other locations around the city. Lastly, an enormous banner by STEALTH.unlimited (Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen) covers one side of a block of flats on Take Ionescu Avenue, at the centre of Timișoara. The site is adjacent to one of the biggest housing developments in the city, ISHO, whose CEO is the founder and president of the Art Encounters Foundation.
As we developed these outdoor projects, we were interested in collaborating with an array of museums and typologies of collections within and beyond Timișoara. This is how the Banat Museum became the site of the Collection Show, a project by Céline Condorelli which emphasised the importance of structures of display – and the personal collections from which the museum originates. The project brought together different models of collecting, including the overwhelming Museum of the Communist Consumer, the exquisite collection of Muzeul Textilelor in Băița, and the model of communal ownership underlying the work of the Collection Collective. The latter, comprised of around sixty artists, houses a collection of artworks that still belong to the makers. Hence, the Banat Museum became a context in which formal and informal histories intersected – from Condorelli’s selection of stuff from the Museum of the Communist Consumer, to Virginia Lupu’s focus on the practice of magic, to Alexandra Croitoru’s audio collage of newspaper titles. This work extended to Jimbolia, one hour’s drive from Timișoara on the border with Serbia, which hosts the Press Museum – another personal collection that has become a formal institution. Its impressive archive is a testimony to the multiple influences and languages which traversed this region. And Lia Perjovschi’s Knowledge Museum, located in central Romania, is an institution in its own right. At once subjective and subversive, it is an expression of the artist’s continuous yearning to learn, and of her solid belief in education across disciplines.
On the occasion of the biennial exhibition, the Corneliu Miklosi Museum of Public Transport – Timișoara’s recently renovated former tram depot – had parked an extensive collection of trams outside the building. Our aim was to reveal its spectacular interior, complete with a large skylight. Here, we opted to juxtapose several gusts of wind, rather than one single wind: that of handicraft and manual labour, in the work of Bella Rune, Michael Beutler and Iulia Toma; as well as the motif of resilience and environmental conditions, including the project by Zephyr. Ideals of growth were questioned here: for example, in the intense visuals from the video by Zhou Tao, and in the exhibition of Gunilla Klingberg’s “reverse grafiti” sculpture/tool. The device is comprised of metal stencils of simple plant patterns which work by subtraction rather than by addition, through the removal of dirt; they can be applied continuously, thereby developing – growing – as discrete shapes, while potentially covering large areas. Also on view at the tram museum were a number of personal histories, including Vandy Rattana’s video, in which the narrator shares their story of the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime. Other works emphasised the transgression of borders, both natural and political, scales small and grand – for instance, Ghenadie Popescu’s stop-motion animation, in which two puppets travel along the rivers bordering Moldova.
As soon as it is presented in public (i.e., made available to an extended group of people), an artwork is consciously “in situ”. Given the dominance of the “white cube” as a gallery model – and the new kid on the block, the black box – we should be clear: we welcomed projects in situ, beyond the white cube / black box, beyond the art institution. The same applies to works that were indoors. We approached the Youth House, in particular, as a form of “curating in situ” – a site where artworks thematically connected to the institutional context were placed, coexisting with the daily activities of the dynamic centre. Built in the 1970s in the postwar modernist style, the building served as the headquarters of the Timiș Communist Youth Union, and in 1990 the famous revolution trial took place in its large auditorium. As with other cultural centres, activity declined after the 1990s, and the Youth House has more recently been revamped to become an eclectic multifunctional space, including a hotel, a public library, and several coworking and workshop spaces. In this space where culture and politics intertwined, and which once served the state as a site for self-representation, the constellation of artworks foregrounded individual and collective agency in the assertion of power.
In Ane Hjort Guttu’s film, installed in a meeting room on the ground floor, an art student in Norway wants to make politically engaged art and ends up working with a migrant, a Roma woman from Romania. Ana Maria Millán’s colourful video animation, projected onstage on the magnificent grand floor of the building, pushes the limits of collective imagination, in a process of production reminiscent of the surrealists’ exquisite corpse. Situated in proximity to a mosaic that depicts constructivist-inspired human figures, Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor’s video montage of scenes of unrest draws parallels between the movements of crowds and fire as a life-renewing force. Camouflaged in the lounge on the ground floor, Mădălina Zaharia’s work appropriated public-speaking tools and body language to critique the commodification of the self, both within and outside the art world. On a suspended screen in the large auditorium, which created the illusion of a large-scale landscape painting, Taus Makhacheva’s calm and yet breathtaking video captures a tightrope walker who returns paintings from the Dagestan’s Museum of Fine Art so they can be viewed, risking the literal toppling of tradition. Like Zaharia, Kray Chen also made the building itself part of his commission: his video installation was staged in the Youth House’s dedicated studio space for theatre rehearsals and performances. A performance of deliberate slowness, Chen’s work highlighted music’s ability to dictate emotions. Finally, in the rotunda hall of the Youth House, we saw Vătămanu and Tudor’s large textiles become part of the room’s architecture; their hand-drawn circles, which referenced the interior space, carried polyvalent meanings, from the language of abstraction in art to surveillance technologies.
To curate “in situ, beyond the art institution” implies placing art in a context where there is less control, in terms of safeguarding the works, visitors guidance, and so forth. Yet it is precisely this context that holds the potential to foster and test the possibilities of communal care and ownership towards art, and to stimulate aspects of a work which might otherwise remain hidden. In this way, the biennial was indeed true to its context – take for example the Youth House, where it cleaved to its earlier ways of being and forms of production, always symptomatic of its place and time. In Romania today, where until 1989 the state technically owned everything, the transfer of previously public property into private ownership has been a dominant source of economic power. The Art Encounters Foundation is built also on wealth originating from such denationalisation – namely, in real estate business after 1989. While the biennial is a private initiative, this edition (according to the numbers provided by the foundation) received more than half of its support (around 66%) from public funding – state, municipal and regional – and foreign agencies. Around 14% of the budget came from Ovidiu Sandor, the founder and president of the foundation, and CEO of Mulberry Development; another 20% came from corporate sponsors. And yet, while the founder/president, who engages with art as a hobby, officially stays in the background, the governance structure is such that nothing happens without his approval. This also means that he is responsible for how the budget is constructed – ambitions which are not matched by resources, experience or competence. As curators, we are certainly enmeshed in this complex ensemble, and we are keen to acknowledge the contradictions and complications. A brand is rapidly being built, but for whom?
The prevailing support of public funds is important to acknowledge and communicate, as this entails a particular responsibility for everyone involved in making this biennial: namely, that it recenters the attention and the resources towards the artists and the needs of the art community. This is also one of the signals that Daria Ghiu sends in an essay, published in the Biennial publication, which revisits key moments in the recent history of art in Timișoara through the voices of active figures in the local scene. From the establishment of groups such as 111, Sigma and an experimental pedagogical agenda in the 1960s, to the performance art festival Zona and StudentFest in the 1990s, Timișoara saw various moments of cultural effervescence, culminating in the 2000s, when the long-lasting, critical activity of the Simultan festival and the artist collective h.arta took shape. At the present time, when art development starts from private interests and from the standpoint of the market, we emphasise the importance of centring artists and independent initiatives.
Among all our winds, some of which occasionally turned into gales, in and among the many art encounters, storms took shape which shook us and those around us. But winds change and form anew. And we can be sure that our experience of the winds is conditioned by language, as Herta Müller underlines. In Romanian, you say that the wind “hits” (bate). It is an expression of force, one which you hear or feel. “In the village dialect one says ‘Der Wind geht’ [the wind walks]”, Müller writes, while “in the literary German spoken at school one used to say ‘Der Wind weht’ [the wind blows].” Depending whether you speak the Swabian dialect or the Romanian language, you look at the world in a different way. The process of translation allows for communication to unfold, but also for differences to become manifest.
 These winds appear in Herta Müller’s novel Herztier [Heart animal] (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1994), translated from Swedish by the authors.
 Müller, The King Bows and Kills, in “Every Language There Are Other Eyes” (Bucharest: Humanitas, 2017), 25, translated by the authors. We would like to acknowledge writer Radu Pavel Gheo, one of Collective Readings’ hosts, for drawing our attention to this relevant excerpt.