Romania has come a long way on LGBT issues. Homosexuality was illegal in the country up until 1996. Public manifestations of homosexuality were decriminalized only in 2000, and the last discriminatory law was repealed in 2002. The European Union applied considerable pressure during the accession process and so did the United States, which sent an openly Gay ambassador in 2000. But it was also the brave organizing of activists inside Romania that changed the country’s laws.
In 2005, the first GayFest march took place in Bucharest. This year the festival has expanded to a week of events culminating in a march that attracted hundreds of participants. An annual Gay film festival now takes place in Cluj-Napoca. Same-sex marriage is still not legal, but a Romanian reality show recently featured the country’s first televised same-sex ceremony. “Not only did Daniel and Mihai win the luxury honeymoon grand prize, the episode became the most watched TV production on that Thursday’s evening prime time slot,” according to a blog report.
When I met Razvan Ion in 1993, he was working on the AIDS issue. He subsequently mounted a legal challenge against the country’s anti-homosexuality statutes, which had already landed a number of people in jail. “I tried to get people out of prison, people who were imprisoned for being Gay or for exhibiting ‘homosexual behavior,’” he told me in an interview in Bucharest in May. “At that time, it was very hard for the authorities to prove that this was real. Most of the trials were almost with no proof. If one of those trials had taken place in any other country, and that law had existed in any other country, they wouldn’t have been put on trial. It was absolutely stupid. Of course the law was used against people who were uncomfortable for Iliescu at that time.”
The legal challenge was successful and not only for the two men who were the subjects of the appeal. Over the next months, everyone imprisoned under that particular law was released. In the two decades since, Ion has observed a huge change in the LGBT situation in Romania. “But I don’t believe that applies to the whole country: it’s mostly for Bucharest and the big cities,” he reports. “Crimes against homosexuals are zero at this moment — I don’t remember any cases, at least none that is reported. I’m sure there are some problems. But the Gay community is becoming less and less political and more and more directed toward entertainment, which I don’t like much.”
Ion is now involved in a variety of intellectual and cultural ventures. He teaches at the university. With his partner, he runs an art gallery and magazine called Pavilion as well as the Bucharest Biennale (coming up next May). He is constantly looking for new ways of encouraging political and cultural activity and provoking intellectual debate. “Gay organizations—I don’t know how many there are—are not very visible here,” he says. “And the programs, even at Gay Pride, it’s basically one film and marching in the street. [Yawns] I’m so bored with that. This has been happening since the 1960s. Can’t we invent something new? Something to make people smarter? To make them read more. Can we find a solution for the entire community or society to develop itself? We need what Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘molecular revolution.’ But Gay organizations don’t want their members to be smarter. They want them stupid, exactly like the general society. They want them to spend their money on Gay bars and Gay glasses. It’s just capitalism, commerce.”
We talked about his experiences in the army in 1989, the art scene in Romania, and why he loves Bucharest. But we started with the role the West has been playing in East-Central Europe.
You were talking about the West’s role in the problems here in this region.
In the last 20 years, most of the countries in this region have had problems: in human rights, in economic transition, with corruption. This happened also because the West didn’t take a very strong position against corruption, against the violation of human rights, and things like that. They didn’t because they had economic interests, starting with American companies like Bechtel and their road construction contract. They didn’t want to go against the local governments because they had economic interests. Or take the Austrians, who own 29% of the Romania economy. It’s much easier to invest in a country with corruption than in a country that is working properly. It’s a kind of joint venture of corruption between the Romanian government and the foreign government: if a company like Bechtel pays so much money to bribe a prime minister, according to the law both of them are guilty, the United States and Romania, one for giving and the other for receiving. So it’s a combined plan, which they need to make a lot of money. I wish I had a company that earns $9 billion for building only 50 kilometers of highway!
That’s a great deal.
It’s an absolutely great deal. In 20 years, the company built 5o kilometers and received $9 billion. You and I could have done that with just shovels, right?
Then this whole building could be Pavilion.
I’ll come back to this, this issue of corruption and the current state of things here in Romania, but I want to go back to 1989. You were how old?
I was 20 years old.
Were you here in Bucharest in December 1989?
No, I was in Pitoesti. I had to join the army: it was mandatory before 1989. Every young man had to go into the army and every young woman had to do army preparation for six months. We were like Israel: everybody should have a gun and have military training. But our military training was, of course, very pathetic. In the case of a war, we probably would have killed each other. We would have committed mass suicide. And the machinery was completely old, from the 1950s, like Russian tanks that didn’t start properly. The power of the army was almost zero, but that’s a different story.
I was in the army, and I was released in January 1990. I was released two months before I finished my service. It was first decree of the new government to change the term of military service.
And where were you on December 21?
In December 1989, I was in Pitoesti, which is 110 kilometers from Bucharest. I was in a military unit that was practically a school for officers. They had a small company of soldiers who took care of all the maintenance. I was in the transmission department. Then they sent me to another place, and then they put me under arrest for a while, because I did a lot of bad things.
You did a lot of bad things?
According to their terms. For me it was normal. For example, I didn’t want to go on watch, so I went to sleep, and I got three days of arrest. I did it again, and I got nine days. Then I was without my shoes inside the military unit — because I thought it’s normal to wear slippers and I was a little bit like in MASH 4077. So, half of my military term was under arrest, and the other half was training in nothing. But I am a lieutenant!
So, you can get a military pension as a result?
I don’t even know if I can get a pension. It’s very stupid. Can you imagine me running a platoon in a war? No. Of course, they will never activate me again, but that was the idea at the moment.
They’re not going to activate you because you wore slippers.
And because I was sleeping during my job.
Did the revolution have any impact on you in the army?
Of course it did. It did to everybody. My father was working in the army. He had a lot of problems with the Securitate. He was part of a group that was not really plotting but was against the authorities at that time. Most people were against the authorities, but my father and his group were more vocal. So, my father couldn’t do anything to get me out of military service, because he was under investigation “for being against national security” or something. Talking about Ceausescu was against national security: you could be convicted with no problem for seven to ten years.
At that time we found out very late about what happened in Bucharest. My father told me. I was the only one in the military unit who could transmit outside of the unit during that period, because I was in charge of that. So I could call my parents. Usually you’re not allowed, and you had to ask permission. So I called my parents around December 16, and they told me that something big was going on in Timisoara. “We cannot tell you what,” they told me, “but it’s a very big thing.”
Up to then we were just a military unit during peacetime. But around December 16, our unit was activated to intervene in Bucharest. In Bucharest, we were told, foreign agents were working against our beautiful, extraordinary, fabulous people.
Foreign agents like Hungarians, for instance, or Americans?
Everybody: French, Americans—not so much Hungarian, those were our friends, our fellow Communists — but Americans, French, and of course Germans. West Germany was the big enemy. But the biggest enemy was, of course, United States. The imperialists! So we were activated and assigned to fighting machines. I don’t exactly what they’re called. In Romania it’s called TAB. It’s a machine with guns and everything but it has regular wheels not like a tank. I was assigned to be in charge of the communication. I was a sergeant, so I was nobody. There was an officer over me, but the problem was he was literally shaking in his pants. He’d never fired a bullet in his life, and he asked me to help him somehow. And I said, “Do you know that I shit my pants? You really want me to go fight?” I remember me and him starting to cry the moment we started to load the machine gun on the fighting machine, which was like a 15-millimeter gun. I said, “What should we do? We can’t shoot.” We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know anything about the mission.
I went to buy something to eat. We had a kiosk there. And the guy at the kiosk was a civilian, so he came to the unit everyday. When I entered, he said, “Close the door, come in!” And he turned on the radio and said, “Listen, something is wrong here. Call your father now.” I called my father from the phone inside the kiosk. I asked the operator to put me through to my father and of course she was working with me during the day, so she did. And my father said, “Everything is bullshit, so expect Ceausescu will fall.” At that moment the phone was cut. And I had to go out.
I was absolutely astonished. I didn’t know what to think, what to do. I didn’t expect that. I knew what happened in Brasov. I knew what happened in Timisoara. But I didn’t expect something in Bucharest. I mean, in Bucharest they had very heavy artillery.
On December 20 or 21—I don’t really remember which—we got the orders to go to Bucharest. One smart fellow from our unit was watching TV. Already Ceausescu had left by helicopter, so it must have been December 21. It was evening. And everybody said that the terrorists were shooting. They sent us to Bucharest with our fighting machine. Imagine how stupid it was. On the TV was news, and one smart guy from the unit was watching this, and he said, “Those are our machines.” They were transmitting the news on the TV that the terrorists were coming to Bucharest. But they were showing a picture of our unit! And they were asking the army from Bucharest to use their tanks to go against these fighting machines that were us!
So the guy looking at the TV went to the commander and said, “Cancel everything, because they are coming to kill us, we are going to kill them, but we are the same army. It’s not another army, there are no terrorists, there’s nothing but us.” That guy, after that, he became a general or something. He was a very smart guy actually, our commander, and very soft. This is how I survived during the army, because I was about to kill myself. It was absolutely terrifying. This commander said, “Stop everything. Tell them to to stand down.” He called the command in Bucharest, and somehow turned around after going only two or three kilometers on the highway. It was very very funny. We had been fighting against one another.
That night, we had to guard everything. It was very dark. We had been shooting at another army unit, because they were shooting to us. And there was a third army unit shooting at both of us. Nobody knew exactly what was happening. You see bullets, and you just shoot in that direction. And we had no clue how to shoot! Luckily, only one guy was injured, but that was all. And I was about to shoot our cook.
You were going to shoot your cook?
The guy had this incredible peace of mind. He was so tranquil. Nothing could get to him. Even if you threw a grenade, he would continue to eat his food.
So, he was going to the kitchen to get some food. I mean, the guy was hungry. He didn’t give a shit. He didn’t even think about someone killing him because there was a “war” going on. He didn’t get scared, he just started eating…
How was it possible that you almost shot him?
Because I was in charge of guarding the entrance to the dormitory building. I wasn’t supposed to allow anyone to pass. When I saw this person, I screamed, “Stop!” He did nothing. He was continuing walking without saying anything, and then suddenly I saw his face.
I said, “Are you stupid, what are you doing?”
He said, “Yeah, but you know it’s me!”
“Uhh, no. It’s dark, of course I don’t!”
He was in a way lucky it was me, because I couldn’t fire the gun. I didn’t fire the gun even into the air, never. I was too afraid of somehow killing someone. Also I knew from my father that something fishy was going on, so I was afraid to use the gun in any direction at anyone. He was lucky. Our other soldiers would have killed him. If they’d gone through their NATO training, he would be dead now. It sounds a little bit hilarious, but this was how it was.
There is no word to define that feeling when you are 18 or 19 and someone gives you a gun and says, “This is war: shoot anyone that moves.” Should I shoot him or him or him? How do I start? And why? You are a civilian sent to the army. You don’t have the mind of a trained soldier from the age of ten. Like in any military in the world, everybody is trained since they are kids, or very young. So they have nothing in their minds. They are completely blank, and they kill with no qualms. I cannot do that. I’m half-Buddhist! Really, I just catch mosquitos and throw them through the window outside. So how could I kill a human being? You have to have a particular state of mind to do that as a person.
I was released from the army in January, and then I joined the newspaper Romania Libera, and began to write for them.
I was always against the political power at that moment. I never believed in the new president, Ion Iliescu. The second I was sent home, on January 18, there was a big demonstration. I was one of the people who said, “Iliescu has to leave.” Of course, our history is like this. It’s not just the Communist era. During our history, we never had a king. The first king was a German one. We had a “prince” or something like that. I don’t really know the word in English. We have been under someone else, always. There’s one movie that presents the facts about the CIA or the MI5 starting the thing in Timisoara and in Bucharest. For me, as a Romanian, it makes sense. I never imagined Romanians are going to start something by themselves. If nobody sent someone here, we would still have the Ceausescus, we would still be applauding him. I know my people. I am teaching in the history faculty, and I see the documents, I see how it is. It makes sense in a way that it was “foreign agents.” I don’t know if it was good or bad. But anyway, that period had to stop. I don’t care if it was the Mossad, the CIA, MI5, God, or Buddha, or Mohammed. I just care that it ended.
When I was 17, I was detained for a while because I was doing some very stupid things, like listening to Frank Zappa. That was forbidden. I still have the record. I was detained for a couple of days with some of my friends for listening to that. After 20 years I found out that one of my friends was writing reports to the Securitate—at the age of 16! Then I saw a report on TV that said that even 12-year-olds were filing reports. It’s unbelievable! I thought it was just fiction, but the officer who signed the files from the Securitate had to put in the age. And there were several people aged 12, 13, 14, 16. That was the real system: perverting the mind of a teenager, make them do things like that, including against their parents. They had to say what they were talking about in their house.
How did you get involved in activism? When I met you, you working on AIDS activism.
I never worked on something like activism. People associate me with different things: AIDS, LGBT rights, Roma rights, whatever. I never did any of that. Of course I was a political activist all my life, and still now, with my exhibitions, with my books, with teaching, this is exactly what I do now. I try, in my way, subjectively, to put things right. I think it’s not normal to discriminate against someone because they are a different color. So I act. That’s it. Luckily, I am a public figure, so I have access to interviews, TV, most of the time. I try to make my point. I am not part of any party. I support someone when I believe in someone, and then I withdraw my support when I believe that someone is going in the wrong direction.
I was involved in AIDS, because AIDS was a very big problem at that moment. It was the 1990s. It was not only me. It was also some of my colleagues from the newspaper. Romania Libera was a quality newspaper, the most balanced. There were very good journalists working there. It was extraordinary for me to work there, and I’m really grateful I was able to do that at 20 years old, to have those kinds of people around me. After we did the report on AIDS for the newspaper, we realized what the problem is. The problem was not that Ceausescu had denied the existence of kids with AIDS. For me that was not the problem. The problem was that there was not much to do for those kids who were already at the AIDS stage. We had no medicine here in 1990, just a few drugs that came from some U.S. organization, which was not enough. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what this organization did. It was a fantastic lady from Detroit. She did such tremendous work in Romania for these kids. But the system was against everybody. She tried to do a lot to get the medicine inside the orphanages. The orphanage directors asked her for money. “Give me something,” and they let you go in there. They were practically trading lives.
It was a very bad period. We believed that AIDS was a very important thing, because people didn’t realize the danger of transmitting to other people. It was very, very easy. It was not only the fact that condoms were not at every pharmacy. We didn’t have so many pharmacies in 1990. But the condoms we had were Chinese. They were awful. Also, people were reusing syringes. This is why we got involved. We realized that probably it could be most dangerous for very young people because sex, which is a taboo subject everywhere, at that moment you couldn’t talk about it in Romania. It was not about Gay people, because you couldn’t identify Gay people. When nobody would say that they were Gay, how could you talk to them? There was practically nothing to do until you set up a society that works and people could appropriately come out of the closet. So, yes, it was an interesting period. I was part of ARAS, the first organization working against AIDS.
Then I left this territory, because I thought I did my job. Then I tried to do something for people like me. I tried to get people out of prison, people who were imprisoned for being Gay or for exhibiting “homosexual behavior.” At that time, it was very hard for the authorities to prove that this was real. Most of the trials were almost with no proof. If one of those trials had taken place in any other country, and that law had existed in any other country, they wouldn’t have been put on trial. It was absolutely stupid. Of course the law was used against people who were uncomfortable for Iliescu at that time.
One of the examples is the editor-in-chief of the newspaper in Sibiu, which was a kind of opposition newspaper at that time. He was arrested in 1992 for homosexuality, even though he had a wife. The truth was that he was Gay, but that’s not the issue. In the eyes of the law, even though that law was stupid, they should have dismissed the case, saying, “Oh, he has a wife, so probably he is not Gay.” This is how stupid the law was: just as stupid as the trial. But he was not a very comfortable person for the people in power, so I think that was the main thing.
I was working with an organization called the Independent Society for Human Rights. We set up a satellite of the organization. When I say “we,” that means three people: two Hungarian deputies and me. They helped me very much.
They were in the Romanian Hungarian party, UDMR?
They were the only people who helped us. Probably because they were aware they will be elected anyway, because of all the minorities. But anyway, they did it. Nobody else. Even the president of the Human Rights Commission told me, “Homosexuals should be imprisoned and may be executed.” He was a president of the Human Rights Commission of the Romanian parliament. Today he is a judge of the Constitutional Court.
That’s depressing, unless he has changed his mind.
No, he didn’t. How can you change that kind of fascist attitude? When I saw him next he was the right hand of Iliescu.
I was working with this organization and trying to find a lawyer. I visited 12-14 penitentiaries. I was visiting them, interviewing, and making reports for different human rights organizations. Most of the people who were trying to help were from organizations based in United States. At that moment, the interest of the United States in change in Romania was tremendous because Iliescu was not a partner to talk to, even for economic purposes. We had been isolated, so these American organizations were interested in changing things, in making people here do something about the situation. Which many Romanian people were not interested in doing, but that’s a different story.
I went to Timisoara to visit two guys who were arrested and put in prison. We tried to find a lawyer to take one case as an example and try to get an exception to the law. The law was against the new constitution, so according to the constitution, this law should automatically disappear. It was a very smart idea, actually. I congratulate myself even now. I mean, I didn’t know too much. I didn’t study the judicial system very much. But when I realized that no lawyer wanted to take the case, I realized I was right. I found a fantastic young lawyer. She said immediately, “Yeah, I will take it. And let’s go to constitutional court.” In six months, the law was suspended, and they were released.
So, those two were released and —
No, no, no. All of them were released! The lawyer instructed all of those imprisoned under this law to submit an application based on this decision of constitutional court to be released. And they were. Not at the same time, but during two or three months, everybody was released.
That’s a success story.
That’s a very successful story. But it was just part of the story. Imagine you are an ordinary happy person who isn’t thinking at all about committing a crime. And if you’re not prepared to commit a crime, your mind is not set up to expect a punishment. People who do crimes, they accept punishment somehow. I saw a Romanian deputy being arrested. He said, “Yeah, okay, I expected to be convicted. I’ve just stolen like 100 million euro.” One of the two guys in Timisoara, after he was released, he killed himself, and I’m sure it was because of the time he spent in prison. I believe that the president is completely guilty for his death, and many others, actually.
What would you say is the atmosphere for Gays and Lesbians today in Romania compared to other countries in the region?
I’m not very well informed on that. It’s more the theoretical part I’m interested in now, an academic theoretical approach connected to Queer politics and feminism. But as far as I know and as far as I see, there has been a tremendous change. I mean, if you compare 1990 to 2000 and 2000 to 2013, it’s been huge change. But I don’t believe that applies to the whole country: it’s mostly for Bucharest and the big cities. Crimes against homosexuals are zero at this moment — I don’t remember any cases, at least none that is reported. I’m sure there are some problems. But the Gay community is becoming less and less political and more and more directed toward entertainment, which I don’t like much.
I don’t think the Gay community should be secluded. If you want to be accepted, you have to be everywhere. If you have your own neighborhood, your own bars, then of course you are somehow segregated. I don’t believe in marriage. It’s not just Gay marriage: I don’t believe in marriage generally. It’s a neoliberal capitalist approach that pushes you to do something in the interest of the state. If people were not so aggressive toward Gay marriage because of the Church, I’m sure that every government would instantly accept it, because it’s more money for the government. Marriage, from my point of view, is a hetero-normative way for us to pay taxes. You don’t get too many more rights, and you certainly get more obligations.
Gay organizations—I don’t know how many there are—are not very visible here. And the programs, even at Gay Pride, it’s basically one film and marching in the street. [Yawns] I’m so bored with that. This has been happening since the 1960s. Can’t we invent something new? Something to make people smarter? To make them read more. Can we find a solution for the entire community or society to develop itself? We need what Deleuze and Guattari call a “molecular revolution.” But Gay organizations don’t want their members to be smarter. They want them stupid, exactly like the general society. They want them to spend their money on Gay bars and Gay glasses. It’s just capitalism, commerce. I don’t believe that Gay organizations are doing anything for rights at the moment, except the right of Gay marriage. Okay, I accept that some people want to get married. It’s their choice. But why not invite them to join forces against marriage in general rather than support new kinds of marriage?
This is what I believe. Many people think I’m homophobic because of that. But it’s impossible for me to be like that: how could you sleep with a homosexual if you are not a homosexual? Anyway, we have to think a little bit outside the box. And Gay organizations are like any other organizations that do stupid things and are just a masquerade for some people to be well paid. It’s a welfare-state attitude. They will say, “Yes, but we do lobbying?”
“Lobbying for what?” I ask. “Do you have any rights that were denied you as Gay people?”
“Yeah, we don’t have Gay marriage!”
“That’s not a right that was taken away from you. It’s a right that you ask for. So what right has been taken away?”
I don’t know of any. Nothing has happened to me. I have been treated equally. Maybe there are some people who have been treated unfairly. But for that there should be very strong lawyers to go against the state and get money from the state. That’s a different story and that’s not what Gay organizations are doing. What about the AIDS programs they say they do? These AIDS program should be for everyone. Most of the people who are HIV-infected are heterosexuals, not homosexuals. What’s their program about? Giving away free condoms? Okay, thank you, that’s nice because condoms are expensive. But beyond that, I don’t see cultural programs or sexual educational programs. This society needs a molecular revolution. Deleuze and Guattari said specifically that when society sinks to very low moral, ethical, economic, and political values, that’s the moment for this kind of revolution when everybody becomes somebody. If we all do that, the “community” will disappear. Roma, Gay, straight, I don’t know, bald people: if the community stays, it’s just segregation. Instead, everybody in their small community should somehow engage other members of their very small community in changing something. This is what we try to do and some other people try to do. But the majority is very conservative and some of the most conservative people are Gay people. It’s very surprising.
I’m not surprised. Not in the United States, at least.
Exactly. But the attitude here is now like in United States. We are not the United States. We’re a different country on a different continent. I just don’t understand this influence. Let’s be friends with Swedish people, please, with their system of social protection. Or with Finnish people, who have the best education system in the world. Instead, we try some examples that didn’t work in the United States. We take these examples and apply them here, and then we realize that, because it didn’t work, the United States took a different approach anyway. Of course, you cannot just apply like any model, from the United States or from Sweden, but in 23 years we had time to change our approaches at least a little bit. Of course, things have changed here – but only on the surface. Some of my colleagues in the sociology department did some research and discovered that 20-year-olds have the same values as 60-year-olds. The only gap between them is technological, and that’s not enough.
Poland has this Palikot party. It’s the first time that openly Gay and Lesbians were elected to parliament. Also the first transgender candidate won a place. And Poland is a pretty conservative country. Do you see that happening here in Romania? You said that Gay organizations are becoming less political, and more oriented toward entertainment, but are there any possibilities of that happening here?
I don’t see it as a possibility here. Why should we have a Hungarian party here? It’s very nice, I appreciate it. My boyfriend is Hungarian. But let’s try not to make it about sexual orientation or skin color or ethnicity. This country is a mix: Turkish, Hungarian, Italians, Austrians, Germans, Roma. This is beautiful. Let’s make something out of this mix, this difference. If we are different, we can be more beautiful. Everybody says, “Boys or girls in Bucharest are beautiful.” It’s because we are mixed! Why not make the best out of it? So, why should we have a political party of Gays and Lesbians, really? Next time it will be a party of people who have dogs.
On the other hand, if we think about Poland, they needed in a way to get together. It’s a pretty conservative country, as you said. But remember something: they had the first Gay bar in Eastern Europe. So conservative or not, they might have been very loudly against homosexuality, but it was never forbidden. Poland is a very good example of success. It has very clear political and economic lines. This is why they didn’t have an economic crisis. This is why they have the best contemporary arts scene. This is why Warsaw and Lodz started to become centers for education. Somehow Poland replaced Hungary, because the political situation in Hungary is very weird. Look, the government there even has a new program called the “dance program.” The government wants to put people together because they are afraid the birth rate is dropping. So, the government gives out money for dance classes for everyone so that people will meet each other.
And procreate immediately.
It’s a fantastic program. We have to borrow that. Orbán is not in his right state of mind, really. The guy is crazy. He sends the army out to bring people to vote?
He knows what he wants, that’s for sure.
Yes, but nobody takes a stand. When Romania did something wrong, the European Union practically stepped on our head. In Hungary, they just sent a letter. What about economic consequences? What about stopping the EU funds?
No, they didn’t do that.
On the other hand, Hungary is more trustworthy, historically speaking, than Romania. For the last 1,000 years, Romania was always left-right-left-right. You cannot count on Romania. When Romania allied with Germany, it should have stayed with the Germans, but no, it changed sides. When we declared war on Austro-Hungary, after three months we changed out minds. For God’s sake, when you do something bad, at least do it until the end! But we never did this in our history. I’m sorry to say this, but I’m Romanian and I’m allowed to criticize our people. Actually, I’m allowed to criticize anyone. But you have to understand this about Romania: any change will take a very long period of time. So, enjoy the moment, and try to make a future that will not be for you. But some people want change now. It’s not possible. If you want change now, you are welcome to move to Berlin, which is a very nice city: it’s my second city, and I love it. Or you can move to London, which is so-so, or to New York. Romania will not change. Bucharest is a different story, because it’s becoming more and more Western: the services, the people. But the rest of the country, no. Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, once said, “Bucharest can enter the Eurozone and Schengen tomorrow. The problem is the rest of Romania.”
I was born here. My family has been here for 600-700 years, so I’m very critical of my city. People who move to Bucharest are very much in love with the city. I was critical when I was growing up here. After 43 years, it’s a complicated relationship. But I enjoy Bucharest. It’s my city. Many people made me offers to go outside, to be director of different art centers. I travel a lot, it’s nice. So I don’t have to stay here that much. But I kind of love Bucharest. It’s love and hate. It’s a city that never let’s you down.
I want to make sure I ask you one last question about Pavilion and the state of contemporary art here in Bucharest.
Unfortunately, this exhibition doesn’t open until 3 o’clock, so I’m sorry you couldn’t see it properly. We started 14 years ago as a non-profit organization in European terms—because “not for profit” in United States is a different legal entity. We started a semi-academic journal called Pavilion about cultural politics. Then we wanted to do some physically. We had nothing. We started from zero, actually from minus. We did step-by-step some very small things with no money in different places. When the magazine was printed, it was only online. It was printed by a friend who liked the idea. He printed two issues for free, and we continued like that.
When I wanted something physical, I said, “I’m going to do a festival.”
Eugen, and we’ve been together 14 years, said, “Look, we have to do something, but a festival? We are only two people. How can we do a festival with two people?”
Then we said, “Let’s do it every two years.” And we realized: “Okay, let’s call it a Biennale.” That’s how the Bucharest Biennale was born. Now’s it’s so successful and huge. But at first it was much harder than we expected. We had only our bedroom. The bed was our first office. I took a picture of it and put it on Facebook because it’s like a historical monument. Then we start searching for an office. City Hall denied us a space, so we tried to find a private entity. UniCredit, the bank, offered us this space and half the budget to do the arts center, which was in another place until we moved it here this year. It’s already five years since we started the center. And the Biennale’s sixth edition is next year, so it will be 11 years. And the magazine has been going for 14 years.
Now I have a new project on the side, which is more for everybody. It’s called Reforma. It’s a website, Facebook, and events like Reforma cinema, Reforma parties, Reforma gallery. It’s for hipster people, in a way, or neo-alternative people, whatever. This community is very interested in the arts, in cultural education, and they can become also the magnets for other people. Pavilion was perceived as too academic. It’s what we call an instrument of critical thinking. This is what I teach, actually: critical thinking and curatorial studies. With Reforma, we wanted to be more on the ground. It’s another project that is very hard to support. The state doesn’t support us with anything. I find it stupid. I even showed them interviews with me in The New York Times and The Guardian, and we have been all around the world. They don’t care. They care only about their own pockets, and sometimes you get tired of dealing with these kinds of people.
But you have support from the bank.
The bank and the foundations. We had an American artist here so we got some support from the American embassy. If we have a Polish artist, there’s support from the Polish cultural institute. We’ve gotten help from the minister of culture from Belgium and this year the minister of culture from Austria. Some governments understand our efforts, just not our government.
Have you had any major changes in your thinking over the last 23 years as a result of all these experiences?
Of course, tremendously. In the 1990s, I was digging for documents of the Securitate somewhere in the woods. Today, I am a professor at university. I was a professor at Berkeley as well, and some other places. For my generation, it’s been a tremendous change. I was 20 at the time of the revolution. All my teenage years were during Ceausescu’s time. And then I saw every step of the transformation. Besides that, I did my Ph.D. at the University of Amsterdam. So, it’s been a very big change.
My perspective also changed, because that’s normal. But I don’t regret anything. I enjoy the fact that I have these memories. It’s like my grandmother when she says, “I don’t mind that I’m so old: I saw the king.” She was very fond of this idea that the king should come back. And I think: yes, monarchy could be a solution for Romania. But it should be a foreign monarch. We need a foreign leader, that’s for sure, to make us change. During the time of our first king, who was German, we changed tremendously.
So, during these years, people changed. Unfortunately, however, it was not enough. But as I said, what I’ve learned during these years is to be patient, because I will never see the change I wish. I will be dead by then. What I can do right now is do something for the people who are now 20 and who will develop the ideas further. Maybe in 50 years we will have, let’s say, a performative country. And I don’t even know what that means!
Bucharest, May 29, 2013