World View: Meet Five Bucharest Artists Who Are Building a Future From Communism’s Past

A documentary maker, a photographer, a writer and more share their view of Romanian life.

June 17, 2014

In her new column World View, Ruth Saxelby zooms in on cities off the beaten track to highlight rising talent in the realms of music, art, film, literature and photography.

Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is a city caught between east and west, past and future, frustration and hope. "The always-developing story of the city is the story of a radical transformation for an entire society with a hardcore Communist past, adjusting to the seductive, siren-like voice of the Western world," writes journalist Andra Matzal—one of five young Bucharest voices profiled below—of her city. Communist rule in the southeastern European country fell, bloodily, in 1989, following the Romanian Revolution; just 18 years later, Romania joined the European Union. The growth of the country through the '90s and 2000s has been swift yet not without upset, the most recent being the 2012 protests sparked by anger at proposed healthcare reforms and the privatization of public services. The fire and the passion of the demonstrations was documented by filmmaker Vlad Petri, another of the profiled artists below, and whose powerful 2014 film, Where Are You Bucharest?, Matzal happens to have helped translate.

However, as is often the case, my mind first got hooked on the city through music. I discovered Silviu Badeua's work as C L N K last winter, and his hyper-visceral, decaying techno did something to my innards straight away: frustration and hope all jumbled up together. It was Badeua who introduced me to the remaining of the five artists profiled here: photographer Valeriu Catalineanu and video artist Silviu Visan. Catalineanu took the above photo of a family carrying traditional, teardrop-shaped funeral wreaths sitting next to an embracing young couple on Bucharest's subway. Of his evocative portrait of his city's colliding past and present, Catalineanu writes with a smiley face, "Only in Bucharest."

Discover the noisy yet heartfelt techno of music producer Silviu Badea

When music producer Silviu Badea was six years old and living in a small town in the mountains, his father—who was from Bucharest—had friends that were into music and would smuggle restricted releases into the country. He remembers being allowed to take his pick from a neighbor's batch of audio cassettes: "The big deal was with rock then. I chose Mayhem Live in Leipzig and Sepultura's Roots. The covers were hand-drawn—they tried to make them look like the originals. That was it for me." After a spell building hip-hop-influenced beats under a different name, Badea now gets his musical highs making techno that sounds like it was just unearthed on an archeological dig. Frayed and crumbling, it rumbles on all the same with a purposefulness that can't help feeling poignant. "Like all the people I know, I try to survive, earn enough to live decently, and try not to lose my mind," says Badea. "All these things that make you normal in these dark ages."

On working in Bucharest: "Bucharest…I don't really know to be honest. It's a lot of pressure here, or this is how I perceive it. When I was a youngster I never left my neighborhood, and I had this nice group of people without pretentions and all that crap. It was good. I got older, started to think a bit more, all my friends from here went away—I think there's only three of us living here now. We see each other rarely. The annoying thing is that all the shit is happening in Bucharest and in Cluj, maybe Timisoara, but besides that we're 20 years behind on everything you could possibly think of. Even in Bucharest, it's like that occasionally. It is inspiring in the sense that the struggle I have to put here to have a decent living for me and my family fills me up with life in the end. Sometimes I just wish to burn it all. Sometimes I love it. There's these small corners—like behind the block where I live, there's this light for the parking. I stare at it and I like Bucharest then. It's weird, actually. I can't decide if I hate or love it here."

On a career-defining moment: "I was 18, I think. I met these cool guys in a city not far from Bucharest. It's called Craiova. They were into music a lot, producing and all that. I was fooling around too. One of them—my friend Alex, who's making music as MGCH now—had an E-MU 0202 to sell. I went there to buy it and I left with that, a bunch of friends and a ton of pirated music. I decided I wanted to make music full-time. It didn't turn out quite like that. I did it for a while, [but] now I have a normal job. I work in Control Club as a lighting engineer and stage technician etc. That also affected the "career."

On what's next for him: "Right now I'm working on an LP. I won't say what it is yet. It's noisy and it's gonna come out on Listen2me (or my own label that is going to be on pretty soon). Besides that, I'm talking with the guys from Error Broadcast for a new vinyl this year. That's basically all right now.

The 30-year-old photographer stares death in the eye in his striking, black-and-white prints

"Most of the photographs that I take are variations of 'I wish I died right now,'" says photographer Valeriu Catalineanu. "A stifling, black, suffocating aesthetic. Black and white images of death and mourning. The click of the camera is like seppuku—I experience, simultaneously, the conservation and the death of the object trapped within the photosensitive casket. I feel the absence of every person or event becoming yet more present through their absence." Catalineanu first became struck by the power of the image as a small child. His family had boxes full of photos and pictures that he used to spend hours looking through, but it wasn't until much later that it became an obsession: "At 19 I started reading the first photo books. I did not had a camera, but I was starting to take pictures in my mind." His photographs are both painfully intimate and yet resonate with a universal warmth and gentle wit, like the below image, taken at his godfather's funeral. "I got my name from him," says Catalineanu. "During the ritual, the priest was repeating his (my) name all the time—'May Valeriu rest in peace, may God forgive his soul, we have gathered here to bring our last thoughts to Valeriu,' etc. People were crying, saying his (my) name. It was a strange experience."

On working in Bucharest: "Oh, well, to put it very simply, it's like a beautiful nightmare: psychotic, surreal, warm, hard to deal with. You wanna leave it, but you come back to it."

On a career-defining moment: "It's actually a book, Hermann Hesse's Narziß und Goldmund. 180-degree life-change. I read it a couple of times a year, and it still has a huge impact on me. Every page I was reading was explaining my inner self. My past, current and future actions and feelings. It was a very powerful psychoanalysis of my nature and everything I was. It's a book about me. It's such good work that everyone identifies somehow with the story. It's a very personal experience and It would be demystifying to explain it here."

On what's next for him: "I'm working on promoting my project, Nigredo, which you can see on my website, and trying to make it into a photo book. Nigredo is the first alchemical process one goes [through] in search of his inner self. It's a very violent process where everything burns down to its basic components: feelings, thoughts, actions. Burning, decomposing, chaos, blacker then the blackest black. It's a very complex psychoanalytic process. I found the analogy of alchemy and this first process in the aesthetic of my images: grainy, black, ambiguous. It's still an ongoing search. I feel that my images could get more raw."

Storytelling's power to affect real change is what drives this Romanian journalist

"Maybe it all started with the countless stories my parents used to read to me out loud, which sent me on mind-bending imaginary journeys," says journalist Andra Matzal. "When I took up writing, I just felt the need to tell stories myself." Matzal studied philosophy and anthropology at college, which she says "fueled my appetite for sharing both my experiences and other people's stories, in a constant pursuit of a better understanding of the world's inner workings." While she started out writing about culture for publications like the Romanian newspaper Cotidianul, she has increasingly moved toward investigating social issues and how the media landscape is changing our sense of self.

On working in Bucharest: "Bucharest is the city most of its inhabitants love to hate. It is a clash of West and East, and a walk through Bucharest is like staring at a palimpsest: bits of interwar history hidden behind the Communist walls, and shining glass business towers looking up to the sky. What I mostly love about Bucharest is its vibrant life and its chaotic rhythms, which may easily puzzle any Western citizen of the world, but which may also become perfect music if you just tune your ear [to them]. The always-developing story of the city is the story of a radical transformation for an entire society with a hardcore Communist past, adjusting to the seductive, siren-like voice of the Western world. Within this urban jungle there is also an alternative Bucharest, created by a great bunch of restless people, which keep the fire alive in the arts, culture, social and media scenes. Over all, I like to think of Bucharest as the living sign that the Dada movement has its roots in Romania."

On a career-defining moment: "I'd rather think of many events as small transformative particles, and most of them involve other people. From a mind-opening talk with people who are passionate about what they do—be it music, filmmaking, poetry, activism or whatever—to powerful encounters with pop culture gurus, Romanian beggars or poor Afghan drug users—all these transform me."

On what's next for her: "For the moment, I am working on a feature about some great unsung heroes: Wikipedia editors, the new generation of encyclopedia makers. This article will be published in early July. On a longer term, I am trying to put together a collection or personal essays on the way media shapes us. Starting from a black-and-white TV childhood, back when the airing time was rationalized by the state, to our always-connected virtual selves. I'm sure that when this becomes public, another new technology will already be taking us to further horizons."

This filmmaker's first explosive documentary feature started in the streets of Bucharest

"In 1989, when the Romanian revolution took place, I was 10 years old," writes filmmaker Vlad Petri in his director's statement for his debut feature documentary, Where Are You Bucharest?, which premiered earlier this year at Rotterdam International Film Festival. "I still remember the images shown on TV: images of the army patrolling the streets, of the people being shot, of violence, but also of immense solidarity between the people. Sometimes, in the middle of the events of 2012, these images come back to me. It is the same space, sometimes the same people, many of them older, changed, transformed by a post-communist society that doesn't give them too many hopes." Petri spent an intense year getting to know the protestors and documenting their struggle for Where Are You Bucharest?, a bit of which can be witnessed in the powerful trailer below. "Most of my recent projects are in the field of documentary filmmaking, with a special interest on social issues, politics and activism, developed in Romania and the Middle East," he explains. Petri first got into film in high school, shooting his friends at ceremonies and parties, and went on to study cinematography at the University of Cinema and Theatre. "From that moment I had my camera with me almost anytime and everywhere."

On working in Bucharest: "Bucharest is dynamic, lively, noisy, busy, fresh and unpredictable. For me, it is the best city to work in, since I do street photography and filmmaking and almost all the time I bump into strange situations, awkward conversations or absurd experiences."

On a career-defining moment: "The protests of 2012. I arrived on the streets of Bucharest by chance. I went there almost daily for a period of two months, than regularly for another two years. I documented the protests, mass gatherings and flash-mobs of the last two years by uploading videos on the internet and finishing a feature documentary."

On what's next for him: "I am preparing a photo album with photographs from the last two years’ protests and a documentary workshop, and I will start working on a new documentary that will be probably finished by 2015."

Meet the video artist turning his childhood dreams into reality

"I think my first unaware video art attempt was at the age of 12, two years after capitalism was installed in our country," says video artist Silviu Visan. "My father bought our first home computer with a green monitor, running BASIC coding language. I would spend hours and hours randomly modifying some simple graphic codes from a book. It was like I had contacted a robot, a machine that I was talking to; it was my favorite toy." For the first ten years of his life, Visan grew up under Communism with "very restricted media exposure"; there was just one national TV channel that broadcast two hours of TV a day. "So every little piece of information, like a movie on a VHS tape (VCRS were illegal to own at that time but everybody had a neighbor/friend with one) or a music video at the end of a tape would really make my mind go boom," he explains. "I recall having very vivid dreams each time I would watch something." Entirely self-taught, today Visan works to "bring virtual worlds into real environments" via installations incorporating video and light shows.

On working in Bucharest: "I was born here and I'm still living here till this day. Bucharest for me is romantic, but in a very brutal way—and that's what I love about it. Everything is wrong but everybody's happy about it."

On a career defining moment: "The beginning of the internet. I still remember the revelations I had around 1997-99 discovering things like (Michael Paul Young), The Designer Republic, Test Pilot Collective and the whole design/net art scene that emerged at that time with the growth of the internet. It exposed such freedom and made everyone want to experiment and learn more—a culture clash that the internet brought to all media fields. From that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do."

On what's next for him: "For the world wide web, I'm currently working on a series of mini-applications that will allow experimenting with video feedback, pattern
formations (Alan Turing) and other image processing techniques. A lot of people have laptops this days and a video camera, so my goal was to create these filters for vision—advanced sunglasses—to prepare for an augmented future. I've posted various tests on my Vimeo and Instagram account, but I'm still trying to figure out little technical stuff, as programing is not really my best friend."

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World View
World View: Meet Five Bucharest Artists Who Are Building a Future From Communism’s Past