INTERVIEW WITH APPARATUS 22 “WHAT IS OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE FOR US IS TO TOUCH PEOPLE’S IMAGINATION”
As part of our website's relaunch, we have started a new interview series. The first to come forward is Apparatus 22—a multidisciplinary art collective seeking to alter perception through radical imagination & critically explore society through the lens of contemporary art, fashion, and more.
- You belong to a diminishing yet persistent group of people from the region, with whom we identify, who are working across scenes yet maintaining a strong local presence. In the context of Eastern Europe, how do you position your work within a wider geopolitical field? (Or, alternatively, do you even think of it through such a framework?)
We see ourselves (Apparatus 22) as a transdisciplinary collective of dreamers, researchers, poetic activists and (failed) futurologists interested in exploring the intricate relationships between economy, politics, gender studies, social movements, religion and fashion in order to understand contemporary society. Stemming from Romania, we are definitely open to work and daydream anywhere in the world where there is love for our artistic practice or potential for research.
Although we always mention we come from Romania even if it sometimes means bracing for prejudices, we don’t feel any special thrills or pride for being Romanians. We are honest about our roots in some working class neighbourhoods in Târgu Mures (Maria) and Bucharest (Erika and Dragoș) in a mixed Romanian—Hungarian cultural / family context.
Being from Romania is just a fact, really. Certainly, our lives, perspectives and ideas are heavily influenced by growing up during the latest hardcore period of communism (the 1980s), followed by the wild 1990s, then the promising 2000s, etc. It’s like all these experiences lurk somewhere in the background, a sort of undercurrent, only to randomly surface sometimes in our works. Since the beginning of the collective we, as citizens of the world, set as a dream to work at least 2-3 months a year abroad. It’s a way to be closer to an international flux of ideas, to push ourselves to discover as much as possible, to avoid the danger of local myopia. In 2015 we got the chance to work in between Bucharest and Brussels and were excited to try such an arrangement. We soon realised that by being active in Brussels we can do more in the dissemination of our work as well as in the promotion of the Romanian scene, as we never shy away from introducing and recommending other artists and curators. It is in fact a pleasure and a credo we have been exercising since the early 2000s when we began working within the art scene in different capacities.
We did work in some interesting art institutions in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, less though than we would have liked for the obvious reason of scarcity of funds or infrastructure. When this year we had the opportunity to delve in and reflect (with a Suprainfinit utopian touch) on a phenomenon we have been reading about for some years, namely the rave culture in Kiev, Ukraine (Apparatus 22—HOPE SANK TEETH INTO THE NIGHT at Closer Art Centre, curator: Sergey Kantsedal), or to be part of the Autostrada Biennial (titled “Revolution is Us”, curator Giacinto Di Pietrantonio) in Prizren, Kosovo, both experiences seemed long overdue and so rewarding.
On a different note, we deeply believe in the hybridisation of all things. We are the cumulus of the experiences, the failures, the heartwarming moments of all the travels, the diverse cultural experiences, the brushes with the world. One of our dream projects on hold for the time being, as we lack the necessary financial means, would be to travel for a double fold research about religious institutions and consumerism in South Korea, Laos, and Vietnam. It sounds utopian but we believe traveling on all the continents should be an experience all people should have.
- Please tell us more about the Apparatus 22 collective. How did it come into being and how does it function? Can you briefly explain its practice as well as its main activities? We are impressed with how trans/interdisciplinary your work is. How is it to work in a collective & what role does research play in your collective work?
We started our Apparatus 22 collective sometimes end of 2010—early 2011 after a rather depressing year marked by confusion and searches following the work we did in a larger collective situation as members of Rozalb de Mura—a progressive fashion label (2005—2010). There were several reasons that made us contemplate quitting the fashion system, from the sudden economic meltdown brought by the crisis in 2008 to the lack of proper support for critical practice. We realised it was impossible to build a solid base for the label in Romania, all the while witnessing an insane worldwide acceleration of production and consuming, etc. No doubt we were ahead of time.
In the fall of 2010, during what proved to be a career-changing and life-enriching research residence at IASPIS with Lisa Torell, we had the respite to look back and ruminate as well as look forward beyond the merciless machinery of deadlines we entered the moment Rozalb de Mura became international.
At IASPIS, a theoretical citadel dedicated to art, we felt compelled to convey our interests beyond actual collections and clothing, a self-analysing approach that triggered our transformation in Apparatus 22, initiated by Erika Olea, Maria Farcaș, Dragoș Olea, and now our late dear friend Ioana Nemeș (1979—2011). The end of this harrowing metamorphosis came as a relief and the decision to start afresh as Apparatus 22 energised us all to an incredible level. Except for Ioana who, after being a successful sportswoman, studied Photography and Video at the Art Academy in Bucharest, none of us had formal art education. Erika has an educational background in sociology and social work, Maria in literature, Dragoș in economics. Surely, transdisciplinarity is both a fact and an approach in our practice. We are true magpies—always searching for brilliance, for cutting edge people, experiences, knowledge in many domains.
After an amazing start—we got two cartes blanches in Austria from MAK Museum in Vienna and steirischen herbst festival in Graz—, we lost Ioana and suddenly we felt very fragile, under-pressure, and lost. Work was our way to deal with the tragedy, immersing in it, turning dreams into reality. In these moments, one realises how important it is to dedicate all energy to the best thing one can do. We felt art was the best thing we could do and renouncing it would have meant betraying ourselves (as well as Ioana, since she passionately believed in our plans and dreams with the collective).
A string of very diverse works (manifested through installation, performance, text etc.) followed: from the Morpheus store proposing new objects for gift economy transactions (exchanging nightmares with amulets and hope) to comments on fashion magazines mimicry of transgender identity, from a story about upcoming change in the streets of Bucharest induced by the grand and aggressive opening of the first stores of huge fast-fashion retailer H&M to “Fitting not” series—three fitting cabins unveiling moments of truth that surface from the cracks of the blueprint-of-enhanced—that is the fitting room of a fashion store, from a set of questions from "1000 questions on fashion" based on researching the role of clothing in asserting identities that go beyond binary gender categorisation to “Portraying Simulacra” installation that unravel a phenomenology of fake, highlighting its tentacular power able to encompass all aspects of life.
The working process is very organic. We constantly feed and reshape a pool of ideas, curiosities, dreams and topics that might one day turn into an idea for a work. There’s blood in the pool as well because many ideas get killed if they don’t convince all three of us every time. Also, we can’t afford to produce something we don’t totally believe in. We learned the delicate process of agreeing to disagree and the excitement of being part of a collective: the exchanges, the way ideas are taking shape, the way we articulate things—we learn so much from each other and we push each other to be better. Therefore, in our practice thinking and discussing are as important as doing. As we don’t have a proper studio space, we can work anywhere—sometimes in the hallways of our small library / office in Bucharest, sometimes in Maria’s attic, sometimes on the rooftop of the building we are living in Brussels, directly in the gallery, etc. And since we are three, and the number of dreams comes multiplied by three, it’s no wonder we become expansive. We only need a glimpse of potential to set out to do something fresh, often ending up building works of epic intensity—the neo-chapel containing 7 Uncertain Scripts, the utopian universe SUPRAINFINIT we have been imagining and unfolding since 2015, the river project of 1000 questions on fashion, the bigger-than-life confetti bursts in Positive Tension (in the air) etc.—most recently “Everything is at Play: Kunsthal Gent” was a celebratory yet critical confetti shower that initiated a collective reflection about what a new kunsthalle could / should be.
- Can the global structuring of the fashion world be seen as an accurate representation of the world system theory, as well? If yes, first of all, did you consciously assume (or identify with) any sort of labels: marginal, outcast, outsider, peripheral, perhaps even Eastern European? Again, if yes, how was it to use fashion as a medium of expression from the periphery?
The fashion system is an exact, sick representation of the world system theory with big conglomerates feeding on the hard work and misery of people in poor countries to make either discardable fast fashion or much of the over-prized branding exercise in luxury. It is a reflection of hardcore capitalism in all its grotesque glory: on a large scale really lacking concerns about ecology, about ethics of labour, real inclusivity and diversity of perspectives, and the list can go on.
Last year we participated in State of Fashion (Arnhem, Netherlands), a hybrid biennial of art and forward-thinking design, and we used the occasion to raise 10 questions about systemic lack of ethics via our work that takes the shape of a huge confetti burst carrying the questions on the largest confetti that can fly. It was rewarding to see people discovering the questions and having a conversation. In the Biennial, there were some amazing design ideas and disruptive technologies that could make possible ethical, ecologically conscious fashion, but then all these don’t work in the nasty logic of eternal economic growth.
Would you wear the “Made in Poverty” label?
White male, white board, white vision—how diverse can the perspective be?
Would inclusivity be a part of the conversation without social media?
What truths can you really see through radical transparency?
These were some of the questions we raised at the opening performance in a group of gatekeepers. The dream is to be able to continue our project and to raise these questions in the capitals of fashion, right in the heart of the system.
When we started Rozalb de Mura (2005 | Olah Gyarfas, Maria Farcas, Ioana Nemes, Erika Olea, Dragos Olea, and producer Rita Ferencz) there was a lot of enthusiasm and no experience concerning how fashion worked as a system on the international level. We soon became aware of power structures and disenchanted by the innumerable constraints as to what was possible and allowed and what was not in commercial fashion, and instinctively went the irreverent, subversive way.
Some of the collection’s narratives and interventions were a direct critique to things that are hidden but powerfully structure the system. We used only models of colour in the visual stories of “The drums will thunder once again” collection—a look at the topic of war ignited by local warrior clothes worn in Transylvania a couple of centuries ago that conveyed a timeline to the virtual way we encounter war via the internet / TV. Another story and collection was a comment on the craziness of trends and the it colours dictated by a handful of people. We were transported in the 1950s, and the character of Rozalb de Mura received a letter predicting the it colours for the season Powder Cadillac & Desert Twillight a soft pink and a greenish-gray, very contrary to wintry expectations, from psychologist of colour Max Lüscher. There were experiments with time, expanding and condensing in one collection and lots of queer crossovers in design.
As Rozalb, we carried with pride and a little exasperation labels such as marginal, sporting not mainstream perspectives, coming from an unknown scene, operating from a place that is not a fashion capital, being very peculiar and adventurous. It was a fact: we indeed came from Romania in a time where there was not much of a fashion scene that mattered beyond Bucharest. Moreover, we even had the guts to also come from Miercurea Ciuc and from the small village of Tusnad Sat—small places in Romania, the Balkans, Eastern Europe. We put Bucharest on the logo of the label in a time when everything fascinating was supposed to come from abroad.
Our origin was also highlighted and labeled as such by foreign media, and sometimes it served as a clear way to put us in our place. If you come from Romania you can aspire to be universal in your ideas, aesthetics etc, but content yourselves to just be Romanian, Balkan, Eastern European. In terms of creativity it is obvious that centres like the periphery as long as there is not direct competition, one can be celebrated as a nice seasoning. If you consider who are the labels presenting in the main fashion weeks, it is more than clear.
This is happening sometimes in the art system too, but much less often or systemic. We recently got super annoyed with a collector being annoyed with an Egyptian artist for working with abstraction instead of doing something crafty—as if abstract thinking of art was exclusively a Western movement. Such outrage of a Westerner in front of an abstract work by non-Western artist is definitely a sign of ignorance / racism / hegemony of the Western-written art history.
- With Rozalb de Mura, you never seemed to regard fashion as the process of making clothes for clothes’ sake. Not only that you overtly regarded fashion as a tool of critical thinking, but for you fashion has been used as a dynamic mechanism that is able to open up an extended range of productive avenues regarding notions of gender, history, normative societal conventions, and so on. How has your experience with fashion label Rozalb de Mura helped you in your practice with art collective Apparatus 22?
The Rozalb de Mura era was our coming of age—we learned the hard way about a very tough system, we did some amazing things we are proud of and took some risks, sometimes without even knowing, we tested ourselves and our views of the world. Yet at a point being in the fashion system was not rewarding anymore. We needed more freedom, we needed to operate with ideas on a deeper level and didn’t want to be bound to put them only into clothes.
As we felt, it would be easy to get (conceptually) lost when working in a collective situation, we decided at the beginning of Apparatus 22 to keep fashion as our main topic of research and reflection on contemporary society. Fashion is a rather dirty word in the art context and the expectations were that we worked on photographic chronicles of the glamorous fashion circus or maybe that we created some unwearable textiles | clothes.
We have since expanded our practice a lot on quite a few directions of critical enquiry: possibilities of what the future could be, reflection on desire and how it could push us to transcend social norms, thinking about nature, ethics of art system etc., but probably our experiences during Rozalb de Mura time had a profound impact on our work.
We still keep a critical eye on what is going on in the fashion system and sometimes reflect about it in our works, directly or more laterally. For example, the starting point of an entire body of work about the notion of fake were experiences related to the phenomenon of counterfeit fashion goods. “Patterns of Aura” is a catwalk presentation of an invisible collection that is in equal parts about the beauty of imagination and creativity in fashion design and the horrors of the system, the two editions of “Thomas Thwaites” quiz shows are all about fashion and war (included in the radio installation The Hour Broadcast | joint work Apparatus 22 + StudioBASAR + SillyConductor) and fashion and gender (included in the radio installation The Continuum Broadcast currently in progress as joint work Apparatus 22 + Simon Asencio + Irina Bujor).
The Erratic Statistics leather sticks are a direct reaction to the racism manifest in fashion in the times when Rozalb de Mura was active. Nowadays we use the work to address racism in the system and beyond and to make people think of a better future if we all exercise our empathy and love-fuelled ways to engage with difference.
- The economy and failure and precarity and the fragility of labouring in art/fashion world are also themes that interest you. The prospect of utopian clothing doesn’t seem to go hand in hand with how the industry is run, neither with how artistic labour is remunerated. How do you address these issues in your work? (Your work Art is Work comes to mind in this context.)
Art is Work is a step closer to what we wished from the very beginning back in 2011 when we made the uniform. Built on a failed utopian dream of Italian futurist artist and designer Thayaht—a universal piece of clothing—, the work is intended as a gift to artists who are invited to make use of it in a moment of celebration of the artistic labour—the opening of their exhibitions—in order to initiate conversations and to question current politics of valuation and remuneration of artistic labour in institutional contexts (and beyond).
The debate “work vs. play” and the topic of valuation and remuneration of artistic work are vast, therefore we decided to emphasise the occurrence in which artists provide work in an exhibition (or other institutional formats). The focus of the discussion is not on subsidies, but on a very clear exchange. We now know there are many artists interested in wearing it as a conversation piece.
Following struggles and waves of useless advice also coming from people who are part of the problem, our first exchange of about 100 uniforms will hopefully be ready early next year. It is an exchange, as each artist that claims an ART IS WORK uniform will have to give us in exchange a short video statement why they think art is work. While spreading the work and the chances of such conversation to happen in more contexts, we also build a strong voice, in fact a community of voices on the topic.
One of the challenges raised by the uniform featuring the potentiality of two messages was to create a sense of collectivity, of togetherness, and to empower a common voice for artists and creatives facing the same dilemmas.
This topic emerges in another work: ALL, about a monument dedicated to absolutely all the artists that worked in the twenty-first century. It is a glimpse from the future back to our reality through several stories and metaphors related to racism, the economy of attention, economic struggles, fragility and power games, hyper-subjectivity of relevance, the fatigue of endless possibilities.
It is also present in an installation that shines a neon text THE VESTIGES OF REASON. The installation echoes our experiences of working within the fashion system. During those years, we understood how the race for profit thrives on the lack of ethics and irrationality in countless aspects, from production to pricing and consumption. Complementing the neon text, a flower vault strewn with loose video tape strips alludes to an ambivalent state of affairs: celebrating the still existing vestiges of rationality while mourning the almost exhausted reservoirs of wisdom.
We did the work in a time when Greece was in crisis and IMF and related institutions, local authorities and Europe didn’t know how to deal with it. The solutions, for which later on IMF issued apologies, seemed pretty twisted. The reading of the work could be therefore extended to the economy of art with all its peculiarities and even to the whole economy in crisis.
- For us the contemporary issues of precarity in the art world are not just related to the political landscape, but are also implied by the supposed autonomy of art. Although it has been frequently denounced in the theoretical field, it seems that art as a heteronomic notion hasn’t been widely absorbed. Even more so, it appears that art is still suffering from the same prejudices as ever: romanticised as the product of spontaneity, inspiration, and sublime creative or even painful suffering, glamourised as the output of pure genius, that is inherently incompatible with and separated from the banality of everyday life. How do you see this juxtaposition between art and labour? Or where do you position yourself within this imaginary compass? What is your work setting as a collective (studio work/brainstorming/discussions, etc.)?
Indeed people outside the contemporary art scene tend to romanticise the privilege of creative freedom and self-directed labour and are usually oblivious to the reality of continuous self-exploitation when working in the art field, to the numerous gift exchanges in terms of labour, and sometimes to plain exploitation.
There are multiple reasons for the structural poverty of the cultural sector and the marginal role that culture exerts when governments and local authorities allocate public funds. The lack of empathy and vision of managers in the business sector that could support the arts is another important reason.
The pressure of being efficient in precarious conditions, to perform on a scene increasingly defined by mobility, trendiness, and transience is a difficult challenge. So most artists fall in one of categories regarding the access to money: either coming from money background or are just oblivious in front of the precarious realities. It is most disturbing when one encounters such clichés in interactions with collectors or other people involved in the scene. Sometimes the lack of empathy is incredible.
We remember being affected by the attitude of a friend working in arts administration who, while being our guest in a residency, could not understand why an artist would deserve a residency with a stipend for doing nothing. In reality there is no such thing, not even a residency for catching up with sleep or reading. Residencies come with strings attached: projects to research, works to produce, public presentations, various reports—all of which means hard work. Another reality is that stipends in residencies are close to the equivalent of unemployment money—nothing to idealise. Because residencies are really one of the few ways an artist can buy some time off the usual daily stress and to have a sort of stable income for some months, access to them is highly competitive.
Opening the conversation about artistic labour with ART IS WORK, you have to imagine how much we love pieces of advice ranging from how this work should be to cutting at the edges of the work for erasing possibilities of antagonism or how we should all be happy with attention and a pat on the back. We don’t want to turn this into crass generalisation but we did encounter such feedback quite often from people loving art but that often see living artists as a sort of entertainment in the background while preying on their works.
We developed a strategy with people telling us we should just be content to do what we like and give up complaining of conditions. We invite them to work with us for 6 months for free, a shadow to witness the amount of research, thinking, stress, preparation, production, administration, logistics, maintenance, applications, etc. that goes into our work. Until now none was courageous enough to join us in dreaming a better world while surviving in the harsh realities of most artists working today.
Then there is the rise of a vicious kind of collector—the investor / speculator in art—who is turning artists into mere numbers on paper. When the numbers are good, the artist is good, if the numbers are not good anymore, the investor turns away for some fresh blood to exploit.
The way we work is really organic and depends very much from work to work, from project to project, but it always starts with conversations, exchanges of ideas and attempts to move an idea to the edge of it, then discussions or studio trials for the ways that idea takes a shape—material or immaterial—, and of course, a lot of administration. To be an artist in a precarious situation means you need to be also a maverick of logistics, the best travel agent, a good writer for applications, ideally the best seller as one operates in a market place imbued with emotions, irrationality and lack of transparency when it comes to price information.
- With Apparatus 22 you have developed a very visually-stimulating output, one that is incredibly rich in textures, with a distinctive materiality, but also one where the process of inducing mental images adds a certain sort of participatory value to each work, where the audience is invited (and stimulated) to almost complete the art work and provide new meaning in imagination. Drawing on this balance between fiction and reality, speculative and concrete, can this emphasis put on imagination give way to the possibility to create a competing master narrative to the Western hegemonic one? We are asking this because, at the same time, the word critical seems to be a leitmotif in your work, and we believe that a critical attitude is essential for a society if it wants to create its own narrative and, through this, its identity. In other words, do you feel that we are ready to talk about a regional community of struggle across borders that exists beyond the centre?
Having in mind how accelerated and diverse the production of contemporary art is and the ever increasing influence of the market in what makes it in art history books, we became less interested if/how we remain in art history. There is too much of the market influence in a process that is highly subjective anyway: think of the States where there is almost no public financing for art therefore everything is privatised, think of the unfortunate trend in Europe to allocate public money in a neoliberal logic. Narrowing down to what deserves to remain in art history is not strictly a scholarly territory anymore, therefore the chances are very much in the hands of other forces we are not interested in pleasing.
What is of utmost importance for us is to touch people’s imagination with our work: either as questions or constructs that should make possible new mental images, either as possibilities of thinking future scenarios or as new readings of topics buried or forgotten by corporate logic. We engage with art-history-in-the-making of course, but what is more important is to engage with our history, with our present and future as human beings on a planet that entered the state of a continuous crisis.
Talking about criticality, we find it funny when people are taken aback by the fact that our works are also quite seductive. We don’t see any problem in that, but in fact a lot of potential. On the one hand we don’t want to critique an aesthetic genre as of course there are aesthetics of protest, aesthetics of activism, but the seductive element of the work is important as a hook for people to enter the conversation we envision for the work to open.
In art, the master narrative is Western art history, but this is more and more contested as the only voice. More critics invest time and knowledge into researching art made in places beyond; here are lots of revision of the history that had always been written from that perspective and even attempt of working with other tools.
Recently we were reading this brilliant book Cerneala savanţilor by Souleymane Bachir Diagne (IDEA Design & Print, Cluj | English title: The Ink of the Scholars. Reflections on Philosophy in Africa) about the need to define an African philosophy, and among many things we liked the idea that we should maybe relate to other narratives, beyond the Eurocentric; lets say to narratives coming from Africa or Latin America or the Global South. Your question made us think also if we really need an Eastern European narrative. The debate is still open in the collective. Maybe we just need to infiltrate, to tweak, to hybridise, to enlarge the Western narratives into something truly European. And then to continue the process by further metamorphosing that into a mutant wider narrative. If that would happen the world would be a better place.
- What types of thinking and practices do you think are needed to re-imagine the future of Europe and Eastern Europe? Is there a new thinking possible beyond “the end of history” or “after the end of post-communism”? Is it possible to strategise and come up with a revised vision for the future of Europe, not in a totalising manner, but perhaps to provide a toolkit that would allow to think about this condition, to counter the intellectual/political hegemony of the West, and propose a more habitable setting through a new set of discourses and practices?
If we look at a diagram of now so many things happening in the world resemble a scary image, like dead parts growing off a body. Europe is as much in trouble and as much part of the problem when it comes to the ecological disaster for example. And there is so little being done while there is still a chance.
There are a few things that might do some good as part of a toolkit for the future (not just of Europe):