Footnotes: The Gestures of Geta Bratescu; on video art in the ’90s

4 February, 2021

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to claim that a specter was haunting the Romanian art scene in the ’90s. It could even be an understatement. The East was, in and of itself, a bonafide haunted house that was possessed by ghosts, both old and new, stationary or transitory, all of them whispering in a ghastly choir. But we’re talking about art here. And so, where does this vaguely blasphemous metaphor come from? Excuse my discursive quirks, but I’m actually referring to a type of image that is phantomatic, meaning vague, faded, low-quality. One that is somewhat poor.[1] And that is video image.

One that wasn’t at all a novelty for most Romanians, since the better part of them had, by that point, at least one recent memory of a late-’80s video night. Cassette tapes had set siege to local living rooms, this fuelling the infamous VHS black market, which, in the meantime, has become an almost ridiculous anticommunist propaganda myth, a sort of dissident factory that was seemingly run by Irina Margareta Nistor.[2] However, the available video arsenal was mostly limited to VHS players and cassettes. Cameras were significantly more expensive and cost the kind of money that would only be justified if there were any returns to the investment; that’s how the wedding videographers of aught popped up. Of course, domestic camcorders did exist, but they were rather more of a short cut to same ends – you’d no longer be needed to hire a videographer (a category mostly made up of professional camera operators[3]) to shoot your kid’s baptism, you’d record it yourself. It was a grey area; having been tacitly banned, VHS videos were in the same category as copy machines and typewriters, which is that of means of production and reproduction that were strictly controlled by the state. It is in fact these objects that beat comparison to video, rather than film or photography, since the latter are missing a key element – their instantaneous character. Of course, you could try to somehow develop film stock in the comfort of your home (just as Ion Grigorescu). But it was a lasting process. Cassettes were something else altogether, and the possibility to copy them was seen as a threat to the official mass-media discourse. Officially, video was a part of the „big” discourse to the degree that it would raise a series of practical problems – what is it? how do you operate it?[4] – and theoretical (about video art)[5]. In practice, however, the elephant in the room was still there[6], in spite of the exhibitions that also showcased video art that had been organized by the Bucharest Goethe Institute.[7]

In conclusion, a given amount of video images did exist, albeit illicitly. But what about video art? Historian George Sabau notes that „if we may use the term shortage to designate the production of Romanian experimental films before the year 1989, then one can observe total poverty in the domain of video art”[8]. Which wasn’t the case of Yugoslavia or Hungary, for example. For Romanian visual artists, the recording camera was first of all a spectator (and not a witness!), regardless of whether it was on 8mm, 16mm or cassette. Its role was first of all to document private actions, away from the public eye. Although apparently innocuous[9], these recordings weren’t regarded with kind eyes. A private screening of Tribute to Rilke (dir. Mihai Olos) resulted in the investigation of all its participants. The same happened in the case of Ion Grigorescu’s famous films, which led to his exclusion from the public sphere.[10] As for video installations, they fully surpassed the artists’ severely weakened mobilisation. One of the first events that would lead to the creation of some videos (like the Space-Mirror exhibition in 1986 helby the Architecture Institute of Bucharest, curated by Wanda Mihuleac and Mihai Driscu) was closed down after a run of just three days[11]. A year later, the first house pARTy was to take place, a performance event that was closed to the audience, followed by a second one in ’88, both of which were organized by the artists Decebal and Nadina Scriba. The participants to the event, namely Calin Dan, Dan Mihaltianu, Wanda Mihuleac, Dan Stanciu, plus Teodor Graur and Iosif Király in ’88, were to become the protagonists of the most famous pre-’89 video-actions.[12]

Revista Arta 3/1993
Revista Arta 3/1993

Then, the Revolution comes. Video cameras slowly creep out of their hiding spots, they perch themselves up onto the windowsill, or are running wild in the streets. TV sets are no longer a dynamic background set piece that is to be found in every home, but the very pedestal onto which a new statue would be erected in the middle of the agora. But there is still a long way to go. Video art production really began in 1990, some of its pioneers being the ones that had flirted with photography and film in the ’80s – Wanda Mihuleac, Ion Grigorescu, Calin Dan, Iosif Király, Dan Mihaltianu (the last three being members of the subREAL group), Radu Igazság, Teodor Graur, Geta Bratescu and Alexandru Solomon. The first production companies that bet on the potential of video were founded in that time (Video Publishing in ’91, the Visual Art Foundation in ’92), art universities accommodate it in their curriculum, and an actual baptism was staged in ’93 as a part of the Ex Oriente Lux exhibition. And, just as in the case of any baptism, the godparents are the one to pay up. Which, in this case, was the recently-founded Soros Center for Contemporary Art, which was founded in 1992, yet effectively active since april 1993[13], which was re-christened as the International Center for Contemporary Art (CSAC) in 1999. That was just the beginning of an entire series of annual exhibitions organized by the CSAC – 01010101 (1994), MediA CULPA (1995) and Experiment (1996). The works would sometimes also make the rounds in the then-small local film festival circuit, at Costinesti (the Festival of Young Filmmakers) and Targu Mures (Alter-native), and sometimes they would even make it onto the television.

Of course, those who approach the topic of Romanian video art are writing PhDs, not press articles. And I’m interested in a specific episode, namely Geta Bratescu’s short flirt with this neighboring art form.

The artist’s interest in video didn’t come out of nowhere. In the ’60s, as she was still making a name for herself, she had worked on several projects in cinema, where she was a jack of all trades – working on set design graphics – (Humorous Cocktail 1900, dir. Jean Georgescu, 1964), screenwriting (An artist accuses the world, dir. Nina Behar, 1964), and, at the end (of the decade), two animations – Aesop’s Walk (1967) and Another Little Red Riding Hood (1968). It’s a rather obscure part of Bratescu’s career, which is usually overshadowed by its extensions from ‘77 and ’78, when she presents two cine-performances – The Studio and Hands – both shot by Ion Grigorescu.

Alexandru Solomon was already tightly connected to the film and video production of the ‘90s. His collaboration with Radu Igazság was to last for the entire decade, followed by Solomon’s turn to documentary filmmaking and the leadership of the One World Romania film festival in the 2000s. As a side-job, he was also working as a camera operator.

Solomon and Bratescu were to create three subsequent videos – Earthcake (1992), Automatic Cocktail (1993) and 2×5 (1994).

Radu Igazság: „For the first couple of years we worked [with the students of UNARTE and UNATC] on our own cameras, since the school didn’t have any. Obviously, it was an amateur VHS. We were lucky enough that Alecu and I could work with two beta cameras at the Visual Arts Foundation, the best of which we could also bring over to the university from time to time, with the approval of Vivi Dragan Vasile. I met Alecu Solomon in 1986. He had been a graduate of the Tonitza artistic high school and had flunked his entrance exam at the Fine Arts section, so he got a job at Animafilm. A production chief sent him my way. I helped him prepare for his entrance exam at the Cinematography section, where he finally got admitted (in the class of 1991), and after the birth of FAV, we worked on a lot of films, documentaries, experimentals, hybrids. Things which we could never even dream about were finally possible.”

Alexandru Solomon: „I met Geta Bratescu sometime around 1990–91; at that time, I was commissioned by the Romanian Artists’ Union to shoot various exhibitions and that’s how I arrived at her workshop, I believe. (…) Anyway, I filmed her works and a connection was struck: after a short while, Ms. Bratescu spoke to me about a performance she thought of that could be recorded.”[14]

That given performance was to be a singular highlight of Geta Bratescu’s career, which many regard as an interior artist, that is, a workshop creator. Her video performances, photographic series and, especially, the intellectual obsession regarding the space of her workshop created the impression of an artistic output that was domestic[15]. I’m not referring to an „art of the banal” here, on the contrary – but to the sensation that the artist, together with her works, was living in this double domestic life of her workshop.

„In the evening, but not quite at night, after I finished dinner, I went down to the workshop to take another look at my drawing, My dear clown. It’s charming: he’s looking at me with loving eyes, resting his head onto his right shoulder; he says «go to bed, see you tomorrow». I am leaving him alone in the night of the workshop; tomorrow I shall find him again just as he is now, unchanged, looking at me with his loving eyes.”[16]

Well, Earthcake takes GB out and into a natural setting – we couldn’t make up the fact that it’s her very own garden[17] – to stage a high-fidelity interpretation of the concept of earth art. Her hands, an eternal fascination, are preparing a cake made from mud, which she kneads and cleanses of earthworms. One can notice a certain persistence to her gestures, a rhythm that is not mathematical, manneristic or illustrative, but rather it is that of the warm resolution with which humans do that which they know must be done. The print left behind by her hands is not a contour anymore, like in The hands (1977), but rather the transient imprint that will be seen in the mud. After all, her hands are the protagonists of the performance. Not to the very end, though, because once the mudcake is soaked and well-rounded, set onto a porcelain plate next to a silver spoon, Bratescu makes her full appearance, an alien one at that, wearing clownish make-up, a white cloth and a tinfoil hat. Staring confused, somehow absent yet leaving space for a few satisfied grins, she begins to eat the little mud tart as if she were part of a transcendental ritual. Her mask brings to mind some of the artist’s older works, especially The Smile (1978), where, in similar fashion, only her eyes and forehead remain uncovered. Of course, there is a contrast between the haptic exploration of the earth and Bratescu’s really extra apparition, but it’s more interesting to notice how sound works towards that meaning. It’s split half-and-half – an ambiguous sound, a ringing that is certainly artificial, opens and closes the film, while the middle, composed of the construction of the cake, dedicates its space to ambiental sounds – barks, chirps, sounds that are indicative of life.

Geta Brătescu_Earthcake_FAV
Earthcake, foto: Fundația Arte Vizuale

Cocktail automatic, the central one, as it would be, is set in motion by collages and loops. A multi-screen collage, but this time the screen doesn’t multiply the same images, but rather presents several of them simultaneously, without a given form or fixed order (one shot is presented on the entire screen, then is split up and a second shot appears, then finally a third, only to arrive back at a single-screen late into the film). It’s not the same effect that is sought after in 2 x 5 (see below), which games on the association of two images to create a third (Eisentein’s cine-fist), but rather a soft-montage technique, with images that co-exist relatively independently from one another, amplifying the general idea which brings them together. And Bratescu and Solomon’s idea has to do with movement – boots walking through the mud, the gestures of drawing, a charcoal tumbling down a canvas, even a static image that suggests future movement, meaning a shot of paintbrushes, the utensils which record the movement of a painter. As for repetition, since all shots are repeated at least once throughout the film, set again and again to the same musical refrain and the hollow sound of treading through the mud, this can be read in the key of Geta Bratescu’s fascination towards serial art.

2 x 5 (1994) is also a triptych, a post-scriptum of the ’77 Hands. In its first part, the movements of the hands are demonstrational, no narrative device can distract them from the show that they’re putting on for the camera, as it happens in the second part, where Bratescu and Solomon superimpose the noise of a meat mincer with all sorts of manual games. The comparison is incisive, even more so given the fact that the screen is sometimes multiplied 4, then 16 times over, followed by a shot of the mincer producing entire cylinders of meat, many and indistinct. The last of the three marks a turn towards black and white (or rather shades of gray), in which the camera closes up on various poses in which the hands conjoin, abstract landscapes in spite of their sought-after symmetry.

Yet another elephant in the room – Geta Bratescu’s workshop films and video-performances are a part of that specific race of films that seems highly suspicious for the people in the film industry. Just as the ones created by Ion Grigorescu, the Sigma Group, and so on, they are usually seen in museums, exhibitions, on the walls of galleries, much rather fragmented into singular works than part of full retrospectives. Which is something that has the potential to inhibit the cinephile that has pledged himself to the big screen. They cannot be taken home either, and the chance to see them depends on the spur of the moment. What I mean to say is that the people in cinema need more guts when it comes to these works which we attribute to the sphere of visual arts. Not that the latter wouldn’t manage without us, but many of the distinctions that we make between video art and cinema have much more to do with the artifice of the industries and with territorialism, and we have nothing but to lose from this state of affairs. Video-performances, as well as workshop films, could be easily classified as cinema if we know what to ask (of ourselves).

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[1] Even if it is pre-digital. See Hito Steyerl „In defense of the poor image”.

[2] I discussed the myths that surround Irina Margareta Nistor in an article for Rețeaua critică, published on the 19th of November 2019, http://reteauacritica.artapolitica.ro/2019/11/14/in-spatele-blocului-sovietic-note-despre-video-si-miturile-irinei-nistor/

[3] According to Calin Dan, Arta, 3/1993, p. 32.

[4] A guide had even been published at the Technical Publishing House –Videocasetofoane (Videocasette players), written by Mircea Radoi, Radu Mateescu and Mihai Basoiu (1987).

[5] In Secolul 20 (267-269/1983), in an excellent dossier dedicated to mass-media which contained two translations of theoretical interventions by Frenchmen Dany Bloch („Video art”, p. 110) and Gérard Mendel („Video-action and social pseudo-transparency”, p. 116). But also in the Arta Magazine, where critics and artists would write reviews of the exhibitions they would see outside of the country.

[6] In the Cinema magazine, which was a dedicated publication during the communist era, reviews of films that were not distributed in cinemas, or that were showcased in foreign festivals, were starting to be published. Mircea Deaca is one of those who remembers that the films and videos that he would review in the second half of the ’80s arrived to him on video-cassettes. (Camera secunda, BrumaR, Timișoara 2011, p. 9).

[7] Geta Bratescu, Arta, 3/1993, p. 40.

[8] George Sabau, „istoria contextuală a grupului kinema ikon”, in the catalog of the kinema ikon retrospective at the National Contemporary Art Museum, Bucharest 2005.

[9] Some exceptions must be named – some of Ion Grigorescu’s films and Constantin Fodor’s Anni-versary (1982).

[10] Calin Dan, op. cit.

[11] Dan Mihălțianu, „Videoarchaeology. Video art in socialism”, Roxana Gibescu, Dan Mihălțianu, Decebal Scriba, Raluca Voinea (ed.), house pARTy 1987, 1988, Idea Design & Print, Cluj, 2016, pp. 211-213.

[12] Both were shot by Ovidiu Bojor and Dan Mihălțianu.

[13] Accoring to Calin Dan and Irina Cios. Calin Dan,  „T-Shirt. George’s table. A short manual of political confusions”, Observatorul cultural, https://www.observatorcultural.ro/articol/t-shirt-masa-lui-george-scurt-manual-al-confuziilor-politice/, published on the 29th of april 2016, read on the 20th of January 2021; Irina Cios, „A center for innovative art”, Observatorul cultural, apud. Erwin Kessler,  X:20. An X-ray of Romanian art after 1989”, Vellant, București, 2013, pp. 126-127.

[14] Alexandru Solomon, „The hand leaves behind a trajectory”, Secolul 21, 1-6/2016, pp. 67-68.

[15] The first exception that comes to mind is Magnets in the city (1974), a photo collage which is not exactly telling, since what is to be found in it is much rather a play with form and frame, rather than the illusion of an interaction between citizens and magnets. Of course, her 1970 travel journal, From Venice to Venice (1970, Meridiane) should also be taken into account.

[16] Geta Bratescu, „The prepositions in and on their relationship with the circle” (author’s highlights), Secolul 21, 7-12/2011, p. 103

[17] Ref. Alexandru Solomon, op. cit.

Călin Boto Călin Boto
Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.