Olivia Berkowicz

At the end of 2019, artist Larisa Crunțeanu met curator and writer Olivia Berkowicz to talk about BLUEPRINT, a walk-in installation and scenography about collective consciousness that explores similarities between the architectural plan and the clothing cutting pattern. The work took inspiration from Sala Omnia, a historical building originally designed to host the meetings of the Romanian Communist Party, which will convert into the National Dance Centre starting 2022.

Olivia Berkowicz: Practicing conversations strikes me as a vital part of your work. In this vein, I would like to offer a context for our dialogue by describing where it physically took place. At the end of October, we were both standing in a chilly, industrial building called Halle 9 in Leipzig’s Spinnerei area. I was invited by you to experience the installation and the performance, and write a text together with you. Departing from the work as a space, I would like to tease out how you developed the idea of BLUEPRINT.

Larisa Crunțeanu: BLUEPRINT started more than a year ago when I was working on a form of architectural environment based on textiles. While doing that, I realized that architecture and clothing patterns, although seemingly from very different domains, are actually very much alike. On the one hand, architecture is a highly intellectual language historically performed and designed by men, with ramifications in the public sphere. On the other hand, textile pattern-making has not been regarded as a cultural form for a very long time, but rather as a domestic tool, performed and used by women in private spaces. But these two apparently very different languages are in fact similar to one another. They are bidimensional, reductionist tools that design ways in which spaces and volumes can be constructed and ‘folded’ to cover our bodies; organising and limiting our movement and the way we interact with one another. And in this sense, they are both unwittingly influencing our collective consciousness.

The architectural environment I mentioned was a wood and textile installation that dealt with camouflage as a tool in contemporary society. T​itled ”A Conversation Between 3 Workers” (2018), the installation consisted of a cube measuring 2.5 meters on each side, with walls made out of textile. Three working uniforms were embedded into the textile walls, inspired by the Russian constructivist and futurist Varvara Stefanova, whose practice included designing such uniforms for the workers.I​ n turn, this work was inspired by my previous collaboration with Sonja Hornung, “A Conversation Between Two Workers and A Rock” (2017-2018). Finally, this piece was a continuation of “Femina Subtetrix” (2015), a research project dealing with the female workers in one of Romania’s largest textile factories, also developed in collaboration with Sonja

Hornung. This project stemmed from conversations with my friend and longtime collaborator Xandra Popescu. I could go on and on. I guess many of my works are developed from conversations that I feel have not reached a conclusion… Do they ever? Maybe that’s what makes a good conversation, not knowing when and where it will stop.

OB: In light of your previous projects, a red thread emerges in your work dealing both with histories of female labourers, and with  dialogue as methodology. In my opinion, the installation attempts to question the canonical view of the solo male auteur, and the materials traditionally associated with the masculine sphere, such as welded metal for example. Would you agree with the statement that BLUEPRINT has a feminist agenda?

LC: I think that I am more drawn to feminist practices rather than feminist subjects. Especially feminist infrastructures that create spaces for thinking and making in relation to female bodies, subjectivities and histories. In this context, we were a team of women (Magda Vieriu, Ecaterina Guzun, Iulia Namașco and I) working in the realm of textile art but with certain technologies and aesthetics that are normatively perceived as ‘cold’, ‘rational’, ‘masculine’. Our focus was to explore how textile art can move away from textile art aesthetics through materiality and manipulation instructions. So no, I did not have a feminist agenda in the sense that you set up the question to begin with, but more of a feminist and collaborative background that surfaced and remained a tangible layer throughout the process.

OB: When we first started our conversation in preparation for this text, a specific architectural site was mentioned, namely the Sala Omnia in Bucharest. How was this location introduced into the process and how have you been working with this environment?

LC: Although I knew what the research area was and who I wanted to share this experience with, at some point the process demanded another approach. A visual, maybe even haptic experience. We needed to walk and talk together, to collectively experiment  in a space with our ideas about textiles and walls, architectural and clothing blueprints.

Sala Omnia is one of our last standing socialist buildings where the exterior and interior elements of its architecture are still intact. It was erected in 1967 and designed by star architect Cezar Lazarescu, who was commissioned to create a conference venue for the Romanian Communist Party. After it served its purpose for over 20 years, the building hosted the Romanian Senate meetings. Historically speaking, this was a place where power performed acts of self-representation. Next year, in 2020, the building will undergo renovations in order to become the new headquarters of the National Dance Center Bucharest. It seemed like an interesting choice to work there and see if, and in which way, the function of the space plays a role in its aesthetics. Moreover, I am also looking forward to seeing how the space will change according to its new function, how much of it will disappear, how much will be repurposed or reinterpreted. Without necessarily wanting to, this work is becoming something of a loose transitioning document.

OB: Importantly, I find that this work creates a contribution to the discourse on communist heritage, without falling into the trap of being purely illustrative or referential. It confuses categories of binary thinking, both in terms of gender norms but also in terms of larger categories such as ‘East’ and ‘West’. How did you explore questions around the position and the value of communist heritage without negating its history or its future?

LC: I was three years old in 1989, and hence I have no direct memories from the time under that regime. I think that there are two major risks when people of my age, or younger, tackle the subject of communism. On the one hand, one can be insensitive to more subtle, even traumatic direct experiences, and on the other hand, one can easily fall into the trap of nostalgia and idealize a past one does not fully understand.

I cannot say which is more important, to respond to the clear, direct needs of contemporary culture or to preserve the patrimony belonging to yesteryear’s culture. But looking at this building’s history and planned future opens up the discussion about how local and regional politics navigate the past. I feel like there is a pressure to erase it in favour of the new, because we learn that this past held us back, that we somehow arrived late at the table because of it. So then, we only look at it from an exterior position, worrying about what the past says about us, but rarely opening up on how we feel about it.

OB: Do you think that the West still finds value in reifying the notion of the former Eastern Bloc as an immutable past? In this way, the pre-1989 construction of a monolithic region still remains, conceived of as always being in the backwaters of societal development. Despite several surveys of economic growth indicating that the former Eastern European countries have some of the steepest increases in living standards, the notion of the uniform grey Bloc is continuously reinforced.

LC: We are trained to doubt our past and what is left of it, so dismissing it altogether seems like the safest thing to do. When I moved to Poland, I expected to be familiar with the society. However, when I arrived I started realizing we had lived under very different repressive regimes. I think it is important to keep in mind that those 40-something years were not a monolith in terms of  time and space. The politics, the values, the aesthetics and the way in which power organized and staged itself varied dramatically throughout this period and across the region.

OB: As an environment, BLUEPRINT invokes a sense of structure and monumentality, yet the installation also incorporates soft, fluid elements of ghost-like textile panels. Somewhere in between the grid and the ornament, the installation explores both aspects with zeal and purpose. How do the architectural elements and choice of materials relate to the Omnia building?

LC: After a couple of visits to the Omnia building, I was struck by this idea of overlapping the feeling of stability and decisiveness of the architectural blueprint, with the more fluid and reversible nature of the textile blueprint. This is how the tracing paper reference came about, because it represents a surface that is not finalised for presentation but rather a transitioning tool that holds ideas and helps with moving elements around. From the start of my research, I wanted to suggest scalability in opposition to the myth of the universal human body as expressed in the architectural practice.

OB: In terms of the logic of industrialized production, sameness and standardization of bodies and objects is key. The situatedness of BLUEPRINT in Halle 9 is evocative, as the installation is placed in a tram renovation workshop that is still operating. It is clear that a correlation exists between the grid-like nature of BLUEPRINT and the architectural efficiency of the warehouse. Could you further explain the relationship between the installation and the bodies inhabiting it?

LC: When moving through the installation, one is always bound to a 1.2 metre area between the elements, which is the narrowest pedestrian street in urban environments nowadays. When we were working we were vaguely inspired by the Venetian street system, where the street is a very intimate space, albeit still public. In this sense, the work allows for an individual exploration but it also leads to encounters, albeit fleetingly, with other people. The installation is also modular, so that it may be expanded or reduced, which is a feature that is increasing in popularity in contemporary architecture, along with using textiles as as building material.

OB: What are the future hopes and plans for the installation?

LC: BLUEPRINT was conceived of as a freestanding work but also as a scenography for other immaterial works, the first of which was a live concert called “Do It By Heart”, for which I collaborated with the producer Alex Bălă. My hope for the future is that the installation will host works by other artists, and the structure will increasingly recede into the background.

OB: The installation brings to mind the historical function of the museum as a modern apparatus for educating the working classes towards a different class consciousness. The protocol of how to act is deeply inscribed into the ritualization of the museum. BLUEPRINT, then, has a different sensibility, where the structure operates as a hosting body for other practices. In this way, I think this work is interesting because it questions that protocol and creates another form of subjectivity which does not structure social mobility from the lower classes into a bourgeois subjectivity.

LC: I keep on coming back to questions regarding the protocol around an artwork. Where does it come from and how can we spin it on its head? Oftentimes, I find myself in a struggle to enforce or contradict the protocol. Of course, there’s also the option of telling people what to do, but I personally find that boring and pedantic. The ‘proper-behaviour-ness’ of high culture should be questioned at every stage. Not only because of its influence on the art world but also because of the way in which it has created divisions between classes. It still remains an instrument to separate economic classes and reinforce chasms.

OB: During the exhibition at Halle 9, you performed a suite of pop songs within the installation itself. I find that the first live event of BLUEPRINT has a distinct correlation with your video work “A Small Insignifiant Love” (2019). I am curious to know more about your interest in pop music as an ongoing theme within your practice.

LC: It was actually this film that opened my appetite for taking on something that I like, which is pop music production. I definitely do not see pop as a lesser culture in any way. I dare say that not many people have spent the same amount of time in a museum as they have in front of the TV. So what we actually share more as a common culture are American and Western mainstream references. This creates a feeling of familiarity among us, even more so than intellectual exchanges as professionals in the visual arts.

I work with pop references, entertainment and media culture, and more often than not I take my inspiration from there. I find it fascinating how the discourse in contemporary culture and visual arts is so preoccupied with inclusion and openness, while at the same time, mainstream culture is being regarded mostly from a critical perspective within the art circuit – almost with dismissiveness.

OB: Following this line of thinking, one could argue that a pop concert might be more radical than an exhibition because it brings together a heterogeneous mass audience. How would you relate to the political possibilities of pop as an artist?

LC: As an artist you may feel that you have the freedom to say whatever you want because you’re talking in a safe space where the people in power allow you to do so. The museum welcomes any discourse, and has in many places fully integrated institutional critique as a function within itself. However, despite practicing self-reflection and critique, it still operates according to the logic of gatekeepers who may truly influence the hierarchical structure of the museum as a site of political engagement. On the other hand, a concert in a stadium like Wimbledon for a mass audience is a much more volatile situation, where any political opinion might act like dynamite.

If global pop stars would start a revolution then that could really change the world. Just imagine if five Mariah Careys demanded to bring down a regime? I think that pop music has a great potential to function as a platform for political change. It has the power to create these cathartic moments of collective consciousness and connectedness. A sort of a simultaneous vertical perception of time and possibilities. In this sense, it would be nice if these songs had a life of its own as a pop project, I would truly love that.

Exhibition: 17.10.2019—28.11.2019
Live concerts: 25—26.10.2019
Halle 9 Techne Sphere
Spinnereistrasse 13, 04179

Magda Vieriu—architect
Ecaterina Guzun—textile expert
Iulia Namasco—graphic designer
Alex Bălă—music producer