The politics of critical performativity. In search of a new public space
By Cătălin Gheorghe

This text talks about the artistic practice of Ştefan Rusu, known as one of the most engaged cultural workers in the Republic of Moldova. Although well-known for his management, curatorial and editorial projects run at KSA:K (the Centre for Contemporary Art in Chişinău) and at Dushanbe Art Ground in Tadjikistan, as well as in various contexts in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan), Ştefan Rusu made his name through artistic, performative, interventionist, installative and documentary projects in which he contextualised in a critical manner the political transformation processed and the changes occurring in post-socialist societies after   1989 that influenced the way people and communities relate to the use of public space.

In his artistic work, Ştefan Rusu is interested in investigating the impact of the current urban transformations and interventions in the context of a need to reclaim and civically activate public space, based on his interest for analysing the way the present  time is affected by the authoritarian implementation of the applications of past political ideologies in urban planning, social policies, economic strategies, citizen education and daily life.

As early as in 2006, Ştefan Rusu showed an interest in developing several forms of intervention in the public space of Chişinău, building and installing a bus stop, a site-specific object inspired by the Rural Modernism style that became visible in the Moldovan SSR starting with the ’80s, when a number of bus stops could be found along the network of roads connecting the city of Chişinău to the neighboring villages. Starting from a documentation of modernist sculptural architecture, with constructivist and minimalist accents, of the bus stops installed in the urban environment and in certain rural nodes during Soviet times, this work, called Staţie către o destinaţie incertă (A bus stop towards an uncertain destination), was installed in the working-class district of Ciocana, short-circuiting the short-term memory specific to the phenomenon of rapid forgetting of recent past traumas and evoking thus a mark of the place’s identity now found in the tension between utility and aesthetics.

Another intervention in the public space was made at the “Art with a Past” Festival of Novy Targ, Wroclaw, in Poland, in 2009. Starting from the observation of the discriminatory treatment of Eastern-European immigrants, despite the human rights discourse in the context of the European Union project enlargement after 2007, and in relation to the living conditions of the new labour force on the black market, Ştefan Rusu created a paradoxical structure, with the title Adăpost (Shelter), the corner of an ambiguous room, decked with tiles, similar to a bathroom or a kitchen or a production hall, cut out of a space at once closed and open to connotations in the public space. In the manoeuvring space of the artist’s intentionality, this temporal structure would be the product of quantifying the effort of an estimation of the involvement of the labour of an emigrant throughout the eight hours of a work day.

The same year, in Chişinău, Ştefan Rusu carried out one of his best known and most powerful works in public space, “Apartament deschis” (“Flat Space”), in order to assemble the identity of the CHIOŞC project, designed by the Oberliht Association as a cultural information point, a place for promoting contemporary art and youth culture, and a public platform for artistic and citizen expression that would reflect the socio-political context characterised by a ideologized “process of transition” towards a new society.

Designed as a reduced-scale functional replica of a socialist-era apartment, the work enters the perspective of a complex of references, on the one hand to the history of the phenomenon of apartment exhibitions occurring in the ’70s and ’80s, in which art that didn’t fit the canons of “state-sanctioned culture” was exhibited for a restricted audience only, an on the other hand to the topical character of the phenomenon of building standard social housing that come to define the precarity in which most of the population in the post-socialist counties of Eastern Europe is forced to live.

However, the design of the architectural structure, which suggests the idea of extracting from an apartment block unit a few basic elements specific to standardised constructions, such as the façade with double-glazing balconies and the of claustrophobia relationship moderated using the partitioned setting of the living room, kitchen and bathroom, is organised in a minimalist manner so as to provide, on the one hand, a verticalised space, of lightbox type, for the dissemination of cultural information, and on the other hand a horizontalised and multi-functionalised space, of open-platform type, for holding public presentations and organising cultural events.

Reversing the identity of the private space in the motivation of a potentiality of public expressions, this work by Ştefan Rusu also speculates the need to democratise the cultural act by facilitating the access of a broader audience to alternative culture events.

This functional public sculpture continues to provide to this day, through the calls launched by the Oberliht Association to the artists in the Republic of Moldova, both a cultural information point, with an information lightbox and a postcard and magazine stand, as well as a space for artistic expression that hosts exhibitions and temporary events, performances and screenings of experimental and documentary films.

Another version of the Flat Space was installed in autumn 2009 at the Arthub Summit: The Making of the New Silk Roads in Bangkok. Exhibited in this version, the work takes on the appearance of a micro-construction built in a prefabricated materials factory. The lines drawn in paint inside are markings specific to architectural blueprints, indicating the places where the basic equipment of an apartment – cooker, sink etc. – to be installed, but they also seem to simulate a compositional scenery that would suggest to the visitors how to behave in this exhibition and performance space, much like the drawing made by Lars von Trier in Dogville. The apartment balcony was host to political speeches held under a flag appropriated by each speaker, while the inside hosted performances that generated objectual artworks.

The Making of the New Silk Roads in Bangkok, 2009

In 2010, in Warsaw, within the project called The Knot, designed as a mobile artistic production and presentation unit, temporarily activated in Berlin, Warsaw and Bucharest, Ştefan Rusu made a new art project in the public space, characteristic of the “new genre”, with an interest in discursivity and participativity.

Placed in the vicinity of the apartment buildings in the Ursynov district of Warsaw, the site specific installation Block 89 was presented as an attempt to rethink the meaning of socialist habitats and to indicate the symptoms of the social transformations that occurred in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc after 1989.

Constructed as a metaphor for the transition from a socialist to a capitalist world,  the work attempts the fictionalisation of a permeable wall which at the same time supports the façade of an entrance to the staircase of a row of apartments in a building dating from the Soviet modernist era of the ’70s, while becoming a support for a flexible wooden springboard that propels the viewer towards a new world. The entrance reminds of the meeting place used for the residents in order to socialise within their community. The passage between the two eras, marked by the border year 1989, signifies the ritualistic tradition of crossing a gate’s threshold, in a celebration of key moments of social history. Springboards propel one forward through a leap into the void, giving a sense of freedom, of liberation from a firm – possibly also captive – territory, throwing one, however, into a world without clear bearings.

In the context it was exhibited in, the architectural sculpture becomes interactive, placing the visitors in the position of experiencing the memories of the old regime, on the steps at the entrance of the fictional apartment building, or imagining the contradictory states of freedom of ascension and uncertainty of fall, by jumping off the springboard placed at the other end of the construction.

Open Flat, Białystok, Poland, 2011

Another moment in which Ştefan Rusu redesigned his long-term project Open Flat, in the shape of a new “flat”-type installation set up in the urban space, can be identified in the collective show Journey to the East, curated by Monika Szewczyk and organised by the Arsenal Gallery in Białystok, Poland, in 2011. An apartment is a functional structure which, from an architectural point of view, we know is enclosed in an ensemble of housing units, in the design of which a diversity of privacies co-exist, but which, from an artistic point of view, we can understand as being left open to spontaneous exploration by passers-by. In this context, the work may be understood from the perspective of tactical urbanism in which the artistically engaged intervention is calibrated according to the interest for activating the new meanings of public spaces by involving the communities associated to them.

The spaces designed by Ştefan Rusu are thus transformed into participative monuments in which social history and semiotised design create territories that are open to the practices of sharing and experimenting in the direction of an ideological and pragmatic ideologisation of the audience. Modularity and mobility become principles for explaining forced mentality changes, and symbolisation and participativity become implicit in the artist’s attempt to re-functionalise the use of public space depending on the assumption of the history of places and on the emancipation from under the new economic constraints.

One year later, in 2012, in the Husby district of Stockholm, Ştefan Rusu put up a new sculptural construction “Floating Balcony”, asserting the idea that “the political sphere is not somewhere else, but right here, in our kitchens and balconies”. This portable, easily displaceable structure was designed to operate like a stage or a tribune located high up, suggesting the potentiality of civic positions in relation to the political and economic decisions that can directly affect everyday life.

Placing this structure in the Husby district involved the representation of a resonance gesture in relation to the political will to confront the image problems faced at the time by the community living in the district. The neighbourhood had come to be described by the media as a problem area, marked by the presence of immigrants and with a high unemployment rate. In actual fact, being located in an idyllic area, close to nature, the district appealed to new developers, who would gentrify it, through renovation projects involving the social housing built in the ’70s, and even extend it fact that would have meant chasing away the current residents by raising the price for extending lease contracts. The residents resisted publicly through demonstrations and occupation tactics, and therefore Ştefan Rusu’s public work could be understood as a monument for the triumph of civic resistance by speaking out in the public space.

Interested in combining the history of art in the public space with the current issue of  symbolic, political and functional re-activation of public places, Ştefan Rusu embarks on a series of guided tours he designs himself and then applies within the artistic programmes in which he takes part as a guest.

Thus, in 2012, within the project “undergo. the parallels” organised by GeoAIR in Tbilisi, Ştefan Rusu organised the guided tour Art in the underground public space, during which he described in situ a number of performances, exhibitions and mural interventions by Georgian artists. The artist’s intention was to start a general debate about the consequences of economic crises and of urban planning in the late ’80s and early ’90s, highlighting in particular cases that are specific to the effects of the commercialisation of public spaces in Tbilisi, and to evoke important moments of artistic exploration through today’s practices of activating the public space.

In 2013, within the project SPACES: Centrul Civic al Chişinăului – dincolo de liniile roşii (SPACES: The Civic Centre of Chisinau – beyond the red lines), Ştefan Rusu proposed another “guided tour” during which he presented to the audience a number of landmarks of socialist modernism built in Chisinau back in the years of the Moldovan SSR. Designed and applied in the socialist era in many other cities of the Eastern Bloc,  socialist modernism never had the chance to receive heritage status after the change in political regime, ending up ignored and abandoned to degradation both by architects and city planners, as well as by public authorities, either due to the ideological changes in the city planning policies or due to the escalation of real estate interests. The aim of the design for this guided tour was to map those particular architectural landmarks in which the viewer can see relevant moments of the construction of urban identity, evoked through narrative walks in the proximity of boulevards, public buildings, housing complexes, monuments. Among the areas include in the route were the Botanica district, with a walk on the Dacia Boulevard (formerly Păcii Boulevard / Prospekt Mira, designed by S. Shoikhet, B. Benderski, A. Razlog un the ’70s-’80s), the housing complex “Porţile oraşului” (“City Gates”) (designed by the architect team that included Y. Skvortzova, A. Markovich, A. Spasov in the ’80s), the tower block complex  on the Dacia Boulevard designed by G. Solominov (in collaboration with O. Vronskii in 1985), the railway station area, with the Cosmos Hotel located on the Gagarin Boulevard, the city centre, with the Ştefan cel Mare Boulevard, including the Naţional Hotel (formerly the Intourist), the Children’s Hospital on Bucureşti Street, designed by G. Solominov in 1972 and the Romaniţa (Romashka) building, designed by O. Vronskii.

The same year, Ştefan Rusu took part in another three shows: the eighth edition of the Shiryaevo Biennial of Contemporary Art, at the Art Centre of Samara (an industrial city in Russia), in the exhibition “Have the wanderers of yesterday become today’s backpackers?”, curated by Martin Schibli, where he built a new version of his Floating / Portable Balcony, designed as a tribune-rickshaw from which visitors could hold speeches and express their opinions; at the Viltin Gallery in Budapest, where he set up the  video-installation Managing Crisis, dealing in a quasi-parodic manner with a historical incident correlated to a genuine economic phenomenon (at the time when the political and economic relations between the USSR and Cuba were very good, the Moldovan SSR imported significant quantities of brown sugar, creating an excess that the population speculated, turning it into a local alcoholic drink, basamac, which would be drunk even by the Moldovan sailors serving on the nuclear submarines patrolling the Cuban waters); and in Lublin, at the “Culture for an Eastern Partnership” Congress,  in partnership with the TEKTURA Space for Cultural Initiatives, where he installed, in a  public building, a “canteen for cultural workers” – a wooden structure, with folding tables, a kind of mobile and temporary kitchen where meals could be prepared and served.

At the end of 2015 Ştefan Rusu took part in the sixth edition of the Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art in Moscow, in the group show Our Land / Alien Territory organised by the Department of Research Arts of the Triumph Gallery, an exhibition curated by  Yulia Aksenova and installed at the Central Manege in Moscow. Bringing together artists from several regions of the world, the exhibition focussed on investigating the relationship between space and politics and on analysing through artwork the phenomenon of disputed territories and of border areas characterised by instability and potential conflict. In this show Ştefan Rusu presented the installation Victory on the Borders, through which he questions the ambiguous character of the border between the Republic of Moldova and the separatist region of Transnistria, a territory of political instability controlled by the Russian army and the secret services of the Russian Federation. Installing V-shaped binoculars on the border, Ştefan Rusu speculates this ambiguity of the surveillance/espionage relations, as well as the symbols generated by the ideological use of the victory rhetoric.

Ştefan Rusu’s dominant concern in recent years has been to reflect critically on the causality relation between the recent political history of the post-socialist condition and the social life of the residents of urban environments, in a confrontational relationship with the various problems generated by the administrative implications of unilateral economic interests. Apart from installation projects, most often site-specific ones, in which he makes the transition from private life to public sphere, from the micro-policies of daily life to public-interest macropolicies, Ştefan Rusu also became involved in the making of documentary films through which he attempted to analyse urban transformations in various contexts.

Still from Reclaiming the City, 2012

Thus, in 2012, Ştefan Rusu made the investigative documentary “Reclaiming the City” (64 minutes), presented at the 7th edition of the Berlin Biennale, in which he aimed to explore, through a series of visits and interviews, the urban life of New Berlin, a city of contradictions, which is host to free expressions of artistic intervention and controlled processes of the gentrification economy. Based on a series of city tours led by Swetlana Heger, Erik Göngrich, Jochen Becker, Mathias Heyden and Berndt Langer, both through places exposed to dramatic processes of social and economic restructuring, such as Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Prenzlauer Berg, as well as through places of free expression of habitation, such as squatting areas and the Tempelhof Airport, this documentary reveals tensions of the social memory and transformations of the Berlin public space.

His latest documentary “Autopcity”, an allusion to an autopsy performed using a camera on the tissue of the city of Chişinău, was produced with the support of the Oberliht Association and launched in 2015 in Chişinău within the Cronograf festival. The film analyses, from the perspective of historical, urban sociology and daily life experience narratives, the structural transformations of the public space, with focus on the situation of the real estate developments on the axis of the Cantemir Boulevard, designed after WWII by the Alexei Şciusev team of architects and re-approached in the General City Plan promoted by the pro-European coalition in 2007. The discussions and opinions expressed by city dwellers and urban activists, with well-documented interventions from Vitalie Sprînceană and Vladimir Us, also approach issues concerning the abandoned conservation of the core of the old city (built as early as the 18th century), in close relationship to the processes of uncontrolled gentrification. As a reaction to these problems, the film also documents a project of public space activation  through artistic practices, run by the Oberliht Association.

In his artistic practices, from sculptures with architecture and community references installed in public spaces – contextualising social memory or the need for civic and cultural participation –, to journalistic investigation documentaries about urban life – analysing the circumstances of the transformations of public space under the pressure of gentrification processes –, Ştefan Rusu engages critically in enhancing the social role of art of reacting against the abuses of economic power in changing the circumstances of urban living and against the obliteration of the voices of those who would like to express their points of view through acts of participative culture.

Cătălin GHEORGHE is a theoretician, curator and editor. He teaches courses in Aesthetics of visual arts, Applicative visual studies and Theories and practices of artistic research at the  “George Enescu” University of Art in Iaşi. He is the editor of the series of publications Vector – critical research in context and curator of the critical research and artistic production educational platform Vector – studio of artistic practices and debates.