Irene de Craen: In the longer-term project The Brutality of Fact, you combine images of and texts about the recent history of Romania, your personal family history and the current ‘refugee crisis’. Can you say something about why you combine these things, and the relationship between them?
Tudor Bratu: ‘Firstly, I don’t believe we should be talking about a refugee crisis, but instead about a crisis that has resulted in refugees and migration flows. I would also immediately add that in my opinion, the emphasis in the general discourse is wrong, whether consciously or otherwise. Instead of conducting a debate about the reasons why large numbers of people, often at risk to their own lives, feel they have no choice but to leave their native countries, politics and the media would have us believe that we are the victims. This image is continuously reinforced by statements such as ‘we are being swamped by refugees’. By playing this disingenuous victim role, populist political figures such as Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet win power and influence through claiming to fight for the ‘protection of our national or cultural identity’. In the end, the language they use encapsulates the underlying logic of their politics: if our national or continental identity is under threat from masses of refugees, we have an apparently valid, although in reality false, reason to close borders, introduce refugee quotas, etc.’
‘To return to your question: the migration flows of 2015 reminded me of the stories of my grandma, who also became a refugee when the Soviets annexed Moldavia after the Second World War. It’s strange to think that my grandma’s fate was decided at the stroke of a pen by three middle-aged white men [Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, ed.] during the Yalta conference. Because the fate of millions is so overwhelming that it becomes unreal, and thus also incomprehensible, I decided to approach the problem via a personal and intimate story. After all, it’s easier for the viewer to identify with an individual than with a crowd.’
In the summer of 2015, you travelled through Europe by train with refugees. What motivated you to do this? What was your goal?
‘In 2015, I took part in a residency in Graz at the height of the migration flow. At that time, the whole of Austria was in the grip of a conflict: on the one hand, politicians were engaged in a right-wing populist discourse, while on the other a grassroots citizens’ movement was seeking ways to express their own humanity. In Vienna, students handed out flyers in many languages intended to help arriving refugees to find their way around. Local residents handed out soup, bread and clothes on the street. It was fantastic to see and to experience. But the real crisis, the humanitarian crisis that affected the whole of Europe, was most apparent a few hundred kilometres away at Keleti station in Budapest. There, in the scorching sun, hundreds of refugees waited for a means of travelling onwards to Germany without proper care such as water, medicines or adequate sanitation. I had seen enough of the images selectively broadcast by the media, and wanted to see with my own eyes what the great wave of migration actually was. When I arrived, I was shocked by the smell of dried-up urine combined with the putrid odour of the decaying corpse of European Humanism. The conditions were so appalling that there could be no talk of humanity or compassion. The idealistic, civilised Europe revealed itself to be an empty shell.’
In the work, you discuss the concept of Terra Nullius (literally no man’s land or empty land) and how this concept, particularly from the perspective of the cultural impact of modernism, is the foundation of European thinking. Can you explain what you mean by this?
‘As can be read in part one of The Brutality of Fact, the concept of Terra Nullius was formulated in 1095 by Pope Urban II as a way of justifying the First Crusade, which resulted in the fall of Jerusalem in 1099. The term allows a place to be seen as ‘empty’ and thus as there to be taken. In this way, it made the crusades possible, and later also colonialism, for example. European ethics and Christianity teach us that we should, in principle, love our neighbours. As such, these ethics do not allow us to exterminate entire cultures and to find justification for doing so. However, the concept of Terra Nullius undermines the status of the Other as human, and thus also their equality. This allows the concept to be used to justify an ethically indefensible act, by conceptually declaring the other to be inhuman. Once robbed of their humanity and equality, the other may be exterminated without the need for further moral justification.’
‘I see fascism and communism as dubious ‘high points’ of modernism. Both ideologies strove to create a new world order, while using modernist architecture and ideology to support and justify this. However, the ‘modernity’ they aimed for had the same basis as the concept of Terra Nullius. Namely: those who are not as we are have no rights, and may thus be destroyed. In light of the current discourse around migration questions, I believe it’s clear that this problem within the current structure of the West as ideology is very far from being solved.’
In the work, you also describe how architecture is used to create the Other. Can you explain what you mean by this?
‘Recent European history teaches us that the ideology of modernism is very well suited for use as a means of repression. In Eastern Europe, for example, mass production became the slogan used by various dictatorial regimes to justify destroying entire cultures from the inside out. This happened in Romania, for example: the agrarian society was destroyed during the period 1950-1970 through the forced relocation of farmers from the country to newly-built industrial cities. This forced migration flow resulted in a dislocated society that lost both its social cohesion and its ‘purpose’. For me, concrete, mass production and endless rows of grey apartment blocks symbolise the destructive power of modernism.’
The exhibition at HMK shows the second part of The Brutality of Fact. Can you say something about how the second part relates to the first?
‘Part one of The Brutality of Fact tells of the systematic dehumanisation of the other and its consequences through a personal narrative. Part two is more rational, and as such perhaps more detached, and concerns the necessity of making the right intellectual choices. With this I mean to say that I find the responses to the politics of migration so far to be mostly emotional. I see people instinctively defending their own positions in political debates, and few really rational choices. While part one is perhaps capable of touching the viewer, this emotional impact will have no further consequences if that same viewer does not ask themselves who he or she is, and what he or she wants to be. In this sense, part two perhaps takes a moralistic position out of necessity, although I usually don’t see this as a good thing.’
One of your sources of inspiration is the American writer and activist bell hooks. One of the slides quotes her text ‘Marginality as site of resistance’. How do see marginality in relation to resistance, and how is this/the work of bell hooks expressed in your work?
‘Marginality, as defined by bell hooks, offers an escape route and a way to make those without power aware of their own potential. In reality, all normal people live their lives in the margin, and only a few reach the ‘top’, where decisions are made and where social influence can be exerted. The rest, the vast majority, live, go to work, come home, have trouble paying the bills, and are only of importance as a group, as a crowd. Despite this, hooks argues that this position in the margin of history is exactly the position that can empower one to take action. For me, hooks reactivates the idea of freedom of action. In recent years, a sort of fatalistic thinking has emerged around the migration debate, and also around subjects such as climate change. People think: ‘what can I do about it?’ Such a way of thinking leaves no space for freedom of action. Instead, people have the feeling that there are no options, and no space to make their own decisions.’
The presentation is intentionally intimate, and focuses on the visitor’s specific experience. Why is this important to you? What do you want the visitor to take away having seen the work?
‘A lot of contemporary art is geared towards creating an ‘aaaahh’ moment. I call it a sort of art of the advertising message, of which (to stay with the topic of migration), Ai WeiWei’s image of himself as a drowned child washed up on a beach is a good and deeply regrettable example. I aim for a work and an approach that can resonate longer and deeper, that are less connected to today’s soundbite culture. Because the slide show has a specific duration, the viewer will have to take the time to experience the work, to read, and to let it sink in. As such, it facilitates a sort of forced self-reflection in a society that generally has no time, that has an attention span of no more than a few minutes.’
Originally published in Studio Note #8 (July 2018), Hotel Maria Kapel (HMK)