Regimes of Representation at MNAC

Regimes of Representation at MNAC

National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), Bucharest

January 3, 2007
Regimes of Representation at MNAC
Chantal MouffeMeta Haven

t 31 (0)64 831 65 43

t 31 (0)62 427 67 97

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Conference outline

On January 11, 2007, a conference will be organized in the former House of People in Bucharest – more precisely, in Romania’s national museum of contemporay art: MNAC. The title of the conference is ‘Regimes of Representation: Art & Politics Beyond the House of People’. The subject of the conference is the very location where the event is being held. The former Casa Poporului, now Palatul Parlamentului, and its current co-function as a museum of contemporary art, will be the point of departure for a discussion of the relation between politics, imagination and representation, both in and beyond the post-communist condition.

MNAC is one of various attempts to use contemporary art and creative forces to transform a former ‘totalitarian’ symbol into one for democracy, but it is unique in simultaneously being the seat of government. The central question for the conference is: can art ever ‘take over the central point of power, being a symbol of openness and democracy’? Can, consequently, imagination influence or take over the meaning of a building that is an essential logo of totalitarian rule? How does Romania’s first national contemporary art institution employ the symbolic to express a constructed national identity, by using (totalitarian) foundation? Can we speak of a reverse ‘Bilbao Effect?’ And how does the institutionalization of contemporary art reflect the imperative to democratize since the fall of communism?

This event is generously supported by the Royal Dutch Embassy in Bucharest.

Conference programme




Welcome – Ruxandra Balaci, artistic director MNAC


Introduction – Vinca Kruk


Keynote lecture – Chantal Mouffe


Lecture – Nicolas Bourriaud




Lecture – Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield


Lecture – Marcus Steinweg


Lecture – 4Space (Augustin Ioan & Ciprian Mihali)




Round table discussion with all speakers – moderated by Daniel van der Velden



Practicalities / Getting there

Admission: free

Language: English

Location: MNAC

Muzeul National de Arta Contemporana

Palace of the Parliament

Izvor St. 2-4, Wing e4

Bucharest, Romania

Abstracts / Biographies

Agonistic politics and artistic practices

Chantal Mouffe – Keynote lecture

In my presentation I will discuss the different ways to envisage the public space and scrutinize the implications of this discussion for artistic practices. My argument will be that public art is not art located in a place that is public – as opposed to private space. Public art is art that institutes a public space, in the sense of a common action by people. I will for instance address the question of what kind of public progressive art institutions should try to institute: a public space that aims at establishing consensus or a public space of agonistic confrontation?

Taking my bearings from my previous work, I will first show that the task of democratic politics is not to aggregate interests or to attempt at reaching a rational consensus, but to transform antagonism into agonism. Then I will draw the consequences of this approach to understand the relation between art and politics and to grasp the nature of critical artistic practices. What is at stake, I will argue, is the questioning of the dominant hegemony by bringing to the fore all the aspects that the dominant consensus is trying to repress. I will insist on the multiplicity of ways in which this consensus can be undermined and show that artistic practices can contribute in a variety of ways to the fostering of new forms of subjectivities.

Chantal Mouffe is Professor of Political Theory at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in London. She has taught and researched at a number of universities in Europe, North America and South America. She is member of the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. She was editor of Gramsci and Marxist Theory (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1979), Dimensions of Radical Democracy. Pluralism, Citizenship, Community (Verso, London, 1992), Deconstruction and Pragmatism (Routledge, London, 1996) and The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, (Verso, London, 1999). She co-authored with Ernesto Laclau Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 1985) and was the author of The Return of the Political (Verso, London, 1993), The Democratic Paradox (Verso, London, 2000) and On the Political (Routledge, London, 2005).

Nicolas Bourriaud

Nicolas Bourriaud is a French curator and art critic who coined the term ‘relational aesthetics’, which he outlined in 1995. From 2002 to 2006 he was co-director of the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (with Jérôme Sans). Bourriaud founded the magazine Documents (1992-2000), and served as the Paris correspondent for Flash Art.

Bourriaud published Relational Aesthetics (2002) and Postproduction (2001). He defines as ‘relational’ art which takes as its theoretical horizon ‘the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space’.

Nicolas Bourriaud is a consultative board member for MNAC – Muzeul National de Arta Contemporana, Bucharest.

Art and democracy at the founding of foundation

Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield

The building in which MNAC is housed was constructed to found – according to dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who ordered its construction – a ‘new man’. As such it occurs as foundation, not just the foundation of a national identity, but the foundation of foundation itself. It is this essential feature that mnac has to negotiate. But how exactly can art ‘take over’ such a building ‘as a symbol of openness and democracy’, as is claimed for MNAC by Nicolas Bourriaud in his capacity as a founding member of its advisory board?

What is presupposed by such a claim? Might it not repeat something troubling about the building’s original founding? This paper will draw from what is troubling about Bourriaud’s presuppositions about art, and contrary to his notion of relational aesthetics, the sense in which art’s resistance to politics is necessary for the institution of democracy.

Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield is Reader in Theory & Philosophy of Art at the University of Reading and sits on the executive of the Forum for European Philosophy at the London School of Economics, and on the board of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art). He has published various papers in the area of continental philosophy, on art and on ethics especially. Currently he is writing two books: Art’s Resistance to Ethics and Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art. He was a researcher at the theory department of Jan van Eyck Academie from 2004 until 2006.

The obscurantism of facts

Marcus Steinweg

Neither philosophy nor art are matters of proof or opinion. Philosophy and art posit things, they assert. Assertion is distinguished from proof and opinion since it has to make do without certainty. A philosophy of assertion is a philosophy in uncertainty. It surpasses and transgresses the modalities of conventional thinking such as reflection, argument, grounding, and criticism. It is a matter of the subject touching a truth in uncertainty and giving this instance of contact a form, a language. Truth refers to the limits of the world of facts. Philosophy exists only in that it touches these limits. It is an assertion that denies the validity of the imperatives of the factual. Touching upon truth, philosophy has to resist the certainty of opinion and the obscurantism of facts in equal measure. It is a touching of the untouchable and it makes this touching into a life-form.

My aim is to defend the political relevance of art and philosophy against conventional political art and political philosophy. I intend to show that political art and political philosophy establish their own de-politicization. They are not concerned with a politics of freedom, of the impossible and what is most necessary. The politics I am referring to differ from what is usually called politics. This type of politics does not assert or defend interests. It would be about a resistance against the order of socio-political and ideo-cultural reality. It would articulate itself by absolutely refusing the universe of facts and the opinions circulating in this universe. It would be a politics of truth insofar as it considers proof as what comes into conflict with established certainties. It causes the voice of official truth to stutter and be brought to silence.

I want to show that art only has meaning as art. Philosophy only has meaning as philosophy. It does not serve to reduce art and philosophy to the socio-political field in which they articulate themselves. It does not make sense to define the mission of art and philosophy as political. ‘That is the left-wing illusion of the past few decades,’ Heiner Müller argues ‘of European intellectuals and particularly the literati, that there could be and should be a community of interests between art and politics. Ultimately, art cannot be controlled. Or it can always evade control. And for this reason it has been… almost automatically subversive.’

Marcus Steinweg is a philosopher and writer who lives in Berlin. His publications include Krieg der différance and Autofahren mit Lacan (Koblenz, 2001), Der Ozeanomat. Ereignis und Immanenz (Cologne, 2002), Subjektsingularitäten (Berlin, 2004) and Behauptungsphilosophie (Berlin, 2006).

Steinweg regularly collaborates with the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn in the latter’s publications and large-scale politically inspired art installations, for which Steinweg often writes texts.

Singular object: the house of the republic resisting interpretations

4Space (Augustin Ioan & Ciprian Mihali)

The significance of the Ultimate Edifice and, setting out from it, the Boulevard of Victorious Socialism – or rather the anti-urban phenomenon that is officially called ‘the new civic center’ – has been interpreted lately: their conception and construction and their use from the communist period before 1989 up to the present. Any attempt to set them in order should start from two premises. Firstly, the respective edifice resists any unique, ‘holistic’ interpretation that could exhaust meanings in matters of production and destination. Secondly, there are important distinctions between the modalities of explaining the building from the threefold vantage of its spaces. These spaces are first of all the exterior space, i.e. the city. Next there’s the exterior space of the building, i.e. its close vicinity, in the crooked language of post-Soviet politics or the huge halo of influence that the monstrous structure exuded. Finally, there’s the outer space. Since verifiable data are lacking, oral studies only account for having established the nearly ‘occult’ nature of the biggest urban operation in the history of Romania. These oral sources include unfinished and unpublished studies such as the one by Gérard Althabe from the ehess in Paris and legends recounted by eye-witnesses or just by former ‘initiated persons’ such as Professor Cornel Dumitrescu, the one-time rector of iaim Bucharest. As said, this colossal project owes its imaginary, mythical dimension to the wave of petites histoires it generated.

The most valuable interpretations, even if partial, are to be found not exactly in the discourse on architecture and urbanism but rather in that of the socio-human sciences, political science, history of mentalities, anthropology of the peri-urban (slum), and, not lastly, in psychoanalysis. The various sensible projects submitted in connection with the Republic House after 1989 vacillate between two extremes: the least extreme proposes to ‘recuperate’ the House in a strictly professional jargon of architectural ‘expertise’.

This has been used not only by architects but also by diverse interpreters of the house and by guides who show mesmerized foreigners around. At the bottom line of the bottom-line commentary on the Republic House (as poet Nichita Stanescu would have put it), we are dealing with quantity, size, forms of design, special structures and so on. At the upper line of the bottom line we can approach ‘the postmodernism’ of the House and of the Boulevard of Victorious Socialism, its ‘Bigness’ (Rem Koolhaas) and other concepts that could prove useful. In discussions about the House, the ‘higher’ aspect (in the strict sense of ab/use, of excessive investment with meaning) is taken as an epiphany. The House is like a heavenly Jerusalemite temple elevated in Bucharest in view of a second coming to take place on the spot.

One interpretation renders the numerous social, economic, political folds of the edifice occult – often deliberately because guiltily so. Others go into an interpretative frenzy before it. Between these extremes flutters a practically endless concatenation of ‘grays’. For instance, the nationalist rhetoric is boosted by the apparently neutral data regarding construction technologies and materials that are, apparently, all exclusively Romanian and, of course, superlative. (At times, the Peles Castle comes into the picture as a corollary. Here, even the wood was imported). There are also the much more decent, professionally speaking, but no less phantasmagoric ideas concerning a pre-established plan of Bucharest setting out from utopian, ideal schemes of the Sforzinda type (Dana Harhoiu). The structuring origin of this would be a sacred geometry made up of a monastic ‘Triangle of the Bermudas’, with parish churches laid concentrically in relation to the St. George Old Church that is considered the navel of the city.

4Space is an interdisciplinary group of philosophers, architects, writers, sociologists and geographers dedicated to the critique and writing of urban policies in Romanian cities. It started as a focus-group with the New Europe College institute of advanced studies in Bucharest in 2004 and has a same-titled weekly column on the internet at The group is in the process of publishing a book with contributions of its members at Idea Press in Cluj (2007).

Introduction & moderation

Meta Haven

Meta Haven: Design Research, based in Amsterdam, was founded in 2005 by Vinca Kruk, Daniel van der Velden, Adriaan Mellegers and Tina Clausmeyer. The team first started to collaborate in 2003 with a visual research into the Principality of Sealand, a tiny nation state located on a former war platform in the North Sea.

This project – centered around the pro-active engagement with a non-commissioning subject of interest, coming to terms with myth and symbolism, territorial identity and its diffusion into information networks – was carried out at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht.

Since, Meta Haven is investigating an array of case studies where the linkage between imagination and politics is key. The History Vs. Future project, focusing on the relationship between identity and history, resulted in a research of the House of People in Bucharest. Among the results of this discursive approach are, apart from a series of visual models and scenarios, the conferences The Museum of Conflict and Regimes of Representation.

At the Jan van Eyck Academie in 2007, Van der Velden and Kruk will carry out a research into the French/German internet search engine project Quaero, in collaboration with researchers Tsila Hassine and Gon Zifroni. This research attempts to merge a critical and imaginative understanding of design with a discussion on internet, politics, public domain, and cultural heritage. Meanwhile, Meta Haven: Design Research is working on a book, Uncorporate Identity, scheduled for publication in Fall, 2007.

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January 3, 2007

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