Alexandru Mihai Budes & Lisa Marie Schmitt
Optimism Versus Ostalgia
The film 30 de ani de Optimism is a collaborative project between German artist Lisa Marie Schmitt and Romanian artist Alexandru Mihai Budeș interweaving the sociopolitical phenomenon of a Michael Jackson concert that took place in Bucharest in 1992 with the story of Florian Istrate, the former owner of a porcelain manufactory in Alba Iulia. In the mid-1990s, Istrate was commissioned by Dieter Wiesner, who later became Michael Jackson’s manager, to make over 100,000 figurines of the King of Pop decorated in gold and platinum. After delivery of the first 1000 pieces, Wiesner abruptly cut off contact and Istrate was left with thousands of unfinished figurines. After he closed the company and let the entire staff go, the ceramic workshop was almost untouched for about thirty years, inhabited only by figurines and artifacts of production. Why Wiesner suddenly ended their cooperation remains unclear to this day.
Els Roelandt had a conversation with the artists about their practice, the film, Ostalgia and Michael Jackson.
Els Roelandt: Can you briefly introduce yourselves?
Lisa Marie Schmitt: My name is Lisa Marie Schmitt, and I am an artist working with video and sculpture. Mostly I create larger bodies of work with a video as a centerpiece.
Alexandru Budeș: And I am Alexandru Mihai Budeș. In my practice I let the ideas decide the medium of artistic expression, techniques, material, etc. I find myself oscillating between installation, sculpture, video, and more recently sound.
ER: Have you been working together for a long time or is 30 de ani de Optimism a one-time collaboration?
LMS: We worked together back in 2016, when we were both still in our studies at the Art University in Saarbrücken. Alex came with the ERASMUS program for one year to Germany (from Bucharest) and I was about to finish my studies. This is how we first met. Already at that time, we liked very much the idea of cultural exchange between Eastern and Western Europe, so we organized a project called Carpathian Downhill, which was supported by the Art University.
AB: For Carpathian Downhill we invited fifteen artists from seven countries to reside in a cottage without running water or electricity, in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains. The primary theme was an investigation of the concept of LandArt through minimal impacts and performative interactions with local people and animals. At the end of the project, we made two exhibitions, one in Cluj-Napoca, and one at the gallery of the Art University, HBK Saar in Saarbrücken.
LMS:Carpathian Downhill was more of a curatorial project, so 30 de ani de Optimism was the first time we have worked together as artists. We share a studio in Berlin, but we usually work separately on our own things.
AB: Recently we worked on another curatorial project called MOVING EAST in Bucharest, in which we created a dialogue between Romanian artists from the older generation, who lived during Communism, and young emerging artists from Romania or abroad.
ER: Where do you live now and where did you grow up?
LMS: I grew up in the southwest of Germany in a rather rural area close to Trier. After I finished my studies in Saarbrücken, I spent half a year on a residency in Paris, then moved to Berlin. In recent years we have spent a lot of time in Romania, mostly project-related, so it has become kind of a second home for me, especially Alba Iulia in Transylvania. We just came back from a two-month stay in Bucharest.
AB: I also live in Berlin, moving in immediately after my studies and a brief year in Saarbrücken. As for my childhood, I grew up in the small town of Alba Iulia, which like Trier has an important Roman history, later becoming the capital of the province of Transylvania and the place where the Great Union of Romania was decreed by a group of representatives selected from the whole country. How fair or not that was is highly debatable, but this is the heritage juice that my hometown of 60,000 people soaks in. Or resoaks in—because the Communist administration tried to erase much of its identity, so in the post-Communist era, when I grew up, there was a rediscovery of it as the heart-capital of the country. At least for Great Union Day, which left flag-colored flyers thrown from helicopters rotting all over our parks. Luckily it takes place in December, so this got covered by a blanket of snow.
ER: How old are you both?
LMS: I am thirty-one.
AB: I am thirty.
ER: And do you both like the music of Michael Jackson?
LMS: I never really listened to Michael Jackson or had any kind of fan-like relation to him, but I remember really well how present he was in the media, especially during my childhood in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. For the project, we had to listen to his music a lot. We watched the recordings of his live concert in Bucharest from 1992 several times in order to understand something about him as a phenomenon. We felt quite ambiguous about this because of the scandals that emerged in recent years. In the end, we realized that our film is not really about him, but something else.
AB: Actually, the child in our movie vibing to a Michael Jackson song, that’s me... it was the very first music I enjoyed. Later on he was often on MTV and I was also captivated by the videos, like Thriller. Yet I didn’t grow into a fan—I could enjoy the beat and think “hey, that’s really well composed,” but I wouldn’t put it in my playlist. After our project and having listened to so much MJ content, it’s even a bit painful if a song pops up on the radio. And the scandals just make your blood run cold. Already as a young boy I saw Neverland as something freaky, rather more than Thriller.
ER: So I suppose the idea for the movie 30 de ani de Optimism comes from you, Alexandru. How did you get involved, Lisa? Can you tell us how it came about and how you got together to work on this film?
AB: Indeed, the story comes from me. My father, who is a ceramic artist, knows Florian Istrate really well, so I knew about the Michael Jackson deal since I was a child. Many people in Alba Iulia know about it, but it was Lisa who said that it is perfect to make a project about, and this is how we got together on it.
ER: What does this film mean to you both beyond the anecdotal?
AB: I think our film tells only one story out of millions. I personally know more stories of this kind, and during our research in Romania we came across even more with similar outrageous outcomes. We could write a whole book about Romanians failing in different deals with Western entities during the 1990s. We use this story as an archetype that applies to a certain generation in Romania. For me personally, it is also a matter of studying the history of my nation, especially the period I grew up in, which was blurry and remains blurry to this day—I consider it a time of confusion, with a void of direction, consciousness, knowledge, culture, of everything. Free, but also grey.
LMS: This story was especially interesting for us because so many things work in a very symbolic manner. The religious symbols in the factory melt in a surreal way with the glamorous iconic status Michael Jackson used to have in Romania. The first Michael Jackson concert in Bucharest in 1992 was politically instrumentalized by the president to show the population that there would be a great change for the country. The first time I entered Florian Istrate’s factory, I could not believe how one place could tell so much about something that happened to a whole society.
ER: On your website, Alexandru, I saw that 30 ani is also an installation? Is that correct?
AB: Yes. The first time we exhibited the work, at Matca Artspace in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, it included a site-specific installation spread over both levels of the space, the stairs, and the hallway. On the ground floor, you had to enter through a made corridor and step up onto a platform. Inside we built many temple-like structures, pedestals, geometrical islands, and filled the ground with white sand. All the structures, stairs, and entrances were painted ultramarine (a recurring color in my own work), while the walls were a light cream color. These structures and the sand were populated by white Michael statue shards, with only one unbroken, in white, standing on the tallest pedestal, pointing towards the next room. That blue works like in film post-production, it eliminates spaces and structures—here false structures and heights. On the upper level, the video room, the seats were made of Coca-Cola crates, with scraped logos, while opposite the projection, from the corner, on a tall pedestal and under a soft spotlight, a finished gold-and-platinum Michael statue gazed over the visitors.
ER: Lisa and Alex, can we read 30 ani as a denouncement of capitalism, globalization, and imperialism? Or is it a form of Ostalgia that you express in this movie? Or both, maybe?
AB: This question opens up the idea that the work can be read in as many ways as there are viewers. For me personally, there is no Ostalgia, as in nostalgia for Communism, for the East. It makes no sense to be nostalgic for something you never experienced—at least in my logic. Yet the Ostalgia of many people from my country was one trigger to investigate and realize this work. Why would anyone who lived that horror romanticize it and wish it back? How can memory be so flexible?
For me, the work is a way of understanding and recovering history. I was born in the 1990s, and what I can describe as the main feeling from then is a void. Yes, in that time of hope a child felt a huge void. The fall left a void of power, of course, and then we can speak about a void of laws and regulations, a void of culture, education ... a void in all aspects. I could never get a proper explanation as a child about Communism, the revolution, or what was going on at that moment—people were confused, disillusioned, disappointed, and unknowing. Would anyone imagine that in school I had just one lesson about Communism, two pages in the book, including pictures? Society will probably never have a true consensus on the topic. The work speaks about the 1990s, about this hope (for the West) and the unreadiness of the people to understand what’s beyond the gate. The West did come, with good and bad, and this ingredient of unreadiness made them perfect for abuse. As long it is not specified in the law, abuse can be part of capitalist gameplay, no? The story we used is just one of many, an archetype; any Romanian family knows a few like this.
LMS: Likewise, I cannot feel nostalgic about anything I never lived, nor even my parents’ generation, but of course Ostalgia comes up automatically, especially when we presented this film to elderly Romanians. They instantly started to talk about the Romanian Revolution, how they felt when it was happening, and, for some, how it was better back then. For me it is important to tell a story that really took place, like this one. And through this story we are highlighting the exploitation of an economically insecure and vulnerable population, which is still going on now but in different ways.
ER: Can you tell us something of your individual practices?
AB: My work is usually personal. It always contains autobiographic elements, my own stories and experiences, which are hidden sometimes, sometimes not. These can be considered the roots of the concepts I work on, which usually come as questions—transposing and working with them comes as the process of answering them. The media chosen for the work is dictated by the ideas rather than what I am comfortable with.
LMS: I think the movie shares a lot from both of our individual practices, but also brought up completely new ideas and approaches. In my films, I usually work with objects which I stage in the studio to tell a story, but the documentary character of our film was completely new to me. My video works are always accompanied by objects or further elements in an installation context. In general, I like to work with slowness in moving images. My films usually contain radically calm sequences in contrast to our era in which media has become so fast, so hectic.
ER: So, Alex, do you still work from Romania, or did you leave? How important is the local context to you and your choice of subjects?
AB: I moved away in 2016 to Germany. It was important for me to do so, to get a clear mind and stability. It is a bit harder for artists there, as well as for everyone—a rougher life, a lower income, etc. But I do spend quite a lot of time in the country, either because of projects or family. So I do produce in Romania too.
Whatever subject I’m engaging with, it’s because I’m trying to understand more about it. I use my own artworks as tools for understanding. So it comes naturally that the context I was born and educated in is of interest to me: to understand the people around me, to understand the history and how things developed, to understand why some have Ostalgia, to understand my own context and myself better, etc.
ER: Lisa, I saw you just launched a new film: Not so Kool’haas, a collaboration with Ana Cantoni. Can you tell us something about it?
LMS: Actually, it was not made in collaboration with Ana Cantoni, but our individual works are being shown at the same time at a municipal gallery called Galerie Bernau near Berlin. Our works are connected in that both deal with urban structures. My film Not so Kool’haas comes along with an installation of stainless-steel laser-cut modules called B.A.G.S., resembling shopping bags and architectural elements, and a smaller series of laser-cuts called B.A.L.C.O.N.I.E.S.
The film interweaves ideas from architect and writer Rem Koolhaas’s essay “Junk Space”—contemporary urban planning—with the problem of space junk, orbital debris. Dogs serve as a connecting leitmotif, starting with space dog Laika. The film even contains a small puppet play in which Koolhaas explains his theories to a dog.
ER: A last question would be: what are you both working on now?
AB: Since the 30 de ani de Optimism exhibition, I have participated in two residencies, one at DEPO Istanbul, and another at Sounds like a Book, Romania. The project in Turkey, related to similarities between Turkish and Romanian cultures, has started developing only after being there. The other relates to found remains of demolitions, of old buildings thrown in the sea. I’m currently working on a sound piece and a small publication on the topic of myth and the area where the residency took place, in the village of Șona, in the Făgăraș area of Romania. In October there will be an exhibition at Galeria Posibila, in Bucharest, with works created by all ten participants in the residency.
As mentioned, we also just finished our joint project MOVING EAST, two exhibitions curated by us in Bucharest, with the concept of putting older Romanian artists, our hosts, in dialogue with young emerging artists from there and abroad. We launched a space called Curtea Artspace.
LMS: Since we started working on 30 de ani de Optimism I’ve had a really full program as well. I just showed Not so Kool’haas, a freshly finished body of work, and during that project I got really interested in working with digital-laser-cut stainless steel. I will probably continue with this technique. As I usually work in a project-related way, I am curious about what will come up next for me. Probably another movie.