Interview with Calin Dan

SubReal and Romanian new media arts

“I am a believer in the symbolic aspect of culture clashes.”
Interview with Cãlin Dan By Geert Lovink Cãlin Dan is a Romanian art critic, curator and artist, based now in Amsterdam. For me he is one of the people embodying the post-89 circumstance of Europe. Cãlin is equipped with an enlightened form of nihilism (to be found in Cioran – a cult figure for the Romanian intelligentsia); he practices black humor (like Caragiale – another cult figure for the same); he has a vivid interest in anthropology (see Eliade); and sometimes in metaphysics (Noica/Liiceanu). Born in 1955 in the Transsylvanian town Arad (next to the border with Hungary) in a middle class family, Cãlin Dan had a mixed career under the Ceausescu regime, managing to achieve a reputation in the art circles while keeping a low political profile, and he survived the dark eighties as an art historian and journalist.

He was therefore quite well trained to enter the chaotic period after the bloody “television revolution” of December 1989. Together with the artists Dan Mihaltianu and Iosif Király he formed in 1990 the art group subREAL and started to produce conceptual installations. Their style was dirty and minimal, full of ironical references to Romanian history and to the political moment – the dubious post-communist leadership of Ion Iliescu. In 1990 also, Cãlin Dan became editor-in-chief of the art magazine “Arta” (where he was working as junior editor since 1987), and from 1992 he taught in the Art Academy of Bucharest orientation classes in new media and advertisement language. In parallel he curated the first post-wall major Romanian shows in Hungary and Germany, and Romanian participation in international art exhibitions and media festivals. In 1992 Cãlin Dan was appointed director of the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts (SCCA) Bucharest. In that position he initiated the first media art event in Romania, “Ex Oriente Lux”, which opened in November 1993. As a somewhat regular visitor to Bucharest, teaching media theory and video at the Art Academy, I was part of this event, working together with Cãlin on a special issue of “Arta”, on the catalogue of the show and on the program of a two days conference. During that intense period I made a first (unpublished) interview with him. The conversation below was recorded in Amsterdam, February 2000. A lot has happened in-between. The government withdrew all funding for “Arta” in 1994. The same year, Cãlin produced another mega-event, the exhibition “010101…”, using for the first time in the Romanian context features like community oriented projects, interactive displays of content, on-line communication. The event generated an important body of work produced in collaboration with 14 artists, a documentary film and an impressive catalog. In 1995, due to personal reasons, but also to differences of visions concerning cultural policies, Cãlin resigned from his position in the SCCA. The same year, Cãlin Dan and Iosif Király (by and since then the only members of subREAL) were invited for a one year residency in Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin. They traveled there with the photo archive of “Arta”, practically saving it from destruction by neglect from the part of the authorities. As a result of the works produced there, subREAL became almost synonymous with “artists & archives”. Unlike in other cases originating in the Former East, subREAL did not intend to reveal any scandals about compromised artists or alleged secret agents, working for the powerful (at the time) Securitate. The 600 kg heavy archive was primarily material illustrating Art History as a concept. Nevertheless, this was the archive of a communist, state-controlled art magazine, closely tied to the rich and influential Union of Artists, an organization embodying the official ideology as far as the art scene was concerned. Established in 1953, “Arta” went through a Stalinist phase, experienced a short period of reform in the late sixties, until the even more rigid (but also ambiguous) times of the Ceausescu regime. Striking in its pages was not the pompous propaganda art, with heroic statues of the steel workers or posters stating “Victoria Socialismului” (The Victory of Socialism). But the fascinating and deeply frightening horror vacui of normality, the boredom of the works, the mental attitude of the artists, desperately trying to avoid any lively form of expression (let alone dissent). This art, produced under the strict surveillance of the authorities, is trying to escape history by doing exactly what the party officials are expecting. In search for the “eternal” (like in the work of Brancusi – significantly a recuperated hero during the communist dictatorship), the metaphysical aims of ‘art’ are becoming fully operational as repressive instruments.

Still: severely over coded by ideological tasks, there is always an element which will ultimately neutralize the official forms of expression. As reflected by the Art History Archive, art is not merely embodying the Will to Power of a few second class party intellectuals. But the disappearance of a whole category – Art itself. Art tends to disappear since it can no longer distract our attention, let alone subvert… No expression, no pain, no desire. Instead, we are taken on an endless journey through advanced forms of mediocrity, masks of oppression from which we will never know if something was hidden behind this apathy. It must have been a rather confronting experience to work for such an extended period with the images of a fake normality which defends its limits fiercely. Cãlin Dan moved on. From 1996 he established himself in Amsterdam as an artist. After having worked during the years with video, after using the computer mainly for word processing and e-mail, Cãlin entered abruptly in a media recuperation phase, and produced a lot of graphic material commenting digitally on (again) art history (mainstream Western art this time). After that he got engaged in the exciting world of 3D computer games. It is at this point that our interview starts. In collaboration with the newly established V2_Lab For The Unstable Media, Cãlin developed between 1998-1999 the interactive installation “Happy Doomsday!”. Cãlin chose for the purpose two fitness chairs used for training the arm muscles, and interfaced them with the computers through sensors reading the movements of each user. The machines are performing the functions of joy sticks, generating navigation/participation in a multi-user 3D environment, which is a simulator of European war history based on the political map of the continent. This is how it works (quoted from a press release): “Through workout the users are given an instrument to induce dynamic changes of the borders, and also to navigate in spaces presenting warfare as a set of narratives. Before starting to play, the users make 2 options on a touch screen: avatar (any political unit that the user wants to represent) and target (any political unit that the user aims at conquering). The users are involved with each other directly, by the behavior of the avatars at the tactical level, and by the mediated action of helpers, agents and weapons at the other levels. With graphic and sound environments redesigning samples from art history, military history, science, media, folklore, pop culture, “Happy Doomsday!” is a metaphor-based war machine, and also a game about game playing.” GL: The complete version of “Happy Doomsday!” was recently shown in Vienna’s Museumsquartier, in ZKM – Karslruhe, and at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Before that, the beta version with only one fitness chair interface was premiered at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria in September 1998. How does it feel to have completed such a big project, which is, if I may say so, your first as an interactive media artist? CD: Basically it feels good, if I look at the people crowding to work out on my machines. I am happy mainly because this gets my initial hypothesis confirmed: there is a possibility to communicate with your public in a way which is both enjoyable and serious. That was the main expectation behind my choice for the computer game formula: to get an entertainment tool which leads the audiences somewhere else. That is why I put my trust in interactivity and in the pop culture formats.

GL: Budget-wise working at Nintendo must be different from working in the structure of a media arts organization such as V2_Lab, even though you got there a very generous support. How would you describe the aesthetics of computer games in connection to this type of technical and financial limitations? CD: Building a computer game starts with decisions painters have to make when buying the canvas, the brushes and the colors. If you are rich enough you go to the best shop. If not you end up with a piece of cardboard. It happened to Van Gogh. So, in the end much depends on what you are able to use it for. In bigger words – what kind of visions haunt you. You do not need the latest version of Maya or a super-computer in order to develop a good piece. Mind you that I am not necessarily in favor of the poverty approach. At least not as far as the knowledge of the field is concerned. You have to understand what is going on the market. Only after having your research done, knowing what is on top and below your capacities, you can position yourself properly. We ended up in the medium-lower scale. We worked with 3D StudioMax, and we used World Tool Kit as game engine. It is fine compared to older software but its kid’s stuff if you look at what is used now in the commercial world. On the other hand, I do not see yet enough authoring knowledge enabling people to contain the illusionist powers lying in high-end software. Without that knowledge, generated in a thin zone between Technology and Cultural Tradition, we are easily carried away by the fascination of the new, sometimes in unknown directions, but mainly in versions of a Barbie environment. That kind of knowledge is a delicate product and needs time to develop and mature. While when working with lesser tools you are on the familiar ground of poverty, and therefore forced to be inventive. GL: Is this the distinction between the workshop-based digital artisan, as Richard Barbrook has described it, and the industrial way of game production? CD: I do not see a structural difference between low and high scale production, if the production mentality is there. As soon as you leave the studio and start working outside of the art system, you are forced to abandon artistry. If you run a project like “Happy Doomsday!”, with a staff of fifteen, or “Super Mario” with – I don’t know, a team of two thousand maybe? – it burns down to the same thing. You have to meet deadlines, generate ideas at high speed, keep your drive. And mainly, work with people, know what are the limits of your decisional powers, when to force into a certain direction and when to give up, when to accept failures and when to fight beyond. Talking of deadlines, maybe that’s where the differences occur. In low budget projects, deadlines are basically impossible to meet. Not necessarily because of bad planning, but because we talk here of a domain where process control is very limited and where we practically do not know what we are dealing with. You cannot quantify the work and drop deadline dates unless you have an open pocket. And even then. At Nintendo, the above mentioned “Super Mario” (a drag content wise, if I am allowed an opinion, but an ambitious experiment in interaction and in physical responses of the interface) was delivered with two years delay.

GL: What is the relation of “Happy Doomsday!” with the present situation of digital art? CD: The game was designed for two users who meet in a real-time rendered 3D-environment, a feature which implies quite some work. I think the public likes it; not necessarily the critics or the digital arts community. “Happy Doomsday!” is not trendy enough: not enough techie stuff in it, not enough play with randomness or with any other imports from the surface of scientific research. Besides, a strong physical interface grounded in a specific location is different from a permanent web presence. That’s also not cool enough in those times of high bandwidth propaganda. But more important to me, there is a mutual distance here, based on different visions on the functions of art. I personally don’t believe in net art as a distinct visual territory, and obviously net art sets a tone in today’s digital discourse. I appreciate net art for some ideological stand points, but I am not sure that the methods to fulfill them are appropriate. Net art looks very much like an in-house product, with solutions easy to absorb in main stream web design. I sometimes have problems in drawing a clear visual distinction between a net art product and a smart commercial web site – not enough resistance there, I would say. Next to this, net art raises an interesting marketing issue: if you don’t try to reach out with intriguing, interesting physical interfaces your web site will be lost in the electronic void. Getting into the public sphere needs more than a URL printed on a T-shirt and much more than obstinate promotional campaigns. Unfortunately, or luckily so – I am not sure. An exception in my view is Shulea Chang’s “Brandon” project, due precisely to the fact that it is interfacing with people, with institutions and with the city at the same time ( “Brandon” provides an example that interfacing to the public should not be just a metaphor, since your audience is not just a matter of speech. An interface is also a sculpture, and the social body you aim working with is fluid material that can be modeled. Beuys had some good visions in that direction. But that is ancient history – before the net ambitions. I think we should be more concerned by the expectations of the audiences. People are very simple but very sophisticated at the same time. This ambiguity makes them so hard to catch and then hold, since it is so difficult to stir both aspects: their simple curiosity and their deeper needs as well. GL: Before “Happy Doomsday!” you worked mainly as an editor, critic and curator. Your work as an artist member of subREAL was never that technical. What skills did you learn in the process of putting together such a big interactive computer installation? CD: Not very much. I started my high school education in computing, and did some programming in Pascal when I was a kid. I left that track very early and studied art theory. Afterwards I always worked in teams, as an editor, curator, manager. What the 90s brought in my life was the discovery of today’s neo-pop culture: advertisement, clubs, fashion. That was totally different from what I experienced before the TV revolution allowed me to both travel and zap. My option for the fitness machines as interfaces and for the game paradigm as a support for my discourses come from this. If you want attention you have to use attention-tested techniques. But for the rest, “Happy Doomsday!” came very much along the line of other big projects I did back in Romania in the early 90s, “010101…”, or “Ex Oriente Lux”. GL: Could you describe the “Happy Doomsday!” environment for us? Is it an ironic experience? CD: First of all, “Happy Doomsday!” is definitely not an information space; it started that way, but it then became a narrative (after all, I am from the Balkans, where people love to tell stories). HD! is a game that deals with enormous issues – (political) history and war – in a ridiculous way. Starting with the fact that you have to pump up your muscles while impersonating a country which tries to destroy another country: it’s grotesque!
On the other hand you have topics like money, vampires, nano-technology, urban guerrilla, wars of the future. The method is self-ironic: I am constantly deconstructing my own thinking processes, which is good, since I am a trend determined animal. The topics are real, but also media induced, and therefore vain. The situation is open, non-oppressive. GL: To me you are very much a post-89 artist, a New European, not anymore from the East or West. You moved from Bucharest to Berlin. You are based in Amsterdam and recently have spent three months in Vienna. How do you look at Romania, ten years after the Fall of Ceausescu? CD: The more distance I get from Romania, the more I am interested in it. Which is a normal process, I think. Besides that, I developed a conviction that local circumstances considered, each and every different country in Eastern Europe is a very interesting lab of the future. The conflicts between various co-existing historical times are much more violent there, compared to Western societies, even though these conflicts exist here as well. The welfare state is dragging the foot here as it tries to survive, if not in the governmental budget policies, then at least in the mentalities of the people. The transformation from a welfare to a neo-liberal system is implying a jungle of legal-to-personal changes, impossible for individuals to follow, even if information would be totally transparent. That is because psychologically speaking we are living in a cotton environment and do not necessarily feel what is being decided in Brussels, Strasbourg and elsewhere.

While in Eastern Europe the impact of the so called globalization, new economy and so on is much more drastic and more on the surface, precisely because of the specific conditions, which leave those countries more vulnerable to changes. What makes the situation there more challenging for the researcher and the activist is the relative innocence of the local populations, which is usually misinterpreting the painful collapse of the local economies as a transition towards the vanishing welfare state order. Which is of course a procedure of political mythology: there is no such a transition there, just a fall into the reality of neo-liberal disorder. One has to admit that this is a most interesting dynamics. GL: Do you have any plans to do work in Romania in the future? CD: I am a believer in the symbolic aspect of culture clashes. Not because they seem so trendy now, if we look at the inflationary ethno-anthropo tendencies in music, fashion, art. But because working with remote cultures can still provide us with a lot of information about who we are and where we stand. This is certainly linked to my personal experience but also to the strong traditions of anthropological research that Romania developed in the last century. I would like to use this scientific tradition by working in Romania or elsewhere, but always in a remote area, using wireless technology. To build multi-user computer games for peasants and hunters, with customized content, and interfaced with household tools. We still have the chance to grab there a fundamental way of understanding the world and to give it a voice. In a few years from now it will be too late. People in the Romanian countryside watch TV and meanwhile they still believe in vampires; sometimes they even act accordingly, sticking a piece of wood through the heart of deceased people suspected to be werewolves. You can offer to those neo-peasants Internet culture as a shamanic mirror. Not for bringing new belief systems into their lives, but for analyzing old ones; also for checking once more if there is real magic in computer environments. Which I think is the case. GL: Let us go back in time a bit, to Berlin in 1995/96 when you started to work with the photo archive of the former art magazine “Arta”. You went way beyond the reworking of communist art history.

CD: The “Art History Archive”, as Iosif Király and myself baptized the project, became so successful basically because we avoided at all times and sometimes against the expectations the obvious political connotations the material had. It is significant that one of our works, dealing with an omnipresent official artist of the time is called “The Man Without Qualities”. In the context of power, art people become shadowy figures, they start to look alike, no matter the political system or its economic infrastructure. Men without qualities gravitate in the high circles of Western cultures and in the shadow of corporations that play the game of art investment and public spending. In the A.H.A. projects we always started by looking first at the historical data. From there on we extrapolated to a symbolic level. And then we looked for similarities in the art of today.

In the beginning of the nineties when we started working together we denied being artists. It was commonplace then to hate art. Recently we got back on this issue. We use art as a platform for meeting people, for surfing different cultural communities. The quality of communication and information is higher there, less tough if compared to the technology or to the business sectors. subREAL’s new series “Interviewing the Cities” is precisely about that. Meeting people on the basis of their trade as artists, curators, collectors, architects.

GL: Can you tell the story of the negatives you found in the archive? You started working with them at Akademie Schloss Solitude; part of the work produced there was exhibited in the Romanian pavilion at the 1999 Venice Biennial.

CD: In Berlin we worked with an archive of black-&-white photos. After a year of research we knew it almost by heart, and therefore had no curiosity for the negatives in the collection, thinking we knew what the prints would be about. There were dozens of boxes with negatives. In the end we decided to have a look at them any way, and that was a moment of revelation. The images in the b/w archive were cropped from 6 x 6 negatives. Artworks are usually long or wide, never square. Therefore paintings and sculptures were just one part of the image, while a lot of things were happening in the picture around them. It took us two years to process this source material in various formats. Its connotation powers looked endless. After that, in the fall of 1999 we went further, and started a new archive – ours – by taking photos of people from the cultural world. The new project is called “Interviewing the Cities” and started in Vienna. The procedures are standardized: we go in the studio of a person we do not know; we introduce ourselves, with a display of books and images of our work. Then we look at the work of the person we visit. We talk about it. It is a complex therapy of mutual interrogation. After that we take two photos, one of the person, another of a piece of work. Iosif and I are always in the picture, waving a back drop cloth behind the subject, precisely as in the old negatives of the “Arta” archive. Some people find this cynical. I think it is just matter of fact, and somehow humble: an old technique created through the objective need to give a profile to the subject in an environment full of accidents. We are there as the “servants of art”, no more than that. GL: The portraits of the city series have got something extra, something timeless. They do not have that harsh, almost alienated brightness displayed by most of the contemporary photography you see in galleries.

CD: subREAL is using old aesthetics. There is no relation to commercial photography in our work. Handmade photography becomes more and more an old medium. In the future it will be praised or despised like painting is today. Because it is handmade, precisely. Today’s digital mass photography is completely different. We believe in old photography because of its rhythms. We are actually interested in moving the universe of our photographs in sculpture and painting.

GL: Does “Interviewing the Cities” have an anthropological aim? You have now finished two series, Vienna and Amsterdam. Do you intend to give an overview of the cultural scenes in such places? CD: “Interviewing…” does not offer the context for a systemic approach. It is not a scientific research tool, but a diary where events are provoked, if you like, while a lot of room is given to chance. The series will gain anthropological value in time, I am sure. That is already obvious after just two layers of experience: the images from Vienna are so much different – in a subtle way – from the Amsterdam ones. But I think it is too early for me to elaborate on the topic of difference in an interesting way. I am now looking forward to work in the next town – Helsinki. GL: In October 1999, ten years after the fall of communism, a survey show on East-European contemporary art was organized by Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Is there something like a post-89 conceptual/media arts generation? CD: Exhibitions like “After the Wall” are always good because they bring topics together. The art there, in what I would call “the region” is very diverse, and the differences kept working despite the political unification of the cold war era. Russian artists are still very interesting, while Russia is a miserable country. We, the Balkan people are not the top of the pop; there is something divisive and small there. The weaker part of subREAL comes from the Balkans, whereas the better part is Transsylvanian. I must admit that I have a special interest in Hungarian art, probably also because as a Romanian I should not like it. I find the Slovenian environment smart and sophisticated. Things are happening in the Baltic states also. Certainly the cultural borders within Europe are blurring. There are artists which are already absorbed by the international scene, while others stay local. They are not lesser artists, they just have another destiny. As far as the young generation is concerned I do not know very much about the subject. But I guess that a period of sedimentation is needed before the political and the economic changes of the previous decade will reshape the cultural scenes. For the time being those belong still to the generations which gained a voice in the beginning of the 90s or even before.

GL: Can we now stop using these regional label that people always feel slightly uncomfortable with? Parts of the former Eastern bloc are already members of NATO. Some of the countries will soon enter the EU, whereas others are fresh battlefields, poverty zones. Belarus is still a post-communist dictatorship. And then there is Russia, which seems a case in itself. CD: As far as things develop normally, which is hard to believe, art will go its way. People from the region can focus now more organically on the region’s needs and figure out wider strategies. Local and regional networks are slowly building up next to Western influences and policies. Also, a shift seems to be operating on the periphery. This buzz word from the beginning of the last decade starts to be operational now, and the connections on the North-South axis became suddenly real.

This is an extremely interesting period. Also a somehow naive one. In perhaps thirty years from now we will have a very different look at the turn of the 21st century. We will not understand why things were not moving faster, and why were we so enthusiastic about the wrong things. But that happened before, didn’t it? URL of Happy Doomsday!:” URL of subREAL: