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Art vs. Hacks: A Letter from Transylvania

It is a chilly 2:00 a.m. in Manastur, a monotonous, gray neighborhood on the eastern edge of Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s fourth largest city. The cityscape is classic eastern block: ten-story tower block apartments stretching on, row upon row. At street level the walls are a chaotic mess of posters advertising everything from local concerts to language classes to Coca-Cola. My comrade, an irreverent, chain-smoking Romanian woman named Lumi, and I are putting up political posters that criticize Cluj’s ultra-nationalist mayor.

Suddenly we hear the tinny chime of Lumi’s cell phone. A group of our comrades postering in another part of town have been stopped by the police and taken in for questioning. Lumi doesn’t fret. In her pocket is a document stating that city officials have approved our posters for display on public kiosks. “Peasants!” she chides. “Why didn’t they show the cops the papers or bribe them?”

Eleven years ago you could be jailed and beaten for wearing long hair in Romania. The fall of the Ceausescu regime has mostly eliminated that sort of abuse. Nowadays, the freedom to advertise a hundred different brands of junk is well established, but the freedom to speak out about poverty, corruption, racism, greed, nationalism, and black market babies—as our posters do—is totally untested.

Poster Art Goes East

My adventure postering in Romania began as an artist/activist in San Francisco during the boom time fight against gentrification. There I got into making posters and banners. Eventually I lost my personal fight against the real estate industry and was evicted along with my Romanian wife, Csilla, and our infant son. Luckily this coincided with a grant to go east and stir up trouble. We headed to Cluj, the historic capital of Transylvania and not far from Csilla’s hometown, to collaborate with a crew of local artists called ExtraArt Group. Together, we wanted to jumpstart a subculture of political street postering in Romania that would in turn initiate public debate and inspire similar efforts in other towns or by other groups. We didn’t know it, but our postering action would shake up the post-communist provinciality of Cluj.

ExtraArt Group’s nine members work out of a dimly lit converted apartment in the center of Cluj designing ads and packaging for local businesses. Because the pay is better, they try to land foreign clients as often as possible. But they don’t turn down any job—they can’t—and so they burn the midnight oil just to scrape by. Most days, the office resembled a subway station: employees, friends, clients, solicitors, and dogs all crammed into two rooms, competing for the use of a free computer.

Socially, we got along well; sarcasm, gags, and alcohol were the glue. Aesthetically, we all had similar sensibilities. But on political questions, we had some real differences of opinion.

“I’m not interested in repeating what the anti-globalization movement is saying,” explained Laszlo, an ethnic Hungarian and the de facto leader of ExtraArt. “From our perspective, direct foreign investment is a good thing.”

“Even if western companies mercilessly exploit Romanian labor?” I asked him.

“Absolutely!” he replied. “At least they provide jobs that pay a decent wage by Romanian standards.”

On the other hand Lumi had problems with how the protectionist agricultural policies of the European Union discriminated against Romanian farming methods. “We’ve been farming organically for centuries. We just don’t call it that,” she said during one conversation/brainstorming session. “What does some commissioner in Brussels know about farming that my grandmother doesn’t?”

“Why don’t we juxtapose an image of some western politician in a suit next to your grandmother in a pair of muddy boots and ask that question?” I proposed.

“Too complex. The bison in the street won’t get it.”

“It’s old world know-how against the ‘new world order.’” I argued. “What’s not to get?”

Laszlo cut me off. “Most people will think it’s left wing propaganda against free-market society, against integration.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“We want integration. We want all the things you in the West take for granted.”

“But you’ll end up getting paid Eastern European wages for sewing together a pair of Levi’s that you’ll buy back at Western European prices.” I explained. “Doesn’t that seem wrong?”

No matter how much I labored the point, they wouldn’t budge. Systemic, long-term change was forsaken for the chance to have access to all the things they’d missed out on as children and now adults. I didn’t condemn them for this; I’d never walked in their shoes. But I still find it naïve to think that Romania will get a fair deal when it comes to integration with the West. They want to be Sweden but they will probably end up as Europe’s Mexico, a source of cheap labor and land. And those who can’t get jobs will head west to be greeted in fortress Europe as a political problem: the immigration question. The main concern of ExtraArt’s members was that they didn’t even have capitalism yet.

“First of all,” Alina explained, “the market that dominates the economy here is not a ‘free’ one but a ‘black’ one.” Most of the time Alina kept to herself, glancing up occasionally as if she might speak and then diving back to her monitor, a cigarette dangling from her pursed lips. But this time my persistence had provoked a response. “Anything that looks like democracy,” she said, “is purely cosmetic. Those in power have no intention of sharing that power with the people.”

After many discussions, both ideological and practical, we decided the group should “institutionalize” the action to give it clout and legitimacy. We’d take a name (MindBomb), make a logo, write a manifesto that proclaimed that art must be used as a tool for shaping social change, and contact the press. We also decided to use the posters in a gallery exhibition at the university. This would have the dual purpose of legitimizing the project and inspiring other artists to politicize their work. As in the U.S., there is little access to television, radio, or newspapers, so using the streets as a dissident canvas had lots of possibilities in Romania.

As for specific poster, the selection process was brutal: Fueled by the Balkan diet of perpetual cigarettes and beer, we decided to print seven poster designs from a field of 16 total sketches. One evening around midnight the sketches were all laid out on the office floor and whoever happened to be there got to vote for the seven that would be put up in the streets. What issued was a boisterous, direct, no-holds-barred critique. The harshness of it was somewhat refreshing compared to the sensitive tiptoeing of San Francisco artists, who gingerly offer “constructive criticism” that respects the self-imposed limits of identity politics.

“No, no, that looks like shit,” was a typical response, usually delivered without a hint of sympathy or a pat on the back for effort. In this manner, the field was quickly reduced and the “losers,” seemingly un-bruised, went about assisting with the pre-press and printing.

The poster ideas dealt with everyday Romanian issues: daily corruption; international adoption of impoverished Romanian babies by rich Europeans in search of white kids (that one read: “Buy One … Get One Free!”). Another poster lambasted the rising culture of consumerism, depicting the face of a young woman with a Swatch watch for an eye, cell phones popping out of her ears, the grill of a BMW for nostrils, and a Coke bottle head with one hundred dollar bill locks for hair. The text read: “I Have, Therefore, I am.” Addressing the lack of housing, another poster showed an image of people sleeping on the streets of Cluj, with nothing but lavish churches (of all denominations) being constructed around them. This was rendered in the familiar gold form of religious icons. Another piece simply asked: “Have You Thought Today?”

One poster in particular caused the most controversy. It was a badly hand-painted Romanian flag whose colors were running into each other with big sloppy drips. The text read: “Paint in Romanian.” In his first term as Cluj’s mayor, Gheorghe Funar, an outspoken nationalist (not unlike Radovan Karadžić from Bosnia), had Romanian flags installed throughout the city. All park benches were painted red, yellow, and blue. In short, any public object, from parking barricades to garbage cans, was turned into an object of nationalist worship. The sloppiness of our version was intended to point out the stupidity and bankruptcy of this garbage can nationalism.

New Economy, Old Politics

After a night of poster plastering, we met back at the office the following afternoon. Already three papers were carrying stories about the action while Romania’s national television network and the Associated Press wanted interviews. The articles offered pretty standard fare: freedom of speech, the development of a civil society, etc. But most of all they focused on who was behind the action—who funded it. The money trail led back to the west, invoking old themes of western imperialism. The Romanian nationalists didn’t like that.

ArtsLink, a foundation in New York that funds collaborative projects between Eastern European and American artists, had given us $6,000 and we sold posters to raise some additional money. For the most part, ExtraArt had to pony up their own resources because we simply didn’t have enough.

Following that opening salvo came even bigger problems. It would soon be clear that all the frothy hype about free markets bringing total political freedom to the east was bunkum of the highest grade. First to turn on us was the director of the art school: He had originally sanctioned and supported the gallery show and had even been at some of our late-night, boozy brainstorming sessions, jovially exclaiming with beer in hand, “If this postering action doesn’t make it onto the front page of the papers, it isn’t worth a pig fat.”

But in the wake of the controversy, he telephoned the gallery curator and told him to “Fuck off!” and then hung up. When the curator arrived at work the next day, he was curtly informed that he was now persona non grata—both fired and banned from the university.

“Traitors! These posters are anti-Romanian!” screamed the director. Rumor was, the mayor had ordered him to crackdown. It was the standard M.O.—Ceausescu had fallen but the mentality of the paranoid and autocratic apparatchiks around him remained the same. They had merely switched ideologies from communism to capitalism and were otherwise carrying on with the business of being in charge. None of this took our Romanian colleagues by surprise. But I was livid.

“How could the director of an art school, a haven for experimentation and dissent, be censoring a show that in most transparent democracies wouldn’t even be considered mildly subversive?” I asked them.

“It was politics that made him director in the first place, not merit,” Csilla told me. “There’s nothing that can be done to stop people like that. He’s connected.”

“Bullshit.” I replied. “Let’s organize a group of students, get everyone to sign a petition, march into his office and demand his resignation.”

The Romanian comrades laughed. “You can’t just NATO-to-the-rescue this situation. No one will sign a petition; they’re afraid,” said George, the resident photographer. “If you get expelled from the university you’re screwed, no one will ever touch you.” I insisted that we mobilize our press contacts, make a big stink in the papers, expose him as the asshole he really is. But the usually quiet Angela quashed this: “Even if there was a remote chance he’d fall, there’d be another poisonous mushroom flowering in his void.” Then Laszlo explained, “In Romania, you take it up the ass, with a smile, or you’re on the outside with nothing.”

But while the director’s about-face seemed tainted by conceit and hypocrisy, the public sang our redemption song. Hundreds of people showed up at the gallery opening and the noisy crowd quickly spilled into the street outside. Intermingling with artists and intellectuals were housewives, construction workers and grandmothers. We were stunned. No one had expected anything like it.

“The posters are so strong because they don’t say anything people don’t already think,” a biology student told me. “They simply reflect people’s thoughts.”

“It’s about time,” said an older gentleman.

The following week, many people stopped by the gallery to tell us how important the posters were and to volunteer their time for future actions. But in response the gallery was forced to take down the show. We moved it to another gallery and there again huge crowds turned up, followed by an order from someone, somewhere, to shut it down.

It went on like this for a while from gallery to gallery. But in the process people from cities miles away who’d seen the show covered by National TV came to ask for posters to put up on their streets. Students as far away as Poland and Spain took posters back with them, pledging to organize similar actions in their countries.

Eventually our last show was shut down early—censored. But no one had gone to jail and it was clear the posters had stirred up a tremendous political storm. In fact, the impact was enough to make me start believing all that stuff I used to tell myself back in San Francisco: These posters are reaching people, I’d insist, even as I secretly feared that they were really just being drowned out by all the other cultural noise. And now, my super-cynical Romanian friends, in the end and despite their best intentions, were feeling a bit empowered and even—I shudder to think—hopeful.


Dimi Rose


The Brooklyn Rail


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