Ştefan RUSU

editor / texts

The metamorphoses of the public sphere

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Political reforms triggered by the events of 7 April brought a series of changes, which today are evidently being challenged in the society. Mass protests have gained momentum as a result of the parliamentary election results announced in April 2009, after which the demonstrators, most of them young people and students, have requested a change in the political regime of the Republic of Moldova. There is a striking similarity between the events of April 2009 and the ones which marked the late 80’s, when a series of actions of the people – circles, concerts, demonstrations and street marches – were consolidated in a message directed against political totalitarianism promoted by the communist government of the SSRM (Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova). Those actions and events, some of them with cultural significance, caused major changes in the political orientation of the country in the legislation. New symbols (flag, anthem etc.) were installed, culminating with the proclamation of independence (27 August 1991). Unlike the events which took place two decades ago (the collapse of the USSR had a major contribution), the latest ones generated just a shuffle in the political system, while the rules remain the same.

When referring to the period just before 1991, and especially the one after 1991, there is no doubt that the definition of public sphere given by Habermas does not correspond to the reality. In this way, that idealist bourgeois model and concept based on universality and rationality, which does not explain the fragmentation of postmodern society, ceased to be current. At the same time, the aspirations of the Moldavian society after the proclamation of independence and the transformation into a new, democratic country did not materialize during the 90’s when the liberal–democratic coalition was in government. Citizens’ wishes were not fulfilled even after 2001, when the CPRM (Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova) came to power by way of a coup de theatre in the parliament. The situation did not change after 2004, although after a reform the party turned into one based on capitalist principles. None of these political regimes has excelled in promoting and expanding the public sphere as an area of debate, open and democratic negotiation between the society and the authority.

In 2010, as a part of the project CHISINAU – Art, Research in the Public Spherethis plurality of aspects was analyzed, as well as the precariousness of the public sphere within the post-socialist area at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall. The transterdisciplinary research platform launched during this project aimed to analyze the political and economical contradictions which can be identified in various management patterns within the public area. The outcome consists of several projects, and I consider it necessary to mention in this context just a few, namely the ones signed by the artists selected to participate in the 2011 exhibition Journey to the East (Bialystok, Poland).

Thus, two decades after becoming independent (1992) and during an unstable period of transition towards a democratic regime, the theorists and visual artists who took part in the project have set upon studying and analyzing the present-day situations where a public sphere will be possible. The lack of the notion of “public sphere” in the SSRM not only created a vacuum regarding the notion of “public” but also opened the door for political instability and antagonism, mostly based on ethnic criteria. On the other hand, whilst immediately after 1989 and also during the 90’s there was a vague freedom of expression, between 2001–2008 (during PCRM ruling, in alliance with CDPP) a vacuum occurred regarding compliance with human rights. Clientelism was a regular occurrence, and a series of regulations replaced censorship. Therefore it is easy to understand the reason why for two decades the society was entangled in a mechanism within which various political platforms were openly competing for votes, while the mass media were exclusively used as tools of conveyance of political capital, thus rendering the society a passive spectator.

Actually, today one can say that there is not only “one public” but a configuration of multiple “publics” and “counterpublics” in continuous transformation, and it is erroneous to believe in the pattern of an existing public sphere, which only awaits to be conquered. According to Oliver Marchart, the public sphere is not a space in a physical sense nor an institutional space (as mass media or pedestrian recourses). In the context of the aesthetic of the public sphere, Marchart mentions that the public sphere is actually always occurring and recurring in conflictual situations. Where there is a conflict, or more precisely, antagonism, there is a public sphere. When they disappear, the public sphere disappears. An example of this type of occurrence of the public sphere can be the events of 7 April 2009, which caused only a superficial change, not a real repositioning of the society and political elite. This would have manifested itself in truly democratic decisions and actions. For the time being a whole spectrum of vagueness persists regarding the transparency of the political act and the management of public politics.

Thus, some aspects of the democratic transition that took place in the post-communist area and the changes affecting the critical discourse referring to the public sphere were reflected in the contributions of participants to the project CHISINAU – Art, Research in the Public Sphere. These included projects by Dumitru Oboroc, Tatiana Fiodorova and Maxim Kuzmenko. Game with memories. How to explain a people’s monument? by Dumitru Oboroc (RO) is an intervention by which the artist proposed a re-signification of the monuments erected in Soviet times, by temporarily changing the names they bear. According to the artist, this re-signification is desperately needed because the current meaning of the monuments is anachronistic and serves a totalitarian ideology. Maxim Kuzmenko (MD) inaugurated Centre Station within the Metrobunker project, which involves a project of systematization and hybridization of an unexplored network of catacombs and bomb shelters built during the Cold War. Basically, the artist came up with the idea of setting up an underground to connect the Chisinau Municipality districts in order to ease and facilitate public transport. A participatory model of practice was used by Tatiana Fiodorova (MD) in the Romashka project, whose reference point was the attic of building called the “Romaşka”(camomile) in oral culture, built in the 70’s in the Botanica district of Chisinau (29/2 Testimiţeanu Street). In this space, which remained inert since the inauguration of the building, she decided to establish the “Romashka” Centre for Entertainment and Recreation with the aim of reviving the initial function of that space with the help of the residents. In this case, the artists who participated in the project acted as agents in the process of creation and expansion of public space in its political sense when they proposed to identify the processes behind urban transformation.

With the purpose of giving some contextual examples of the way in which the public sphere is treated by the political class, I consider it appropriate to bring into the discussion a series of artistic actions which critically approached a series of events from the time when the CPRM was in power. The protagonist of the bizarre 2007 event was the Christmas tree purchased by the Municipality of Chisinau, which became the fulcrum of a conflict between the central government and the City Hall of Chisinau. The conflict was that local liberal authorities were eager to unveil the Christmas tree on Christmas, while the communist government wanted the tree to be installed no earlier than New Year’s Eve, which eventually forced the security forces (city police) to act against the local administration of Chisinau. At the same time, in order to address this situation in a somehow comic but also absurd way, a group of artists consisting of Victor Ciobanu, Vladimir Us, Andrei Gamart, Alexandru Raevski, Ghenadie Popescu, and Tatiana Fiodorova initiated an action on 22 and 23 December 2007. The action involved a symbolic plantation in front of the Government building of dry trees (painted in red) which where collected from trash bins, thus making a point about the usual practice of politicizing a profane tradition.

Different theoretical models and everyday political events have highlighted the fact that what was once idealistically imagined as a homogeneous public is now clearly perceived as far from sharing common interests and equal rights of access, so the question concerning the utopian nature of the public space becomes truly urgent. Therefore, several factors support the need to rebuild the foundations of the public sphere concept, especially if we want to understand some political aspects of the public sphere. The coming to power and consolidation of the democratic regime have brought a new spirit in the process, and the voice of civil society had its role in promoting freedoms and expanding the public sphere in a number of neighboring countries with similar historical and political paths.

Matasaru's case is another eloquent example of criticism addressed against the weaknesses of the political system and the extremely narrow field of dispute between civil society and power. Anatol Matasaru is a simple computer specialist who, by using creative means of expression, has turned into an outspoken critic of the corrupt system of government installed by the CPRM government. Matasaru organizes between 2008 and 2009 a series of solitary protests disguised in self-made costumes, using a practice that originates in the tradition of profane theatre, in some situations being accompanied by a pig (dressed up as a prosecutor) and a donkey (dressed up as a police officer). By way of modest means, and also with the use of slogans and texts, he repeatedly criticizes abuses of public institutions and of the Ministry of Justice, being generally obstructed in exposing his views by security forces. By his intransigent position and by the means used, Matasaru's actions synchronize with the efforts of artists practicing performing art/public actions and by doing so intend to extend the notions of the public sphere and of dialogue with the authority.

Returning to the adventures of the seized Christmas tree, we find that it denotes a symbolic clash between the forces of the government and the local authorities of Chisinau, representing oppositional forces, which brought about visible tensions and caused a polarization of the political class of the Republic of Moldova. At the same time, the Matasaru case is a confrontation between civil society and state authorities (in this case, of the police and the Ministry of Justice) which finds a parallel with the events that followed the intervention entitled Game with memories. How to explain a people's monument? by Dumitru Oboroc (RO), of which the subject was the monument dedicated to Heroes of Leninist Komsomol. The intervention consisted of the re-signification of monuments erected in the Soviet period by temporarily changing their titles. Just as he was applying the temporary title, the artist was stopped by security forces and escorted to the police station, where he was interrogated for several hours along with his assistant. They were later released, but only after police seized documents and materials (the original copy of the authorities’ approval for this intervention given to the KSAK Center, fluorescent paint, brushes, etc.). It later occurred that the police had been announced by a group of activists affiliated with CPRM and in the next day wiped his intervention, classifying it as an act of vandalism. This incident points to a different symbolic clash between the creative industry and the nostalgic elements of the Moldovan society. Efforts to raise awareness into public opinion of Moldavia with leftist politics and methods will have no positive effect as long as a part of society is associated with a disabled collective mentality. Such attitudes in society are preserved within communities that are for the moment resistant to change and which perceive artistic interventions as a threat and catalogue them exclusively from antagonistic positions.

Referring to the significance of the protests of April 2009, followed by the ousting of the Communist Party, we found that those events have meant a chance to both express the democratic wishes of society and transform the public sphere in terms of going beyond the Habermas model promoted by political regimes in Eastern Europe. Immediately afterwards, while the AIE was in power, there was space for a broadening of free expression by the emergence of a new media (Publica TV, Jurnal TV, other radio channels, magazines, newspapers, etc.) that promoted open politics and public debate practices. However, beyond these positive changes, the new politicians have activated initiatives of a vengeful nature that asked for mandatory changes in public space through the demolition/relocation of monuments, the removal from the city map of important historical buildings and architectural complexes Such tendencies are counterproductive as they attempt to rewrite history, as happened in previous periods; and if this rewriting becomes a common practice, it brings with itself deletion of the collective memory and sterilization of urban space.

Analyzing the case of the public sphere called “the world of art,” Simon Sheikh asks:
“What are its boundaries and how can it be strategically used to couple to other public spheres?” Finally, the question comes up of how works of art and reflection on art can arise in these different spheres – on the one hand taking as its starting point a specific fragment of the art world and, on the other, directly or indirectly engaging in other spheres. Actions taken by young artists as a response to the seizure of the Christmas tree, the public space actions of Anatol Matasaru, as well as the artistic practices performed by visual artists involved in the Chisinau project – all of these scored a series of situations in relation to the politics promoted by the authorities using a set of creative media which as a whole have created an interference with other spheres of the society.

In conclusion, we can say that the promotion of contemporary art projects and activities concerned with investigating the public sphere today – an age of globalization and of an aggressive capitalist society that has reduced the role of art to being of a purely decorative nature – urgently requires that visual art practices become an instrument of critical engagement with political and social connotations and a more active involvement in other spheres. The current situation in the Republic of Moldova, two years after the events of April 7 and under a new government, which has announced major changes for the society, has rather occulted the decision-making process and created a period filled with divergences amongst the AIE neo-liberal coalition members. We can not say that there would be no desire to become more open and to carry out some reforms, but many of these goals and expectations remain only statements and are disguised by slogans and projections of the future, and the development of the public sphere in an objective sense to date remains a goal to be conquered on all levels (on the streets, online, on the air, in mass media etc.).

Stefan Rusu
16 May 2011, Chisinau

1 Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. 1962
 2 Chisinau – Art, Research in the Public Sphere – project organized by KSAK – Center for Contemporary Art, Chisinau Project details: http://www.art.md/2010/sfera_publica.html
 3 The TV STILL channel did not obtain a broadcasting license, and TVR lost its license, which was accredited to Canal 2 Plus
4  Oliver Marchart, Aesthetic of Public Sphere. Cultural Observatory no. 389, September 2007.
5  Suzana Milevska, What is so public in regards to public art?.Cultural Observatory no. 132, 13 -19 September 2007.
6 Simon Sheikh, Instead of public sphere? Either the world fragmented. Cultural Observatory no. 389, September 2007.
 7 AIE (PD – Democratic Party , PL – Liberal Party and PLDM – Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova).